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for people who care about the West

Why the West needs Mythic Cowboys


The first Great Truth of contemporary life is that the West is changing. And the second Great Truth is that the Cowboy Myth is an anachronistic view that denies the first truth and assures that we will become a socioeconomic backwater. What we need to do, or so we are told by those who purport to know such things, is abandon our allegorical tales and face the real world. Inspired by constitutional contrariness, informed by 22 years of living in Wyoming (45 years in the West), and motivated by a desire to help find a viable response to the first Great Truth, I offer a succinct reply to the futurists, pundits and critics' call for the death of the West's mythology: Bullshit

No literary passage better expresses the Cowboy Myth than the description of Conagher, the title character in a classic Western story by Louis L'Amour. When the hero is deciding whether to confront the bad guys:

He simply did what had to be done ... It would be easy, he told himself, to throw everything overboard and disclaim any responsibility. All he had to do was saddle up and ride out of the country. It sounded easy, but it was not that easy, even if a man could leave behind his sense of guilt at having deserted a cause. To be a man was to be responsible. It was as simple as that. To be a man was to build something, to try to make the world about him a bit easier to live in for himself and those who followed. You could sneer at that, you could scoff, you could refuse to acknowledge it, but when it came right down to it, [Conagher] decided it was the man who planted a tree, dug a well, or graded a road who mattered.

The modernists claim that tales like Conagher lie at the core of the West's inability to address our real problems. But this contention is based on a profound misunderstanding of the nature of mythology and a great deal of confusion about the Cowboy Myth in particular. "Myth" has two very different meanings. The literary term denotes a traditional story that reveals the world-view of a people; let us call this Myth. But there is also a pejorative meaning -- an unfounded account of the world; let's call this a myth. The goal of Myth is to illuminate a moral ideal toward which a people aspire, binding together generations and communities, and helping us to understand how we are to live in the world and treat one another -- functions that can be ascribed to Conagher.

Many well-meaning efforts to make sense of the West's past and future misunderstand the meaning of Myth and risk aggravating social and environmental problems. I propose that we grasp the rich nature and complex role of these stories, rather than simply tossing out our cultural legacy and groping for whatever new perspective is most in fashion. We might find that our problems could be effectively addressed if we took seriously the Cowboy Myth. Many Western states are faced with the same challenges: How do we respond to the widening gulf between the rich and poor? What should we do about the high rates of drug abuse and suicide? How do we handle urban sprawl and uncontrolled development? Who should bear the costs and reap the benefits of mineral extraction? How do we foster viable livelihoods consistent with our cultural character and natural environment? Perhaps Conagher provides the answers we need.

Needing a foil for my diatribe, I'm going to pick on two fellow Westerners, which seems only fair -- we've railed enough about Easterners and their soft-bodied, latte-sipping, hoity-toity views. According to Samuel Western, Wyoming's economic problems -- and, we can infer, many of the difficulties of neighboring states -- are caused by the Cowboy Myth, or so he argues in Pushed off the Mountain, Sold Down the River: Wyoming's Search for Its Soul (Homestead, 2002). And the cause of environmental degradation throughout the West? That's right, the Cowboy Myth, according to Debra Donahue in Western Range Revisited: Removing Livestock from Public Lands to Conserve Native Biodiversity (University of Oklahoma, 1999).

These books are a no-holds-barred, tag-team throttling of the cowboy. It's not necessary to have read them to have heard the arguments; everyone in the West knows at least one critic who turns his nose up with disdain at the "Old West" or waves her hand in haughty dismissal of the people and trades associated with ranching. So, in keeping with the spirit of Conagher, who fought fair but pulled no punches, here comes a good, old-fashioned dustup.

What really gets the goat of these critics is the pervasiveness of mythic icons. Donahue decries the way that "the bucking bronco shows up everywhere in Wyoming."

Everywhere includes the insignia of the National Guard, the football helmets of the University of Wyoming, and even our currency. When the U.S. Mint released a Wyoming quarter with a cowboy astride a bucking bronco, a panel of progressive luminaries and enlightened dignitaries denounced it as cultural atavism. One can only suppose that their reaction would be similar to the Dallas Cowboys, the Oklahoma State Cowboys, and Oregon's Crook County High School Cowboys.

