At the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Nevada, friends and performers with wide-ranging views met to discuss climate change, immigration and other concerns ‘without demonizing each other’
— Several weeks ahead of the 35th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, Gail Steiger, a rancher and singer-songwriter from Yavapai county, Arizona, emailed a proposal to a small host of close friends and fellow performers.
“None of us fit easily in any box, but we all hold each other in high regard,” he wrote.
“If we can’t talk to each other about the future course of our country, who can?
“Maybe,” he added, “we could see if old friends can at least have a conversation about these issues without demonizing each other.”
Steiger was proposing a political rendezvous amongst friends – some Republicans, some Democrats, some in the wild, open range in between – who have largely avoided the subject for their more than 30-year history together.
In other circles, Steiger’s request may have seemed commonplace. At the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, a weeklong festival of western poetry and song cherished by thousands for its cultivation of community, it was a perilous suggestion. More than a few performers, they say, have shot themselves in the foot proselytizing in Elko. Of the five poets Steiger initially invited to participate in his offsite roundtable, two respectfully declined.
The rodeo poet Paul Zarzyski, a diehard liberal from Great Falls, Montana, was one of them.
“These people are so locked in. I was going to run head-on in that room,” he later told me. “I didn’t need that here. Elko might be the one place I can come to and disconnect. When I go back, I’m going to be looking on Huffington Post in the morning. I’m going to be watching MSNBC. I’m going to be thrown right back in again and this is a little sanctuary for five or six days.”
The rest of them quietly gathered in the old Hotel West, the Basque steakhouse next door boisterous with tourists and townies, the blinking lights of Elko’s tiny brothel district visible from the back door. They sat around a large dining room table, discussing climate change and immigration, passing the “talking stick” back and forth and striving unsuccessfully – like newcomers to a board game – to follow the rigid guidelines of a Socratic dialogue: more questions, fewer opinions.
Gail Steiger: the congressman’s son
The son of a rancher and five-term Arizona congressman, Gail Steiger grew up with “a different brand of politics”. He used to accompany his father Sam to the weekly meetings of the Arizona delegation, and though all but one of them were Republican, he says, the lone Democrat commanded equal respect at the table.
“They’d laugh about that, but they were friends! They would sit down and say, ‘What is best for Arizona?’ They really tried hard to do that.”
But he’d never harbored any particular fantasy of a career in politics, not after watching the way it skewed so many simple encounters into perverse transactions, everyone “blowing smoke” to gain access to his father. After he dropped out of college to help run his father’s Senate campaign in 1976, he shut the door on politics for good, suddenly all too aware of just how manipulative and hollow the enterprise could be. The final straw was an encounter with the then-governor, Ronald Reagan, who agreed to endorse his father.
“He stands right on his mark and he looks at that camera and in one take – you would have sworn that he and my father had known each other their whole lives and they were just like this,” he says, crossing his fingers. “This guy had sincerity like you wouldn’t believe.”
“We’re packing up, and I can hear [Reagan’s assistant] leading him out there in the room and he goes, ‘Okay, Governor. This guy is the beer distributor. This guy started these little stores called Circle K … That light came on and it was like, holy shit! This guy’s an actor. He’s been practicing lines and making you believe him his whole life. This is show business.”
Finally disillusioned by politics, Steiger earned a business degree in Colorado, took a summer job working cattle back in Arizona and gradually fell in love with the work; he’s been running cattle ever since. He credits the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering with shifting his perspective on environmental stewardship. The forum in Elko, which mixes ranchers and environmentalists, conservatives and liberals, helped him see what both groups have in common – an intimate connection to the land.
“If climate science suggesting we should take steps to reduce our use of fossil fuels …is in error, and we take the suggested action anyway, the downside will be that we’ve left more fossil fuel in the ground for our descendants,” he wrote to those involved in the roundtable discussion. “If the preponderance of climate science is correct, and we do nothing to alter our carbon footprint, the downside will be that we’ve rendered our planet uninhabitable for humans and many other species, all for the short term gains of those who currently benefit most from the status quo.”
Steiger’s views on immigration stem primarily from his own experience working with undocumented immigrants in Arizona, the “overwhelming majority” of whom he found “to be honest, hardworking people who did their jobs, supported their families and paid their taxes”. He’d rather see the US focus its time and money on the “economic conditions, lawlessness, violence and desperation that causes people in Mexico and Central America to seek asylum here”.
Waddie Mitchell: the land rights buckaroo
Born and raised on a ranch near Jiggs, Nevada, a ghost town 36 miles south of Elko, Waddie Mitchell quit school at 16 years old. Like the cattlemen and “true cowboys” he idolized as kid, he soon found himself starting colts for a nearby ranch and living alone in a tiny bunkhouse with little but his own imagination to occupy him.
That first winter alone, he was desperate for thicker gloves and new boots; his parents sent him a box of old books instead. “I thought it was the worst present ever,” he says. But the isolation got the best of him. He finally dived in. “To this day, I think it was the best present I ever got.”
