Press "Enter" to skip to content


Red canyon walls ended abruptly. I stepped over sagging barbed wire into aspens and cottonwoods and came to a house in a clearing and a new corral made of freshly milled planks set on squared-off posts that had been treated with pentachlorophenol. A sorrel and two bays stood in the hot stink of the penta, looking me over. A raggedy, newly-planted lawn glowed like fresh paint on mud. An irrigation ditch diverted some of the canyon's lively creek to a hay field where a man was working with a shovel, irrigating. At the fence near him, a motorbike.

I stopped in shade for a while, ate a sandwich and then went down the driveway to the county road. The irrigator noticed me, hurried to his bike and fired it up. We met at my pickup where he accused me of sneaking onto his place and then hiding. I explained that it had been necessary to cross his property line in order to ask permission to cross. Funny, eh? No, not funny. He lectured me. Maybe it was different back east — he'd noticed my New York plates — but out here in the west, property rights are taken seriously. I told him Wyoming was my home state and I understood all of that very well.

He as much as called me a liar. I shut up and looked away. He cooled a bit, shifted his anger to hunters, complained about the never-ending task of defending a small, private holding in a sea of public (Bureau of Land Management) land. We settled down to ordinary talk. I learned that the winter had been late in leaving, had been followed by drought; the alfalfa would be hardly worth cutting; too late to do much about that, not enough time for anything; life a constant commuting between town work that produced the real revenue, and the ranch. His wife held down a regular job too, and had her own pet project that took up too much of her time.

I drove away feeling sad. This man and woman, I wanted them to be getting a grand kick out of their privileged place. I wanted to imagine them saddling horses for a ride into wild mountains on the east, or the rough desert in all other directions. I wanted them to show off the place to friends, or even a casual drop-in. Tree shade and sounds of dashing water, aromas of cottonwood and aspen and sage, moon rising over redrock canyon. Get rid of those penta posts, quit trying to make a lawn in the desert. Enjoy!

Another day, another cattle range, I walked a fenceline, trying to identify sparrow-like birds that were using fence posts as launching pads for forays against aerial insects. Returning, I met the rancher and confessed to trespass and birdwatching. Showing not the slightest resentment, or interest, he went into standard spiel against government and environmentalists. Also, prairie dogs — they were the ones responsible for overgrazing the range. I learned that he lived somewhere else, spent the winter in the sunbelt. Whether owner or renter, that rancher's identification with the land was minimal and his rant wasn't doing him much good.

Hey, is anybody happy out there? Anybody at home on the range?

Some public lands are hard to get to, sometimes impossible unless you cross private holdings. I look at those places longingly, sometimes I cross. One July day, west of Independence Rock, I decided to not drive the gravel roads to find the nearest ranch headquarters for access permission, because the sun was way past noon, I didn't want to get caught in strange terrain after dark. I walked a mile or so of livestock grazing to cross a broken-down boundary fence. The country rose, opening reluctantly, turning complex: heavy brush and a style of rock outcrop that was monumental and unfamiliar. I found a stain of water on sun-glazed rock, and a pool that gathered that water in a slow faint dripping and that pool fed into another, partly shaded by rock overhang. The banks of those little oases were only inches wide, choked with mosses and low plants I didn't know the names of.

Higher up, more brush and a few trees in stone jumbles or deep crevices. I stayed for a while in water sounds that were so faint as to seem almost imagined. That's one kind, a soothing kind, of concentration. Another is the choosing of the next stretch of travel. Sometimes you get it wrong and backtrack and judge again. This way and that way, you gain and maybe reach a summit ridge, maybe not. You find things, a track, a stone whose shape or color makes you stop and pick it up, a curled, sun-bleached leaf. Traveling like that is addictive. Is it okay to take whatever means possible to satisfy the need? No. If trespass means trashing your way through somebody's crop, or antagonizing their animals, don't even ask the question. Back off. Each situation is different. All I'm saying is that "Sorry, Private Property" does not always end speculation, and sometimes you cross.

Remembering grand sweeps of privately held prairie lands in Chase County, Kansas, I wrote that trespassing was my favorite way of travel. That was a shade off true, because I wanted to toss a dart against bone deep reverence we're all supposed to feel toward property and its rites of fee simple and lawyerly priestliness. Timber beasts and real estate barons use that reverence in their backlash against environmental law that, if executed, would pay serious attention to the curvaceous lines of ecological domains as well as the rectilinear lines of human priority. Various evasions of the Endangered Species Act — well documented — are good models of how lines of property trump habitats of not only lowly snails and darters, but of more acceptable (respectable?) species such as lynxes, wolves and grizzlies.

Once upon a time I thought the solution was astoundingly simple: abolish all private property, hold everything in common. I actually believed that. Just goes to show, youthful enthusiasm easily trumps reality.

Reality, then, let's grab a handful: Look at how complicated it is, the spectrum of ownerships, at one extreme a family working and living on its bit of land — yes, there are still some of those — at the other extreme an absentee zillionaire using land as a counter in big dealings in big corporate games, or for tax dodge, trophy home, recreation, acting up in a big Stetson. And, as we all know, presidents and vice presidents play these games too.

