As far as I know, my friend Sissy has never written anything, although she probably reads more widely than most people I know with graduate degrees. She’s at first and probably second glance an archetypical ranchwoman. That first glance would be the outsider’s. Sis is in her mid-30’s, tall, taller than I am, and strong, usually dressed in boots and wide hat and even spurs—real working Blanchards, for connoisseurs of Southwestern objects on their way to becoming collectibles rather than tools. She drawls and shakes your hand like a man and says “ain’t” and “could of” A few questions might reveal that she was the first female brand inspector in the United States, and that she holds in her own name, not just her family’s, the third oldest brand in the state of New Mexico. A conversation with her can turn into a series of anecdotes on the lines of “We was running 2,000 heifers. I was pregnant and I just had a leg operation. The cowboy quit. Then we found 28 dead cows one morning and we hadn’t even got up in the trees. I cut one open that wasn’t too green . . .”
But then there’s that second look. Usually, Sis will have her four-year-old daughter Gianetta in tow, and sometimes her eleven-year-old son Brian, whom she “home-schooled” for his first five grades and who was ahead of his class when he returned to public school. Further conversation will disturb, amuse, or amaze those who characterize flyover country as, in Auden’s words, “a desert full of bigots,” or whose ideas of life in the West come from such yuppie fantasies as “City Slickers,” though they might also appall the more pompous among urban conservative intellectuals. Sissy’s mixture of traditionalism, libertarianism, and, yes, conservationist thinking might seem impossible to those accustomed to coastal polarities and stereotypes. She is a devout Catholic who can’t always make it to Mass and who knows and tells more hilarious bawdy jokes than anyone I know; a lifetime registered Republican who cannot understand the impulse to censor; a diehard patriot who can enjoy the company of New Mexico’s remnant hippies; a fourth-generation so-called Anglo rancher whose ancestors hailed not from Texas but from Italian Switzerland; an opponent of nouveaux greenies who snarled, “where the [expletive deleted] do those [expletive deleted] expect us to go?” when some loon put a “welfare ranchers go home” sticker on her family’s stock tank, but who also refuses to kill rattlesnakes, or for that matter any predator not doing damage on her ranch, and who can tell you where the hawks nest and the bobcats den; a stockwoman who can explain why you should never run too many cows on a family ranch. She’s a wife, mother, and steward; rodeo judge, barmaid, unpaid veterinarian, and the town’s community development director. She’s a ranchwoman. And, I submit, as archetypical in this second look as in that first. While the urban and suburban feminists whine and/or become yuppie executives, ranchwomen work like women and work like men and—somehow—find time to read, think, and even write.
The phenomenon seems to begin geographically on the shortgrass plains, west of the Hundredth Meridian and temporally with the first wave of European settlers. It is ranch rather than farm women who seem to make these contributions. Tom McGuane, in Nobody’s Angel, made a funny and accurate distinction: “some of these ranches were run by men who thought like farmers and who usually had wives twice their size. The others were run by men who thought like cowboys, and whose wives, more often than not, were their own size or smaller, sometimes quite tiny. . . . Their women didn’t talk in the tiny baby voices of the farmer-operator wives nor in the beautician rasp of the town wives.” One doesn’t have to go as far as McGuane (“farming was a highly evolved form of mowing the lawn”) to find ranch life, even when yoked to back-breaking work and bankruptcy, more romantic than plowing.
Childhood life and adult immigration on the plains began giving birth to memoirs and novels as soon as women joined their men there: we have the works of Wilder, Cather, Sandoz, and many lesser-known memoirists such as Gila County’s Agnes Morley Cleaveland. But for the purpose of this essay I want to concentrate on recent books by three women. Two are immigrants, one a native; two contemporary, one turn-of-the-century; two “aristocratic”—or at least of origins far from the blue-collar class—one hardscrabble. All three show the humor, grace, stoicism, realism, and vision that characterize the rancher’s life, virtues that seem in danger of disappearance at this moment in our Republic’s history.
Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains, by Linda Hasselstrom, appeared in 1987, when Mrs. Hasselstrom was already known as a poet, editor, and small-press publisher. She brings a unique perspective to this book, a year’s journal of ranching experience in the hard country of northwestern South Dakota; I know of no. other chronicler of ranch life who was born to both ranching and writing. Windbreak is wry and dry, my first recommendation to anyone made starry-eyed by the more romantic literature of New Mexico and Wyoming and Montana. Of a January day that warmed to 15 below in a 60 m.p.h. wind: “The calves are either weaned or they’re too depressed to bawl anymore. They just stand around the corral waiting for food, or huddle in the shed, or gnaw on the corrals. They have no bare ground to lie on except under the shed. Every night they crowd in there and the heat of their bodies warms up the mud so they emerge covered with filth—which promptly freezes. The poor things spend the time they’re not eating just standing, shaggy with winter hair, covered in frozen mud, eyes glazed, looking half-dead.”
