It’s time for a radical change on the range
Yet my glimpse onwards filled me with hope. In fact, I’m surprised at how closely the time-to-come resembles the idealized past. Besides ranchers and farmers, the conference welcomed vegetarians and Republicans and Democrats and Libertarians and Buddhists and Catholics and Mormons.
All believe that grazing animals — cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, llamas or whatever else eats grass — were perfectly designed by nature to enhance the native grasses. If the land is healthy, so will be the people who live there. And the food they raise, whether lettuce or beef, will be better for consumers as well.
Of course, we ranchers love to cuss ignorant environmentalists who don’t know anything about cows. And we environmentalists love to curse stupid ranchers whose cows leave manure in the creek. For 20 years, I’ve been both a rancher and an environmentalist, and sometimes I’ve been embarrassed by my company.
While we’ve been yelling at each other, the developers have been paving the prairie, covering grass with subdivisions and Wal-Mart Superstores. Recently, two environmentalists and a rancher shut up long enough to realize that fighting is a waste of energy. They saw they valued the same things: clean air and water, open space, good food, healthy families and communities. They decided to work together for goals they could agree on.
So they formed The Quivira Coalition, quivira because early mapmakers used the word to describe unknown territory, or an elusive dream. Its motto, "Innovation, Collaboration, Restoration.....One Acre at a Time," has attracted a list of partner groups and individuals that’s as long as my arm, and growing daily. Practical results include restoration of specific creeks, mines, forests and grasslands — places you can visit to see for yourself.
I first learned about the group a year ago, after 20 ranchers, environmentalists and scientists met for 48 hours to work out a position called The Radical Center. First, they declared an end to hostilities over livestock grazing in the West, noting that we’re all losing endangered species and communities while we bicker. Then, they suggested the radical notion of working together to restore ecological, social and political health to the West.
I read what the Radical Center stood for, and signed up. Others who have come on board include Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Alvin Josephy, Jr., Bill Kittredge, Patricia Limerick, Bill McKibben, Theodore Roosevelt IV, Don Snow, Stewart Udall, Gary Paul Nabhan, Teresa Jordan, Bob Budd.
My dad didn’t say "ecology" when he was teaching me how to make a living with cattle in South Dakota. But he taught me the same principles Quivira lists in describing the goal of "The New Ranch." We humans moved out into a natural paradise so perfectly evolved it’s taken us a couple of hundred years to almost ruin it. Using nature as our example, we can fix it. "Collaborative stewardship," Quivira calls it.
I compare it to getting friendly neighbors with good toolboxes. As a rancher, I learned from my father and our neighbors; they knew a lot. They were smart enough to admit they didn’t know everything. But they also implied that "outsiders" — anybody not born in the community -- didn’t know anything at all. That’s just not true.
The Radical Center invites outsiders to work with people who occupy the land — to improve everything on it. My new Quivira neighbors live on similar land but learned from a different group of experts. Maybe they can teach me new ways to study what I’ve got, and figure out how to improve it. And maybe attending to the land’s health will enable me to make enough money to keep the land, instead of losing it to asphalt.
The Buddhist vegetarian announced his orientation when he stopped me as I passed through the bar. He liked my poem "Coyote Song," in which I suggest that humans imitate coyotes, who survive in this dangerous world by paying attention.
"That’s a perfect expression of Buddhist philosophy," he said. His name tag said he worked at Tesuque Pueblo.
"Well, we meat-eating ranchers may not be Buddhist, but we grew up knowing that," I answered. Eventually, we shook hands, somewhat amazed by our agreement. That’s how things work in Quivira: utter opposites can discover how much they have in common.
The Quivira Coalition isn’t the only organization working for change through cooperation, but it’s got to be one of the best. Judge for yourself; check out quiviracoalition.org; The Quivira Coalition, 1413 Second St., Suite 1, Santa Fe NM 87505; 505/820-2544.