Sunday, December 13, 2015

Working Wilderness

As I was driving between ranches yesterday, I heard a piece on our local community radio station (KVMR) about an encounter with a mountain lion.  I'm not sure who the author or the reader was, but the host continued after the piece.  He talked about the cultural and spiritual significance of wilderness.  While I don't want to diminish his connection with wilderness, I realized that my work as a rancher gives me a very different connection with the land than someone who recreates in wild lands.  In many ways, rangeland agriculture as I practice it exists (in fact, depends) on the boundary between wildness and domesticity.

By definition, rangeland cannot be cultivated.  The land is too steep, too hot, too cold, too dry - too "something" to support crop agriculture.  And yet these lands are tremendously productive (at least to my eye) - they support grasses and broadleaf plants, trees and shrubs, and an incredible diversity of wildlife.  And they support grazing animals.  Sheep, cattle, goats and other domesticated ruminant animals can convert the vegetation on these rangelands into muscle, fiber and milk.

Unlike the more domesticated landscapes of cultivated farming, rangelands depend on some continued element of wildness.  Many rangeland landscapes are fire adapted and even fire dependent -  in other words, these lands need fire.  Rangelands serve critical functions in the water cycle, filtering water, protecting soil, and recharging aquifers.  Indeed, most of the water we consume as humans (and most of the water that is so important for environmental purposes) originates on or flows across rangeland.  Rangelands support diverse wildlife, too - from songbirds to apex predators.

As a rancher, my daily work brings me into intimate contact with these "wild" landscapes, even when I'm working close to town.  The elements that many would include in a description of wilderness exist on the land that I graze - wildlife (including large predators), lack of vehicle access and other human infrastructure, solitude.  My work itself has an element of wildness - raising sheep requires me to work outside in all kinds of weather and conditions.  And while raising sheep at our scale may not be the most profitable business financially, I have realized that the rewards of working outside with nature are similar to the spiritual signficance that many ascribe to wilderness areas.

I first heard the term "working wilderness" from Warner Glenn, a rancher from the Malpai region of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.  Warner took photographs of the first jaguar seen north of the Mexican border in many years.  While I've never encountered such a rare predator at such close range, I have been around large predators most of my life.  I've seen mountain lions at a distance and black bears at closer range.  I see coyotes frequently.  To bring this back to the story I heard on the radio yesterday, the narrator talked about his desire to reach out to his "brother" the mountain lion.  Warner Glenn, on the other hand, describes his encounter (I found this at with the jaguar very differently (and in a way that more closely resembles my own experiences):

"(A.) Once you have seen one in the wild you will never forget the beauty of this animal and the potential danger he holds for some creature that steps into his zone.
(B.) The jaguar seems to be extremely confident in his ability to survive most any situation.
(C.) He shows no fear, as far as I could tell, only annoyance about having been bothered.
(D.) They know what a human is and grow uneasy in his presence and want to avoid him."

For me, the difference in my own idea about wilderness is the difference between romance and realism.  Seeing these large predators in their natural environment is exhilarating; seeing a ewe that's been killed by a coyote or a mountain lion is not.  While I've made a commitment to coexist with these predators, I've also made a commitment to care for my sheep.  As I grow older, I am better able to embrace the complexity of this relationship.  I find that I can accept the ambiguity inherent in loving these wild elements of the natural world while trying to protect my livestock.  And I've found that I need wide open spaces - working wilderness.  My economic success, and my spirit, rely on it.

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