The spiritual sons of the mountain men were the men of the next wave – the skin-and-scoot market hunters, the cut and get out lumbermen, the cattle barons whose herds grazed the plains bare.
Stuart Udall, The Quiet Crisis
As a boy growing up in Texas, I was constantly confronted by the collision of the myth of the West with the reality. My tax lawyer father worked with ranchers and even though I was a “city boy,” I was exposed at an early age to cowboys, ranchers and oilmen.
My father had a deep respect for most of the ranchers and cowboys we knew, but it was tinged with an acceptance of their frailties and shortcomings, in fact, their humanness. There were plenty of reprobates among the cowboys who drank too much, got into fights and trouble in town, and who couldn’t figure out how to deal with women. Their loyalty was to a dog, a horse, family, a rancher or anyone who was their friend. They endured their human weaknesses like they endured the uncertain life of horses, cows, sheep or goats with the vagaries of weather, too little pay, no long-term security and a vanishing way of life.
Successful cowboys became ranchers, coming by land in bits and pieces or inheriting land from their homesteading grandfathers, and slowly aggregating enough to make a living. The old men and women tended to be tough and lucky. Too little of either, and they didn’t make it, and so became cowboys once again or moved to a town or city and got a job.
Ranchers cared for their land – it represented who they were. They built fence and stock tanks to manage their animals; they planted hay and grain and set up irrigation systems to get them through dry seasons or years. They cleared mesquite with bulldozers and Mexican laborers, adapting the land to fit their dream. They gave of themselves to make something better of their place. Sometimes they got lucky – a string of good years and a healthy market, or they got a good breed going. Maybe somebody found oil underneath their ranch, and suddenly they had actual cash in hand. This inflow of cash representing the outflow of oil could make the difference between wealth and failure.
Often, the cowboy and rancher were linked inextricably to the oilman in this way. But, where the cowboy and the rancher were tied to the land, the oilmen were only passing through; vertically down to the deposits, then horizontally with their roads and pipelines. With the oil came men to drill the wells and build the pipelines, whose loyalty was to the oilmen who paid their wages and kept them employed. They, too, included reprobates who drank too much, got into fights and trouble in town, and who couldn’t figure out how to deal with women.
But, when the well was drilled and the pipeline built, the oilmen moved on to the next place, the next field. A few locals stayed behind to tend the pipes and pumps, but over time an oil well empties out its reason for existence. Every barrel pumped is another barrel gone for good, a vanishing commodity never to be replaced. But, the rancher could make a little cash from the oil and the oilman could do pretty well if he was smart.
As a kid, I saw the effects of oil on the ranch land, and heard my dad counsel ranchers on how to deal with the oil companies, drillers and oilmen. To the ranchers, the oilmen were faceless names, usually hiding behind a fancy letterhead and swank addresses, who dealt with paper contracts instead of handshakes, and had never seen the grassland they defaced with their rigs, trash, oil spills and roads. The big oilmen wore Ostrich-skin cowboy boots and had fancy offices in tall buildings in some big city like Dallas or Houston; the less successful took top floor space in the local bank building in Odessa, Fort Worth, Lubbock or Wichita Falls.
So, the cowboys and ranchers I knew as a kid were pretty different from what I saw in the movies. Most carried a rifle in their pickup gun rack, often along with a fishing pole, but none I knew wore a low slung pistol or could out-draw a bad guy. Mostly they spent their time fixin’ things – fences, barns, pumps, cattle, horses, dogs, saddles, pickups or some obscure piece of machinery. They hardly ever outraced stampedes, hunted outlaws, or fought Indians (although one aged rancher claimed his daddy was an old Indian fighter – his momma was an old Indian). I never, ever saw a cowboy riding a horse and playing a guitar while singing to his cows. I saw some pretty fantastic sunsets on those ranches, but no one ever seemed to ride off into one.
An oilman is not a rancher or a cowboy. He is not tied to the land nor does he work to make it a better place; he’s there to take what he can for himself, then move on. In the westerns, this role belonged to the mining magnate, the railroad baron, the land speculator or the big oilman. They and their board of directors back East walked all over the hapless ranchers, homesteaders, Indians and settlers to make a fortune. Behind closed doors, they figured out how to cut themselves and their buddies a pretty good deal at the expense of the land.
The cowboys and ranchers see themselves as an extension of the land, the grasses, and the critters; basically, the environment. They give something of themselves to the land in exchange for the life they gain from it. Many have lived their whole lives on the ranch, and have buried their parents back on the knoll behind the house. They often send their kids off to state colleges to learn how to run things when they die, and expect to be buried on the same knoll. To them, the ranch isn’t a place; it is home.
The oilmen are, literally, invested in the land, or at least the resource beneath it. They aren’t always oblivious to their impacts and often work to manage their trash, the noise and the disturbance they cause. Just like you’d take off your dirty boots before going into someone’s house, this is more from politeness (or contract requirements) than from an abiding respect for the land. Many oilmen are considerate, thoughtful and responsible, but their interaction is only temporary. They take what they came for and leave for more lucrative prospects.
The cowboy is often tied to the ranch as much as the rancher, but their ties are more to the critters and the work than to the land. They can be extremely loyal to the rancher, but have no real permanence on the place, except as given by the rancher. Sometimes, moving on is just what they do.
But ultimately, the rancher, cowboy and oilman are all a part of it, the whole that we live in. And when any one of us damages or misuses a part, we’re hurting the whole system. The ranchers I saw knew this. Their livelihood depended on the land. When the oil gave out or the cattle were gone, the land was still there — still needing to be cared for and nurtured.
What it is, I guess, is community. Each of us is a part of a community, shaped by our presence and interactions. We have an obligation to maintain or improve our community, as well as use its resources. In the (nonexistent) old days of limitless resources, we thought we could take what we needed and move on to greener pastures. But with over 7 billion of us on earth, and adding more every day, the greener pastures somewhere else no longer exist, if they ever did. We need to protect and improve what we have now, or we could lose it forever.
We need to weigh what we take from the earth against its long term worth and impacts. Should we burn oil now, or use it to manufacture fertilizer, pharmaceuticals or plastics. Should we go ahead and use it all up, or save it for a rainy day?
The rancher might save it up for a time when it’s really needed. But the oilman would say, “Go ahead, use it now.” After all, it only takes a few million years to make more.