16 July 2008: The New West: Cowboy, miner, farmer still an essential part

The New West: Cowboy, farmer rancher still an essential aspect

The National Geographic channel recently aired a program that surveyed Earth’s future in a hypothetical scenario in which humans suddenly disappear. By not getting into the cause of our demise, the writers were able to keep the focus on Earth herself rather than on the plight of humanity.

A first consequence of our demise would be lethal for caged and domesticated pets and farm animals. Soon would follow the inevitable meltdowns of fission rods at nuclear power plants, leading to catastrophic explosions that would rain terror down on the rest of Earth’s denizens.

In time though, Earth, as she has done for billions of years, would absorb all of the
fallout. Within a few months, man’s footprint would begin to disappear, ever so slightly.

Some evidences would take hundreds of years to fade if at all: The granite portion of the base of the Statue of Liberty would survive for eons, but Lady Liberty herself, given her copper skin and iron skeleton, would give way to the forces of nature, much like what she has symbolized for over a century has given way to the force of George W. Bush.

In a thought-provoking piece published in the High Country News and Denver Post, Jeffrey Lockwood, a professor of natural sciences and humanities at the University of Wyoming, talks about the Cowboy Myth. He defends it. He draws upon the archetypal cowboy from Louie L’Amour’s novels, Conagher, to support his premise that the cowboy is symbolic of the hero taking on the good guys.

He cites a passage from the story to describe the hero’s angst about whether to stand up for the rights of others or to walk away. In so doing however, Lockwood defines the cowboy as the Sir Galahad of the American West, a knight in shining armor in the vintage of King Arthur’s boys who gallivanted around to insure that right, not might, wins.

While that gets at the timelessness of the cowboy hero, epic in proportion, it also simplifies him by making him a one dimensional, albeit noble, character.

More than the miners and the farmers who helped shaped the West, the cowboy tended to be a rugged individualist who relied upon others only when necessary. While seldom asking for help, he was always there for others in their need.

Cowboys worked cattle, a noxious weed of the animal kingdom in terms of the land. Should man disappear suddenly, one likely evolutionary step would be the extinction of our beef on hooves as we know them and the resurgence of the bison across the Great Plains to numbers they once held: tens of millions.

There is no question that the arrival of non-Native people over the past few centuries has altered the landscape of the West. Barbed wire, mine tailings, and the plow have done their number.

The primary impact of man’s footprint on the landscape of the West, however, is not so much from the individual cowboy or of the miner and farmer per se, but of two other factors: their products and Big Industry that followed in their wake.

Big Spreads soon came to dominate the industry, much as Big Agri-business has done with farming and Big Mining and Big Oil have done with the extraction industries. While the lone cowboy, miner, and farmer, much like the indigenous peoples of the West, left a small footprint, what followed—the Bigs—have scarred the landscape with their super-sized stomp with catastrophic results. The evidence abounds.

Lockwood states the cowboy’s ideal “is not concerned with timeworn facts, but with timeless truths, such as the virtues of unflinching courage and fierce independence.”

As with any iconic image, the cowboy’s essentialism never changes, but its reflection in the realm of time does. The West is in need of the cowboy more than ever, but his/her expression must transcend roping and branding cattle to roping and branding those whose goal is to extract profit from the land at all costs.

The National Geographic documentary was not meant to scare but to provoke thought: thought about our place as one species in the Earth’s magnificent unfolding and our role as the one conscious being who can sort of play God, lacking the power to create but wielding the power to eliminate and destroy.

Our connection is not, as Joseph Campbell might have put it, “out there.” It is here in and within all life forms and inanimate objects that co-populate our home. We need to understand that what we do to the land, we do to ourselves.

The Old West has faded into the sunset.

Today, we are of the New West, but each traditional role—cowboy, miner, and farmer—is still an essential aspect of our culture. From those, each can take one of the archetypes as a model for his/her behavior because every act we perform individually that conserves our resources helps restore a measure of good health for our Earth. And it is through that act of conservation that each can sort of play God in a creative manner.

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