Cows, Culture and the Search for Wildness
in the American West
If one desires today to hike as far as they can away from civilization in the American West, they may find magical vistas and great streams that carry glacial water from our highest peaks. With luck they may see the tracks of a grizzly or hear the howl of a wolf. They may lose any sense of a path or trail, but what they will never lose, short of the boundaries of a National Park, is the constant piles of cow manure or the intersection of bovine that remind the hiker, the explorer, that there is no wildness in the West in 2016, but rather one large continuous stock yard of greed and stupidity, one that is in reality the graveyard of biodiversity.
Summer in the West is beginning to slowly yield to an approaching fall. The cows of the high country are beginning their slow migration across clear streams that come from receding glaciers. Wildlife Services remains busy poisoning, shooting and destroying the wild heart of our of our predator species that were designed to manage and keep in balance that which we call wildlife. Yet, the clowns of the West, those that remain the least evolved- the rancher, continue their occupation of the lands that once sang wildness and conveyed harmony and balance.
Wildness is not simply a word; it is not a place or a construct of the imagination. It is a heartbeat, a realm, a place of perfection that is the collusion of space, wildlife, quiet, sky, earth and water. It is a dimension known to few and treasured by many. Perhaps because it is so special, it is feared. To walk in the land of the grizzly, with a storm raging and cross a river swollen with a recent rain, is to sweat hard and risk, it is to allow yourself the sense of being one with a primordial force, it is the chance to breath and smell and cleanse yourself of the burden of life in a modern world.
Over time the ranching culture has stained our lives in the West. We began with a Native American culture, one that reflected the harmony and freedom that we search for today. In the base fear that defined the Americans of Manifest Destiny, we promoted control, control of a people, control of wildlife, control of wildness. In such an environment, the ranching culture was conceived and flourished. Today the DNA of that misguided venture lives on in our State Game Commissions, in our National Forest and Bureau of Land Management decisions. It is part of the demented culture of trapping and it resonates with so many Western lawmakers in their desire to kill the wildness that is the birthright of all species.
Nowhere is that more obvious, than in our western relationship to the cow. No species has ever defined genocide more clearly; no species has cost us more in blood or treasure.
If we are to ever rekindle the magic that is wildness, it must begin with ending the occupation of our Western lands at the hands of our bovine invaders. We must work to make our lands wild once again and remove the stockyard taint that we find even in our wildest realms. We must stop the slaughter of wolves, bears, coyotes and those species that define wildness at the hands of a people and culture that fears freedom.
We must put large swaths of land off-limits to cattle and clear our waterways of their giant footprint. As the earth cries out for our help, we can with a determined heart transition into a new West. One perhaps closer to the vision of John Wesley Powell, who viewed lands through the prism of watersheds: one that sees our public lands as a shared domain, not a trough for a fear-based group to exploit.
It’s ironic; we began in the West with Eden. Now we must work like never before as the curtain begins to close on our chance, to fix, cajole, fight for and remix that which we have tried so hard to destroy.
The blood that has so saturated our western soil must be the fertilizer that can create a stronger and better future. The culture we have grown up with must be changed, the killing stopped. From what we eat, to how we manage our lands, the shadow cast by the setting sun makes clear, our search for wildness is in jeopardy, but its fate is clearly in our hands.
The time is now to follow the mighty bear to the high ridge and soak in the wildness that is the energy that allows us to fight for a new West.