Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Gathering Remnants: A Photo Essay

               When my English 102 class was given the assignment of writing a photo analysis, it would have been easy to go with the option that was presented as a default within the syllabus and write about the urban squalor depicted in the photography of Linh Dinh.  His work tells a story, and while Boise, Idaho is a far cry from Baltimore or “Killedelphia,” the time I spent living on the streets makes me feel like it is partially my story.  Viewing the pictures at the start of the semester, I had found myself looking forward to this assignment specifically because of those photos.  In the end, though, it just didn’t feel right.  Sleeping outside, digging in dumpsters for food, and asking strangers for change is part of my story, but a small one.  I have been a husband, a father, a college student, and a janitor among many other things, but before all of that, the bulk of my life was spent being a ranch kid. 
                That is why I was drawn to the work of Kendall Nelson.  Her 2000 book Gathering Remnants-a Tribute to the Working Cowboy set out to highlight a dying way of life, the cowboy on small scale ranches throughout the West.  While Linh Dinh’s views of homelessness felt like my story, Nelson’s photos literally are my story.  The Jackson family—my parent’s employers—figure prominently in her book.  In the 2005 documentary of the same name, my father can be seen working in the background as Ruth Jackson tells the cameraman about life on the ranch. 
                Nelson’s lens viewed the ranch experience as an outsider; she had come from California to Idaho because she liked the skiing, and only started researching ranching when attempts to film commercials in Idaho proved fruitless.  I too, see these pictures with the eye of an outsider, but of a completely different nature.  While she was a stranger, I was on the periphery.  My parents aren’t cowboys.  My dad is your run of the mill ranch hand, fixing fences, driving tractors, and doing odd jobs.  My mom is the ranch cook.  Nelson sees things reverently, as if in a living museum.  She is chronicling the death of a way of life.  My own feelings are a bit more complicated.

               This first picture is my favorite of the bunch.  It shows a cowboy pressed up against a fence, shielding himself from the snow.  Even looking at this still image I can feel the cold.  Winter on a ranch isn’t like winter in the city.  There aren’t enough buildings to tame the wind.  It cuts right through you.  The rough wooden fence has been exposed to temperatures below freezing, probably for days, and still the cowboy huddles up against it—this frigid piece of wood is still warmer than the ranch air in the winter.  On the ranch, the cowboys are at the complete mercy of the elements. There are no snow days when the herd needs fed.  You just bundle up as best as you can and tell the cook to keep the coffee ready.  I will never know exactly what it is like to be a cowboy, but I know this cold.  I know being sent to the barn to run water into the troughs and having the hair in my nose freeze before I got five feet from my front door, and icy blasts of air so strong that the heaviest coat feels like a jacket.  Nelson’s image displays this perfectly; you just have to look at him to know that the weather has become a literal manifestation of despair. 
                The same openness that makes winter such an oppressive force on ranches also creates what might be their biggest asset.  There is nothing quite like the sky on a ranch.  While Nelson is primarily focused on the story—a cow boss trying to catch the best horses he can for his men—her camera captures the back story perfectly.  A cloud drifts into the wide open sky, a patchwork of light and shadow.  It is not clearly a storm cloud, and yet it isn’t clear—will they be able to work at a steady pace today, or will the cowboys be fighting the elements to get their work done?  No matter the time of day or the season, to look at the sky on a ranch is to know wonder.  Nelson thinks of the cowboys themselves as the dying object of nostalgia, but it is the ranch whose absence I fear.  There aren’t many habitable places left where one can look to the sky and see it stretch for miles, unblemished.  Riddle—the ranch where I grew up—has recently allowed companies to build towers so that they might have cell phone reception.  Generators are being replaced with power lines.  Look at the picture above and imagine wooden poles extending from the ground, linked by wires.  Somehow, without the magnificence of an untainted sky, the story of the cowboy and his horses loses most of its meaning. 
                Here we have the prototypical ranch family.  These aren’t my parent’s employers, but they may as well be.  Peter Jackson has the same moustache.  Ruth wears the same clothes.  The children match, down to the disinterested expression.  Even the dogs look like our ranch dogs; it’s odd how life in the middle of nowhere can create the same monotone look on people, places, and things.  Everything is coated with a layer of dust that washes out color.  It really takes a special sort of person to choose this life, where nothing comes easily.  Unlike companies where the CEOs are so far removed from the work their businesses do, the ranch boss typically works side by side with the other cowboys to rope and brand cattle, drive the herd, and do many of the other daily tasks required.  These aren’t struggling outfits either, at least not all of them.  While the average cowboy doesn’t make much money (agriculture is exempt from the rules of minimum wage,) the Jacksons and many of their peers are quite wealthy.  They could spend one week out at cow camp without running water or electricity, and the next at a thousand-dollar a plate fundraiser for whichever conservative politician seemed to give the most credence to agriculture.  It’s a mindset that few people have.  I sure didn’t. 
                Again I look at one of Nelson’s pictures and see the story behind the story.  The cowboys and their herd may as well not be here; some of the most vivid memories of my childhood are of sagebrush (which is nearly as ubiquitous as asphalt in the city) and dust.  Growing up on a ranch you get used to the taste of dust.  Even as a child at play, it was everywhere.  The wind stirred it up in the summer just as it drove home winter’s cold.  Trucks and tractors filled the air with it.  Everything is so dry and barren that the dirt itself almost seems eager to leave the ground.  I can only imagine what it must be like to go on a cattle drive, with a hundred head of cattle kicking up a constant cloud of the stuff.  Whenever it was particularly windy, we would get dust devils—little baby tornadoes—which my neighbor and I would try to hit head on with our bikes.  Just a few seconds exposure would leave us filthy.  To sit in that air for hours, breathing in soil until your mouth and nose are caked with grit—I doubt many city people could handle it.  The ranch life is a thing of beauty; the wide open sky, the fresh air still untainted by pollution, the profound silences—these are little miracles that cannot be bought.  But they have to be fought for, and life has conditioned us not to fight.  Some people, my father among them, are willing to see their skin turn to leather under the heat of the sun, and work from before the sun comes up to long after it sets every day of the week just for the ability to see a baby deer and its mother drinking from a stream at dawn, to look to the heavens each night and see every constellation.  But it isn’t easy. 
                This man, a Texas cowboy, is a perfect reflection of what I am talking about.  The photographer does a good job of letting his hands tell the story.  You don’t get hands like that working in an air-conditioned office.  You have to go to battle with the elements.  Without even seeing the rider’s face, you can tell that he is a living embodiment of the word “weathered.”  His hands, his coat, and his lasso are all creased and faded, the result of giving his body to the ranch year after year.  Cowboys have no retirement plan, and most of them are paid poorly—when this man’s body goes he will likely be left with nothing except his stories.  So, what keeps him returning to the ranch?  I think he knows that those stories, gained in a life unfettered with the constant chase for material things, are worth a little bit more.  He may be hot or cold, tired, sore, and worn to the bone, but he has lived more in a day than most do in a week. 