It planted the first seed of what would later become a full-time career in the arts, writing and performing cowboy poetry for audiences across the country, from Elko to The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. In between, he’d buckaroo all over the west, serve a tour in Vietnam, break horses for the US Cavalry in Fort Carson, Colorado, get married, raise five kids, and help found the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 1985.
In recent years, Mitchell has been an outspoken supporter of the Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, whose refusal to pay federal grazing fees led to an armed standoff in 2014 with government agents. Mitchell has written a host of op-eds for the local newspaper arguing against government overreach and the Bureau of Land Management’s treatment of ranchers whose roots in the area predate the enforcement of grazing limits on federal lands.
“We should not allow these unconstitutional, martial-law minded BLM globs to abuse power THEY GAVE THEMSELVES, against citizens who, unlike the tax suckers, actually produce something,” he wrote in the Elko Daily Free Press in January 2016.
Like the poet John Dofflemyer at the other end of the table, Mitchell stops short of declaring global warming a manmade issue, but he calls the increase in extreme weather events in his lifetime “substantial” and says he stands with “the scientists, not the petroleum pamphlets, on this one”.
“No matter our feelings on climate change, we need to clean up our act, steward all of our eco-systems as they are all interrelated. Try to help earth live in her natural state,” he wrote the group. “Our children and grandchildren will have to live with the air, water and policies we leave for them. If humankind is not responsible for the earth’s climate change, we are [still] responsible for how we live and the messes we make.”
As for immigration: “When they [immigrants] break the law coming to this country, we take it too lightly. I don’t feel we should feel obliged to house, feed, give medical attention or financial assistance to those here illegally. I believe we should do better helping the Native peoples, to care for our own sick, those who go home to die because they can’t afford medical costs,” he wrote. “I prescribe to family, tribe and America first, then our somewhat flawed policies and prescribed path to citizenship.”
Vess Quinlan: the semi-climate skeptic
Vess Quinlan was 10 years old when he contracted polio. One day he was helping his uncle break horses on a ranch near Eagle, Colorado. The next he was “crippled”, he says, confined to the hospital for a year, subject to the doctors’ whims and his mother’s whimsy, neither of which allowed for even the slightest suggestion of a return to the ranch. He killed the time reading Will James and the poems his grandmother had clipped from the livestock papers and collected in a shoebox, tranquilized by a stiff cocktail of existential despair.
His mother eventually moved the family to Pueblo, Colorado, where his teachers tried their best to steer him towards more intellectual pursuits. But the cowboy never left him, and his heart remained at the ranch.
“It created this huge conflict with everybody around me. With my folks, with my teachers. And that’s my little problem with authority.”
At 15, he ran away from home and spent the rest of his teenage years hiring himself out at various ranches, earning $20 a month and attending roughly nine high schools before finally cobbling together enough credits to graduate. He kept working as a ranch hand until he met his wife, who purchased a farm and ranch in the San Luis Valley. They’ve lived there ever since.
Quinlan doesn’t question whether the climate is changing – it always has, he says – but he’s hardly convinced it’s a manmade issue, nor does he place any faith in warnings from “publish-or-perish scientists and professors” whom he believes are often bought and paid for by corporate interests. “The same agencies and scientists that are now predicting manmade global disaster,” he says, were predicting the same when he first moved to the valley in 1970.
“But it didn’t really matter: the experts were predicting a coming famine because other farmers were even dumber than me and allowing erosion to wash all their topsoil into the Gulf of Mexico and would soon be trying to plant their soybeans on bedrock,” he wrote. “And besides, we were running out of fossil fuel and would soon be reading by candlelight and canning our meat. What meat we had left was from ranchers even dumber than farmers who were destroying their pastures by overgrazing.”
Like Steiger, he’s worked with many undocumented immigrants over the years, almost all of whom were “decent people and good hands”. If he were living in the same conditions they fled from, he says – the cartel violence and economic despair – he’d do the same.
“I would be here asking John for a job picking fruit in his orchards, or asking Gail for day work on the Spider Ranch. If caught and sent back, I would start walking north as soon as I got off the bus.”
And though he believes America has a responsibility to “develop a fair, affordable, and accessible immigration system”, he also considers tight border security a moral imperative: “I think it is immoral when we steal the best and brightest from poor countries by not controlling our border. Most of the illegals I worked with over the years were a credit to this country and would have … been a credit to their own if given a chance at a decent life.”
Paul Zarzyski: the bareback liberal
Zarzyski grew up in awe of his father, an iron ore miner in Hurley, Wisconsin, and the brute force with which he approached every facet of his life, whether a mile deep in the hematite mine or “making firewood”.
