Two books offer fresh and sometimes surprising perspectives on the effects of cattle production.
Revolution on the Range: The Rise of a New Ranch in the American West
By Courtney White
Island Press, 221 pages, $25.95
Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World
By Andrew Rimas and Evan D.G. Fraser
William Morrow, 228 pages, $25.95
Good news, particularly of the environmental variety, is hard to come by in these days of escalating temperatures and dwindling resources. Courtney White has witnessed some firsthand, and he wants to spread the word. White, the author of Revolution on the Range: The Rise of a New Ranch in the American West, is the cofounder and executive director of the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit whose mission is to create “ecological, economic, and social health” on Western lands by bringing ranchers, environmentalists, federal land managers, and scientists together to restore damaged ecosystems.
Spreading the word is key to White’s—and Quivira’s—mission. The problem of severely degraded landscapes in the West—marked by overgrazing, soil erosion, poor water quality, absent wildlife—can be partially blamed, says White, on the bullheadedness of both ranchers and environmentalists, whose decades-long refusal to listen to each other has had tangible ecological impacts. Ranchers may have a land ethic, but it often isn’t paired with contemporary ecological knowledge. “Tradition,” White writes, “seemed to have a lock on many ranchers.” But tradition seems also to have environmentalists in its meaty grip—evidenced by their “stubborn belief in a hands-off relationship between humans and nature” and in a specious “dualism of environmentalism that said recreation and play in nature were acceptable while work and use were not.”
For years many environmental activists fought to keep cattle off public lands, convinced degraded land should be left to heal itself. White’s extensive travels across the West have assured him that “leave well enough alone” isn’t the answer. He’s fond of illustrating this with an ecosystem-health map of the Altar Valley, a 500,000-acre expanse near Tucson, Arizona. The map’s red areas indicate major problems with soil, grass, or water. A private ranch that has been “overgrazed to the point of being nearly ‘cowburnt,’ to use author Ed Abbey’s famous phrase,” is colored bright red. But the deep crimson tint extends to the adjacent public lands of the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge, which haven’t been grazed for 16 years.
For a comparison, White takes readers on a tour of about 20 healthy, well-managed ranches and grazed public lands, where creeks burble past willows, grasses grow tall and green, birds and coyotes thrive, and the ranchers even earn a living. It’s all part of the science-based, holistic style of “new ranching,” in which carefully planned livestock grazing is as important a land management tool as fire. “Our land needs more and better stewardship, not less,” White writes. “It needs the active manager on the ground, watching the indicators of land health, fixing fences, and moving cattle around.”
Much of the book is devoted to the stories of folks who practice and teach this enlightened ranching. There’s Guy Glosson, a ranch manager from west Texas who runs a clinic on “low-stress livestock handling that emphasizes patience and kindness toward animals.” And Steve Allen, owner of a ranch near Paonia, Colorado, who pooled his herd with five others with grazing permits in the nearby West Elk Wilderness. “Pool riders” move the herd of 1,000 cattle through the mountains using only border collies and temporary electric fences, grazing an area for just 10 days before moving on.
White sees people as gardeners. In the case of the range, we are tending “wildland gardens,” which increase the benefits from ecosystems like clean water, healthy soil, and grass for grazing. But as with any garden, wildland gardens need sustained work and attention. The best way to ensure it’s done right, White believes, is through public-private partnerships that he calls “mugidos” (Spanish for “moo”). White’s mugido “is a stretch of public land where the government reduces its regulatory role in exchange for high environmental stewardship by a nongovernmental entity.” Government owns the land, sets goals, and monitors success, but private citizens do the actual managing.
White’s quiet and reverent tone befits a book about the potency of conciliation. Revolution on the Range is powerful because it bites off a relatively small but vital chunk of an ecological problem, and lays out a viable path to a solution. Oddly, though, cattle make only occasional appearances.
In contrast, Beef is 221 pages of bovinity—and it sprawls all over the geographical and historical map. A complex and sometimes disjointed history of the co-evolution of cows and man, Beef moves from 1937 to the Paleolithic Age to contemporary Spain to the sixth day of Creation—in just three pages. In Neolithic times, modern cows’ wild ancestors were seen as crop-stealing marauders. Without plows to pull, farmers had no work for cattle, which were merely a wheat-eating inconvenience—until someone, the theory goes, thought to corral them and keep them for slaughter. This may have led to the discovery of bovine milk, when “some thirsty child got the inkling to grab an idle udder.” That in turn allowed human populations to swell as women “shortened their reproductive cycles and gave birth to more children.” Cows became cohorts, our insurance against the constant upheavals dotting our past: “If a pasture turns brown or a valley is iced by a squall, a cow can walk to the next one. A lentil cannot.”
