“You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it”
from What Work Is, by Philip Levine
There’s a light that is particular to Chihuahuan desert of West Texas, to which the town of Marfa belongs, that has less to do with colour than it has to do with magnitude and scope. The skies out here remind me of the telescopic nature of sight, that our point of interaction—the cones inside and the rods outside the macula, the retina that gathers detail and colour—is both infinitesimal and so vast that it is beyond our human comprehension. My time with the Aufdengarten men and their group of cowboys is similarly beyond the known-world, both mine and theirs.
Perhaps it is the peculiar demographics of this town that first lead Ellery Aufdengarten, a man of deep American-conservative values, and a woman like me, deeply rooted in the socialist culture of my native country of Sri Lanka, to practice civility. Marfa’s population, evenly split between men and women, is predominantly Hispanic, but its next largest population—Caucasian—lags by a mere four hundred odd souls, and a significant part of its economy is sustained by cowboys and artists. In addition, with the nearest airport and major services three hours away, it stands to reason that neighbourliness and good will must take precedence over the big city indulgences of self: isolation and self-reliance.
I meet Ellery Aufdengarten at an airstream parked at the end of the 40,000-acre Eppenauer Ranch outside the 1.6 square mile area of the main town. A destination for large-imprint movies such as “No Country for Old Men,” “There Will be Blood,” and, a long time ago, “Giant,” this area is full of the pull of the West, resting at ease between mythology and legend. It is easy to see why as we stand seemingly contained by a sky both far and near, its scale so expansive that it appears to touch down on all sides of us.
Our host, Toronto-based Scottish photographer Bob Anderson, introduces us over cocktails. I smile at being referred to as yet another writer who wants to meet a cowboy, for Ellery who has stopped by on his way home after a long day of work at the ranch, bows his head and raises his hat, and the graciousness of the gesture, so unfamiliar to someone who has spent her adult life in American cities, disarms me. I slip easily into the feminine modus operandi that has also been carved into my soul along with those egalitarian values. I’m like them, I say, just more beautiful, and reach out my hand.
At this point I have only been in Marfa for a few days, but I am already lost to the ethereal pull of its charm. I have risen each of those nights to step outside and place the stars among the constellations, and risen again to watch the sunrise. I have walked for miles each evening to accompany the sunset, knowing that such skies ought to be attended. Above my head, the sky imprints with variations of forms to which I want to attach meaning: open-mouthed indigo alligators, a shoal of goldfish at play, the rust orange resplendence of the palms of gods holding shut the blue-peach skin of the sky. It is that sky that brings me my first inkling that what moves a man like Ellery to tend to his life, is precisely that which moves me, though we use different dialects of faith to describe the phenomenon.
Ellery gestures to take in a sky that has flushed deep into its swirling reds in a frenzy of pleasure. “This is why we pray,” he tells me. “How can you not be grateful for this?”
We talk then about church, which he attends each Sunday. On some days he dozes off during the sermon—understandable for an outdoors man—but he goes anyway. The ritual has less to do with the fervour of his religious beliefs than it has to do with common decency, the kind that requires gratitude for whatever is made possible. What he feels about God is between him and God, he says, and I am reminded of the far steadier ground on which the truly faithful stand, which has always rung more true to me than the showcase religiousness of those whose public vehemence has little to do with the tenets of their beliefs.
Showing up is a big deal in the Aufdengarten family, and not just on one’s own behalf at church. For decades, the family has worked the Fletcher Ranch outside Marfa, partway down toward famous Pinto Canyon Road, with Ellery taking over from his father-in-law, Hayes Mitchell (who had been running operations since the 1950s), in 2010, and not one of those has been an off-day.
For the past sixteen years he and his sons, Mitchell and Gerry, have kept the ranch working and an integral part of a system of co-dependence that binds ranchers across this remote corner of West Texas. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes every other ranch to keep any one of them functioning. No one family can survive alone. Though they may conceivably be able to do the basic hard work of maintaining a working ranch, the matter of fixing fences, maintaining waterholes, tending livestock, and treating a herd, mending equipment, and so forth, everything from routine round-ups of cattle that roam across hundreds of acres of land, to fighting natural disasters requires the open-hearted assistance of fellow cowboys, and in the giving and receiving of help, few if any questions are asked. Each rancher can anticipate and provide what another needs, secure in the knowledge that the giving is always reciprocal.
A few mornings before I leave Marfa, I join the family on a Spring cattle round-up, where a herd is brought together to be branded, ear-marked, weaned, and sometimes sorted for ownership or cut for shipment. My 4 a.m. alarm still does not have me ready in time to make it to the Fletcher Ranch, so I miss the excitement of readying the work horses with their quiet but determined mien, and gathering the equipment for the work ahead. The tack—saddle cloths and, in this case, the western saddles that provides a secure seat for long hours of work with its raw-hide saddle-tree and deep stirrups, bridles, split reins, a horn for holding the lariat etc.—has already been loaded along with the beasts, and the convoy only needs a quick stop for fuel before heading to the ranch. In the quiet cold morning I marvel at the alert energy of the men around me, who have traveled from nearby Fort Worth to as far away as New Mexico.
