Coming home to the country

 

EKALAKA, Mont. - We called it the Mother Tree: a mature ponderosa pine on the crest of a small hill, with an acre or so of seedlings and saplings draping the hill's leeward side, a mini-forest in the making that was the product of scores of pinecones shed by that lone adult. We drove past this tree and her progeny, which were on a neighboring cattle rancher's land, whenever we took the gravel county road to or from town.

The Mother Tree was among the first landmarks my husband and I noticed, to our mutual delight, when we moved to our place in southeastern Montana, in 1988.

She bore eloquent testimony to the character of the land we had determined to call home. This isn't the part of the state that Hollywood rivers run through, or in which Hollywood stars buy property. It's a rougher terrain - but it is also surprisingly vigorous and diverse, fragile in its own way, yet able to withstand a good deal of abuse.

In the 11 years we've been here, we've come to appreciate resilience. We've also come to understand that the forces of change at work in the contemporary West are more subtle and complex when you're living through them than when you contemplate them from a comfortable distance.

It was 106 degrees the July day we moved in. No rain had fallen in two months. The drought of 1988, spawning fires across Yellowstone and elsewhere, was in full swing.

We had just taken possession of about five square miles of puckered-looking prickly pear cactus and desiccated sage. And dust. Lots and lots of dust. We figured we must be crazy. Before too long, we began to realize all our neighbors figured pretty much the same thing.

Neither Doug nor I come from rural backgrounds. We had not come here with any illusions about becoming cattle ranchers. In fact, we were not really interested in becoming serious ranchers at all.

The previous owner, who had been on the place for 40-some years, had meted out about as much punishment as the land could take. His cows, before the Land Bank forced their sale to make interest payments, had overgrazed the pastures. He had dynamited beaver dams and dumped garbage in every abandoned homestead on the place. He had not, in 40-odd years, it seemed, planted a single tree.

We, on the other hand, had come to do our part to heal the land. Our ambitions were small, or so we thought: We wanted to cultivate some wildlife habitat. To have some quality hunting. To plant a few trees. To raise a few pack llamas, maybe a horse or two.

We both had full-time jobs in higher education. We didn't want to take on more than we could handle. We just wanted to have a place to come home to: our beautiful 3,300-acre ranchette, where we could simply let nature be nature.

"But you can't just let it sit," our cattle-ranching neighbors told us. "Fire'll take out the grass, if cows don't. Best thing to do is to graze it down. That's nature's way. "Cause if it don't burn or get grazed, it'll get so thatched-over, you won't have any grass in a year or two."

Of course, they went on to explain over coffee at the Wagon Wheel Café, you have to know when grass becomes grazeable.

"Guy over at the BLM told me to put the cows out on the grass when it's as high as a beer can," one ventured. "Now," asked another, with a crafty wink, "would that be a beer can standing up, or a beer can on its side?"

Later on, driving home past cattle who appeared to be subsisting on inch-high stubble, Doug remarked, "I think that was a crushed beer can."

That was a drought year. Amazingly, the following year was glorious. Ample rain and a late-spring snowstorm brought abundant wildflowers and unbelievably green and various grasses. Despite our neighbors' well-intentioned urgings, there were no cattle on our place, by golly.

But the next year, 1990, although we had another good rain-producing spring, by early summer we had dry thatchy pasture, looking decidedly the worse for wear. Watching nightly light shows crackle in a rainless southern sky, we began to understand why the phrase "dry lightning" could strike fear in the hearts of landowners.

We reluctantly decided it might be a good idea, all things considered, to put a few bovines on the place. So we placed an ad in the local paper and quickly found a cattleman happy to bring over 100 cow/calf pairs. The only other livestock on the place at that point were an obstreperous llama, the first of the herd we hoped to build, and a couple of English springer spaniels.

It was about that time that we discovered we were known in town as "the people from Connecticut." That neither of us had ever had anything to do with the Constitution State was beside the point. We were outsiders. Also about that time we learned that when, occasionally, we would hear about somebody being from "out of the country," it didn't mean they were foreigners. It meant they grew up a few miles down the road, in western South Dakota, or maybe northern Wyoming. We were really outsiders.

