Shadd Piehl, Henry Real Bird and Paul Zarzyski perform for a packed crowd at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering during a session titled "Wide Open." (Carson Vaughan)

For Cowboy Poets, One Topic is Taboo

They love the land. But few at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering want to talk about how climate change is ravaging the West.

BY Carson Vaughan

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If there is one unifying theme, it is a deference for the land and the many ways it can fool and delight.

In Colstrip, Mont., long before the second-largest coal-fired power plant west of the Mississippi coughed to life in the mid-70s, ranchers used to ice the Rosebud Creek. They cut fat, glistening blocks from idle pockets of the river and stacked them in a house insulated with sawdust. They butchered their beef, wrapped it in Bemis Seamless feed sacks, and packed their chuck and sirloin in the ice before the temperatures rose and the sandhill cranes returned. The original refrigerator. At the saloon in the nearby town of Rosebud, they’d place bets on when the Yellowstone River would melt. They’d list the date and the time of day, morning or afternoon, when the ice would break and the waters would run again.
 
“We can’t ice the creek anymore, because the creek doesn’t freeze this thick in a slow spot,” says rancher and Colstrip native Wally McRae, chin on chest, holding his hands a foot apart. “And the ice doesn’t go out of the Yellowstone anymore, because it doesn’t freeze. So don’t tell me there isn’t such a thing as climate change.”
 
Climate change is arguably the biggest threat to life in the West, endangering its most essential resource: water. Shorter winters mean thinner snowpacks, and thinner snowpacks mean less runoff during the hot, dry months when plants, animals, and ranchers need it most. And thus ranchers in the West are often stuck choosing between the lesser of many evils: digging expensive new wells, culling the herd, buying extra feed, leasing additional land or simply overgrazing what they have left. To cap it off, according to the National Climate Assessment in 2013, “all these factors may reduce both the short-term returns and longer-term debt and borrowing capacity of ranchers.”
 
And yet, at the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, one of the largest celebrations of Western culture, you’re not likely to hear the terms “climate change” or “global warming” couched in a quatrain or crowning any heroic couplets.
 
Every year since 1985, cowboys like McRae have stabled their horses, swapped out their boots and descended on the gold-mining town of Elko, Nev., in the gutter-slush of winter to recite their homegrown poetry on stage. If there is one unifying theme, it is a deference for the land and the many ways it can fool and delight. Cowboy poet Drummond Hadley writes of “the winter sunlight on the pale dust.” Rodeo poet Paul Zarzyski describes, “sundown rolling up its softest nap of autumn light over the foothills.”
 
But save for a small minority, most of the poets who rendezvous in Elko—people who run ranches or spend their lives working cattle on horseback—either remain skeptical of the science or outright reject it. And even McRae, who emerged as a leading voice of opposition to capricious coal development in Montana in the 1970s and 1980s and has since risen to demigod status within the world of cowboy poetry, fears breaking a cardinal, if unspoken rule: Thou shalt not talk politics.
 
“I think people are afraid to get into some kind of divisive discourse about that,” says Gail Steiger, a rancher and singer-songwriter from Yavapai County, Ariz., who has been attending the Gathering since 1988. “It’s almost like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and maybe global warming is going to put you blatantly in the blue box, and now your red box friends are going to never speak to you again. We’ve got to get over that.”
 
It’s no small hurdle. I’ve covered this wonderfully romantic and peculiar celebration extensively in the past, enough to both admire its magic and itch with some of its more uncomfortable truths. Those who brazenly assume a monolithic community of uneducated, conservative white ranchers sell the event short; in fact, the Gathering, which now attracts nearly 10,000 visitors and roughly 150 performers each year, has opened wide for me, a born and bred Nebraskan, a panorama of the West far more cultured than I’d ever afforded it. This year’s theme was “Basques & Buckaroos: Herding Cultures of Basin, Range and Beyond.” The Gathering featured a number of Bertsolaritza performances, a Basque tradition akin to slam poetry, an art form both improvised and competitive.
 
