Vagneur: For the love of our land
It’s a tangle, a web of live and dead willow branches so close together and intertwined as to be impenetrable by two-legged creatures, unless on their knees. Small bear and coyote trails, worn down by repeated trips through the maze, disappear quickly from the light of day into the dark unknown of uneasy destination. Insignificant rivulets of creek water course through rich-smelling swamp mud left mostly untouched for decades. Once a verdant plain of pasture grass and open willow patches, it has now been given over to a purgatory of nonuse and neglect.
The Utes, once masters of this mountainous domain and without cloven-hooved domestic animals at their disposal, most likely would have unleashed fire to cleanse this fortress of snarled copse, opening it up to the wildlife that now so shyly and sometimes desperately seek its refuge.
Just inside the edge of the mire and lying on a pocket of dead but dry grass, a cow elk strains to deliver her calf. So adept is she at protecting her baby, and her camouflage so good, neither my horse nor my dog became aware of her existence as we passed by, not 20 yards away. Her refusal to startle, to be interrupted by our presence, gave her the opportunity to deliver her calf safely. We can conjecture that had the river bottom not been such a confusion of unchecked growth, the mother elk would have been able to further penetrate the willow forest, allowing for more privacy and less disturbance from others during the birthing of her offspring.
This raises questions about land stewardship and living in the “natural” world. Many people have an affinity toward the idea that before the arrival of the “white man,” indigenous people lived a completely transparent existence in harmony with nature and left no footprint in their environment. A tabula rasa (blank slate) philosophy, if you will. This is, to my mind, a naive and foolishly romantic concept that has little validity in reality. Man has attempted to manage his environment since the beginning of time, beginning with Eve eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.
In the Roaring Fork Valley, we are a contradiction in terms and beliefs. On the one hand, we give allegiance to the idea of “wilderness,” while at the same time we unleash a mob of mechanical and motorized vehicles into our forests with frightening regularity. The creation of bandit trails and lack of concern for the surrounding mountains and wildlife give credence to the belief that for many, the understanding of “wilderness” runs no deeper than knowing where to find the word in a dictionary.
And with the same shortsighted vision, we see large landowners taking the attitude of letting the land return to its “natural state,” whatever that is. Taken to the extreme and if not for the tax advantages of agricultural zoning, some of today’s remarkable ranch meadows, painstakingly created over many generations, would be nothing more than a conglomeration of weeds, sagebrush and overgrown willows and brush. We need to recognize that what some folks fallaciously trumpet as the “natural state” of our land was formed largely in partnership with the arrival of Homo sapiens eons ago.
There are those among us who proclaim that a natural state is one that has absolutely no human interference, not one touch of the anthropological hand, but to subscribe to that way of thinking, one first must assume that human beings are not part of the natural world. That’s kind of like the inexperienced but elitist born-again preacher telling his congregation that animals don’t have souls.
Recent university scientific studies and actual case histories show quite succinctly that the simple grazing of cattle, if managed and monitored, is far more effective at restoring unproductive or abused land than is the notion of leaving it off-limits and neglected in the hope that it somehow will revert to some semblance of its natural heritage.
Just as we take on a solemn responsibility to forever protect those species we domesticate, so too must we acknowledge that we owe a solemn and significant obligation to the land that we have changed over millennia. Accepting neglect and letting the land go to seed as part of a process of returning it to a natural state is an abrogation of that responsibility.
In my humble opinion, deteriorating savannahs should be opened to those with cloven hooves, and the owners should do a little fire dance over the place once in a while. The land will like them better.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The past sneaks up on us in the strangest of ways, and I don’t mean bounty hunters flashing those “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters in our faces.