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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Living and Dying on the Ragged Edge of the West: A Year with Bryce Andrews


Bryce leaned toward us, pausing mid-sentence, a crispy fried green bean dangling from his chopstick.  “There was something about the silence that was different,” he said, “ranch work, well…it gives you time to think in long arcs.”   

Seated in a corner booth at PF Chang’s, we had an hour before Bryce’s book signing at Denver’s Tattered Cover Bookstore.  I dipped a green bean in spicy sauce and watched Bryce devour two or three more before gusting his way through a crab wanton. Here was a man who liked to eat. In his early 30s now, Bryce Andrews was only 22 when he loaded up his pickup truck, left Seattle, and headed “west” to work as a hired hand on a 20,000-acre conservation ranch in Montana’s Madison River Valley.  

Giving him time to chew before asking another question, I thought about my childhood vacations near Ennis, Montana, just outside of Yellowstone, summer after summer fishing the Madison River with my father, wading through knee-high summer grasses and fields of wild mustard, tangling fishing net and fly rod in thick willows as I watched my father ahead of me work his way to the river. That same timbered corner of Montana which Bryce learned to love was in my bones too.

“What struck me when I first got to Sun Ranch,” Bryce went on, spooning glazed sesame chicken onto his plate, “were all the elk, thousands, spilling like water across the landscape.  On the ranch, with the wolves and the cattle, well, it forces you to realize that you’re a participant in the animal world.  I was existing within and not beyond the animal world.”

Bryce does not romanticize the cowboy lifestyle in his memoir Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West.  “One of our great failures,” he told us at dinner, referring to agriculturalists, “is that we do not allow animals to be individuals.”  Nor does he romanticize the wolves that run “endless, inscrutable loops across the ridges and valleys,” pulling yearling elk from the flanks of massive wild herds, leaving rib cages strewn in the dark shadows of Bad Luck Canyon, "leg bones snapped in half."

“Jeremy said the canyon belonged to the wolves,” Bryce writes in his memoir, “narrow and full of bones, the sides so steep a man couldn’t climb them without using his hands…predator alley, he said. It’ll make your hair stand on end.” Yet with thousands of elk to hunt, the Wedge Pack that howled from the ridges could still not resist stalking the cattle, ripping open the milk bags of heifers and leaving them wandering wild-eyed with blood pouring from their haunches.

Not exactly dinner conversation—except that it was. Nine adult wolves made up the Wedge Pack, and uncounted pups—elegant, soulful, communal, and highly efficient at turning cud-chewing ungulates—wild and domestic—into dinner. And the more in awe Bryce became of the pack’s ability to kill, the more protective he became of the cattle, something he had not expected.

Finishing his last bite of sesame chicken, Bryce rose, thanked us profusely for dinner, and left the restaurant to walk the few short blocks to the Tattered Cover—just enough distance for him to gather his thoughts before the reading.

Twenty minutes later, standing at the podium with a slide show of photos taken at the ranch playing on the large screen behind him, he confessed to the small but appreciate audience, “When I left Seattle for Montana, I expected my sympathies to remain firmly with the wolves.  A year later, when I left the ranch, I left with two  convictions: a profound respect for ranchers, and a deeper understanding of the urgency of the wolf/land situation.” 

Bryce’s Year on the Ragged Edge of the West covers a lot more terrain than just the wolf/stockman controversy, and his unflinching honesty encourages us to drop our own biases, to experience the natural ecosystem the way the animals do, prey and predator alike. “It’s easy for us,” he warns, “to get lost in the woods of cattle and wolves, of how our thoughts about these two animals shape our lives. But I see a positive trajectory for the balance between cattle and wolves if the land stays open.”

This, I think, is where Bryce's deepest passions lie.  He paused, turning to look behind him at a photo of a broad expanse of windswept and snow covered terrain, dark pine trees whiskering the foothills.  He turned back toward us.  “But if you’ve been around the wolves and the cows, you understand that there is no perfect solution. There will be blood, and there will be violence.”

This truth might be the hardest for people unfamiliar with nature to accept, yet one does not have to look far to see that nature spills blood - not only in death, but also when spilling new life onto the frozen earth. “It’s messy and complicated and bloody," Bryce told us, "but what happened there on the ranch was co-existence, and co-existence is not always peaceful.” 

"How many ranchers try to co-exist?" a man from the audience asked.  Bryce's answer came fast and easy: "More every day."

"Do conservation easements work?" came the next question.  "They're a great tool," Bryce answered, "but our end goal should be to create whole functioning ecosystems, and people making their living from the land...and if we're going to have constructive conversations in the West, we need to start with young people."

Which, I expect, is exactly what Bryce intends to do - find a way to teach young people the same lessons he learned during that year on Sun Ranch, and in the subsequent eight years that he's been managing ranches, becoming what the Quivira Coalition calls one of the West's new agrarians.  Not all of them are as eloquent as Bryce, but its encouraging to know that they're a hopefully, visionary breed.

NOTE: Many of you know, I've been a big fan of Courtney White's, co-founder of the Quivira Coalition, for a long time.  Read more about Courtney (a former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist), and A West That Works.



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