Home on the range: separated at birth?

Dead Eagle Trail, by Jane Hilton, front cover. Schilt Publishing, Amsterdam.

By Bob Hicks

Scatter friends Karen and John got home a few weekends ago from Hells Canyon Mule Days in Enterprise, in the Wallowa Valley of far eastern Oregon, and it got us to thinking about the big wide stretches and the places in America where work is still manual and landbound and practical in a vastly different and more elemental way than the workaday practicalities of living an ordinary urban life.

Heart of a Shepherd, by Rosanne Parry, front cover. Random House.It was the thirtieth anniversary of Mule Days, and Mr. Scatter, who was on the spot for last year’s festivities, which he wrote about here and here, was sorry to miss the big blowout. Of course, with about 1,800 people (plus another 1,000 or so just up the road in Joseph) Enterprise is a giddy metropolis compared to the landscapes of two books we’ve been pondering lately — British photographer Jane Hilton‘s Dead Eagle Trail and Portland area novelist Rosanne Parry‘s Heart of a Shepherd. Both books take imaginative looks at territories where the high lonesome is not just a fact but also, often, a comfort of life. And don’t these two cowboys just look like they’re cut from the same cloth?

Technically, they’re not both cowboys. The gentleman in the top picture, Ron Redford of Benjamin, Texas, is. Brother, the 12-year-old hero of Parry’s novel (he’s depicted on the cover by artist Jonathan Barkat) is the youngest son in a sheep ranching clan. Call them both ranch hands, then. And, yes, cattlemen and sheep people have had their spats over the years: What would Hollywood have done decades ago without the range wars to keep its Saturday afternoon box offices clicking? But these books are about what sparse-country people have in common. And indirectly, they’re about how the lives of such iconically American figures are so utterly different, more and more, from the lives that most of us lead.

Or are they?

Artists have a way of finding affinities, making connections, and at a time when political hucksters are priming the pump for a new civil war and the whole country seems obsessed with the battle of red and blue, these two books patiently reach across the great divide. Hilton’s photographs for Dead Eagle Trail certainly have their romantic aspects — considering the cowboy’s crucial role in American mythology, it’s tough to shake that — but many of her best portraits concentrate on the domestic side of life on the range. Her cowboys are from the hard dry  country — Wyoming, Arizona, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, Nevada — and mostly from the lonelier corners of those largely lonely states. Sometimes we see the country itself, and in one picture, at Ute Mountain, Colorado, her people gather at a fresh-dug grave. But mostly she shoots her cowboys at home, in their mostly neatly trimmed domestic surroundings, and often enough in their bedrooms. To get a fresh look at this life it might help to have an outsider’s eye, and not just outside the rangeland but outside of the United States itself: an English film director, Michael Apted, sidestepped all the cliches about country music and Appalachian life when he created Coal Miner’s Daughter, one of the best movies about American country life ever made. Dead Eagle Trail isn’t on that breakthrough level, but by concentrating on the cowboys’ private lives — the beds they own, the books and artworks that they keep, the trophies on their walls, their cats and dogs, their rugged work boots and beautifully tooled dress boots, their chess boards and barbecues and potted plants — it creates a quilted portrait of working people at rest, and suggests that, while the particulars of style and preference may vary, in the desires and possessions of their interior landscapes they’re not so different from anyone else. Sometimes Hilton’s subjects create their own romanticized settings, posing square-jawed with their rifles close at hand. More often they’re just there, in the places they’ve built for themselves, their own little corners of comfort and beauty. After a while the photos begin to lose any sense of the exotic and become, simply, scenes from a kind of life.

You could say the same for Parry’s Heart of a Shepherd, a short, sweet, and deeply moving novel published ostensibly for the juvenile market. A good juvenile or young-adult novel, of course, is simply a good novel, open to readers of any age, and Heart of a Shepherd is precisely that. Set in the sheep country of Oregon’s Malheur County, in one sense it’s almost a prototype Red State story. A self-sufficient family in a closeknit community of individualists, a family tradition of serving in the military, a clan of deep religious faith and love for the land, the example of a father who deploys to Iraq and leaves the care of the ranch to a boy and an old man. There’s even the potential hot button of the missing mother, an artist who couldn’t take the tough demands of ranch life and so scarpered off to Rome, presumably so she could indulge in the shallow pleasures of self-expression: Why, it’s enough to give an ordinary blue-city urban liberal a case of the heebie jeebies.

But those things are only where the story begins. No matter where they are, people find themselves in situations. How, then, do they respond to them? Heart of a Shepherd is about how an innately “conservative” (Mr. Scatter prefers the word “traditional”) family deals with situations that are largely outside of its control, and with the reservoirs of emotion and intelligence that in dangerous circumstances allow for equilibrium and growth. Like all large families, Brother’s is awash in surprise and contradiction. It’s a deeply literate family, and despite its military leanings a family whose patriarch, the grandfather, is a Quaker and a committed pacifist. There are beliefs here, but no stereotypes. These are the people that comfortable urban liberals so often dismiss as reactionary nitwits, and that shoe just doesn’t fit. No wonder the people of the small towns and empty spaces resent the cities so much. Parry’s gift is to reveal both the uniqueness and the generality of Brother’s life. No matter who or where we might be, Brother could be us.