Whereas cows were once useful companions, pulling oxcarts and providing protein-rich milk and cheese, today they’ve become just another resource unit to be exploited for maximum yield. “In the past two hundred years we stopped thinking of cows as living things,” write Andrew Rimas and Evan D.G. Fraser, “and came to think of them merely as milk wells to be tapped and burgers to be neatly wrapped in polyurethane.” What’s more, industrial cattle production is “sucking up our water” and breeding “a host of twenty-first century bugbears: wasteful farming, soil degradation, tsunamis of effluent, and animal welfare offenses.”
Beef too often digresses just when the story is getting good, jolting you out of the narrative with “culinary interludes” (recipes like “Beef y-Stywyd, or the Ribs of Henry IV”) and diversions into the world of bullfighting and the cattle-obsessed culture of East Africa’s Masai tribe. Despite its indictment—backed by the force of history—of today’s unsustainable cattle farming practices and consumer disconnect, the authors offer little in the way of alternatives other than a nod toward “holistic management” and feeding cattle only grass, not grain. Beef will deepen your understanding of the burger on your grill yet leave you hungering for clues to the best way forward. Thankfully, Revolution on the Range provides viable solutions—and hope.
Regular Audubon contributor Hillary Rosner most recently wrote the book review in the November-December 2008 issue.
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Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
By Fred Pearce
Beacon Press, 276 pages, $24.95
British journalist Fred Pearce contemplates the prawns in his curry. He wonders if boycotting his Saturday-night tandoori would ease or exacerbate environmental and economic atrocities in Bangladesh’s mangrove swamps. So he goes there, and beyond, to investigate. Pearce travels the globe, mapping how his purchases influence the world on their journey to his London household or supermarket. He visits Uzbekistan to see about his blue jeans, ventures down a South African mine to explore the possible origins of his wedding band, and climbs up Mount Kilimanjaro to meet the growers of his favorite yet not-so-fairly traded coffee. His possessions touch the lives and environments of countless people—business-savvy farmers, menacing middlemen, and 10-year-olds laboring over acid drums. Witnessing slavelike conditions and unweaving the often circuitous and corrupt pathways of global trade, Pearce somehow remains optimistic. “We need fair-traders, not green patriots. We need to maximize our positive social footprints as well as to minimize our negative ecological ones. But we can do it.” Pearce makes a persuasive case for recycling metals and defends the air miles of his Kenyan beans. Readers may hesitate to adopt his righteous taste for expensive chocolate but find themselves wondering whether their watch or earrings contain gold melted down from Cleopatra’s jewelry.—Melissa Mahony
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Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl
By Stacey O’Brien
Free Press, 229 pages, $23
Biologist Stacey O’Brien was working at the California Institute of Technology when she met the love of her life: a four-day-old barn owl with nerve damage in one wing that made it impossible for him to survive in the wild. She adopted the helpless chick, named him Wesley, and began to form a deep relationship that lasted nearly two decades. “It is the owls’ personalities that invariably capture the hearts of the people who work with them,” she writes. As Wesley grows, O’Brien observes him with a scientist’s eye. Some of his behaviors, such as molting and devouring mice, are typical, but others, like his love of water and nest making, seem unique to him, and shed light on how these birds learn, adapt, and communicate. O’Brien details her own bewilderment when, with no other owls around, Wesley begins to woo her. He tries to lure her into dark places like the closet and harasses her human suitors. As O’Brien recounts the 19 years the pair lived together, it becomes clear that this poignant tale is not a story of unrequited love. “Wesley changed my life,” says O’Brien. “He was my teacher, my companion, my child, my playmate, my reminder of God.”—Susan Cosier
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Heirloom: Notes From an
Accidental Tomato Farmer
By Tim Stark
Broadway Books, $24, 232 pages
Tim Stark didn’t start out as a farmer. In fact, he was the anti-farmer: a kid who would leave his baseball glove right in the path of the caretaker’s mower and picked apples only to use them as “disposable baseballs.” Fourteen years ago, after struggling as a writer in Brooklyn and realizing that his real passion was for the tomato plants he was cultivating on the roof of his apartment building, Stark decamped to eastern Pennsylvania, to the land he grew up on. There he took up farming in an earnest, if unconventional, way. Stark’s weedy, haphazard rows of obscure tomato varietals (Green Zebra, Cherokee Purple, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter) confounded even the most helpful farmers around and irked the more traditional ones. Despite his questionable approach, Stark’s success as one of New York’s premier heirloom tomato producers—he’s a regular fixture at Manhattan farmers’ markets and a supplier for such big-name chefs as Daniel Boulud and Bill Telepan—is indubitable. In Heirloom, Stark recounts his life as a farmer, supplemented with fascinating historical side notes on his Pennsylvania farm, the difference between Amish and Mennonite farmers, and his own love affair with tomatoes. Stark’s style is all-encompassing, ranging from bitingly funny to earnest and scholarly. Heirloom is as diverse and delicious as the tomatoes that have made Stark famous. (To see Tim Stark in action at a farmers’ market, click here.)—Alexa Schirtzinger
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