Spring/Summer 2008, Volume 24.3
Michael Engelhard holds a Master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Alaska. He was born in Germany but left in 1989, a few months before the Berlin Wall—and its assorted fences—came down. Transfixed by the still-wide-if-not-always-open spaces of the intermountain West and far North, he works as a freelance writer and wilderness guide. He has edited two anthologies and is the author of Redrock Almanac and Where the Rain Children Sleep.
"Eastward I go only by force, but west I go free," proclaimed Henry David Thoreau in Walking, or the Wild, which first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, in 1862, one month after his death. Drafted as early as 1852 (two years before the publication of Walden), the essay had been his most-frequently delivered lecture, and with it the transcendentalist from Concord helped perpetuate rumors of a West unfettered and wild, a Rousseauan utopia. "I believe that the forest which I see in the western horizon stretches uninterruptedly towards the setting sun," he wrote. His thoughts inspired the Hudson River School of landscape painting, whose canvases of sprawling and untrammeled lands helped define a new aesthetic. Thomas Moran and Alfred Bierstadt’s idealized western scenes in particular sparked excitement that led to the declaration of America’s first national parks, Yellowstone and Yosemite.
Fearing the appropriation of public space by private interests, Thoreau also had words of caution. Observing a worldly miser who was out with a surveyor, "looking for an old post-hole in the midst of paradise," he mourned what had largely been squandered east of the Missouri. With the nature diarist’s candid eye, he perceived the shadow of technological progress encroaching upon the Frontier, predicting the parceling of the land, the day "when it will be partitioned off… when fences shall be multiplied… and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing." He would have been shocked to find that less than three decades later, even in the glorious West of his imagination, the worst already seemed to have come true.
Eleven years after the philosopher’s death, a sheriff in Illinois—Joseph F. Glidden—witnessed a demonstration that would revolutionize animal husbandry as much as it would landscapes. At a county fair he saw a wooden rail spiked with nails that reinforced an ordinary wire fence effectively holding back cattle. Fashioning barbs on an adapted coffee grinder, Glidden improved on this prototype. He invented and patented and soon mass-produced the toothy, twisted strands that forever changed the face of the open range.
It would be too easy, however, and incorrect, to attribute the Great Plains’ closure to the advent of barbed wire alone. Even before the installation of artificial barriers, cattle culture had drawn intangible lines across the land. Most open range operators employed line riders to patrol areas in which livestock was grazing. Cowboys guarded the perimeter of herds day and night—pummeled by hail, blistered by sun, mired in mud or waist-deep in snow. They pulled cows and calves from swamps. They turned back strays. They battled rustlers and predators. They chopped open ice-lidded water holes. They doctored and delivered animals. They helped amass fortunes, but often died with nothing but a worn saddle to their name.
Thoreau celebrated men with the bark on, not polished ones, preferring "a people who would begin by burning the fences and let the forest stand!" over neighbors bound to plows or domestic routines. But the days of warlike horse societies were nearly over. Most nomadic Indian tribes, like Wyoming’s Shoshone, Arapaho, Crow, and Cheyenne, had already been confined to reservations, immobilized within ghettos they could only leave at the risk of losing government annuities or of being hunted down like rabid dogs. Following completion of the Union Pacific railroad, bison, their succor and sustenance, had been nearly wiped out in a systematic attempt to pacify the "hostiles." Destitute, disempowered, and crowded together they lingered beyond the pale, beyond the stockades and gates of frontier forts—beggars at their own doorstep.
Safe from raiding parties, ranch owners began fencing tracts of prime grassland, reducing the need for hired hands. They employed short sections of barbed wire—Thoreau’s "fences half consumed, their ends lost in the middle of the prairie"—to safeguard gaps in the landscape through which cattle often escaped from its habitual ranges. Such drift fences were rarely linked to each other and, supposedly, did not much hinder travelers or wildlife.
All this changed with the terrible winter of 1886-1887. Following summers of drought and prairie fires, blizzards buried pastures under sleet and snow. Overstocking and overgrazing by more stationary domestic herds (as compared to bison), had already exhausted the range. As a result of heavy livestock losses, ranchers and cattle company managers took to fencing in pastureland, where they could easily attend to cattle and grow hay for the winter. These developments signaled the end of an era—the brief flourishing of overland drives, which founded an entire mythology—and the beginning of the fence cutting wars in Texas and elsewhere.
