Free Speech: The Cowboy and His Cow

This was a speech given before a “crowd of five to six hundred students, ranchers, and instant rednecks (transplanted Easterners); it was reprinted verbatim, bawdy stories and all in the Montana magazine Northern Lights.”(Abbey 3) Written in April of 1985 it was given at the University of Montana. Having been asked to speak at an event highlighting the issue of free speech, one cannot help but wonder if deep down inside he was saying, “Free speech? I’ll give you free speech!”

Free Speech: The Cowboy and His Cow
by Edward Abbey

When I first came West in 1948, a student at the University of New Mexico, I was only twenty years old and just out of the Army. I thought, like most simple-minded Easterners, that a cowboy was a kind of mythic hero. I idolized those scrawny little red nosed hired hands in their tight jeans, funny boots and comical hats.

Like other new arrivals in the West, I could imagine nothing more romantic than becoming a cowboy. Nothing more glorious than owning my own little genuine working cattle outfit. About the only thing better, I thought, was to be a big league baseball player. I never dreamed that I’d eventually sink to writing books for a living. Unluckily for me coming from an Appalachian hillbilly background and with a poor choice of parents-I didn’t have much money. My father was a small-time logger. He ran a one-man sawmill and a sub marginal side hill farm. There wasn’t any money in our family, no inheritance you could run ten thousand cattle on. I had no trust fund to back me up. No Hollywood movie deals to finance a land acquisition program I lived on what in those days was called the GI Bill, which paid about $150 a month while I went to school. I made that last as long as I could-five or six years. I couldn’t afford a horse. The best I could do in 1947 and ’48 was buy a third-hand Chevy sedan and roam the West, mostly the Southwest, on holidays and weekends.

I had a roommate at the University of New Mexico. I’ll call him Mac. He came from a little town in the southwest New Mexico where his father ran a feed store. Mackie was a fair bronc rider, eager to get into the cattle-growing business. And he had some money, enough to buy a little cinderblock house and about forty acres in the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque, near a town we called Landfill. Mackie fenced those forty acres, built a corral and kept a few horses there, including an occasional genuine bronco for fun and practice.

I don’t remember exactly how Mackie and I became friends in the first place. I was majoring in classical philosophy. He was majoring in screw-worm management. But we got to know each other through the mutual pursuit of a pair of newarly inseparable Kappa Kappa Gamma girls. I lived with him in his little cinderblock house. Helped him meet the mortgage payments. Helped him meet the girls. We were both crude, shy, ugly, obnoxious-like most college boys.

[Interjection: “Like you!”]

My fried Mac also owned a 1947 black Lincoln convertible, the kind with the big grille in the front, like a cowcatcher on a locomotive, chrome-plated. We used to race to classes in the morning, driving the twenty miles from his house to the campus in never more than fifteen minutes. Usually Mac was too hung over to drive, so I’d operate the car, clutching the wheel while Mac sat beside me waving his big .44, taking potshots at jackrabbits and road signs and bill boards and beer bottles. Trying to wake up in time for his ten o’clock class in brand inpection.

I’m sorry to say that my friend Mac was a little bit gun-happy. Most of his forty acres was in tumbleweed. He fenced in about half an acre with chicken wire and stocked that little pasture with white rabbits. He used it as a target range. Not what you’d call sporting, I suppose, but we did eat the rabbits. Sometimes we even went deer hunting with handguns. Mackie with his revolver, and me with a chrome-plated Colt .45 automatic I had liberated from the US Army over in Italy. Surplus government property.

On one of our deer-hunting expeditions, I was sitting on a log in a big clearing in the woods, thinking about Plato and Aristotle and the Kappa Kappa Gamma girls. I didn’t really care whether we got a deer that day or not. It was a couple of days before opening, anyway. The whole procedure was probably illegal as hell. Mac was out in the woods somewhere looking for deer around the clearing. I was sitting on the log, thinking, when I saw a chip of bark fly away from the log all by itself, about a foot from my left hand. Then I heard the blast of Mac’s revolver-that big old .44 he’d probably liberated from his father. Then I heard him laugh.

“That’s not very funny,” Mackie,” I said.

“Now don’t whine and complain, Ed,” he said. “You want to be a real hunter like me, you gotta learn to stay awake.”

