The last Celtic warlord lives in New Mexico

 

LA JOYA, N.M. - Jim Catron, lawyer and history enthusiast, is sitting in his living room discussing the noble and inconvenienced Celt. He isn't talking about modern-day Scotland or Ireland, however, which to his mind have degenerated into Socialist republics populated by barfly poets. He's talking about real, live Celts. He's talking about cowboys.

Catron espouses this view of Celtic migration: Squeezed out of Scotland and Ireland, they immigrated to the United States, where many headed south. There, in contrast to their hard-working English and Germanic Northern neighbors, they favored raising livestock over crops. They continued the festive, rural lifestyle they'd led in the British Isles, strumming banjos, riding horses and dueling over the smallest disagreements. After the Civil War ended all that, they turned west. Their 20th-century descendants are the Okies who headed for California during the Depression, the roughnecks in Texas oilfields, and, in their purest form, cowboys.

A handful of those cowboys found their way to Catron County, which sprawls over the Gila Mountains of western New Mexico. About the size of Massachusetts, the county is home to a scant 3,000 people, who historically had ranched, mined and logged its ponderosa and juniper hills. Jim Catron has a distant ancestral connection to the senator for whom the county is named. Jim Catron is Catron County's lawyer. He is also the county's cultural muse.

He started working for the county about a decade ago. In 1990, government-ordered restrictions on logging, to protect the Mexican spotted owl, sounded the death knell for the county's single remaining sawmill. Not much later, the county was hit by drought, which strained the range. Then an Arizona State University study came out saying that the Gila River Basin - which includes the San Francisco River running north-south through the county - was the only riparian area in the world where the federal government considered every native fish species imperiled (HCN, 6/24/96: Catron County's politics heat up as its land goes bankrupt).

Environmental regulation flew in the face of the county's gritty extractive ethic. Catron saw his goal clearly: "To protect our livelihoods and culture with the law, by knowing the federal regulations and laws better than they."

Under Catron's guiding hand, the county commissioners started passing some singular ordinances: No wolves, mountain lions or bears could be released into the wild. Federal orders to cut cattle numbers were - by definition - a violation of civil rights. The commissioners passed a resolution opposing gun control laws, pointing to the longstanding importance of firearms to local culture.

The only ordinance that sees regular use is a relatively sedate one obliging federal land managers to include county officials when they plan how the land will be used. The Forest Service quickly agreed to work with the county; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service didn't, and so Catron took it to court. The county won its case four years ago.

"Those people have no idea what it's like to produce anything," snaps Catron, tightening his grip on his glass of Coca Cola. The county's problem, according to Catron, 50, is not drought or overgrazing; it's decades of mismanagement by federal land managers.

Catron County's feistiness has attracted attention. Some 300 counties with large tracts of federal land have called for information on how to take a stand against Washington, D.C. Reporters have trooped to Catron County and come away with stories about the secessionist anger of this remote part of New Mexico.

Forty percent of the county's residents are of Gaelic descent, compared with 27 percent nationwide, Catron says. He frequently addressed this fact, and a culture in which "dangerous men were willing to die for freedom," in a column for the now defunct Hatch County Courier.

Local residents may not have been aware of their cultural roots, but they loved Catron's fierce protection of their way of life. "He'll talk and talk about that Celtic stuff," one rancher said. "But he's a good lawyer."

As the 1990s wore on, Catron County became tense enough that one gun-wielding rancher dared the Forest Service to come and get the cattle they ordered him to remove, tense enough that a psychologist was brought in to counsel Forest Service employees and their families. Tourists started coming just to watch the county commissioners meet.

Jim Catron is the great-grandson of an east Texas homesteader, killed by a local cattle baron to discourage other homesteaders from moving there. The murder didn't instill a distaste for ranchers into the Catron family. It instilled a distaste for defenselessness.

"The men that murdered my great-grandfather murdered a pacifist," he says. "He had seen the ravages of the Civil War, the ravages of Reconstruction. He didn't even own a gun. So when they rode up on him and shot him twice with a shotgun and nine times with a Winchester, he didn't have a chance. And I can guarantee you that his son, 9 years old, who watched it happen, was never without a weapon for the rest of his life."

Jim Catron, whose grandfather was a laborer and whose father was an electrician, grew up near Monument, N.M., 10 miles from his great-grandfather's grave.

"I always had that immediacy with history," he says. "It was explained to me on a daily basis that he is buried in that hole in the ground over there, and the reason he was here was because of that, and his grandfather founded this or that town, and back and back and back."

I know what he's talking about. I lived in Scotland until I was 9 years old, in a village 30 miles from the English border. Our abbey was sacked by the English in the 1500s. To this day, the people of Melrose ride their horses to the border each summer, just to be sure. History class at Melrose Grammar School was not an objective experience. Tales of royal betrayal, narrow escape by rowboat, and babies bayoneted by the troops of this or that flint-hearted English aristocrat made veins stand out on Miss Scott's forehead as she preached the gospel of Scottish righteousness. She would shake with emotion. After history class with Miss Scott, I felt lucky to be alive.