Echoing Willie Nelson's plaintive cry about not letting babies grow up to be cowboys, Western -- apparently in all seriousness -- asks, "What is a Wyoming kid supposed to think about his or her future when the only license plate available is one with a cowboy on it?" I'm guessing that not many kids are brainwashed by license plates. (Does Tennessee, the "Volunteer State," have an abundance of do-gooder adolescents, or "Show me" Missouri a plethora of dubious teens?) If Western's concern is valid, then what is an American kid supposed to think when the country's only flag has stars and stripes and all of its dollar bills bear the image of George Washington? What kids (and the rest of us) presumably think is that we are part of a community with shared stories and values that reveal an important part, but hardly the entirety, of who we are.

Western joins the other anti-traditionalists anxious to modernize the social values, political perspectives and economic models of our region by attacking the Cowboy Myth as a "century-old throwback." But if the age of a story is an inherent weakness, then tales of America's Founding Fathers ought to be discarded. Not to mention the culturally primal stories of Genesis and the Odyssey, which surely are more repugnant to the modernist than Conagher or The Virginian.

There is often great wisdom in venerable people and stories; there's usually a good reason that they've lasted. But Western and Donahue relish nothing more than debunking cowboy legends. The former declares that "the state's romantic past is largely fictive," and the latter reveals that "the cultural myth of the cowboy and economic myths of western self-reliance and independence are closely related and replete with contradictions."

Myth is not meant to be journalistic; it is not concerned with timeworn facts but with timeless truths, such as the virtues of unflinching courage and fierce independence. We all know that real cowboys were sometimes cowardly. As long as we're at it, George Washington probably lied as a child, and Santa Claus doesn't bring presents. For those who understand the function of Myth, these factual disclosures reveal nothing important. To adapt Francis P. Church's response to Christmas skeptics: Yes, Virginia, there is a Conagher, and he exists as certainly as bravery and autonomy and duty exist.

The critics of the Cowboy Myth wouldn't be so incensed if the stories weren't still a source of profound meaning to the public. Western is apoplectic, contending that "when the homesteader myth spliced with the cowboy mystique, the fusion wielded ungodly power." Donahue reiterates the complaint that as long as we believe in the Cowboy Myth, it will guide our political actions "as though" it were reality. But "as though" understates the point; incorporating Myth into social life makes it real, as actual and tangible as the Puritan value of hard work that shapes America's economy and social programs or the Jeffersonian ideal of agrarianism that molds the nation's landscape and tax laws. The pundits understand, however, that the Cowboy Myth is too robust to be crushed under the weight of facts, so they implicitly offer competing Myths -- their own jealous gods to gun down Conagher and the rest of the cowboys.

Sam Western proposes -- covertly but clearly -- the Myth of Capitalism, with the hero being an entrepreneurial figure (like John Galt in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged) who, in a world of free enterprise, accrues staggering riches through his own sweat and cleverness. Through the Myth of Capitalism, the economist imagines a world of constant, unlimited growth in which affluence brings an ever-increasing amount of happiness to those who have the requisite qualities -- intelligence, shrewdness, fortitude and fearlessness. However, the heroic Capitalist is disconnected from the land, except to the extent that nature provides a source of raw materials for manufacturing wealth. As an economist, Western is frustrated that "collectively Wyoming struggles with the idea that people and their ideas, not natural resources, bring wealth." He seems to be saying that we need a Myth that is disassociated from a sense of place. But if the Grand Canyon, Death Valley and the Tetons are no longer necessary to the West's Myth, then how can the story be ours?

Donahue's alternative is more surreptitious than Western's. Her stated purpose is to demythologize the West, but what she is really proposing is a new Myth: Scientism. She contends that "the public and policymakers must look to ecologists, not myth marketers, for guidance in charting a course for the West's future." From the first-hand perspective of a scientist -- an insect ecologist, in particular -- I can assure you that science cannot provide the answers to the deep questions concerning what we ought to do with Western people and lands. Science is necessary, but it is not sufficient. And here's why.

In the Myth of Scientism, the hero is an absolutely objective, rational discoverer of unchanging physical truths (like Isaac Newton and the apple incident, which of course never happened -- but we know that Myths don't collapse under the weight of facts). The Scientist reveals how the world really is, not some fanciful tale replete with human desires. The problem, of course, is that according to this Myth, science is value-free. So the hero can offer no moral lessons regarding our treatment of one another or the land. Donahue believes that "although it may not be possible ever to 'demystify' the West totally, there are good economic and ecological reasons for trying." What she fails to see is that there are horrific cultural, and probably ecological, consequences if we succeed.

