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.
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.