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Know the West

Notes from a Wyoming sheepwagon


Claiming Ground
Laura Bell
256 pages, hardcover: $24.95.
Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

A pretty minister's daughter from Kentucky might not be the kind of person you'd expect to find herding sheep in the lonesome expanse of Wyoming's Big Horn Basin. But when Laura Bell graduated from college in 1977, she felt drawn to the nomadic life she'd glimpsed on an earlier visit to Wyoming. And so she set up a makeshift home in a sheepwagon under the cottonwoods at Whistle Creek Ranch -- a bookish young woman in the company of sheep and dogs and cows and rough-handed men.

In her memoir Claiming Ground, Bell shares the adventure, beauty and grief she encounters over the next few decades, in years spent working as a sheep herder, cattle rancher, outfitter and forest ranger. With sharp sensitivity, she describes a world that most would have trouble imagining -- what the inside of a sheepwagon looks like, how to spot a cow in labor, what little luxuries fit best inside saddlebags.

Bell's journey unfolds over time and wide-open space, and her narrative becomes a testament to how a landscape serves as the current that shapes the lives it contains. Against this harsh Western backdrop, Bell becomes a wife and a mother, discovering the bitter lessons of love and loss.

The language in Claiming Ground is often as spare as its setting, but Bell's quietly concentrated writing style produces a chilling eloquence. One chapter starts simply: "Morning. Streams of pale light spill across the ridges like paint tipped over and flush from the sage the cries of small birds.” Bell watches the land with an attentiveness gained from years of scanning the horizon for wayward sheep, and she captures its sights and sounds with startling beauty.

The emotional intensity builds throughout the book, and some readers will feel rent raw by it in the end. It's as Bell warns us in the beginning: "...the bare-bones immensity of Wyoming can make you feel like a sacrifice left on a slab for the gods to pick clean.”