Wendell Berry, one of our more prominent defenders of private land, believes in "authentic cultural adaptation to local homelands." One's title to a patch of homeland can nurture that authenticity, and a sense of stewardship. A "religious deference" toward the land, Berry calls it.

Question: Does every human outreaching beyond self have to be tagged religious? This pilgrim says no. Outreach is tough enough without having to carry extra baggage; it's good to travel light; whenever possible leave weighty abstractions behind.

Deference? Trouble there too, the word carries a strong whiff of patriarchal condescension, and so does stewardship. We're told that Genesis has been misinterpreted all these many years; a closer evaluation of the original texts showed that God set us up, not as dominators, but as stewards of all land and sea and all that dwell therein. Does that change anything, really? Same difference isn't it? It still puts the patriarchs up there as top dogs.

Berry writes as an "uneasy believer in the right of private property," holding that therein lies hope for "intimacy in the use of the land." There's a flaw here, an implication that ownership encompasses the entire realm of intimacy with land, with habitat. Consider a farm worker tending grapes, apples, stawberries on someone else's land; or a herder from Peru in the mountains of Nevada with someone else's sheep; or a communications tech, repairing and modifying corporate-owned poles, cables, wires, terminals. These jobs are steady presences, long-term dwellings on stubborn earth under changeable sky. Not that workers notice everything or even mull over every aspect of what happens, but neither do owners. I hope that somewhere in his writings Berry acknowledges that even a lifetime of authenticity can't possibly take account of all that is there, and all that has been. And 'varmentalists, priding ourselves on being so attentive in our careful wanderings, let's admit that we too move, of necessity, in a limited scope of awareness.

Lucky for us, though, being all of the same species, our experiences have overlaps.

Bruce Patterson, a logger in redwood country, speaks to this point. "Maybe the environmental activist who could best share a campfire with an old time redwood logger would be young Julia Butterfly. If spending two years perched in a redwood tree has made Ms. Butterfly a bit crazy then the old timer could sympathize with that. And whatever tales she could tell of having witnessed 'magic' in the woods the old timer could match with stories of his own."

In my small town we kids visited the back yards of saloons to collect beer bottle caps and we wandered fields and mountains, knowing whose buck fence or barbed wire we climbed over or ducked under. There were times when we damaged someone's oats or hay or barley, or tangled with their dogs or horses or cattle, and got called down for it, learning at first hand about property rights, but there was that other right, the roaming right. Last year I talked with one of those fellow roamers. He reported that one of our hideouts had been totally obliterated, replaced by upscale tourist traps. He has gained a calm acceptance, seems to be satisfied by nostalgia.

I'm not.

Big outfits taking charge of homelands, happening all the time, almost everywhere, trespass on a grand scale. Is that the way it's going to be, from now on, and on? Peter Matthiessen, in his new book, The Birds of Heaven, claims to see a change. "The corporate world that dictates policies to the Western governments appears to be coming to its senses." But no, sorry, there's very little sense to come to inside that world. Here we are, almost a year into the new terror regime and being treated to a steady diet of corporate crookedness on a scale most of us citizens have a hard time imagining, while energy conglomerates confidently eye the arctic coasts, the great plains of Wyoming, the mountains of Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Alberta, Afghanistan, Mexico, and medicine makers refuse to lower profits to help out in the struggles against AIDS. And that's just a sampling of what's going on, world-wide. Who are the true patriots? Rampaging corporations?

A little south of Muddy Gap, Wyoming there's a certain rugged valley bottom that you have to cross to reach public land. The place is overgrazed, cattle dominant, but those cattle are Longhorns, prone to get up quickly and gather and stare with serious interest and then take off for higher ground. Amazing, their long-legged loping dance, beyond the capabilities of stolid, beef-bound Herefords, Angus and the like. Wait, don't judge those breeds too quickly.

High desert country, late in the day, I'm looking for a prairie dog town. I come to a spanking new gateway with a big sign that names a land-and-cattle corporation. "Violators prosecuted to the full extent..." I drive through, looking for a place where I can ask permission, but there are no headquarters buildings, no home base. Chartered sageland rolls on and on, high rises and deep falls of land; there's a passing into a kind of loneliness you meet in wide open, unfenced country. I keep driving, needing that dog town. (Found one later, just off I-80, west of Rawlins). Cattle are there, Herefords, blocky and branded and quiet, but they're suspicious, been out here a long time on their own. Theirs is not the dull, stolid quietude you see in a meat-processing feedlot, they have attitude. They get up and turn to face me. One of them decides to take off, the others follow in that quirky gambol that is all their own, muscle action moving their hides that glow in sunset color, the sage in front of them seemingly endless, ownerships slipping away.

Once in a while I find boot tracks in snow or mud at the back end of "the property." I follow and get a sense of where they come from or where they're headed. Once the tracks were of a moose, a rare trespass. Sometimes fishers pass through, and coyotes and foxes. I doubt if those animals have a clue about owning the woods and fields. They live by scent and sight, hearing and touch, nerve and muscle.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.