                And so finally we arrive at cow camp.  Cow camp is a place off in the wilderness where cows are branded, and the young male calves are separated into bulls and steers.  It is usually held far from the ranch proper, so that the alfalfa fields and other areas are not destroyed by the collective mass of the whole herd, which is rarely gathered together at the same time, spending most of the year divided into different feeding areas.  This is where I feel most like an outsider; I have never actually been to a cow camp while it was up and running.  The cowboys cook for themselves over the fire, just like in older times.  They keep only each other’s company.  I get the feeling that as much as they might claim cow camp is to keep the animals from overrunning things; it is also kept as a traditional bonding experience.  Cowboys are always a class above the other workers on a ranch, whether they are cook or mechanic, but cow camp gives them a chance to truly connect in a way that none of the other workers do, because they actually live together.  This photo, however, doesn’t convey the bonding that will happen later around a fire.  It is a final reflection on the quiet that still exists in the world.  As I write this, in addition to the clacking of my keyboard, I can hear cars moving up and down the street, the hum of electricity (all the appliances performing in stereo,) and a far off TV.  The cowboy pictured hears none of those errata.  There are the sounds being generated by whatever it is he is working on, and then just nature itself.  A slight breeze, perhaps, or an insect going about its own work; the clamor and clatter that pervades city life is mercifully silent. 
                I left the ranch for a variety of reasons.  There aren’t many opportunities to date in the middle of nowhere, and my teenage hormones were racing much too fast to spend my days in the company of leather-skinned men, chain smoking cigarettes over pitch-black coffee.  I don’t function well in the early morning, and I burn easily in the summer, neither of which jibes with the hard life these men and women have chosen.  I never wanted to be a cowboy, and I don’t feel nostalgia for the riders themselves, but these pictures bring out a much deeper sorrow for me than the passing of a way of life.  It is the open spaces themselves that are dying.  Already the owners are cutting deals to bring big city utilities out to the desert.  The house of my childhood home sports a satellite dish, and while the deer still come to drink from the same pond they always have they are sometimes obscured behind the flood of three hundred channels (some in HD!) that now stream into the house.  As our global population continues to surge, places of solitude—whether they are home to cowboy or camper—will gradually disappear.  These pictures are a reminder to me to appreciate still moments, and the smell of sagebrush that fills the air after a rain; to admire animals living their lives undisturbed by cities and fully experience the power of the elements.  I’ve built a nice life in the city, with a comfortable home, a loving family, geeky friends, and all the portable electronics I could ever need, but Kendall Nelson’s photos are a call to remember the magnificence of the world outside the walls we have built to keep us safe from each other.