Roundup is a quick word for the long hours that must be put in to effect it. This morning the Aufdengarten men are there to help the owner of the Penitas Ranch gather the cattle on his ranch which spills over acreage that is lush with grasslands and stripes of native trees and shrubs, ponderosa pines, oak, and piñon. At the last rise before the path runs out, the men stop and release the horses from the calico trailers used to transport them. I get down and watch as Ellery and the owner of the ranch cut a circle for each other, demarcating the area of land that each of the cowboys will take. I imagine that, were these men looking not for cattle but for human beings, the calm they exude would be terrifying; they have the air of people long accustomed to their tasks, secure in their deep familiarity with the land and the knowledge that they are successful at accomplishing what they set out to do. As the pick-up I’d been in bumped over what seemed an uncertain path and I looked out over the sweep of land still clothed in barely lightening dawn darkness, I had wondered where the cattle might be and, more importantly, how on earth they might be corralled. The thought returns again as I follow the line of sight that Ellery seems to be pointing to.
Ellery’s older son, Gerry, confirms once more the co-dependence required to work a ranch: “Gathering a pasture is like casting a net for fish. Your Cowboys are the net,” is how he puts it.
And indeed, it is. The men peel off, their heads under wide-brimmed Stetsons and their legs around sturdy horses, silhouetted like figures from a movie-maker’s impression of the West. For a long moment I wonder what it would be like to ride with them, to follow where they might lead into land that holds no markers for the layperson but which the cowboys read like a map.
For the next few hours there is nothing for me to do but wait. Gerry’s fiancée Jordayn Platt and I ride back together with Bob, and I am happy to interrupt our girl-talk about wedding-dresses and college, and surprise her by singing along to the old country music that is playing on the radio station. It’s surreal to be listening to the songs that I grew up with where, among people who accept suffering and heartbreak as a natural part of life, we thrived on the pathos of American lyrics sung, often, in Southern accents.
“It’s a good time to take a nap,” Jordayn tells me when we finally return to the corrals to which the cattle will be brought. Then she gestures with a practical air to the brush, “Also, if you need to use the bathroom this would be your chance to do it before the boys get back.”
I sit in Bob’s car and write while he naps. Jodayn sleeps for a little while, then perches at the edge of her truck to watch the cowboys return, first one appearing on the far horizon, then another, assembling at last as though by prior arrangement, their cattle obedient and in order before them, resigned to riding out at the next roundup to gather “remnants,” those animals they missed. In the dry and present heat of the late morning, the men have shed their jackets and now they toil with only a break for cold waters, wearing button down shirts and bandanas, and worn leather chaps over crisp blue jeans seamed smooth on the insides, and cowboy boots. I silently admire people who honour the worth of their work by dressing up in their best to perform it, heedless of the grime and dust.
There is a brief pause and then the men separate again into a semi-circle, driving the cattle before them. I get a closer look at the horses now. These are mostly American Quarter horses, known more routinely as stock horses, a breed particular to Texas that traces its bloodstock to Mustang and Iberian horse ancestry with some influence from the East Coast Arabians. The horses are divided among those which are lighter and can do the work of cutting (separating groups of cattle), and the heavier ones that are able to hold a larger adult animal on a rope. Despite the degree of chaos around them, the horses remain calm, responsive to their riders, and seemingly able to anticipate the rush of panicked calves and heifers.
There is a mesmerising rhythm to what follows after the animals are brought into the main holding pen, as the cattle are “cut” into their separate groups, the mothers away from their calves until each set is processed. I feel myself tense as I hear and feel the disturbance among the separated pairs, each mother lowing in distress, the calves jostling each other in certain panic adding their own cries. Still, I continue to perch on the wood topped surface of the rear of the pens and after awhile I am caught up in the choreography of the cowboys at their work and the synchronicity of their movements, more acutely aware of how vital it must be to have a well-trained horse to aid in this work.
I, like most people with some knowledge, however romanticised, of the American West, associate the dance of a lasso with cowboys, but this is the first time I have actually seen one used in the course of a day’s work. In their hands, the 35-40 foot ropes—whether made of agave fibre or hemp—tipped with a hondo that can tighten quick around an ankle, make slow circles in the air, uniting grace with menace as they effortlessly pick a single animal among the many shoving against the barriers to reel in. During all the hours of watching, I don’t catch a single miss, or the rope tangle with any but the particular animal for whom it is destined. One by one, vaccines are administered, and ears are tagged. Each animal is brought down with a neatly applied lariat, the rope spinning above each cowboy’s head in hypnotic patterns before it stretches to loop the intended hoof. There are a few calls made that I cannot decipher, as the cowboys cajole the animals, and there is hardly any conversation between the men, yet communication takes place. Whatever hurt must be inflicted—whether tagging or injecting or castrating the males to become steers or all three—is done with alacrity; there is the briefest of intervals between the time an animal is brought down to the time he or she is released from a three person hold, two to keep it steady, a third to do what must be done.
