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Know the West

Heard around the West



A work of art newly emerged from the depths of the Great Salt Lake is making waves in the art world. Robert Smithson completed Spiral Jetty in 1970, but three years later it vanished under the rising lake. Smithson himself disappeared as well, dying in a plane crash. Now, the artist is being celebrated with a retrospective show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York through Oct. 23, and tourists are visiting the lake to see his rediscovered work. One Utahn who’s especially delighted to see Spiral Jetty again is the man who built it, contractor Bob Phillips, who brought in the rock and arranged it under Smithson’s direction. Phillips told Sunset magazine he was thrilled the first time he saw the completed Spiral Jetty: "I thought, my word, that is beautiful. The way the red water is against the black rocks and foam… I had never built anything for the fun of it. Anything that was just beautiful."


Once again, cows are demonstrating their clout. The three areas in the country most renowned for dirty air these days are the San Joaquin Valley of California and the cities of Los Angeles and Houston. Cars and trucks have long been nailed as the culprits, but now, cows have overtaken them as the number-one smog creator, at least in the San Joaquin Valley, according to the Los Angeles Times. The output from a cow’s enormous stomach has been estimated at about 20 pounds of smog-producing gases a year, and with 2.5 million cows in central California, that’s 50 million pounds of pollution. Critic Steve Hofman of Ripon, Calif., scoffed at what some call "fart science," and issued a challenge in the Modesto Bee: "Enclose yourself in a shop with a cow, and at the same time have someone enclose themselves in a similar shop with a car or truck running. Then let me know the results." Brent Newell, an attorney for the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, told the Times it wasn’t funny to joke about "cow burps and farts when one in six children in Fresno schools is carrying an inhaler."


Actually, no one knows for sure how much methane a cow emits. University of California at Davis researcher Frank Mitloehner is trying to answer that question, placing eight pregnant Holsteins — he calls them "the ladies" — inside a tentlike bio-bubble, reports The Associated Press. Everything they emit — front and back — is closely measured, and the cows are under constant visual scrutiny. Mitloehner says the chief culprit is definitely from the front end — the ruminating process. Twenty minutes after a cow eats, food comes up again as cud, and as the cow chews, methane is released into the air. This is where it gets controversial: Farm industry groups say one cow releases only 5 pounds of pollution a year, while regulators assume it’s 12.8 pounds a year. A regional air pollution regulator thinks the number should be closer to 20.6 pounds, but Mitloehner says his research suggests that cows contribute only about two-thirds of that amount.


Rancher Debbie Bixby collects lots of photos of people and animals, yet it’s the "pig personalities (that) grab a huge chunk of recall," she writes in Capital Press. Bixby remembers one pen of piglets "who sat on command before receiving pans of milk." Then there was the huge pig named Rowan, who substituted for a horse once her small son saddle-broke him. BigPig was so smart he convinced a nursing ewe he was a hungry lamb, while Gomer developed an unhealthy addiction to rubber, which led him to disable lawn mowers. Another pig, Tika, jumped into a stock tank every day for a bath. Bixby says a bunch of her pigs are behaving like dogs this summer, chasing anything with wheels. Luckily, she adds, "they’re short-distance sprinters and haven’t managed to catch anything yet."


The infamous Mustang Ranch, "the best-known little whorehouse in the West," is back in business, reports the Chicago Tribune. It reopened in July under the name World Famous Brothel, not far from the old location close to Reno. Six years ago, the Bureau of Land Management auctioned off Mustang Ranch buildings and their contents after the owner, Joe Conforte, "ran into problems with the IRS." New owner Lance Gilman moved the pink stucco buildings to a location next to Wild Horse Canyon Ranch, the other brothel he owns. Gilman says he’s sunk more than $4 million into the business so far. Susan Austin, the madam who oversees the establishment’s 18 prostitutes, brags: "We have raised the bar on brothel elegance and operation in Nevada."

Betsy Marston is editor of Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. Tips of Western oddities are always appreciated and often shared in the column, Heard around the West.