We never did get a deer with the handguns. But that’s when I had my first little doubts about Mackie, and about the cowboy type in general. But I still loved him. Worshipped him, in fact. I was caught in the grip of the Western myth. Anybody said a word to me against cowboys, I’d jump down his throat with my spurs on. Especially if Mac was standing near by.

Sometimes I’d try to ride those broncs that he brought in, trying to prove that I could be a cowboy too. Trying to prove it more to myself than to him. I’d be on this crazy, crackpot horse going up, down left, right, and inside out. Hanging on to the saddle horn with both hands. While Mac sat on the corral fence throwing beer bottles at us and laughing. Every time I got thrown of, Mac would say, “Now get right back on there, Ed. Quick, quick. Don’t spoil ‘im.”

It took me a long time to realize I didn’t have to do that kind of work. And it took me another thirty years to realize that there’s something wrong at the heart of our most popular American myth-the cowboy and his cow.

[Jeers.]

You may have guessed by now that I’m thinking of criticizing the livestock industry. And you are correct. I’ve been thinking about cows and sheep for many years. Getting more and more disgusted with the whole business. Western cattlemen are nothing more than welfare parasites. They’ve been getting a free ride on the public lands for over a century, and I think it’s time we phased it out. I’m in favor or putting the public lands livestock grazers out of business.

First of all, we don’t need the public lands beef industry. Even beef loves don’t need it. According to most government reports (Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service), only about 2 percent of our beef, our red meat, comes from the public lands of the eleven Western states. By those eleven I mean Montana, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington, and California. Most of our beef, aside from imports, comes from the Midwest and the East, especially the Southeast-Georgia, Alabama, Florida- and from other private lands across the nation. More beef cattle are raised in the state of Georgia than in the sagebrush empire of Nevada. And for a very good reason: back East, you can support a cow on maybe half an acre. Out here, it takes anywhere from twenty-five to fifty acres. In the red-rock country of Utah, the rule of thumb is one section-a square mile-per cow.

[Shouts from rear of hall.]

Since such a small percentage of cows are produced on public lands in the West, eliminating that part of the industry should not raise supermarket beef privies very much. Furthermore, we’d save money in the taxes we now pay for various subsidies to these public lands cattlemen. Subsidies for things like “range improvement”-tree chinning, sagebrush clearing, mesquite poisoning, disease control, predator trapping, fencing, wells, stock ponds roads. Then there are the salaries of those who work for government agencies like the BLM and the Forest Service. You could probably also count in a big part of the overpaid professors engaged in range-management research at the Western land-grant colleges.

Moreover, the cattle have done, and are doing, intolerable damage to our public lands-our national forests, state lands, BLM-administered lands, wildlife preserves, even some of our national parks and monuments. In Utah’s Capital Reef National Park, for example, grazings is still allowed. In fact, it’s recently been extended for another ten years, and Utah politicians are trying to make the arrangement permanent. They probably won’t get away with it. But there we have at least one case where cattle are still tramping about in a national park, transforming soil and grass into dust and weeds.

[Disturbance]

Overgrazing is much too weak a term. Most of the public lands in the West, and especially in the Southwest, are what you might call “cowburnt.” Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of these ugly, clumsy, stupid, bawling, stinking, fly-covered, shit-smeared, disease-spreading brutes. They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows, and forests. They graze off the native bluestem and grama and bunch grasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cacti. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheat grass. Weeds.

Even when the cattle are not physically present, you’ll see the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. if you don’t see it, you’ll smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle. Along every flowing stream, around every seep and spring and water hole and well, you’ll find acres and acres of what range-management specialists call “sacrifice areas”-another understatement. These are places denuded of forage, except for some cactus or a little tumbleweed or maybe a few mutilated trees like mesquite, juniper, or hackberry.