And so, with the West's economy suffering from chronic anemia (the current transfusion of mineral royalties in parts of Colorado and Wyoming notwithstanding) and its environment battered and bruised, the critics' proposed course of treatment is to bleed the patient, blaming the region's lifeblood for its problems. However, rather than draining the West of the Cowboy Myth, perhaps we could revitalize this worldview -- and in so doing ground our future in the virtues of our past.

L'Amour's Conagher exemplifies the Cowboy Myth, being a wonderfully typical and altogether unextraordinary tale. The title character is remarkable only in his being so characteristic of the Western's Mythic hero. What if the conflicting, even paradoxical, qualities of Conagher were taken seriously as a model for the people and politicians of the West (or, for that matter, our national leaders)?

Jehovah, the god of the Old Testament, was slow to anger, but extremely dangerous when crossed. He would have made a fine Cowboy. Consider Conagher: "He wanted trouble with no man, but he wasn't going to take any pushing around, either." When an opponent finally provokes Conagher to the breaking point, we are told that "he proceeded to beat him unmercifully with the swinging coil of rope." The Cowboy could have shot his enemy, but the man was unarmed. Proportional, not gratuitous, violence is how one responds to a "hard country," the dangerous world of the unsettled West. Make no mistake, Conagher is willing to kill. But only for a just cause. As he tells a widow's young son: "Some men take a sight of killing, boy. Just be sure that when killing time comes around that you're standing on the right side." And a just cause basically means protecting the innocent.

Conagher evinces compassion -- even tenderness -- for those who are vulnerable, including the son of a widow trying to make a life on the prairie. "Hell of a thing, he said to himself, leavin' a woman and two kids out there alone. But even as he said it he knew that many a man had no choice. You took your chances in this country; some of them paid off and some did not." Conagher treats the courageous but struggling woman with deep respect and the boy with paternal gentleness. Even a cowboy's enemies warrant a degree of compassion, as when in the midst of a shoot-out with cattle rustlers, our hero takes a gut-shot enemy into his cabin, saying, "I'll see no man suffer."

So, how would a man like Conagher respond to modern threats? In the face of a widening gap between rich and poor, in light of extractive industries' domination of local communities, in recognition of the declining physical and mental health of women and children, a Cowboy would aggressively protect the vulnerable. Conagher would abide no excuses from the methamphetamine addict, the delinquent youth, or the teenage mother -- but he'd not abandon them, either.

A Cowboy mayor, legislator, governor or -- dare we say during an election year -- president would not turn first to economically or politically lethal force against those who exploit the weak, but such a leader would leave no doubt that those who put our communities at risk or despoil our lands do so at their own peril. If the Cowboy Myth were reinvigorated, perhaps the federal agencies, mineral corporations and real estate developers would perceive Western civic leaders as others saw Conagher: "You do your job, you're honest, and you never backed off from trouble." Any community would be justifiably proud to have such leaders.

But isn't fierce autonomy, rather than duty to others, the core of the Cowboy? This Mythic hero is unwilling to trade freedom for security; his life is one of passionate independence. As Conagher says, with just a hint of melancholy, "I got no friends anywhere. Only whiskey friends, and that kind don't stay by you." But at the same time, he is unwaveringly loyal, telling the man who hired him, "I'll work my tail off and cash in my chips some dark night riding herd on another man's cows, but when they write my epitaph they'll say, He rode for the brand ..." Conagher's loyalty doesn't derive from academic analysis but stems from a deep-seated sense of duty, empathy, and community: "He had never given much thought to truth and justice or the rights of man, but he did not like what seemed to be happening here, and anything that happened to an outfit he rode for, happened to him."

Applied to leaders and citizens in the contemporary West, this means we must take responsibility for ourselves and one another, blaming nobody else for our problems and relying on ourselves for the solutions. As candidates aspire to public office, we must ask if they ride "for the brand" -- for the people. Leaders must be autonomous and possess a sense of duty to craft programs, laws and policies on behalf of the public, rather than allow mineral companies or real estate developers to define and (maybe) solve the problems. At a national level, perhaps what we need in the White House is an authentic Cowboy (not to be mistaken for a president who saddles up for corporations and rides away from his role while fostering economic suffering, environmental degradation and international terrorism).

