Sunday, December 06, 2015

Old Corrals and Society

Rancher hands
Old Corrals and Society
Lessons in History
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

            My hands are sore.
            As I look at them, I am reminded of other hands that have influenced my life. I once even contemplated devoting a bit of a time to photographing interesting hands and crafting their stories of living. I wish I had pictures of my grandparents’ hands … all of them. The hands of my grandfather laid one over the other across his saddle horn stand out. I don’t believe I ever saw him wear a pair of gloves. In fact, he once told me never to hire a man who smoked a pipe or wore gloves. His rationale was that every time you needed him he’d be fiddling with that pipe or those gloves. He was pretty north south.
            One of the current ailments of my hands is a burn suffered from a brush with an acetylene torch. It is made worse by now wearing gloves to avoid another similar adventure, and pulling them on and off is keeping the burn aggravated and weeping. I have tried bandaging it, but by midmorning I have rubbed bandages off.
            The torch incident occurred while hanging a gate in yet another old set of pens we are rebuilding. Rebuilding an old corral is probably a lot like filling a tooth. The more you work the more you realize how much work there is to do. There is usually also a new found sense of respect for the long forgotten vaqueros who built the remnants that are still standing. In our case, there is evidence of at least three stages of construction. The first is an old standing picket fence built out of upright cedar staves that were probably cut by hand on the higher elevations of the ranch. We will reinforce that part and it will continue to be used in salute to those old cowboys. The look will be preserved.
            The second stage of construction was a combination railroad tie, net wire, and cable arrangement that we are stabilizing by replacing broken ties, stretching the cable back into place, and re-hanging gates. At least one and maybe two of the gates will be reset in the alley to allow the safe handling of cattle that are not yet suitable for respectable house guests.
            The third stage of construction was more recent. It is an amalgamation of baling wire, panels, pallets, broken gates, pieces of lumber and more baling wire tied together each time cattle were worked. It is a combination of fix and repair daily that makes you wonder how something or somebody wasn’t hurt when cattle were worked. Its passage from sight has been celebrated by repeated bonfires with the intention of burying the noncombustible remains as far from sight as possible. We wish it and its memory … good riddance.
            New additions will include 16’ gates replacing all the wire gates leading into the water and dry lots to accommodate large numbers of incoming cattle, the replacement of every working gate in the original corral, a full bull panel enclosure around the original water trough, overheads for all gates, the construction of a completely new load up equipped with a sweep to make loading not just safe, but efficient, and the addition of three hundred cedar staves and posts to solidify the holding pens outside of the corrals. At least two troughs will be added so cattle can be overnighted without remixing them.
            The process has taken on a dynamic air. It isn’t a complete overhaul of history. Rather, it is an exercise that traced the great cowboy ideas of the past with new additions that make sense. The use of the pens will be more efficient and safe. The good points of each stage of construction will continue to be an intrinsic part of the whole. It is a blend of old and new. By no means is it a complete transformation nor is it and excessive outlay of money. As much recycled material is being used as new. It is a stepwise evolution. Even the color of the old pens has made an impression on the project. The patina glow of weathered metal and wood is supremely appealing. Gone now are my thoughts of painting anything. We may give the weathered, exposed wood a shot of used oil to stuff some life back into it, but we’ll keep the weathered ranch look.
            Perhaps the look of time worn hands of my past has influenced that decision … perhaps a study of my own hands has made me view many things much differently.
            Parallels in society  
            Everybody should read the writings of Charles Gave.          
            In 13 paragraphs, he’ll provide a more modern history lesson of the volatile Middle East than years of formal education. He started by describing the Syria of his youth. It was “a marvel of diversity, a true kaleidoscope of races and religions. All the great empires of the past … from the Mesopotamians to the Ottomans … had passed through, and all had left their traces.”
            “Clustered around the citadel of Aleppo, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, one found the Armenian quarter, next to the Jewish district, itself next to the Greek settlement,” he continued. “All were surrounded by Muslim areas … and, for the most part, all these various peoples lived peaceably together, doing business with each other in good faith.”
            Education was provided by religious orders. “Boys attended schools run by the Jesuits, and the girls were taught by Christian nuns regardless of denomination.”
            Of course, that is now all gone. There is no longer a Jew on the southern shores of the Mediterranean outside of Israel. Half the population of Baghdad in the 18th Century was Christian and, today, Christians of all denominations have either disappeared or are under severe pressure. Those in Egypt face daily attacks. What used to be a model of mutual order has broken down completely.
            Gave assigns his country, France, with blame through what he describes as historical missteps. Rather than relying on steadying influences from the strengths of local community, “an intrinsic part of the system that was a diverse and resilient society”, France effectively created a unitary state in Syria with centralized institutions for the army, police, civil administration, justice, education, and health. Strong influences of local controls gave way to the state. In order to protect themselves, each and every ethnic community began to attempt to seize control of the apparatus of the state.
            Without a strong moderating force of any kind, the various Muslim sects leveraged themselves into power, and, with the assumption of power, lesser sects, particularly the Sunnis who theretofore contributed to maintaining order, sought outside help from Saudi Arabia. From the bank vaults and the Wahhabi power brokers in Saudi Arabia, Wahhabi mosques began to be planted everywhere. The goal became to “purify” the Middle East by returning the region and the rest of the world to an “original” form of Islam unpolluted by non-Wahhabi religions and the last 1400 years of history. Aided by the support of French diplomacy under presidents Chirac, Sarkozy, and Hollande the avalanche of extremism is fully involved. The result is only two things are being taught today (and only to boys) … the Koran and religious extremism.
            History, allowed to be influenced by local controls, customs and culture, usually finds peaceful equilibrium. Just like my corrals, attention to what works should not just be upheld but held inviolate. Changing for the sake of change or for the tyrannical seizure of rights to create a unitary state of central control has dramatic consequences. Diverse and resilient societies represented by communities and states will always lose their intrinsic identities and societal balances. Chaos invariably results.
            The Middle East is in turmoil, but are we any different?
We find ourselves in the same glide path. Our states, which should be distinct, self influenced and directed laboratories of local perfection, are increasingly wards of the unitary state. We are adrift and are increasingly forced to seek methods to seize control of the political apparatus in order to protect our own communities.
Tomorrow, I am going back to work on my corral project. Only there can I approach the freedom of decision making that was envisioned by our Constitution. I’ll savor the weathered panels, patina coloration, and logic of bovine inclinations. I am part of that history and I am humbled by that inclusion. I’ll attempt not to project myself into it in a manner that is disrespectful or unduly critical. I’ll honor what happened before I arrived.
Respect will be extended by maintaining the intrinsic best ideas of local customs and diverse culture.

Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “We are running headlong into an abyss that parallels the chaos the world. What worries us all sick … is the absence of leadership which, even conditionally, has our best interests in mind.”

Some quotes from Edmund Burke (1729-1797) seem appropriate here, as this is not just a recent battle. 

"A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman."

"People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors."

"The science of government being, therefore, so practical in itself, and intended for such practical purposes, a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life, however sagacious and observing he may be, it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes."

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