I’m not going to bombard you with graphs and statistics, which don’t make much of an impression on intelligent people anyway. Anyone who goes beyond the city limits of almost any Western town can see for himself that the land is overgrazed. There are too many cows and horses and sheep out there. Of course, cattlemen would never publicly confess to overgrazing, any more than Dracula would publicly confess to a fondness for blood. Cattlemen are interested parties. Many of them will not give reliable testimony. Some have too much at stake: their Cadillacs and their airplanes, their ranch resale profits and their capital gains. (I’m talking about the corporation ranchers, the land-and-cattle companies, the investment syndicates.) Others, those ranchers who have only a small base property, flood the public lands with their cows. About 8 percent of federal land permittees have cattle that consume approximately 45 percent of the forage on the government range lands. Beef ranchers like to claim that their cows do not compete with deer. Deer are browsers, cows are grazers. That’s true. But when a range is overgrazed, when the grass is gone (as it often is for seasons at a time), then cattle become browsers too, out of necessity. In the Southwest, cattle commonly feed on mesquite cliff rose, cactus, acacia or any other shrub or tree they find biodegradable. To that extent, they compete with deer. And they tend to drive out other and better wildlife. Like elk, or bighorn sheep, or pronghorn antelope.

[Sneers, jeers, laughter.]

How much damage have cattle done to the Western range lands? Large scale beef ranching has been going on since the 1870s. There’s plenty of documentation of the effects of this massive cattle grazing on the erosion of the land, the character of the land, the character of the vegetation. Streams and rivers that used to flow on the surface all year round are now intermittent, or underground, because of overgrazing and rapid runoff.

Our public lands have been overgrazed for a century. The BLM knows it; the Forest Service knows it. The Government Accounting Office knows it. And overgrazing means eventual ruin, just like stripmining or clear-cutting or the damming of rivers. Much of the Southwest already looks like Mexico or southern Italy or North Africa: a cowburnt wasteland. As we destroy our land, we destroy our agricultural economy and thebasis of modern society. If we keep it up, we’ll gradually degrade American life to the status of life in places like Mexico or southern Italy or libya or Egypt. In 1984 the Bureau of Land Management, which was required by Congress to report on its stewardship of our rangelands-the property of all Americans, remember-confessed that 31 percent of the land it administered was is “good condition,” and 60 percent was in “poor condition.” And it reported that only 18 percent of the range lands were improving, while 68 percent were “stable” and 14 percent were getting worse. if the BLM said that, we can safely assume that range conditions are actually much worse.

[Shouts of “bullshit!”]

What can we do about this situation? This is the fun part- this is the part I like. It’s not easy to argue that we should do away with cattle ranching. The cowboy myth gets in the way. But I do have some solutions to overgrazing.

[A yell: “Cowboys do it better!” Answered by another: “Ask any cow!” Coarse laughter]

I’d begin by reducing the number of cattle on public lands. Not that range managers would go along with it, of course. In their eyes, and in the eyes of the livestock associations they work for, cutting down on the number of cattle is the worst possible solution -an impossible solution. So they propose all kinds of gimmicks. Portable fencing and perpetual movement of cattle. More cross-fencing. More wells and ponds so that more land can be exploited. These proposals are basically a maneuver by the Forest Service and the BLM to appease their critics without offending their real bosses in the beef industry. But a drastic reduction in cattle number is the only true and honest solution.

I also suggest that we open a hunting season on range cattle. I realize that beef cattle will not make sporting prey at first. Like all domesticated animals (including most humans), beef cattle are slow, stupid, and awkward. But the breed will improve if hunted regularly. And as the number of cattle is reduced, other and far more useful, beautiful, and interesting animals will return to the range lands and will increase.

Suppose, by some miracle of Hollywood or inheritance or good luck, I should acquire a respectable-sized working cattle outfit. What would I do with it? First I’d get rid of the stinking, filthy cattle. Every single animal. Shoot them all, and stock the place with real animals, real game, real protein: elk, buffalo, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, moose. And some purely decorative animals, like eagles. We need more eagles. And wolves we need more wolves. Mountain lions and bears. Especially, of course, grizzly bears. Down in the desert, I would stock every water tank, every water hole, every stockpond, with alligators.

You may not that I have said little about coyotes or deer. Coyotes seem to be doing all right on their own. They’re smarter than their enemies. I’ve never heard of a coyote as dumb as a sheepman. As for deer, especially mule deer, they, too, are survivng-maybe even thriving, as some game and fish departments claim, though nobody claims there are as many deer now as there were before the cattle industry was introduced in the West. In any case, compared to elk the deer is a second-rate game animal, nothing but a giant rodent-a rat with antlers.