Jordayn has been helping the men all morning, handing out the castrating bander, or emasculator to one or the other of them, or filling up and administering vaccinations, and she is, like they are, covered in the red dust of West Texas., but at lunch time, the men ease themselves onto whatever perch of shade they can find, and Jodayn manages the food that has been brought up by Ellery’s son-in-law who is a restauranteur in Marfa; it’s a modern innovation and a departure from the chuck wagon complete with on-site cook that once accompanied roundup. I join her, useful for the first time all day, and feel the precise pleasure of being in a place where gender roles are accepted as they are in fundamental ways: women as caregivers, men as receivers of that care, a notion that sits easy with a girl raised in a South Asian culture that places women on an exalted plane where what is expected is both professional public competence as well as private nurture and grace. I relish too, therefore, the way Jordayn returns to work with them afterward, this time to process a calf for the first time. It yields one of my favourite tableaux of that day: Jodayn walking away from the calf, her palms held out and slick with blood as Gerry, managing his own animal, looks on, and another one of the men fetches her a cloth. Learning on a ranch is by doing, not by textbook, and though her first stab is not as clean and swift as the men, it is a moment that both she and the calf survive.
Out here there is no separation of human need from human act. If cattle is to be raised to be turned into meat, then this is the visceral muscularity of what must precede it. Watching the cowboys for close on eight hours should function as the proverbial last straw when added to the things that have given me pause over the years about consuming beef—Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, for instance, the Mick Jackson documentary about Dr. Temple Grandin—but it does not. There’s too much that is intentional here. One by one they drop the severed testicles into a bucket placed beside the tool truck, the contents to be cooked later. It reminds me once more of home. A place where though we did not eat meat very often, when we did do so, no part of it was ever wasted. My father, a great cook, and my paternal grandmother, served what is known as sweet-bread there, Rocky Mountain oysters here, and brain and ox-tail and tongue with as much panache as they did any other part of a bovine. What I feel then is not disgust but a greater regard for the men who, though they may go away for education and training, stay so close to the earth, their lifestyle wedded to the land, their work itself dependent upon the vagaries of the natural world, and no way of glossing over the realities of human desire.
There is a confluence of beauty that attends the town of Marfa: the most silent place in the United States (Big Bend), the largest spring-fed outdoor pool (Balmorhea), the most powerful observatory in the country (McDonald), which trains its many eyes upon a firmament of such clarity that the storm raging on Saturn and the craters on the moon draw close enough to pierce the heart. But there is a rare human beauty that lies at its very centre and which, if you hang around long enough, reveals itself: a live-and-let-live atmosphere that brings ranchers to poetry readings and writers to ranches, and both alongside the native Mexican population to the same dive bar in town where the pool table makes music at one end and local bands perform at the other. Out on the cattle ranch that day, I feel the stirrings of hope for wider-reaching beauty, the possibility of common ground with the people who are, on the outside, most unlike myself.
In a country whose politicians have mastered the strategy named by Julius Caesar—divida et impera—though the rules of conquer through division were perfected first by the Assyrians, Marfa remains an exception. My time there, and my association with the Aufdengartens, remind me that even in America, as elsewhere, we citizens contain the spectrum, and that the choice to claim a single hue (in our case, the red or blue political stripe), is nothing more than the same defensive mechanism that prompts less evolved creatures to tinge a single colour of alarm.
There is a rancher’s term that is used to describe the cattle that have not been gathered and remain untouched by the cowboys: mavericks. Mavericks, unhandled and alone, become more difficult to manage as they age. In a sense we—the cowboys and I—as representatives of our kind, could bear the same classification. Without exposure to each other’s way of life, the raison d’être for each of us remains invisible to the other. Over the course of that day, though, we bridge the vast divide. What I see isn’t ideology or politics or religious differences, but good people unencumbered by the pretensions permissible for those whose work is removed by screens and desks and glass towers from those who are affected by it. I do not know what they think of me, but whatever it is, they are faultlessly gracious.
When I return to my house in Marfa that night, I write a draft of a poem I title ‘Song for the Cowboys.’ Much later, with Bob’s help, I create a broadside set with one of my photographs from that day that I send along with a letter of thanks. Ellery writes back this way: I’ll cherish this forever. You understand our way life. You are always welcome here. Please come back.
When I post the photographs of my time with the cowboys on social media, I do not post those that show the cattle hog-tied, lassoed, or being reeled and separated, offspring from parents, or subsequently united. I know that those of my friends on the other side of the political spectrum would throw the razored spears of their contempt upon the practice, say hurtful things. Some things are untranslatable. I feel fiercely protective of the people I have come to refer to as “my cowboys.” To understand human beings, their real worth, you have to walk among them for a while. It was a privilege to do so with the Aufdengarten family and their friends. I hope my side of this equation would, in our vastly different world, if put to the same test of intimate observation of a single day in our lives, pass with the same flying colours.