Tough and Tender

The story of the American cowboy rides a few trails. A tobacco-spitting gunslinger-- a 19th century outlaw. A pioneer chasing manifest destiny, a violent campaign for western domination. A rodeo daredevil, risking it all for reputation and a buckle.

But the trail that interests me most is that of horseman and steward--horseback shepherds, protecting and conserving land in the natural state. These shepherds live, work, and ride throughout cowboy country in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, and in parts of California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Texas. This cowboy spirit runs rich through parts of southern Illinois, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Teddy Roosevelt's Dakota Badlands remain largely untouched today.

Many of those states boast vast swaths of natural beauty unspoiled by concrete jungles, expanding subdivisions, and impervious pavement. In Wilsall, Montana, population 237, song lyrics like, "leave Montana alone" remind you why the treasure state is "the last best place."

When I travel from a state like Montana to a large city, my first thought is "my god, what have we done." These concrete cities create real ecological problems--impervious surfaces transport stormwater pollutants into lakes, rivers, and oceans, rather than into soil where natural percolation helps remove pollutants as water travels down into natural aquifers. Many big-city environmentalists live in the most polluted areas of the country, while less vocal conservationists live quietly in rural, untouched lands. 

These quiet cowboys strike chords once sung by Native Americans living the same land.

Two distinct qualities stand out: they're tough and they're tender. By tough I mean resilient and adaptable--an ability to calmly weather any storm. Duty bound. No complaining. By tender I mean a steward, a caretaker--tasked with the responsibility of conservation. Corporate ranchers today can't seem to find these qualities, if they ever had them. Could be greed, could be market pressures. Cold corporate complexities aside, the tough and tender spirit is alive and well in cowboys across the west.

I'm reminded of two cowboys I've had the pleasure to meet. Both were featured in short documentaries about cowboy life in the elements. Both men are quiet, whisperers.

Ed Zevely describes his natural horseman lunging technique, careful never to crack the whip--the snapping sound instills fear and anxiety in the horse. Ed never wanted his horse to be fearful or anxious.  Ed said of Colorado's high country, "I always believed that God created the world, but he spent a lot more time up there."

Mike Leffingwell is a fourth generation Montana rancher, a descendant of American homesteaders with great respect for the land, including their 3,000 acre ranch. For Mike, less is more. Mike said of his land, "I am simply somebody that has been handed a legacy by generations before me, and it is my responsibility to continue to live life in the stewardship of the land, and carry it forward one more generation. So I am simply a pack horse, carrying it one more time... nothing special."

There aren't as many cowboys as there used to be--in practice or in spirit. Tough and tender is now rare. Today's young American men grow up lacking resilience and adaptability in the face of adversity, and thus become insecure and aggressive or self-absorbed. Selfless stewards replaced by ego-centric emotional delicates, overly obsessed with the small moat circling their heads, unaware of devoted lives of service.

Mind-numbing, city-spinning insecurity turns into quiet equanimity when we thrust ourselves into lives of service.  

In 1978, Paul Harvey described the American farmer, blessed with grit and grace, "I need somebody with arms strong enough to rustle a calf and yet gentle enough to deliver his own grandchild. I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt. And watch it die. Then dry his eyes and say, 'Maybe next year.' Somebody who'd bale a family together with the soft strong bonds of sharing, who would laugh and then sigh, and then reply, with smiling eyes, when his son says he wants to spend his life 'doing what dad does.'"

The cowboy spirit, tough and tender, need not a horse or a ranch or a dying colt. The cowboy spirit means living in service and stewardship. I am inspired by those professionals who live the cowboy spirit of tough and tender every day--teachers, nurses, social-workers, caretakers... today's shepherds. 

It's a reasonable ambition to raise young Americans tough and tender, resilience in service, to carry the pack for one more generation. I hope John Jr. will one day find his own cowboy spirit, whatever it may be.

Yours truly, 

John Paul Fiske, Sr.