[Portions of the audience begin to leave.]

I’ve suggested that the beef industry’s abuse of our Western lands is based on the old mythology of the cowbo as a natural nobleman. I’d like to conclude this diatribe with a few remarks about this most cherished and fanciful of American fairy tales. In truth, the cowboy is only a hired hand. A farm boy in leather britches and a comical hat. A herdsman who gets on a horse to do part of his work. Some ranchers are also cowboys, but most are not. There is a difference.

There are many ranchers out there who are big time farmers of the public lands-our property. As such, they do not merit any special consideration or special privileges. There are only about 31,000 ranchers in the whole American West who use the public lands. That’s less than the population of Missoula, Montana. The rancher (with a few honorable exceptions) is a man who strings barbed wire all over the range; drills wells and bulldozes stockponds; drives off elk and antelope and bighorn sheep; poisons coyotes and prairie dogs; shoots eagles, bears and cougars on sight; supplants the native grasses with tumbleweed, snakeweed, povertyweed, cowshit, anthills, mud, dust, and flies. And then leans back and grins at the TV cameras and talks about how much he loves the American West. Cowboys also are greatly overrated. Consider the nature of their work. Suppose you had to spend most of your working hours sitting on a horse, contemplating the hind end of a cow. How would that affect your imagination? Think what id does to the relatively simple mind of the average peasant boy, raised amid the bawling of calves and cows in the splatter of mud and the stink of shit.

[Shouting. Laughter. Disturbance.]

Do cowboys work hard? Sometimes. But most ranchers don’t work very hard. They have a lot of leisure time for politics and bellyaching (which is why most state legislatures in the West are occupied and dominated by cattlemen). Any time you go into a small Western town you’ll find them at the nearest drugstore, sitting around all morning drinking coffee, talking about their tax breaks.

Is a cowboy’s work socially useful? No. As I’ve already pointed out, subsidized Western range beef is a trivial item in the national beef economy. If all of our 31,000 Western public-land ranchers quite tomorrow, we’d never even notice. Any public school teacher does harder work, more difficult work, more dangerous work, and far more valuable work than the cowboy or the rancher. The same applies to the registered nurses and nurses’ aides, garbage workers, and traffic cops. Harder work, tougher work, more necessary work. We need those people in our complicated society. We do not need cowboys or ranchers. We’ve carried them on our backs long enough.

[Disturbance in rear of hall.]

“This Abbey,” the cowboys and their lovers will say, “this Abbey is a wimp. A chicken-hearted sentimentalist with no feel for the hard realities of practical life.” Especially critical of my attitude will be the Easterners and Midwesterners newly arrived here from their Upper West Side apartments, their rustic lodges in upper Michigan. Our nouveau Westerners with their toy ranches, their pickup trucks with the gun racks, their pointy-toed boots with the undershot heels, their gigantic hats. And of course, their pet horses. The instant rednecks.

To those who might accuse me of wimpery and sentimentality, I’d like to say this in reply. I respect real men. I admire true manliness. But I despise arrogance and brutality and bullies. So let me close with some nice remarks about cowboys and cattle ranchers. They are a mixed lot, like the rest of us. As individuals, they range from the bad to the ordinary to the good. A rancher, after all, is only a farmer, cropping the public range lands with his four-legged lawnmowers, stashing our grass into his bank account. A cowboy is a hired hand trying to make an honest living. Nothin special. I have no quarrel with these people as fellow human. All I want to do is get their cows off our property. Let those cowboys andranchers find some harder way to make a living, like the rest of us have to do. There’s no good reason why we should subsidize them forever. They’ve had their free ride. It’s time they learned to support themselves. In the meantime, I’m going to say good-bye to all you cowboys and cowgirls. I love the legend too-but keep your sacred cows and your dead horses out of my elk pastures.

[Sitting ovation. Gunfire in parking lot.]

All of this information was taken from One Life at a Time, Please which was written by Edward Abbey and published by Henry Holt and Company, Inc., in 1988.

This text came my way via a facebook friend of a facebook friend who lives in the SouthWest. I lifted the text wholesale from an angelfire site.

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