I recently attended a benefit for an organic farm in Missoula, Mont., a town known for its leftist politics, environmental activism and outdoors culture. Missoula can be described as part Portland, part Telluride, a "New West" city by any measure.
So I found it strange that both the performers that evening kept referring to their connections to the ranchlands of eastern Montana, far across the continental and cultural divides. Poet Philip Burgess, for example, grew up in the northeast corner of the state and talked about how his grandmother had homesteaded on her own, married, and then lost her ranch because of her husband’s financial bumbling.
Folksinger Martha Scanlan opened with, "Don’t Bury Me On The Lone Prairie." Although she’s from Minnesota, spent her adult life in Missoula and now lives in Tennessee, her ancestors settled near Livingston, Mont. Images of the open range permeated her songs.
Afterward, I went out for a beer with my friend Mary, a fifth-generation Montanan, who had finally given up trying to carve a life on the family ranch and had moved to Missoula with her husband and son. Life on the ranch was grim, she said. Although her sister and her family lived there, friends and community were lacking. The winters were long and cold. Unless you really liked cows and horses, meaningful work was hard to come by. Coalbed methane development loomed oppressively over everyone’s life.
As a conservationist, I fully recognize the adverse impacts of overgrazing, and I’ve even worked at closing some of the more inappropriate grazing allotments in the West. Yet like Philip, Martha and Mary, I have a deep longing for "the ranch," that mythological place that inspires poetry, song and some sort of search for meaning. The wide-open spaces of the West might seem a cliché, but as they are being transformed into subdivisions or grids for gas drilling, perhaps we need to pause for a moment and consider the importance of "the ranch" on who we think we are.
By now, nearly everyone has experienced the loss of a favorite childhood place, perhaps a vacant lot, a nearby stream or a patch of woods, since transformed into ranchettes or shopping malls. The Wal-Martization of our childhood landscape is nearly complete. But Westerners still maintain a collective ideal of the past, of a time when life was pioneering and we survived on our wits and hard work.
It is also true that life on the ranch has always been romanticized in fiction and film. Who wants to get up at dawn when it’s 30 below and feed cows? Who would spend a day and a half in spitting snow riding up every draw and hollow looking for a stray calf? Who wants to experience the gut-wrenching pain of cows bawling for their young as calves are shipped to market? Who would tolerate the financial insecurity of fluctuating markets? The answer, of course is: Most ranchers.
I once overheard someone ask Mary’s father what he would do if he won the lottery. "Well, I’d just keep ranching until it was all gone," he replied.
Whatever we think about how some ranchers work their land — and some work it as hard as they work themselves, by which I mean, too hard — our identity is still informed by the West’s mythology. The easy way would be to deny any connection, to sever the relics of a cowboy past and embrace a cyber future where landscape is synonymous with viewshed, perhaps paid for by bits and pieces of conservation easements. But now, more than ever, our society needs people who work the land, who are shaped by drought and the changing seasons and empty sky. We need to know that the landscape is still home, even if we can’t live there.
That need fills the coffeehouses of Missoula with people who have lost the ranch, both literally and figuratively, and their longing is palpable. For many of the same reasons we need wilderness, we need the ranch to keep us sane, to establish a sense of place and continuity in a world seemingly bent on self-destruction.
It’s good to know that every morning, despite bombings, wars, the spread of nuclear weapons and bankruptcy scandals, someone pulls on a pair of boots, rubs a sprig of sage between his or her fingers and squints at the sky, wondering if it will rain.