Letter From thenFrontiernby Stephen BodionRanchwomen, Life,nand LiteraturenAs far as I know, my friend Sissy hasnnever written anything, although shenprobably reads more widely than mostnpeople I know with graduate degrees.nShe’s at first and probably secondnglance an archetypical ranchwoman.nThat first glance would be the outsider’s.nSis is in her mid-30’s, tall, tallernthan I am, and strong, usually dressed innboots and wide hat and even spurs —nreal working Blanchards, for connoisseursnof Southwestem objects on theirnway to becoming collectibles rathernthan tools. She drawls and shakes yournhand like a man and says “ain’t” andn”could of” A few questions mightnreveal that she was the first femalenbrand inspector in the United States,nand that she holds in her own name, notnjust her family’s, the third oldest brandnin the state of New Mexico. A conversationnwith her can turn into a series ofnanecdotes on the lines of “We wasnrunning 2,000 heifers. I was pregnantnand I just had a leg operation. Thencowboy quit. Then we found 28 deadncows one morning and we hadn’t evenngot up in the trees. I cut one open thatnwasn’t too green . . .”nBut then there’s that second look.nUsually, Sis will have her four-year-oldndaughter Gianetta in tow, and sometimesnher eleven-year-old son Brian,nwhom she “home-schooled” for hisnfirst five grades and who was ahead ofnhis class when he returned to publicnschool. Further conversation will disturb,namuse, or amaze those who characterizenflyover country as, in Auden’snwords, “a desert full of bigots,” ornwhose ideas of life in the West comenfrom such yuppie fantasies as “CitynSlickers,” though they might also appallnthe more pompous among urbannconservative intellectuals. Sissy’s mixturenof traditionalism, libertarianism,nand, yes, conservationist thinkingnCORRESPONDENCEnmight seem impossible to those accustomednto coastal polarities and stereotypes.nShe is a devout Catholic whoncan’t always make it to Mass and whonknows and tells more hilarious bawdynjokes than anyone I know; a lifetimenregistered Republican who cannot understandnthe impulse to censor; a diehardnpatriot who can enjoy the companynof New Mexico’s remnant hippies;na fourth-generation so-called Anglonrancher whose ancestors hailed notnfrom Texas but from Italian Switzerland;nan opponent of nouveauxngreenies who snarled, “where the [expletivendeleted] do those [expletive deleted]nexpect us to go?” when somenloon put a “welfare ranchers go home”nsticker on her family’s stock tank, butnwho also refuses to kill rattlesnakes, ornfor that matter any predator not doingndamage on her ranch, and who can tellnyou where the hawks nest and thenbobcats den; a stockwoman who cannexplain why you should never run toonmany cows on a family ranch. She’s anwife, mother, and steward; rodeonjudge, barmaid, unpaid veterinarian,nand the town’s community developmentndirector. She’s a ranchwoman.nAnd, I submit, as archetypical in thisnsecond look as in that first. While thenurban and suburban feminists whinenand/or become yuppie executives,nranchwomen work like women andnwork like men and — somehow—findntime to read, think, and even write.nThe phenomenon seems to beginngeographically on the shortgrass plains,nwest of the Hundredth Meridian andntemporally with the first wave of Europeannsettlers. It is ranch rather thannfarm women who seem to make thesencontributions. Tom McGuane, innNobody’s Angel, made a funny andnaccurate distinction: “some of thesenranches were run by men who thoughtnlike farmers and who usually had wivesntwice their size. The others were runnby men who thought like cowboys, andnwhose wives, more often than not,nwere their own size or smaller, sometimesnquite tiny. . . . Their womenndidn’t talk in the tiny baby voices of thenfarmer-operator wives nor in the beauticiannrasp of the town wives.” Onennndoesn’t have to go as far as McGuanen(“farming was a highly evolved form ofnmowing the lawn”) to find ranch life,neven when yoked to back-breakingnwork and bankruptcy, more romanticnthan plowing.nChildhood life and adult immigrationnon the plains began giving birth tonmemoirs and novels as soon as womennjoined their men there: we have thenworks of Wilder, Gather, Sandoz, andnmany lesser-known memoirists such asnGila County’s Agnes Morley Cleaveland.nBut for the purpose of this essay Inwant to concentrate on recent books bynthree women. Two are immigrants,none a native; two contemporary, onenturn-of-the-century; two “aristocratic”n— or at least of origins far from thenblue-collar class — one hardscrabble.nAll three show the humor, grace, stoicism,nrealism, and vision that characterizenthe rancher’s life, virtues thatnseem in danger of disappearance at thisnmoment in our Republic’s history.nWindbreak: A Woman Rancher onnthe Northern Plains, by Linda Hasselstrom,nappeared in 1987, when Mrs.nHasselstrom was already known as anpoet, editor, and small-press publisher.nShe brings a unique perspective to thisnbook, a year’s journal of ranching experiencenin the hard country of northwesternnSouth Dakota; I know of no.nother chronicler of ranch life who wasnborn to both ranching and writing.nWindbreak is wry and dry, my firstnrecommendation to anyone madenstarry-eyed by the more romantic literaturenof New Mexico and Wyomingnand Montana. Of a January day thatnwarmed to 15 below in a 60 m.p.h.nwind: “The calves are either weaned ornthey’re too depressed to bawl anymore.nThey just stand around ihe corral waitingnfor food, or huddle in the shed, orngnaw on the corrals. They have nonbare ground to lie on except under thenshed. Every night they crowd in therenand the heat of their bodies warms upnthe mud so they emerge covered withnfilth — which promptly freezes. Thenpoor things spend the time they’re notneating just standing, shaggy with winternhair, covered in frozen mud, eyesnglazed, looking half-dead.”nNOVEMBER 1991/39n