Not that the animals are the only ones to suffer. A few days later, on a warmer (high of 15 above) day with hard snow, she and her husband are moving cattle:
Only fools would even go out in cars on a day like this, and here I am on a horse . . . When I got to the creek the banks were coated with ice and the creek partly frozen over. The horse wouldn’t go into the water. I decided it would be safer for me if I led him anyway, so I got off and went ahead. As soon as I waded into the creek, the water went over my boot tops and inside.
Just as I got to the opposite bank the horse slipped in midstream, scared himself, and jerked back. I let go of the reins and tried to jump out of the way because I knew he’d be trying to get out of the creek. But my boots were full of water and I fell awkwardly right in the path, which is worn three feet deep. There was nowhere for the horse to go but right over me. I felt his hoofs pounding my left leg several times as I got my arms over my head. It seemed to take a very long time for him to climb over me, and I think he did some unnecessary tap dancing, but finally he was gone and everything was quiet.
She will find out, days later, that she has torn ligaments; she won’t know for sure if the leg is broken or not until then. She stays inside for five days. She does not stop writing (nor does she during normal working days). On that cold day before her accident she worries about not writing enough. “Then suddenly something will force me to the. typewriter or computer and I’ll stay there working for hours oblivious to meals, cramp, thirst, or even George. When this happens, he obligingly fixes me something to eat. Sometimes, he simply comes up behind me, hugs me, and goes away again.”
And so it goes through the year’s cycle of outdoor work, writing, talking with friends, laughing, suffering. (She’s still limping in June.) She is always alert and open to those glimpses of the beauty and mystery in nature that come like gifts even—maybe especially—amidst the hardest days outdoors. She notices everything. Driving past an antelope: “I love to see them take fences—antelope drop to the ground, hit the bottom wire with their back-curved horns, and snap it up while their bodies pass under, all in fragments of seconds.” One thinks of the yuppie retort “Get a life,” and wonders if such people would recognize a life if it bit them on the leg.
Photographing Montana 1894-1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron by Donna Lucey, seems at first to be a book far removed from Linda Hasselstrom’s modest journal. It is a large-format, high-quality photographic album from a major publisher (Knopf); its subject, an aristocratic Englishwoman who moved to eastern Montana in 1889 with the quixotic aim of raising polo ponies, seems more typical of those glamorous European expatriates like Karen Blixen who roamed the world at will in the last glory days of Empire than she is of a pioneering ranchwoman. But Donna Lucey’s almost accidental discovery of Evelyn Cameron’s glass plate negative and, even more amazingly, of her diaries from 1893 to 1928, show that Mrs. Cameron was another who, in T.H. White’s words, would “live laborious days for their delight.”
She didn’t start out that way. Evelyn Flower was born in’ 1868 to a wealthy merchant family in southern England. She married the wellborn but penniless and rather eccentric naturalist Ewen Cameron and joined the trickle of English and Scots emigrants who believed that there were fortunes to be made on the Great Plains, newly opened for settlement. There might have been. But dreamy, delicate Ewen and his adventurous but never financially minded bride were not the ones to make them. Through three ranches and all their hardships (the polo-pony notion died early) she learned to do her own hard work (“Manual labor . . . is all I care about, and, after all, is what will really make a strong woman. I like to break colts, brand calves, cut down trees, ride and work in a garden . . .”); and, eventually, to use the camera.
She seemed somehow pre-adapted to the kind of life she would lead. Though a small, almost delicate-looking woman, she possessed strength, enthusiasm, a sense of humor, and a democratic attitude toward her peers that was unusual in the strange society of English remittance men that flourished for a short time on the High Plains. In an interview for the New York Sun in 1908 she cheerily asserted, “I’ve spent January and February in a tiny Indian tent . . . with the mercury 40 degrees below zero, and our noses and chins were all blistered with the cold. And I’ve had my hair frizzled by lightning so that it made a crackling sound and the people at home asked me how I came to burn it. And I’ve had the tent blow down on me in a hurricane and have slept night after night with only a blanket between me and the frozen ground.”
The record of her labors and delights are also there in the wonderful photographs. These are of incredible quality, printed from glass-plate negatives, and show a wider range of subjects than those made by any other pioneer photographer of the West. More than a few such have documented the towns and families and even the cow work; very few, if any, cared about wildlife, hunting, hawks and eagles, sheepherding, and petrified trees. She and Ewen, in addition to all the conventional ranch work, hunted, tamed birds and beasts, explored, and (in Ewen’s case) wrote scientific papers. Evelyn, like so many ranch wives, worked hard at both men’s and women’s work; she introduced to Montana the divided skirt for riding (she was threatened with arrest in Miles City for wearing it) and nursed and coddled the difficult Ewen until he died in 1915. Everything is documented. The subjects of some of the photos are predictable; others are unique; a few (Ewen in his last year, gaunt and haggard behind an immense Trumpeter swan that he had stuffed) surreal. Some of the photographs are absolutely delightful: a family of female horsebreakers, the Buckley sisters, roping in their corral; Evelyn herself sitting on a petrified log over a canyon, holding a copy of the English magazine The Bystander, and again with an injured sparrow hawk perched on her finger; Ewen with tame wolves; a neighbor with a bottle-fed antelope; a goshawk on a newly caught grouse (this before telephoto lenses); an early informal rodeo roping; a cowboy with his pack of sighthounds; Evelyn again, with coyote pup and British flag pin. . . .