From an early age, he learned to throw his everything into everything. It’s an ethic he carried to graduate school at the University of Montana, where he studied poetry under the celebrated American poet Richard Hugo and began competing as a bareback bronc rider. He kept at both until his mid-30s, subsisting on occasional winnings from the rodeo circuit, meager paychecks from a part-time teaching gig at the university, and the scraps he earned from his published work. Serendipitously, just as his body began to give out, he found a wider community for his work through the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
Few who are familiar with his work would be shocked to learn Zarzyski – one of the few here to write in mostly free verse – is liberal. Still, he makes it a point to step aside from politics each year when he enters Elko county, and he has dedicated more than a few poems to close friends across the aisle.
“If you’re asking, ‘Do I bring it out in the open verbally?’ the answer is no. It would be an extreme violation of all the goodness this gathering has stood for,” he says. “I have witnessed year after year people making pilgrimages here because they’re in need of something missing from their lives that they can’t quite articulate, but they had a pretty strong instinct that if they came here, they would be graced with that mecca-something or other, and they almost always inevitably are.”
Outside the confines of the gathering, however, he rarely holds back. Consider the final stanza of his unpublished poem, Knock-Knock-Knocking On Doomsday’s Door, which lampoons both humanity’s stupidity in the face of climate change, and the seemingly futile nature of his own work in the face of global crisis.
then, exists only to sift its own ashen
through its own chaliced fingers
raised in a pathetic gesture
of reckoning, raised to the billowing God-
cloud of what was once
each and every miracle, each
and every mystery, each and every
molecule of merciful matter
this poem held dear – of what was
once living, breathing
twice-blest you … me … them … us … it.
Cognizant of his own half-Italian, half-Polish ancestry and their passage through Ellis Island, Zarzyski strongly identifies with those immigrants fleeing dire circumstances in their home countries.
“They came here to give, as well as to receive … and I’m not convinced that the larger majority of immigrants seeking security and safety for their families today do not harbor similar sensibilities as did our European immigrants,” he writes.
“I understand, as well, that the ‘green new deal’ coupled with the long-overdue rebuilding of infrastructure in this country is not the panacea to all that ails us, but I can’t help but wonder just how integral – how ‘symbiotic,’ if you will – are the solutions to immigration and climate change? Bottom line, it’s’ all going to come down to fresh perspectives and an entirely new way of applying hard work, white- and blue-collar work alike, to save us from ourselves, from destroying this glorious orb that gives everyone of us our, and everything its, existence.”
John Dofflemyer: the Tulare county pragmatist
A fifth-generation cattleman in Tulare county, California, John Dofflemyer “weaned” himself on the poetry of Gary Snyder, which he first encountered as a teenager while packing mules in the Sierra Nevada. “I ran across his work and just came undone,” he says. “His poetry really spoke to me in that minimalistic form. Gary doesn’t use a lot of multisyllabic words, and I realized, shit, I was capable of writing.”
After graduation, he enrolled at the University of Southern California, distractedly studying business, certain “my graduation present would be an AR-15 and some camo gear”. But he failed the draft physical with a bum knee from a rugby injury and instead returned home to work the family ranch full-time. After first performing at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 1989, he launched the quarterly Dry Crik Review, encouraging verse grounded less in the past than the cowboy present, the challenges and opportunities facing ranchers today. Though he no longer prints the physical chapbooks, he continues to publish his own work on the Dry Crik Journal website. Work like The Climate of Change, in which he finally asks:
“How long can we be entertained
by delusion, the dissolution
of civility, of compassion
as the planet prepares
for the business of war –
already overstocked with banks
of houses stacked upon
the fading fruited plains?”
Dofflemyer often resists crediting human activity for global warming, but either way, he wrote: “It’s only prudent to make provisions for a warmer and drier climate where we can.”
As for immigration: “Congress needs to address our immigration policy in a practical and humane way. Separating children from their parents and holding immigrants in concentration camps is no better strategy than completing the construction of a wall that has been tunneled under for decades. Instead of a political bargaining chip, the Daca program needs to be resolved compassionately.”
An anti-war demonstrator during his college years, he admits he’s lately grown fatalistic, that he views his own political involvement as “a futile exercise.” And perhaps more importantly, he says, “relationships with neighboring ranchers are too vital and important for us to jeopardize, so it’s out of respect for them and getting along that we don’t discuss politics.”
Later that week, as visitors flooded downtown Elko and the group scattered to fulfill their various performance schedules, each of them told me separately they had never held any hopes of changing anyone’s mind and were certain no one had. Still, they were curious to see how the night would play out.
A few of them felt the exercise was important, a test of their friendship, an affront to the larger partisan forces currently alienating friends and relatives. Though none of them tested the waters again – certainly not on stage – they regretted little more than their own mismanagement of the dialogue. They had opined too much, or their questions had been too narrow, or they had lost track of the order. They had never gotten around to income inequality.
“I don’t have any illusions of saving the world, but you do what you can,” Steiger says. “And I will tell you that I feel a lot better after trying than I did just ranting and raving about those stupid son-of-a-guns who don’t agree with me.”
by Carson Vaughan | The Guardian