Mr. Scatter is himself a small-town boy by birth and upbringing, although he’s lived his entire adult life in cities. He is still drawn to small places, even though he feels himself a stranger in the midst of familiarity when he visits them. Although he was a townie, he grew up among farmers and fisherfolk and loggers, and he knows a little about the rural life — enough to know he’s not cut out for it, but also enough to respect it. Mr. Scatter is a physically clumsy fellow by nature (his farm friends used to invite him to squeeze a cow’s udder when they were milking, then laugh uproariously when he could barely produce a spray), and in the city that makes so little difference that he is rarely aware of it. In the country, where head work and hand work are essential partners, clumsiness is a serious handicap. Isolation is another problem. Mr. Scatter needs to get out and around people at least once a day, even if it’s only to the crowded isolation of a coffee shop, where the simple presence of other people fills him and affects him like a balm. How could he do that living on a ranch? How could he avail himself of the theater, music, opera, galleries, museums that are so much a part of his urban life? What would he do without his branch library and the aisle after aisle of beckoning possibilities in Powell’s City of Books?

Mr. Scatter knows other country and small-town kids who escaped to the city and never want to look back. Kids who were gay, for instance, or too intellectual, or the “wrong” race or religion, and remember being ostracized. Small places can be narrow places, and you can’t blame a person for being bitter when he’s been squeezed out. The city allowed Mr. Scatter to breathe more freely, too: He required its opportunity and anonymity. He is a committed urbanite. Still, he loves to visit the beyond places, even though he made a choice in life and understands that he can no longer truly be a part of them.

But he understands that in many crucial ways the difference between urban and rural is much smaller than it looks from either side of the divide. And he believes that the propagandists pushing the angry split between “Real” America and the liberal coastal cities are both cynical and dangerous: right now there are more scalawags on the right end of the political spectrum than the left. He also believes that urban progressives often play into the scalawags’ hands by refusing to recognize that conservative people often have legitimate reasons for being conservative.

When he goes into the countryside, Mr. Scatter tries to understand why it is that so many people in wide-open America loathe and mistrust the cities, and at the same time tend to be unblinkingly patriotic, in the love-it-or-leave-it, join-the-Army-and-serve-your-country sense. (In the same vein, he wonders why so many American Indians, who have such deep historical reason to despise the American government, are also so deeply patriotic and eager for military service.) The land, surely, has something to do with it. In the country, people have a profound closeness to the land, a binding almost closer than love. It’s something that most urbanites simply can’t understand — they are comfortable, more or less, with a fluid international economy — but in the minds of the people who live on and close to it, the land is America. Why wouldn’t they fight for it? To Mr. Scatter, who believes to the core of his soul that the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are catastrophic betrayals of what America ought to be, this is a profound question, and it requires an open, honest, serious discussion, beyond accusations and sound bites.

It’s easy to cite differences that may actually be true. Yes, the urbanites of Portland and the Willamette Valley subsidize the people of the “other” Oregon with their tax payments, getting back less than they put in so the state can underwrite infrastructure in the empty spaces. Yes, the federal government underwrites ranch and farming life in the form of cheap grazing fees and other supplements: the rugged individualists aren’t as self-sufficient as they think, and they rely for their well-being on the largesse, forced or otherwise, of the people in the cities whose soft and profligate ways they so often mistrust. Yes, the empty spaces tend to misunderstand the complexity and expense of providing for the needs of the multiplicity of cheek-by-jowl interests and cultures in a modern urban setting, just as urban places discount or ignore the very real economic challenges of the forgotten places. Yes, people in the cities often view the countryside as a recreational playground rather than recognizing it as a place where people live and work. Yes, people in the cities vote to spend tax money on things that country people think are wasteful and irrelevant. Yes, people in the cities can be smug and arrogant about the outlands.

Mr. Scatter believes that some of these differences are real and some are illusionary. He believes that city and country and wilderness are more tightly bound than most of us realize. He thinks that on some issues, large and small places must simply agree to disagree: for instance, urban and rural communities will probably never see eye to eye on the volatile issues of conservation and environmental restriction. (He also believes that the very language of Red and Blue encourages a falsely antagonistic view of the national character, illegitimately throwing entire communities into camps they might not actually fit. If a county goes “Red” by a landslide 60 to 40 percent, it still means that four out of ten voters went “Blue,” and you might be surprised at some of the things those other six think, too.) And he believes, as the national congress enters a partisan loggerheads and the Oregon House goes into its newest session with an even split, that the time is ripe to get past the sniping and nattering and actually begin listening. Who are you? What do you believe? What do you want? Political civility begins with a culture of listening; and listening, if nothing else, will let us know where everyone actually stands, which is a good deal better than what we’re dealing with now, when extreme and cynical partisans presume to define what everyone knows and thinks. We can be better connected than that.

Only connect, E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End, and that is one of the crucial roles that artists play. Artists speak across boundaries. They explain realities and challenge perceived wisdom. Sometimes they howl. Sometimes they blow things up. But they don’t always have to shout. They can take pictures and show us how other people live. They can write a single boy’s life in a particular place and circumstance. They can open conversations that had been shut. Yes, we seem to have been somehow separated at birth. But is that the end of the story?



  • Dead Eagle Trail, by Jane Hilton, front cover. Schilt Publishing, Amsterdam.
  • Heart of a Shepherd, by Rosanne Parry, front cover. Random House.