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Tuesday, 3 May 2011


It was quite a sight, I dare say.  There I was, pushing a large, wood-framed wheelbarrow around the open range and pouncing gleefully on every decent sized cow turd I could find. Add a flat tyre to the barrow, scatter a few hail flurries about me, throw in the curious buzzard that swooped low over my head, twice – no, I don’t think he could quite believe what he was seeing either - and you have the kind of opening tableau that only a film director such as Wim Wenders could have dreamed up.

It’s the gardening. That’s what it’s about. It was the kind of morning – sunny, cool, breezy, the sky dotted with puffy white clouds - that makes a guy want to do… something. Well, I’d bought the seeds, and Matt said he had chicken-wire up at his workshop – so let’s go.

I worked up quite a thirst marking out my little plot, digging those first few rows with a trenching spade, gathering six barrow-loads of cow-chips and digging that in. If I keep up this pace I’ll have the plot pretty well prepared by the end of the week – just in time for the arrival of the next lot of hunters, and my buddy Chainsaw Phil, who’s flying in from the UK next Tuesday. So we have a picture of the plot marked out, another of my first row of digging. I’ve also put up a shot of the buzzard, and a view of the ranch house, looking across the range as one of those showers sweeps in. You can see what a wintry landscape it still is; but it’ll change – soon, and quickly, I think.

As I said, I worked up a thirst – which I satisfied with a cool glass of Fat Tire, sitting in the afternoon sunlight as the greeny-yellow finches (I think that’s what they are) darted about the trees pecking insects from under the bark. There are still no leaves to be seen, but quite a bit of blossom about to burst into life.

It may be, of course, that I fail at this gardening caper. It may be that the cattle, or the deer, or the squirrels, or some other crittur – the grasshoppers, perhaps – will get my crops before I do, but this is a chance to do what I’ve long wanted to do: grow a few vegetables in a hot climate. Rapid results. According to the packets – of beetroot, French beans, zucchini, lettuce and tomato – I should be harvesting within 45 to 55 days of sowing. We shall see.

I have continued with the Bartlett Richards story. Of course, it’s been put together by his son, so it is partisan. Well, fair enough. Other people have written him up from a hostile perspective, and described him as what my grandmother would have called a double-dyed villain. (It was an expression she loved to use of my brother, the one in Kentucky, who turned out to be a preacher – and sold used cars until Obama’s ‘cash for clunkers’ scheme put him and most other low-end dealers out of business.)

The book contains a number of Richards’ letters. Those to his family reveal a tender, loving and deeply serious man. Those relating to his business and his calling as a cattleman put a lot of things in perspective for me. What I had never considered, for example, is the extent to which the fencing of the open range – of what was still Government land – was less about appropriation of resources and more about good  management. No settler, no homesteader, was remotely interested in the sandhills when Bartlett established the Spade Ranch. The area simply wasn’t considered cultivable, and 160 acres of sand would never feed a family.

Until the mid-1880s cattlemen had got away with a rough-and-ready open range system. Hell, the cattle were mostly free anyway, driven up from Texas where they’d run wild since the Spanish incursions in the sixteenth century. Turn them loose on the open range, round `em up, fatten `em and ship `em east. Easy money.

Then came the devastating winter of 1886-87 when a huge percentage of stock was simply starved or frozen to death. Now the cattleman looked to fence off areas of range, keep the cattle off it during the growing season so that they would have winter grazing. They would fence off hay meadows too, and plough up strips of land as firebreaks. For the first time, they tried to manage the land, improve their herds, conserve the grass. And that required fences, even though they were against the law. But the point was, out west the law turned a blind eye. Well managed ranches such as Bartlett’s brought prosperity, trade, business, money. Why would the law question what everyone saw as commonsense practice on land that was no good for any other purpose? Wasn’t it all a lot of fuss stirred up by eastern politicians clinging to Jefferson’s agrarian dream.

Well, I have 70 more pages to read, and poor old Bartlett is going to go to jail and die….

More digging to be done this morning, and more cow chips to be gathered – but only after I’ve got some air in that tyre (tire).

1 comment:

  1. Hi Alan, I hope you read these comments, because I have a surprise for you , I think!
    I was chatting with my dearest friend, Faye and I told her about our flight from Amsterdam and how much fun the visiting was and what an interesting man you are. One thing led to another and she has dear friends in your neighborhood. I showed her your Blog and she will start reading it. I told her it was very addictive,and great fun too.
    I hope you don't mind that I gave her your email. I know she won't be abusing it, but her friends have a long history in the area. Might be of interest to you.
    Well that's my big news and I had fun reading yours. Stay well and good luck with your garden.
    Oh by the way, Faye is a wonderful gardener and might be of help if you have any question :-) Daisy


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