Evelyn Cameron died prematurely of complications following a routine appendectomy. My favorite of her photographs is still another self-portrait. In this one she is standing on the back of a gray horse, holding the reins in her hand. She is tanned black from the sun, bareheaded, wearing a long skirt, and grinning at someone to the left of the camera. Her smile is somehow American; you can’t imagine a typical woman of her class in England showing her teeth like that. It is a revealing glimpse of a woman who had lived the life she chose, with all its rewards and hardships; a woman who once wrote in her diary: “I think of death as a delightful journey that I shall take when all my tasks are done.”
Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces was published in 1986, and is without a doubt the best known of these memoirs. Perhaps this is because the author is a contemporary writer from the coasts (both of them), as well as a gifted and poetic crafter of words. She knows the truths of life in the Big Open, in the emptiest part of what the New York and L.A. sophisticates sneer at as “overflight country,” and possesses the skill and knowledge to convey something of this to the increasingly alien dominant culture.
Ehrlich was a filmmaker, originally from California but based in New York, who came to Wyoming in the 1970’s to make a film on sheepherders. Her lover and partner died and she stayed on to work as a herder herself, isolated in the enormous backcountry west of the Big Horn Mountains. Eventually she came to see this harsh magnificent land as home. Much later, she married a rancher and (post Solace) took on the difficult task of defending ranching against its newborn legion of faddish critics.
Solace is a book about the discovery of landscape and the rediscovery of old truths, a book written with such fresh eyes that I include it in any basic package of Western reading for the newly arrived or the curious. She remembers well when she herself was the newcomer: “Was it a lie to be here? Was I an impostor? My city friends called and asked when I was going to stop hiding. Wyoming hospitality was an extravagant blend of dry humor and benign neglect. One morning a couple in a car from New York drove by. ‘Ah,’ they must have thought, ‘a real cowgirl.’ As the car slowed to go through town I found myself trotting behind it. I wanted to pound on the windows and explain that I knew every subway stop on the Seventh Avenue IRT. They speeded up and drove on. I laughed at myself, then went inside and wrote to a friend: ‘True solace is finding none, which is to say, it is everywhere.'”
Which touches on a lot of the virtues common to all these books. The cheerful stoicism is obvious; solace in a world unlike that of the narrator’s youth is always a condition of immigrants’ stories. But there is something else there too: an appreciation of Western character. Most reviews of Solace emphasized Ehrlich’s wonderful landscape writing, but veered away from her comments on her friends and on Western quirks and mores; this despite various chapters called “Other Lives,” “About Men,” “Friends, Foes, and Working Animals,” “Just Married,” and “Rules of the Game,” all of which suggest an involvement in more than just the landscape—or at the very least in a landscape where the few well-adapted people achieve the dignity, as Edward Abbey said somewhere, of rare animals. Ehrlich has a wonderful ear and the ability to sketch Western character, both human and animal, with a few quick sure lines.
The rancher’s life and the unfashionable parts of the West still beckon, and good writers—many or most of them female—continue to chronicle them. There are certainly good male writers in the West, but very few yet are writing about ranching. One of the best, Tom McGuane, has said wonderful things about ranchers in passing, but has yet to focus on them, at least as ranchers. One-time novelist Ralph Beers wrote movingly about the hardships ‘of ranch life in his novel The Blind Corral a few years ago, then slipped off the radar screen. But true celebrations of the cattle culture continue to flow from women’s pens and typewriters, even from the most unlikely and “modernist” corners. In the same year that Gretel Ehrlich’s book was published, Flannery O’Connor’s old correspondent Cecil Dawkins wrote Charleyhorse, now reprinted as a paperback whose publishers promote it as a “lesbian tour-de-force.” What it really is is a celebration of the cow culture. Charlene Burden is no “gay activist”—she just wants to be accepted as a cowboy and finally earns the roaring approval of her town by succeeding in riding a bronc at the local rodeo.
I still don’t quite understand why so many ranchwomen and cowgirls write. But the ranchwoman’s third way—neither that of the new-age feminist nor that of the second-rank human being—may offer the fullest and most satisfactory role yet for strong women seeking to make something of themselves in this peculiar era of the American Republic.