Where agriculture and aesthetics go hand-in-glove

Former Seattleite and author Bryce Andrews writes and ranches in Montana.

 

Celia Talbot Tobin

At the age of 6, Bryce Andrews sat at his family’s kitchen table in Seattle, listening to rancher Pat Zentz talk about building sculptures and pulling spotted knapweed. Art and agriculture went together, the boy assumed. The next year, curators at the University of Washington’s art museum installed “The Myth of the West,” an exhibit his father organized, while young Andrews stood wide-eyed before Albert Bierstadt’s painting Yellowstone Falls, then turned and practiced his quick draw facing Warhol’s Double Elvis. That same year, his family visited the Zentz Ranch in Montana, in a pilgrimage that would become an annual event. Sixteen years later, Andrews himself began living the myth of the West, when he became an assistant livestock manager on a different ranch. 

Andrews’ first book, his award-winning 2014 memoir, Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West, begins with his journey from the “damp claustrophobia” of Seattle to the 20,000-acre Sun Ranch in remote southwest Montana. “I had practiced this departure many times,” he notes. “I was headed away from my youth.” The Madison Valley opens before him, peaks rising like “glinting canine teeth,” the Madison River drawing “a golden line through the heart of the valley,” which is home to two small towns, Ennis and Cameron. Intrigued by the ranch owner’s mission to reconcile the needs of wildlife, livestock and the land, Andrews gives narrative weight to all the members of this community, not just people and cattle, but wolves and grizzlies as well. “One of our great failures,” he believes, “is that we do not allow animals to be individuals. When gritty struggles play out on the landscape, it matters which wolves, which people, and which cattle.”

But not everyone in the community views wolves as individuals, and gritty struggles soon erupt. “The choices made at Sun Ranch about living with wolves,” says Andrews, “boiled over onto the rest of the landscape. If one ranch has wolves, that policy impacts neighbors.”

The Sun Ranch was a transformative experience, a proving ground that began shaping a three-pronged life as writer, rancher and conservationist. Afterward, Andrews continued working at the confluence of agriculture and conservation, managing multiple ranches in Montana, co-founding the Oxbow Cattle Company (a grass-fed beef ranch near Missoula) and consulting on land stewardship.  When not on horseback, he wrote, and finally, in 2014, he sold his half of the grass-fed beef operation to concentrate more fully on writing and consulting.

The co-existence of aesthetics and manual labor is a major theme in Andrews’ life. Figuring out how something works, whether a landscape or a novel, is a hands-on process. “Right now, I’m framing my first gable roof over a little wood-fired pizza oven,” he says, “and writing a collection of linked short stories about drought, ranching, neighbors and the contemporary West.”

Drawn to places where people are practicing agriculture in the context of wilderness, he is fascinated by the delicate balance that lets people ranch and farm among wild creatures, in wild landscapes. He and his girlfriend recently spent a month in Costa Rica in the largest remnant of old-growth coastal rainforest north of the Amazon, working with scientists at a remote research station at Osa Conservation. The nonprofit group’s vision closely aligns with Andrews’ own: the desire to see communities thrive through increasing engagement with the natural world.

“The Osa Peninsula is as different from Montana as any place I could imagine, but it’s like you picked up the resource issues of Montana, and dropped them into a jungle. We talked about cattle ranching, co-existing with jaguars, banana farming, oil palm farming, water and subdivisions.” All undeveloped land, he believes, is forgiving, resilient land. “A rancher can make a decision that turns out not to be the best, but if the ecosystem is intact, the land will recover. Spring will come around. The Montana landscape, like Costa Rica’s, is infinitely complex and interesting. I want my writing to be a little bit like that, too.”

Andrews also wants to move deeper into the world of art and community, not to join the ranks of the new agrarians, but to help inspire young people to be creative thinkers in the context of practical work. “Perhaps someday,” he says, referring to an idea currently simmering on his back burner, “there’ll be a ranch-based apprenticeship program combining agriculture with a curriculum in ethics, aesthetics, science and writing.”

Page Lambert’s writing is found inside sculptures at the Denver Art Museum, online at Huffington Post, and within dozens of anthologies. She leads outdoor adventures and writes the blog, All Things Literary/All Things Natural.