Sunday, December 11, 2011
The Dance: Leopold Chronicles
Rhapsody and Torment
By Stephen L. Wilmeth
Aldo Leopold is both a tormentor and a benefactor to those who make a living on western lands. That deduction comes after many years passing from the first reading of A Sand County Almanac to the most recent.
When Leopold rode onto the ridgeline of Black Mountain and looked south into the Gila drainage at what is now the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico, he was an unapologetic horseman. His self appointment to those ranks became more pronounced when we rode the points and canyons of Escudilla with him through his words.
His first suggestions of wilderness were even couched in the analogy of the horseman. It was only where the remnants of roads were left behind, where the last intruders on foot were seen, and where only the horseman remained was where wilderness existed.
He introduced the vocation of his horsemen. Those cowmen left traces of their existence on the bark of quaking aspens, in the names of lonely points and saddles, and the simple, solitary existence that their lives projected to those not part of their world.
The near Parables
The words of most impact from the recent reading of the book were not significant in the first reading. Perhaps I was too caught up in bota bag implications of the book to understand what the words meant. More likely, I had not lived long enough to understand their meaning.
When I read them the second time, though, they came out of the page at me as if they were illuminated. They came from Leopold’s attempt to describe husbandry. He attempted to maneuver into a collegial explanation of the role of the professional conservationist in husbandry, but he couldn’t pull it off. He was correct when he relented and suggested that husbandry, stewardship, is only realized when it is applied to the land by some person of perception. “That is to say, its enjoyment is reserved for landholders too poor to buy their sport . . .” What a profound truth!
A landowner too poor to buy his sport . . . a steward who must do the work himself . . . the steward who cannot start to fathom the rhythms and the responses of a system until he has witnessed it repeatedly, and under risk of failure.
A ranch year is akin to a dance. As in any dance, there are good dancers and there are those not so good. The fact there are those that are good, or even superb, doesn’t suggest that the poorer dancers be removed from the dance floor. What the good dancer does is to provide a model from which all others can emulate. Over time every dancer will become better because of the best performances.
The traditional work of a southwestern ranch has been communicated enough that a portion of the public still knows what goes on. Calving starts after the first of the year and accelerates by March. The spring work starts variously but by June most of it is done. Summer rains bring grass. By September, some weaning commences and shipping takes place on through the fall. Those are the highlights, but the individual days are where the dance is practiced.
Few know the truths. January brings the outlier calves . . . those that just come earlier than any expectation. From there the year expands. Cold, assisted births, pairing, stocking rates, rotation, wind, pairs, declining nutritional strength, T posts, minerals, fire, branding irons, water, fuel, spring works, grass, day work, EQIP, projects, bills, generators, snakes, taxes, cedar posts, bank balances, thermostats, trailer floors, sun, leaks, mesquite beans, wooden tongue, open gates, coyotes, NAP, bulls, horseshoes, salt, troughs, water gaps, operating lines, body scores, trucks, staves, hay, doggies, windmills, daylight, cattle sales, tie wire, leather, weaning, parasite control, dust, heifer selections, EPDs, designated Wilderness, heat, meetings, and, most importantly, monsoons, all become a collage of events, worries, daily grind, scheduled events, and prayers in the ranch year.
Finally, December arrives. It is that month that a degree of completeness seeps into the surroundings. In a matter of minutes the sounds of bawling calves, dust, and the need to go get on the tractor to feed something disappears in the dust from the departing trucks. You feel a bit disconcerted. It’s quiet. The corral is empty. You need to be doing something . . . surely . . . where?
The process of stewardship
All those things impact the owner “too poor to buy their sport”. Those folks become seasoned. Most become hard. Fewer become more patient, but all who live that life become humbled by events.
There are always defining moments. Those people will have numerous such experiences. The events will be both good and bad.
There is nothing more powerful than standing in the middle of a hot, dry pasture and listen to the thunder rumble off to the horizons and smell and feel the first rain of the monsoon. If there is a single event that reminds you that God is all powerful, it is that moment. If you haven’t reached for the sky or knelt beneath it at such a time you simply have no soul. It is that moment that stewardship is sealed and it exists unconditionally.
Christian stewards are far too timid in expounding their faith. The verses of John 10:11-13 describe stewardship “. . . the good Shepard lays down his life for the sheep (flock, kine, charge, responsibility). The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So, when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”
The steward, the landowner too poor to pay for his sport, must stand and defend those sheep, that private property right. His stewardship not only enabled him, it compelled him to do so. It is the age old relationship that stewards share with their predecessors.
Leopold described it when he reminded his readers of the scientific epigram: “ontogeny repeats phylogeny”. That means the development of each individual repeats the evolutionary history of his race. This time the race is the land steward and the kingdom is the domain he finds himself defending.
The battle for western land stewardship is the microcosm the entire nation faces. The individual, “too poor to buy their sport”, is the cornerstone of constitutional theory. Argument to the contrary is the same confounding argument we witness in the partisan impasse in Washington.
It is the same pressure the steward feels while he still has those calves in the corral waiting for the truck. Only by trusting the next individual in the process can the system work. It is only in that process that confusion can be relieved, adjustments made to make the process better, and a mechanism reaffirmed to assure responsible actions. Broader decisions can only be made when individual decisions are allowed through honest diligence in the face of risk. It is that simple . . . it is that fundamental.
The Leopold phenomenon
The impact of Leopold has affected families profoundly. Those that mirror his actual model of stewardship have faired most unfavorably.
A second, more mature, reading of A Sand County Almanac provides more insight. When the author leaves Gavilan and Escudilla and becomes the master of his own kingdom there was a transition. At the former, he was merely a learned and profoundly insightful observer. At the latter he became self appointed master without risk of failure. When his prose became ever more condescending and defamatory of men trying to exist in the face of risk, he joined the ranks of the contemptuous aristocracy. His own genius of observation, his recognition of the steward, was never consummated in practice.
The environmental movement is the grand recapitulation of the same phenomenon. Leopold foretold of this development in the same paragraph he wrote setting forth the characteristics of the steward. He concluded the short treatise when the other truth emerged in his statement “. . . of husbandry . . . It is unknown to the outdoorsman (citizen, advocate, donor, and critic) who works for conservation with his vote (or donation) rather than with his hands” . . . a truer statement does not exist . . . therein is the dilemma we face.
Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “I, too, had a similar feeling of seeing the headwaters of the Gila for the first time. My perspective has changed, though, as I have come to understand the implications that Wilderness has created in the lives of those “too poor to buy their sport” who were there before the forest was created. It wasn’t just their “sport”, though. They were too poor to defend themselves against their government and its dismissal of their personal sovereignty.”