Sunday, June 12, 2016
The Rice Boys
The People’s Union
The Rice Boys
By Stephen L. Wilmeth
I’m draggin’ this morning.
We branded as a family yesterday. It has been a pleasure relying only on our ranch family to brand this year. BJ’s family, our grandkids, and daughters and husbands have made this a good experience. Our first grandchild, Mayci, and I cleared the east side Massacre Peak drainage while BJ took the other riders and gathered the Martin Tank, Mesquite drinker, and lower Apache Flats end of the Trail Pasture. We penned the cows at the Howard Place and set about the ritual of branding.
Oldest daughter, Stephanie, branded. Second granddaughter, Raegan, vaccinated. BJ’s Jessica castrated while Makayla ear marked. Jaegar caught calves with our new yoke while Mayci and Caleb ran gates. Mathew filled in everywhere and BJ and I roped. The best thing about the day (except the announcement of a pending new cowboy and lunch under an awning) was the fact we ran out of propane. We had to start a fire to finish and the quiet reminded me of another time when brandings were fueled with oak and juniper fires. The irons were hot and Steph had to wrap a wet rag around the handles, but we finished in enough quiet we didn’t have to scream at each other.
It was … symbolic.
The Rice Boys
We saw Frank Rice last Sunday.
He was down for a wedding within his extended cowboy family. Frank ranches east of Springer in the midst of one of the most significant summer grasslands on earth. Northeastern New Mexico and the wheat fields of the Texas Panhandle make our regional markets work in the late winter and early spring. He and Cathryn have kept the old Stephenson Ranch productive and profitable past the century mark. That feat alone should garner praise.
We talked about the things that make us smile. Mostly it was about family and a thing or two that I had never known (wow, I wonder if Nana actually knew about these revelations? Surely, she would have said something. She wouldn’t have let it pass without a double shot of wicked criticism).
My grandmother had been Frank’s surrogate mother. His was a tough upbringing that ushered him from one family household to another. Through it all he prevailed. He just needed a chance and he has proven to all that the kid from Cliff that was sharp with numbers could do many things. He sat there on the edge of the couch with those blue Rice eyes flashing as he talked. He’s white headed now, but it is a full head of hair.
His cousins have the same hair. All children of the ‘30s, these now white headed elders are the sons of the original Rice brothers, Fayette, Blue, and Carl. Today, they talk to each other often with Frank in Springer, Rolland at Cliff, and Bill in Ft. Collins. I think they might be closer than ever.
During a recent sleepless night, I reread from the diary of their grandmother, Mary Belle Shelley Rice who we all knew as Ma. Ma Rice was the first of the family to graduate from college. She had come from Texas as a child in a covered wagon and had been in the first class at the “New Mexico Normal School” which later became Western New Mexico University. Although she never taught, she was trained as a teacher at a school that remains a preparatory school for educators. Her diary entries were often noted by the time of day and many times it was about the same hour that sleepless night I read her words.
Her mention of her grandsons that carried the Rice name was frequent. Her house was a favorite meeting place. It was the place to eat, to visit, to celebrate, to engage their family and their grandmother and be reminded of her interest in them. It was the good place that assured them that what went on within their relationships was more important than anything else. They could hope to control only a few things, and the first started with her influence on them through the bonds of family. It remains the foundation that holds them close today.
It was not just symbolic, but fundamental.
In the case of the Rice boys, a most powerful influence was the commingling of the family foundation and the relationship they had with their surroundings. They ranched and farmed with the farming used to support their livestock enterprise. The combination influenced them far beyond what they expected. You can discern it in their speech, in the interpretation of their surroundings, and in their politics. Today, they exhibit an immense pride in their history. It is a pride that was never absent, but, with age, they view it more introspectively. They have awakened to a bond beyond kinship.
Therein is a matter of great importance.
They are not alone in this discovery. It exists across the American West and beyond. More than a few would say it is fundamental to a functioning moral society. When the cousins’ grandparents were born, the population engaged in agriculture was above 50%. When they were born in the ‘30s it was about 25%. Today, it is less than two percent and it continues to decline.
If you ask these three men of the timing of the most important things of their lives and how that shaped their current outlook, they will each say their youth on the ranch was by far the most important. It was the foundation and it remains their proxy for cultural strength today, but the disappearance of its influence is dramatic.
It is extremely important, therefore, that American leadership starts to realize the implications of their zeal to further displace this demographic (and zeal is the proper word). If an impression or a course of action could be conveyed to the modern day professional legislator, the place to start would be to alter the preamble or the purpose clause in their legislation.
Preambles or purpose clauses are important to set forth the intent of their legislation with respect to the mountain of ambiguous and evolving terms of their narrative. The avoidance of evolving interpretations, therefore, is best served by placement of specific language in the statute’s purpose.
A most welcome example would be a wilderness act that appears as follows:
It is therefore the purpose of this Act to promote continuity of heritage industries within the footprint of the wilderness based on their contribution to the well being of the nation; to prohibit arbitrary administrative regulatory discrimination in their continuity; to help agencies and local governance maintain the uniqueness of local customs and culture; and find ways of meeting problems arising from the impact of environmentalism and local economies.
In other words, elevate ranching into the purpose of the act.
Those of us under siege in the modern day regulatory Verdun understand this government is not the source of our union. It never was. By design, it was the source of protection, but the union depended alone and entirely on the people.
That was a fundamental belief by Washington. In his view, government’s purview extended only to establishment of conditions best suited for natural industry to survive. It should not go beyond “consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing”. Government should let the people do the real work.
Perhaps the best example of Washington’s core beliefs of creating commerce and permanent wealth through life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was his actions following his retirement. He pursued not the spotlight and the benefits of his fame, but he went home to enhance the permanence of his own estate. Mt. Vernon was his earthly treasure. He strove to leave a lasting legacy to those he could best impact … his family.
His dream was to achieve a prosperous estate that would provide not just security but a lasting example for the future. Federal lands ranchers have never been given that opportunity. Their lives and their pursuit of happiness are conditional on a moving set of conditions that is increasingly slippery. Equality of standards offered to them is simply not comparable.
The Rice boys are a reflection of that dilemma. Their ability to establish the permanence of a lasting estate was rocked by many things, but the instability of basic property rights affected each in diverse ways. What they share is the belief that conditions that most impacted them were created and offered from those precious private property rights held by their family.
Washington would have understood completely. It is a travesty … their government simply doesn’t get it.
Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “Washington wrote ‘… exploring the mineral kingdom as that of the vegetable and animal, is left by our laws to individual enterprises, the government not being authorized by them to interfere at all’.”