Of course, we knew we were. And we also knew that, after about a decade of farm foreclosures and the gradual swallowing-up of small family operations by corporate agribusiness, outsiders were not especially welcome in these parts. We knew, too, that despite the three doctoral degrees we have between us, our neighbors, who all seemed to be seventh-generation ranchers sharing a dozen or so surnames, knew a lot more about surviving in this part of the world than we did.

We were prepared to learn, and to listen.

Learning wasn't all that hard. Being academics, we were used to doing homework, and we put our new knowledge to work. We learned the principles of rotational grazing, developing a plan with the local Bureau of Land Management office to bring our deeded and leased rangeland back to prime condition.

We discovered the best sorts of trees and bushes to grow in this climate - some native, some introduced - and began a program of planting shelter belts and wildlife habitat areas.

We learned what we needed to know about veterinary medicine, and about the care and feeding of cud-chewing quadrupeds, to get a llama-raising operation under way.

We learned about the maintenance and construction of barbed-wire fences and enclosures, the pros and cons of different fencing systems.

In spite of ourselves, we began evolving into ranchers.

Another thing we learned in those early years here: You can't operate a ranch in absentia. Doug decided to quit his teaching job, to concentrate his energies on the ranch.

Second, we learned that ranches are the original money pits, especially when they need a lot of work, and when the ranchers are, as we were, starting from scratch in terms of equipment.

I kept my day-job, "commuting" to upstate New York during the school year, telling folks that like most farm and ranch wives, I have to work in town to make ends meet. Town, in this case, just happens to be 2,000 miles away.

From bites to bloat

The early '90s were our Llama Period. Our cattle-ranching neighbors, of course, warned us against the critters. There had been a llama, once, in Carter County, and he was notorious for overcoming fences, running for miles on end and spitting at everyone in sight. We were undaunted. The animals were intriguing. The llama industry was robust. Not only did llamas look like a good investment, every breeder we talked to stressed how easy to handle and essentially indestructible llamas were. We assembled a small herd.

Between 1990 and 1997, when we sold our last camelids, we lost two llamas to rattlesnake bites, one to bloat, one to a congenital heart defect, one to an intestinal disorder llamas aren't even supposed to be susceptible to, and one to stillbirth.

During the same period, thanks largely to the USDA's lifting a ban on the importation of South American animals, llama prices plummeted. Females that had commanded $10,000 or more were selling for, at best, a tenth of that. Males you could barely give away. Our llama venture yielded a net loss of around $20,000, and we counted ourselves among the more fortunate llama folk.

I imagine our neighbors mostly thought we were a little screwy to get into the long-necked woollies in the first place. The animals were just too different - and being "different" is not a particularly good thing around here.

Nevertheless, between the llamas and the grassland we annually leased for cattle, we were beginning to gain some credibility as more than hobby farmers. People stopped asking us what we did with all the time we had on our hands and no longer regarded us as "independently wealthy."

They could commiserate with us about how hard it is when livestock becomes dead stock. We could empathize with their economic distress, what with beef and lamb prices falling through the floor, and wool and grain subsidies being abolished. But if we and our neighbors were becoming closer in some ways, in others we were still very far apart.

During the academic year, I fly home every chance I get. One such long weekend in the mid-'90s, we were driving back from the Rapid City airport. Nearing home, as we rounded a curve on the county road, Doug slowed the pickup and murmured, "Uh, Mary, you're not going to like this." I was puzzled, but then I saw it: the familiar Mother Tree, achingly alone.

The future forest, those scores of her seedling children, had been plowed under. Mutilated branches littered the hillside, where a handful of partially uprooted survivors leaned into the old tree's shade. All the rest were gone. It was cold-blooded murder. It was genocide.

Of course, from the cattle rancher's point of view, it was a good idea. Trees displace grass, and he was in the business of producing beef, not scenery. Besides, ponderosa pine needles are known to cause spontaneous abortions in cows that nibble on them. So cows and pine trees don't mix. A month or so later, the turf was ripped up a second time, the coup de grace eliminating the last few struggling survivors. The Mother Tree has stood in stoic isolation ever since.

