Monday, July 29, 2013

The Pronghorn Principle

Pronghorns grazing the Llano Alto

As we've traveled around New Mexico sightseeing with our visitor from California, we've passed by a number of stands and herds of the ubiquitous but elusive pronghorn, the North American antelope-mimic that people can spend a lifetime Out West never outwitting or even seeing.

In our area, they graze with the cattle as the sun goes down in the late afternoon and early evening, trying to blend in as it were, passing for dappled calves you might say, though we have seen them in the fields at high noon as well. They get through the barbed wire fences with ease, the cattle seem to enjoy their somewhat skittish company, and the grazing land seems only lightly touched by their presence.

Yesterday, as we passed by the grazing herds of cattle and pronghorn on our way to a literary evening at the IAIA south of Santa Fe, we noticed the antelope were all keeping approximately the same distance from the road, about 800 to 1000 yards, just beyond the distance it was easy to see them or a rifle shot might reach, and I thought, "How wise. These animals are very sharp." Indeed.

There was a time not so long ago when it was reported poachers were going around parts of New Mexico shooting pronghorns just for the fun of it, apparently, leaving the carcasses to rot on the range. This was and is considered poor form to say the least. There is a legal hunting season for pronghorn, but to leave them scattered dead on the range out of season and for no particular reason strikes most of us onlookers as bewildering -- but typical -- cruelty, waste, and stupidity. It was assumed the culprit or culprits were adolescent or post-adolescent males. Isn't that always the case? But in these parts, it may not be true. It could be pissed off hunters making a statement because they can't get tags from Game and Fish to hunt them legally; it might just as easily be girl or matriarch hunters as well.

Much of the local range is still yellow and dry looking, but a great deal of it has turned a lush, brilliant green thanks to the abundant and sometimes overabundant rain. This does not mean our drought is broken, by the way, far from it. We would need about twice the amount of rain we've had to actually get up to a normal year's rainfall total. Not to mention the lack of snow last winter which left the ski slopes bare and forlorn.

The cattle, including longhorns and their pronghorn companions, are in the greenfields, and they'll no doubt move when the drier fields green up. On the road to the Very Large Array last fall, we saw pronghorn right up against the roadside fenceline, but out here, bordering Hi-Lo Country, they stay well away. Wary, they are. We stopped at one point to get a picture of a pair that was closer to the road than most of their companions, but as soon as one of us got out of the vehicle, they bolted. It is their way.

Speaking of the Hi-Lo, one of our adventures while showing our guest around was a stop at the New Mexico History Museum's Cowboy exhibit up in Santa Fe. It was a superb exhibit -- of course, this is New Mexico, where the American Cowboy originated as the vaquero and where real cowboying is a way of life to this day.

So. Part of the exhibit (which is called Cowboys, Real and Imagined) included some material from "Ol'" Max Evans (as he's known), the man who wrote the novel "Hi-Lo Country" based on his experiences cowboying, ranching, writing and art-making up in the northeast corner of New Mexico after the War. A movie was made of his novel a while ago, but not that long ago, featuring Woody Harrelson and Billy Crudup, among others, and when we saw it, it became something of a touchstone for our eventual relocation to this central New Mexico version of El Llano Alto. For us, this little corner of the exhibit was the link that tied it all together. But that's us. Others might see it quite differently, focusing on aspects of the Cowboy image important to them.

They say the Cowboy Way is so over now, and Cowboy Culture is gone, and there are no Cowboys anymore. The lamentations have become part of the conventional wisdom, but we live in one of New Mexico's wide-spreading Cowboy Countries, and there is no lack of cattle or cowboys or cowboying that I'm aware of. Cowboys aren't gone, and the Cowboy Culture isn't gone, but both are different now, much as traditional Spanish culture and Indian culture have changed and are no longer what they used to be. We may not see them anymore, or perhaps what we see of them is the ersatz rather than the real, the Cowboy Style, not unlike the ersatz of Santa Fe Style. But the real cowboy culture is still there, just as real Hispanic and real Indian cultures are. But they are different now. They are not what they used to be. Nor will they ever be like they used to be again.

Just as the pronghorn we see when we travel around New Mexico mingle and graze with the many cattle on the range, something they wouldn't and couldn't have done before there were cattle on the range, the various cultural icons of New Mexico and the West are still around, intermingled with the newcomers.

The newcomers who've changed everything.

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