The Solace of Open Spaces. Gretel Ehrlich. 1985. ISBN 0140081135
It had occurred to me that comfort was only a disguise for discomfort; reference points, a disguise for what will always change. Friends asked when I was going to stop “hiding out” in Wyoming. What appeared to them as a landscape of lunar desolation and intellectual backwardness was luxurious to me. For the first time I was able to take up residence on earth with no alibis, no self-promoting schemes.
The truest art I would strive for in any work would be to give the page the same qualities as earth: weather would land on it harshly; light would elucidate the most difficult truths; wind would sweep away obtuse padding.
When I asked an older ranch hand to describe Wyoming’s openness, he said, “It’s all a bunch of nothing – wind and rattlesnakes – and so much of it you can’t tell where you’re going or where you’ve been and it don’t make much difference.
I suspect that my original motive for coming here was to “lose myself” in new and unpopulated territory. Instead of producing the numbness I thought I wanted, life on the sheep ranch woke me up. The vitality of the people I was working with flushed out what had become a hallucinatory rawness inside me. I threw away my clothes and bought new ones; I cut my hair. The arid country was a clean slate. Its absolute difference steadied me.
I’ve spent hours riding to sheep camp at dawn in a pickup when nothing was said; eaten meals in the cookhouse when the only words spoken were a mumbled “Thank you, ma’am” at the end of dinner. The silence is profound. Instead of talking, we seem to share one eye. Keenly observed, the world is transformed. The landscape is engorged with detail, every movement on it chillingly sharp. The air between people is charged. Days unfold, bathed in their own music. Nights become hallucinatory; dreams, prescient.
Perhaps because the West is historically new, conventional morality is still felt to be less important than rock-bottom truths. Though there’s always a lot of teasing and sparring, people are blunt with one another, sometimes even cruel, believing honesty is stronger medicine than sympathy, which may console but often conceals.
The owners were there, a husband and wife, she a descendant of the original Mormon homesteader. They had the drawn, brittle look that comes from a lifetime of doing work that you don’t love, then finding out you’re a million dollars in debt to boot. “She’s got so many wrinkles she has to screw her hat on to go to church,” said a sheepherder, now unemployed, as she walked by. Her husband, who had married into the family, squinted as if he had been slapped in the face.
Another herder I visited told me that it was the ducks flying overhead in pairs that made him feel left out and lonesome.
Fred cut a curious image on the range: he wore rags – layers of overalls, slickers, sweaters, wool shirts stitched together – topped by what looked like a Maine fisherman’s rain hat. Under it all, his long underwear had been changed so infrequently, his body hair had grown into the weave.
Fred was proud of his self-discipline. He’d taught himself English, abstained from tobacco and drink, and never owned a radio. Since solitude was the peg he’d hung his life on, he saw no point in complaining about it. Besides sheep, his one enthusiasm was international politics. He seemed to inhale the whole of U.S. News & World Report each week, knew where very war, small and big, was being fought, and would plead for peace, he told me, if only someone could hear him.
True solace is finding none, which to say, it is everywhere.
Winter scarified me. Under each cheekbone I thought I could feel claw marks and scar tissue. What can seem like a hard-shell veneer on people here is really a necessary spirited resilience.
Living well here has always been the art of making do in emotional as well as material ways. Traditionally, at least, ranch life has gone against materialism and has stood for the small achievements of the human conjoined with the animal, and the simpler pleasures – like listening to the radio at night or picking out constellations.
In June I moved again – all the way across the Basin to a rambling house near a town of fifty, ”including the dead ones.” Though the rightness of anything had long since vanished, I had a chemical reaction to this old-fashioned ranching community. I was loved, hated, flirted with, tolerated. I fitted in.
Walking to the ranch house from the shed, we saw the Northern Lights. They looked like talcum powder fallen from a woman’s face. Rouge and blue eyeshadow streaked the spires of white light which exploded, then pulsated, shaking the colors down – like lives – until they faded from sight.
To be “tough” on a ranch has nothing to do with conquests and displays of power. More often than not, circumstances – like the colt he’s riding or an unexpected blizzard – are overpowering him. It’s not toughness but “toughing it out” that counts. In other words, this macho, cultural artifact the cowboy has become is simply a man who possesses resilience, patience, and an instinct for survival.
For all the women here who use “fragileness” to avoid work or as a sexual ploy, there are men who try to hide theirs, all the while clinging to an adolescent dependency on women to cook their meals, wash their clothes, and keep the ranch house warm in winter. But there is true vulnerability in evidence here. Because these men work with animals, not machines or numbers, because they live outside in landscapes of torrential beauty, because they are confined to a place and a routine embellished with awesome variables, because calves die in the arms that pulled others to life, because they go to the mountains as if on a pilgrimage to find out what makes a herd of elk tick, their strength is also a softness, their toughness, a rare delicacy.