While our neighbor was busily eliminating trees, we were planting them. Doug has planted upwards of 5,000 trees and bushes since we moved here, to provide shelter and restore wildlife habitat.

As for me, I'll take a tree over a beef cow any day. Annie Dillard had it about right when she described cattle as "a human product like rayon," with "beef fat behind their eyes, beef stew." This sounds harsh, I realize, but as a hunter I'm not a big fan of the intellectual capacities of domesticated animals. And as a conservationist, I know the damage indiscriminate grazing has done to the Western range. It is of no small significance that when the Crow Chief Plenty Coups had his great vision of the demise of the eastern Montana prairie, it took the form of these strangely misshapen spotted grazers displacing the buffalo from their homeland.

We had, from the start, seen our cattle lease as at best a necessary, and temporary, evil. There was, we knew, a more efficient, and far more environmentally friendly, way to make our place a working ranch without compromising wildlife values.

As llama prices looked to be heading south, we began seriously talking about turning our place into a bison ranch.

Moving on to bison

Our neighbors warned against this move. A delegation came for a visit. Earnestly, they explained that they were concerned that, even though after five years we seemed to be pretty good at the day-to-day business of managing a ranch, we would get in over our heads with this buffalo idea. We didn't have the fences or facilities. We didn't have sufficient experience with livestock. These animals are big and wild and powerful. They're different from cattle. We could get hurt.

We knew all this already. We also knew that, for us, raising beef cattle was out of the question. We had become used to the gut reaction against change in the way anything is done around here. It's almost as if your average cattleman harbors some sort of death wish; the worse things get, the more he digs in his heels and refuses to do anything, well, different. Two of our contiguous neighbors had gone belly-up since we moved in, and another was perilously close to it (and has since also had to sell). Everyone had cast us in the role of "outside forces of change" anyway, so we decided we might as well embrace it. In 1993, we took the plunge and bought our first 25 bison heifer calves. And we started fencing like crazy.

As it turned out, while our neighbors didn't approve of our decision, over time they didn't exactly disapprove either. At least bison are red meat. And there was one other bison producer in Carter County - he had grown up here, and everyone thought he was crazy to get into buffalo, but by the mid-'90s, he was turning a profit. That helped us a lot, both in terms of enhancing our credibility locally, and giving us the encouragement we needed to persevere in the first few years, when our bison venture was all outgo, no income.

Now, we have a viable, growing bison operation. The bison industry is in good shape - good enough, in fact, that more than a few cattle ranchers are converting to bison. Some of our neighbors have brought visitors over to see our herd. They do look great out there, in the large pastures we run them in. We don't interfere in the animals' lives any more than we must; it's as close as one can get, in ranching, to letting nature just be nature. It's gratifying to be doing our part to bring bison back to their original homeland. They belong here.

Whether we belong here may be another matter.

In terms of its human society, this part of the West is dying. Kids grow up and move away, and few ever come back. The ranch economy may be on an irreversibly downward spiral. The ranchettes that have become the norm, as ranchers sell out or subdivide, haven't made their way this far east under the Big Sky yet, but it's only a matter of time before they do.

Meanwhile, as we get older, the remoteness of our place - we are five two-track miles off that county road - as much as we love it, also has its problems. Things that used to be adventures are now arduous, too often dangerous, tasks. Doug spends too much time alone here, and my "commute" gets tougher each year. We have made some good friends among our neighbors; but deep down, I suspect even they think we're a tad too different for these parts. Neither of us can imagine living here forever. But neither of us can quite imagine leaving forever, either.

We're giving ourselves a few more years to decide what we'll do with our beautiful 3,300-acre ranchette. Meanwhile, we are still learning what our part is in the project of letting nature be nature. In the process, we are nurturing as many future Mother Trees as we can.

Mary Zeiss Stange is an associate professor of religion and women's studies at Skidmore College, where for eight years she directed the women's studies program. The Stanges moved to eastern Montana from the Helena Valley, where they had lived for several years. Mary grew up in Wisconsin, Doug in New Jersey.

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