Conagher was a "thirty-dollar cowhand" who could not even afford a pair of new boots -- and Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming are the only states in the nation without Jaguar or BMW dealerships. But dire poverty is another thing entirely; living on food stamps or making a home of a horse trailer demeans the human condition. But the promises of material growth -- more businesses, highways, tourists, mines or you-name-it -- cannot deceive a people who understand that the quantity of possessions is no substitute for the quality of life, that character counts for more than money. As much as it might frustrate economists, the self-proclaimed priests of modernity, Cowboys and Westerners know that the value of clean air, abundant wildlife and open space -- gloriously austere and brutally humbling steppes -- is not convertible to cash. But the Mythic hero also understood that not everyone had to have the same version of the good life.

How would the Cowboy respond to the changing social mores that some folks believe threaten the Western way of life? "None of my affair," Conagher said, "... and as long as nobody bothers me, I'll bother nobody." Good advice. But Conagher goes one step further. The Cowboy judges a person not by appearances but by actions. Contrary to the politically correct view that the Mythic Cowboy was sexist and racist (a perception supported by an uncharitably selective reading of stories or viewing of movies), Conagher respects the settler woman far more than he does most of his male associates: "(It) took sand to stay on a place like this with two kids, and no money coming in. It took real old-fashioned grit." One might even say, true grit.

And as for Indians, "You can't yield to an Indian. He will kill you out of contempt as much as for any other reason, but he respects courage, and he respects a good argument." Ever the existentialist, Conagher expects authenticity. I have to imagine that he'd vote for a gutsy woman over a pandering male, ride with a capable minority instead of an incompetent white (as did John Wayne in The Cowboys), and value the integrity and hard work of a man without being concerned with who shared his bunk. But doesn't the live-and-let-live approach combined with the Cowboy's itinerant nature bode poorly for the well-being of the land?

How the itinerant nature of the Cowboy accords with his perception of the land is vitally important if we are to take seriously the role of this Myth in the modern world. After all, to those who are unrooted, the degradation of the land wouldn't seem to matter. Some would even argue that this is precisely the attitude that allowed Europeans to despoil nature in a wave of settlement across the frontier, culminating in today's fly-by-night companies that rapaciously exploit the West's mineral resources. But, as with the other Cowboy qualities, there is a sense of balance. The widow that Conagher finds so engaging says what the Cowboy feels: "One evening Evie was coming in from milking and he was sitting on the stoop watching the sun set on the hills. 'It is very beautiful, Mr. Conagher,' she said. 'I like to watch the wind on the grass.' " She knows, as does he, that the land is not pretty, but it is beautiful -- a distinction that the great American conservationist Aldo Leopold embraced. Ultimately, when it came to nature, the Cowboy was a pragmatic idealist -- the role of humans was neither exploitation nor preservation but, in the deepest biblical sense, stewardship.

Conagher knows that the harsh, vagrant life of the cowboy is the prerogative of youth: "It was a hard life, a bitter, lonely life after a fellow got beyond the kid stage." So the Cowboy, if he survives his adventures and matures into a body of leathered skin and mended bones, must reflect on his journeys and on his experiences with weather, grass, wildlife and livestock. And in so doing, he finds a place to complete his life: "The waiting would not be bad if it was on a man's own place, where he could watch his own cattle graze and could be in some kind of peace." After all, to be a man is not just to journey into the world but to make something of the world, and this "something" is more of a sanctuary than a monument.

To be honest, I like Deb Donahue a great deal. I've guest lectured in her law classes; I respect her keen mind, and I relish her sharp wit. But I'm afraid that she roped me into her circle of black-hatted villains when she wrote, "(T)he myth of the Old West and its cowboys is alive and well, thanks in part to the continuing efforts of writers, filmmakers, chambers of commerce, and even scientists and academics." Being a member of three of these disreputable gangs, perhaps it's not surprising that I hope that the Cowboy Myth is as alive and well as Deb seems to fear. However, I worry that it is eroding under the withering critiques of economic rationalism and scientific positivism.

I worry because without a story to guide the culture of the West, we are unlikely to coalesce as a people in order to save our communities and lands. We are unlikely to act with the fortitude of Conagher, as he explained his worldview to a friend before the climatic shootout: "This here's a hard country. But it's a good country, Scott, and it'll be better as soon as we hang or shoot a few more thieving skunks."

Jeff Lockwood devoted nearly 20 years to the study of rangeland grasshoppers as a faculty member at the University of Wyoming. He recently metamorphosed into a professor of natural sciences and humanities at the university. He is the author of several books. His writing has been recognized with a Pushcart Prize, a John Burroughs Award and inclusion in Best American Science and Nature Writing.