On and on it goes. What’s stubborn, secretive, dumb, and keen in us bumps up against those same qualities in [animals]. Their births and deaths are as jolting and random as ours, and because ranchers are food producers, we give ourselves as wholly to the sacrament of nurturing as to the communion of eating their flesh. What develops in this odd partnership is a stripped-down compassion, one that is made of frankness and respect and rigorously excludes sentimentality.
What is obvious to an animal is not the embellishment that fattens our emotional resumes but what’s bedrock and current in us: aggression, fear, insecurity, happiness, or equanimity. Because they have the ability to read our involuntary ticks and scents, we’re transparent to them and thus exposed – and we’re finally ourselves.
A Wyoming winter laminates the earth with white, then hardens the lacquer work with wind.
The deep ache of this audacious Arctic air is also the ache in our lives made physical. Patches of frostbite show up on our noses, toes, and ears. Skin blisters as if cold were a kind of radiation to which we’ve been exposed. It strips what is ornamental in us. Part of the ache we fell is also a softness growing. Our connections with neighbors – whether strong or tenuous, as lovers or friends – become too urgent to disregard. We rub the frozen toes of a stranger whose pickup has veered off the road; we open water gaps with a tamping bar and an ax; we splice a friend’s frozen water pipe; we take mittens and blankets to the men who herd sheep. Twenty or thirty below makes the breath we exchange visible: all of mine for all of yours. It is the tacit way we express the intimacy no one talks about.
Dryness is the common denominator in Wyoming. We’re drenched more often in dust than in water; it is the scalpel and the suit of armor that make westerners what they are. Dry air presses a stockman’s insides outward. The secret, inner self is worn no on the sleeve be in the skin. It’s an unlubricated condition: there’s not enough moisture in the air to keep the whole emotional machinery oiled and working.
That’s how the drought would come: one sweep and all moisture would be banished. Bluebunch and June grass would wither. Elk and deer would trample sidehills into sand. Draws would fill up with dead horses and cows. Tucked under ledges of shale, dens of rattlesnakes would grow into city-states of snakes. The roots of trees would rise to the surface and flail through dust in search of water.
Implicated as we westerners are in this sperm, blood, and guts business of ranching, and propelled forward by steady gusts of blizzards, cold fronts, droughts, heat, and wind, there’s a ceremonial feel to life on a ranch. It’s raw and impulsive but the narrative thread of birth, death, chores, and seasons keeps tugging at us until we find ourselves braided inextricably into the strand.
So much in American life has had a corrupting influence on our requirements for social order. We live in a culture that has lost its memory. Very little in the specific shapes and traditions of our grandparents’ pasts instruct us how to live today, or tells us who we are or what demands will be made on us as members of society. The shrill estrangement some of us felt in our twenties has been replaced in a decade or so later by a hangdog, collective blues. With our burgeoning careers and families, we want to join up, but it’s difficult to know how or where. The changing conditions of life are no longer assimilated back into a common watering trough. Now, with our senses enlivened – because that’s the only context we have to go by – we hook change onto change ad nauseam.
On a ranch, small ceremonies and private, informal rituals arise. We ride the spring pasture, pick chokecherries in August, skin out a deer in the fall, and in the enactment experience a wordless exhilaration between bouts of plain hard work. Ritual – which could entail a wedding or brushing one’s teeth – goes in the direction of life. Through it we reconcile our barbed solitude with the rushing, irreducible conditions of life.
I have Indian neighbors all around me – Crow and Cheyenne to the north, Shoshone and Arapaho to the south – and though we often ranch, drink, and rodeo side by side, and dress in the same cowboy uniforms – Wrangler jeans, tall boots, wide-brimmed, high-crowned hats – there is nothing in our psyches, styles, or temperaments that is alike.
All through autumn we hear a double voice: one says everything is ripe; the other says everything is dying. The paradox is exquisite. We feel what the Japanese call “aware” – an almost untranslatable word meaning something like “beauty tinged with sadness”.
Fall is the end of the rancher’s year. Third and fourth cuttings of hay are stacked; cattle and sheep are gathered, weaned, and shipped; yearling bulls and horse colts are sold. “We always like this time of year, but it’s a lot more fun when the cattle prices are up!” a third-generation rancher tells me.
Irrigating is a contemptible damned job. I’ve been fighting water all my life. Mother Nature is a bitter old bitch, isn’t she? But we have to have that challenge. We crave it and I’ll be goddamned if I know why. I feel sorry for these damned rich ranchers with their pumps and sprinkler systems and gated pipe because they’re missing out on something. When I go to change my water at dawn and just before dark, it’s peaceful out there, away from everybody. I love the fragrances – grass growing, wild rose on the ditch bank – and hearing the damned old birds twittering away. How can we live without that?”
A man’s life should be as fresh as a river. It should be the same channel but a new water every instant.