So I am having a great time with Jim Catron. He's explosive, and seems to be balancing a fear of the press (which has infuriated him by printing his strong language, he says, out of context) and an irresistible desire to spout strong language. But he's also courteous, well-read and infectiously fascinated with the subject at hand.

We are in his house in La Joya, a dusty dot of a village on the Rio Grande. Dogs pad in and out. Photographs of his wife and their three children are everywhere. He darts to his bookshelf, which is packed with books on Celtic culture and history, and brings back photos of curvilinear floral designs found on ancient shields and weapons.

"We have those on our belts! Our boots!" he shouts happily.

I bask in a feeling of pleasant communion until I realize that in Jim Catron's opinion, the Scottish Celts started turning into a bunch of citified couch potatoes centuries ago, when roads were built into the Highlands and the Highlanders removed. Real Celts headed for the sparsely roaded reaches of the New World.

"The federal government hates us because we're armed, dangerous, wild and free!" says Catron joyfully.

It makes me wonder: If my line of Celts is populated with urbanized sell-outs, could it also be true that his is violent and obsolete?

So I ask: "Is it appropriate to be armed, dangerous, wild and free?"

"Is it human?" he booms.

"Is it appropriate?"

"If you're a man, yes!!"

With these words ringing in my ears, I drive into the dark mountains of Catron County, whose ranchers' most recent federal aggravation is a court order requiring them to fence their cattle out of rivers to protect an endangered minnow called the spiked dace. I have a list of people I want to talk to, and the two I find could not have been less warlike.

Danny Fryar is sitting at his kitchen table getting a haircut from his wife. He is soft-spoken, moderate and very nice. He supplements his income by working for his mother-in-law at the Reserve grocery store, but he's afraid he won't be able to run his 250 head of cattle along the San Francisco River much longer, because he's on the far side of 50 and has rheumatoid arthritis.

Rangy Hugh B. McKeen is outside, irrigating. He was on the Catron County Commission while the controversial ordinances were being passed. He is an outspoken critic of the federal land managers, but he's also working with the Concerned Citizens for Catron County, a group of ranchers, forest rangers and environmentalists trying to work the county out of its current economic impasse. Meanwhile, to slow his negative cash flow, he is subdividing his private land holdings.

Some 4,000 to 5,000 home sites are going through the approval process right now, says Bob Fisher, whose company contracts, surveys, engineers and sells home sites all over the county.

Fisher says the buyers are mostly families looking for a quiet, affordable place to retire. But, "a few people who are ultra right-wing radicals and militia types have been attracted here."

Has making a national name fighting a few forest rangers and federal biologists put out the welcome mat for armed-to-the-teeth militia members? Should Jim Catron tone down his descriptions of cowboys who are "armed, dangerous, wild and free?"

The next time I talk to Catron, he is preparing to meet a member of the county militia in court. The county government recently had a run-in with a militia woman over a county road. She assembled a jury of like-minded people and found Jim Catron (and a few other county officials) guilty of treason. Then she built a fence in the county's right-of-way, which was the reason for the day's meeting.

"These people are loony toons," Catron growls. He says he's had legal tangles with them about a dozen times in the last decade.

"These lunatics submit to no authority. Not local, not nothing." (The Celts, he notes, were neither anarchist nor monarchist - they believed in local government. Like Jim Catron.)

The militia got interested in the county, says Catron, because of "the bilge being published about Catron County. They said we were secessionists, that we were throwing the feds out, that we were negating federal law ... All these lunatics read this stuff about us, and they came expecting to have no taxes, no licenses, complete anarchy."

If Catron County is the Celts' last stand, this last stand seems to have two parts: Catron County is defiant politically, but economically it is helpless, able to survive for the moment by selling off land its owners no longer know how to make productive.

There's no denying the sadness of this. We get an awful lot of our cultural identity from Celts, cowboys, whatever you want to call them, from the defiant, bull-headed men and women who got an awful lot of work done under adverse frontier circumstances. When they're gone, or have changed their operations to dude ranches, we will be politically calmer. But culturally - spiritually even - I don't know where we'll be.

"Our image in the world's eyes is cowboy," says Catron. "I think when the last cowboy is dead you won't want to live in this country ... It's more than land and cattle. It's the concept of freedom from empire. ... It's inspiration. It's myth."

Lisa Jones is a freelance writer living in Paonia, Colo. She last profiled Rachel Benally (HCN, 1/31/00: Not your average beauty queen), a young Navajo woman who lives in Ganado, Arizona.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Lisa Jones

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