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57 Imperfect though the human eye may be, it’s plain enough that what you see is what you get. Children learn early in life to trust their eyes, making sense of what they see. The human brain, hardwired to detect difference, welcomes a big picture, seizing upon the dissimilar. And so to recognize that ranch landscapes are everywhere, yet are almost undetectable, requires the acceptance of a landscape (one or many) vested with a subtlety both aggressive and primordial. Indistinct except to the schooled observer, rangeland’s variations nevertheless drape the land (Figure 2.1). Long vistas and small departures —a single cow dotting a sagebrush sea—are shapes that barely register across a monotony of semblance. If seeing is believing, then to apprehend is to be well on the way to understanding. Do that math successfully, and the ranch lies nearly everywhere in the American West. Estimates classify upward of one-third of the United States as rangeland— extensive, vegetated in shrubs or grass, but not in crops and unforested. Even forestland, though, and wide desert, or deep wetland is grazed. Something more than 70 percent of the West has long been browsed by big herbivores, which in the Pleistocene included animals now all but unimaginable: giant bison, enormous elk, and sagebrush-eating behemoths dotted hither and yon. But for some thirty decades, extending back to Spanish and Mexican times, this realm has been what writer Wallace Stegner dubbed “ranch country .” The term was more aesthetic than economic because in its extensive Western form, typical of so much of pastoralism elsewhere about the world, ranching requires many an acre for few domesticated animals (generally cattle but sometimes sheep or goats). Cows have their own cagey relationship to 2 | An Inescapable Range, or the Ranch as Everywhere paul f. starrs Hausladen/57-110 1/10/03 1:04 PM Page 57 the world about them. Packed with a cheerful evasiveness, ranch country cows, through the American West, are today still less seldom seen than people (Figure 2.2). Across a big terrain, twelve hundred miles east to west by easily a thousand miles south to north, human company in the West is a real rarity, especially after Interstates are bypassed in favor of those side roads formed of packed gravel, dirt, or asphalt, and variously fractured, cratered, and relict. The scope is captured by Western road books, and in a simple comparison, it’s evident that William Least-Heat Moon’s Blue Highways stands at a vast spiritual standoff from Larry McMurtry’s Roads: Driving America’s Great Highways. Least-Heat Moon’s is a 1982 paean to obscure back roads, but McMurtry has word-processed a self-satisfied millennium-year ode bragging on his own eight-lane Interstate peregrinations. The tension between byway and highway is all-Western, spaced across better than a billion acres of land. Whether someone’s traverse is by the small forgotten roads or on the big routes routinely traveled at eighty-plus miles per hour, there are places where the company is slim and you shall not want for space. It is over that mile after mile of evident nothingness that the ranch dominates, if owlish and a bit obscured. A minimal human presence is seen through this broad terrain, and the animals that unapologetically graze the range have galvanized antilivestock ideologues . Cow haters such as Luddite gadfly Jeremy Rifkin, poster bad boy Richard Symanski, or the writers Lynn Jacobs and George Wuerthner decry ranching as a self-evident abuse of nature, as an investiture of way too much land in the hands of far too few good people, as a Brobdingnagian gluttonous bovine impedance to biodiversity. To put it simply, for ranching dissenters, the lowing of livestock, the trappings of transhumance, and assuredly a cowhand ’s call each are held to cheapen what would otherwise presumably be a human-free experience of perfectly pristine nature. The rest of the world, though, tends to see the matter rather a bit differently: Ranching represents a valued closeness of people to nature that is all too seldom now achieved. Such distancing from the land comes at a cost to the human spirit and intellect (Figure 2.3).1 More practiced philosophers who have been about the block grasp the significance of the human presence—or the formidable import of its absence.2 Across the West, cattle and cowhands commingle in an economy that has been precarious ever since its inception. In places, the vestiges of...


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