I’ve also watched my own cousin, a rancher from central Nebraska, rap his own poem onstage while Dom Flemons, a Grammy Award-winning folk artist and scholar of black cowboy songs, accompanied him on the bones. I’ve watched Ramblin’ Jack Elliott sit between two cowboy songsters, reminiscing about his many drunken exploits with old friends like Woody Guthrie or Jack Kerouac or Bob Dylan.
 
I’ve written in praise of the Gathering’s ability to unify, or at least chip away at the political stalemate paralyzing the United States today, and the prospect of shattering that annual, weeklong armistice is more than enough to make even the most trigger-happy on either side think twice.
 
Along with her husband Tim, poet Carolyn Dufurrena now works the Quinn River Ranch, 75 miles west of Winnemucca, Nev. Born in Louisiana, she was raised in Iowa and Nebraska, earned her bachelor’s degree at Wellesley College—a private women’s liberal arts school in Massachusetts—her masters in geology at the University of Texas, and later worked five years for Exxon before moving to the same valley her husband’s Basque family has ranched since 1906.
 
We spent an hour squirreled away in a back corner of the Elko Convention Center on my second morning in town, crowds filing past between shows. She waxes, well, poetic, about her life on the ranch, about the need to adapt and to “pay attention to the health of the land if your interest is in staying there for the long haul.” She articulates her frustrations with the Bureau of Land Management and the burdens imposed by federal regulations—how ranchers like her and her husband who live and work on the land are superseded by federal employees who have barely stepped foot on the range—and she does so diplomatically, often empathizing with the challenges on the other side. But climate change?
 
“Before the Second World War everybody believed in eugenics, as well,” she says. “I think there’s been a tremendous amount of hype built into [climate change], because people are going to profit from it. Al Gore bought a $9 million dollar house in [Montecito]. That’s the bottom line.”
 
She mocks the label “climate skeptic,” but dismisses the urgency of climate change. She believes the data has been misrepresented by academics under the pressure to “publish or perish,” but also that climate change is an “urban issue,” she tells me, laughing away any suggestions to the contrary, say that cattle are a major source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. She believes the climate is changing, but that this particular era is merely a blip in geologic time, that “10,000 years ago these valleys were full of water, it was the Ice Age, and it’s been getting warmer ever since.” She questions whether it’s really man-made, but condemns Walmart parking lots and airplane contrails for it anyway. I ask her why one doesn’t hear more about the topic at an event filled with thousands of people who work the land.
 
“You don’t want to annoy people,” she says. “If I were really brave I would do some poems like that, but I’m not sure if they’d ever ask me back.” We step outside for a quick photo after the interview. It’s the start of February and nearly 60 degrees, 20 above average for Elko. The surrounding Ruby Mountains, typically white, are muddy and bare. Dufurrena tries connecting me with another poet walking past. “He asked me a bunch of questions about climate change and cowboy poetry,” she says, her eyebrows raised.
 
Without missing a beat, Rodney Nelson, a rancher from North Dakota, responds flatly, “Those two things go together?”
 
The next day, Dufurrena performed during a session titled, “Women’s Voices from the American West to Basque Country.” She said she’d spoken to a reporter who was “really concerned about, I guess, the intersection of cowboy poetry and climate change.” She said she doesn’t often get political here, but here was something short. A poem called, “A Cowgirl Contemplates Climate Change.”
 
I have to say it’s kinda nice
Not to spend the winter
Chopping ice,
And to tell you the truth
When I wake up in the morning
The last thing on my mind
Is global warming.
 
Picture it: a room full of those who profess their love for the Great American West, for those big open skies and red-dirt mesas and the long shadow of a towering saguaro and a butte dusted with the first snowflakes of winter and the herd gathering before the storm and that wind you can hear from miles away—all of them erupting with laughter in the face of crisis.

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Carson Vaughan writes frequently about the American West. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Guardian, The Atlantic, VICE and Outside. He’s working on a book about the small town of Royal, Nebraska.

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