Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Ranching and Nature

I just finished an interesting book entitled Cod, by Mark Kurlansky.  The last paragraph in the book raises some interesting questions about our relationship with nature; questions that also have relevance to my own work as a rancher, I think:
“There is a big difference between living in a society that hunts whales and living in one that views them.  Nature is being reduced to precious demonstrations for entertainment and education, something far less natural than hunting.  Are we headed for a world where nothing is left of nature but parks?  Whales are mammals, and mammals do not lay a million eggs.  We were forced to give up commercial hunting and to raise domestic mammals for meat, preserving the wild ones as best we could.”
Among the many things I like about my life as a pastoralist (that is, someone whose work entails raising livestock on rangeland) is the fact that I get to work (as opposed to recreate) in and with nature.  My day-to-day work – as herdsman at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center and as shepherd in my own sheep operation – brings me into direct contact with the natural world.

As I grow older, I realize how unusual my way of making a living is in our modern society.  For most of us, we come in contact with nature as a break from our working lives.  We recreate in nature, and as a consequence, I think we romanticize (and therefore, devalue) those livelihoods that still depend on nature.  I fish for leisure; commercial fishing must be similarly leisurely.  Alternatively, I ride a horse for pleasure; gathering cows horseback can’t be “real” work!

This perspective extends, I think, to our attitudes towards land and resource conservation.  Over the last 10 to 15 years, ranch and farm land conservation has become a priority for many communities.  We started to realize that productive agricultural land is vital to our nutritional well-being, as well as to the aesthetic quality of our “neighborhood.”  In many cases, however, we fail to recognize the human aspect of farm and ranch land.  In other words, have we truly conserved a piece of farm land if nobody in our community knows how to farm it?  Can ranch land exist without a rancher?

Kurlansky talks about this conundrum in Cod, quoting an official in the Gloucester (Massachusetts) Community Development Department:
“You buy out a man whose father and grandfather were fishermen, and you are wiping out a hundred years of knowledge.  A fisherman is a special person.  He is a captain, a navigator, an engineer, a cutter, a gutter, an expert net mender, a market speculator.  And he’s a tourist attraction.  People want to come to a town where there are men with cigars in their mouth and boots on their feet mending nets.  We are going to lose all that.”
Ranching and farming involve similar “native” skills – and have a similar attraction to tourists.  While I think agricultural tourism has value, I worry that it diminishes the work essential to farming and ranching.  While agricultural skills provide a  way to start a conversation about farming or ranching, the ability to rope a calf, or work a stock dog, or bring in a crop, is far more important than its entertainment value.


  1. I had no idea that Kurlansky wrote on such a breadth of topics. I read his book, "Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea." Thanks for sharing, I'm intrigued to dig into some of his other work.