Sunday, January 26, 2014

Badluck Way by Bryce Andrews

It feels a privilege to read this acutely observed and deeply felt memoir by a thoughtful, literate, conservation-minded ranch hand in southwest Montana. He worked the Sun Ranch in the upper Madison River Valley of southwestern Montana only one year but did enough thinking for far more than that. In his early twenties, Andrews had experience working summers on a ranch outside of Billings, Montana, and was ready when he saw an advertisement for a six-month position as a Grazing Coordinator and Livestock Manager at the Sun Ranch.

Sun Ranch was centered in an important wildlife corridor in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Wolves had been reintroduced to the area, and there were large populations of elk as well as grizzlies, lynx, mountain lion, and wolverines. The idea was to integrate ranching into a functional natural ecosystem.

I have mixed feelings about cattle ranching in the west and Andrews does, too: “Often, I was tempted to construe ranching as nothing more than a protracted act of violence.” The fences needed to manage cattle are barriers to free-ranging wild herds, and cattle, managed properly or not, can cause enormous damage to a fragile landscape. But Andrews allows us to consider all this while he shares with us reminiscences that hallow our history in the west: he was a cowboy in the modern day.
“Day followed wild day, and over time amounted to a process of seasonal change. Immersion in that constant cycling was the ranch hand’s highest privilege.”

Wolves play an important part in this narrative. Since reintroduction, they had settled in the Madison River Valley, and one pack in particular, The Wedge Pack, lived above the ranch.
”The Wedge Pack, like most others, was a family unit centered on a single breeding pair. Aerial surveys had reported that two consecutive litters of pups had been successfully raised in the foothills and steep valleys behind the Sun…The ranch had been lucky last year. The wolves had stuck to killing elk, and the cattle had come home fat at the end of the summer.”

But the summer of 2006 was different, and the wolves changed up their diet to include Angus beef rather than just elk. Damage to the herd was responded to in the time-honored way: with a rifle. The revenge-killing of an alpha male wolf seemed to cut both ways for Andrews. Concerned with preservation of the wilderness and wildness of the area, he deplored the necessity of killing the predators in the ecosystem but recognized the necessity for it. “Like the Wedge Pack, we did our best to make a living from a hard place.”

Andrews is a wild thing also, like those wolves he talks about.
”Every night, at or after sunset, I ran the benches and hills of the Sun Ranch. I’ll admit I was looking for trouble. When I saw deer or elk from a long way off, I tried to sneak up on them. Using the features of the land—little dips and swales I had never noticed before—I did my best to get close.

It was wicked, feral fun. I drew near herds of deer, elk, and antelope, sometimes crawling on my hands and knees to stay hidden in the sage and grass. When the animals saw or smelled me, I sprinted toward them, scattering them to the horizon. They always left me in the dust, alone and smiling under a many-colored sky.

I chased everything I could—coyotes, jackrabbits, and a badger who unexpectedly turned to fight. Once, in a moment of extremely poor judgment, I ran a black bear up Moose Creek and then looked over my shoulder all the way back down. There was never any malice in it, only simple joy. I loved to feel the wind, lay claim to my landscape by crossing it, and watch the deer outpace me before disappearing in the rising night.”

Andrews managed to find a job that ordered the priorities in his life: he could be in places and do things he really enjoyed and that matter to him and the larger world. He stepped away from the noise of our everyday lives to observe, think, and write. “I am living at the center of my heart’s geography.” We are lucky he took the time to share his findings and remind us of cowboys and the wildlife corridors left in our hearts.

Marcie Stillman conducts a KUOW radio interview with Bryce Andrews that allows us to understand his motivations: “I was my best self when I was working out-of-doors.” “That landscape had beauty and brutality as its two defining qualities.”

The publisher's website has two short videos of Bryce Andrews talking about his work and his reading. I received a galley of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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