Fenced-off lands meant that more and more, herders became dependent on public lands, which consequently deteriorated. Even today, the difference between grazed and ungrazed range is painfully obvious: cheatgrass, Russian thistle, prickly pear, and sage replace grama (or "buffalo grass"), muhly, galleta and other grasses on disturbed soils. Any westerner living close to a nature preserve is familiar with the sight of boot-high grass on one side of a fence set against eroded stubble on the other. Plowed lots can be in even worse shape. One ranch owner saw airborne topsoil from neighboring fields bury her pasture up to the fence tops. And this did not happen during the Dust Bowl years.
As usual, the military was quick to adopt this latest invention. The newfangled fence helped grind down armies in Europe during a three-year stalemate of trench warfare that consumed millions of lives, human and animal. During massive offensives, soldiers’ bodies had to be left hanging in the wire obstacles protecting No Man’s Land, where shrapnel or bullets killed them again and again.
The artifact that many Plains Indians called the Devil’s Rope (for its proclivity to cripple their ponies) truly embodied attitudes toward the wild and the tame; it was the product of a nature philosophy and worldview that seek control. The word fence shares etymological roots with defense, a physical stance as much as a psychological one. A wall is more honest in its purpose than a fence; it does not uphold the illusion of coherence, the pretense that this side and that side belong to the same universe. As with walls, our viewpoint of a fence changes everything; our prospects vary, depending on which field we find ourselves in. As a manifestation not only of linear thinking, but even more so of xenophobia, fences segregate. They keep out the nonconformist. The unkempt. The unwanted. The non-human. The subhuman. At the same time they prevent flight. Old time Bronc busters worked in corrals, and even modern-day horse whisperers seek obedience inside the round pen, a place without corners in which to hide. Watching a neighbor’s cow break out of her pasture once, Thoreau cheered, glad to see farm animals display vestiges of their original wild habits and vigor. He likened the mad dash for freedom to buffaloes stampeding across the Missouri.
Fulfilling Thoreau’s most dire predictions, from the Cold War period onward the country increasingly curtailed movement of its human and non-human residents—all in the name of growth. Actual and symbolic dividers crisscross the New West, leaving it fragmented, a quilt of private and public lands, national parks and wilderness areas, state parks and preserves. Power lines, dams, roads, railroads, canals, pipelines, clearcuts, state and county lines, condominiums and ranchettes now join fences in the subjugation of space, multiplying as if possessed by a will of their own.
The ecological costs are tremendous. As bio-geographers point out, isolated populations become genetically uniform and thus more susceptible to disease or changes in their environment. Highways and Interstates take a direct, bloody toll. A few years ago, a female wolf from the Lamar Valley died while trying to cross Utah’s I-70. Unwilling to stay put, she had traveled from Yellowstone with a mate, avoiding swaths of development, en route to her clan’s former hunting grounds. Not even our national parks guarantee refuge. On Yellowstone’s roads alone, 1,559 large mammals died between 1989 and 2003. Barbed wire fences as well cause insidious damage to animals. They typically do not affect slow-moving grazers, like cattle, sheep, or bison, which pull back at the first notion of pain. More high-strung horses on the other hand panic upon contact and become tangled up. Once caught in the wire, skin is lacerated or tissue torn off, sometimes exposing bone. Such injuries may heal but can also cause infections, disability, or death. Bats and birds, especially low-flying raptors chasing prey, may overlook the deadly gossamer. Many become ensnared and when they try to pull free suffer broken wings, cuts, or impalement.
Ironically, the animal Thoreau considered to be symbolic of non-partitioned space could benefit from better fences.
After the wholesale slaughter of sixty million bison that heralded the Industrial Age, a mere 23 survivors greeted the twentieth century. Today their descendants grace Yellowstone National Park: America’s only free roaming, genetically pure and wild population. But the herd of several thousand animals is beleaguered. Harsh winters in the high country and scarce forage trigger a Pleistocene urge to wander. The shaggy beasts obey it by drifting into lower-elevation grasslands—their traditional ranges outside the park—dark and silent and inscrutable as storm clouds. To a bison, the trees on both sides of a line look alike; the invisible edge, however, separates life from death. Ranchers who own land or hold grazing permits on adjacent National Forest lands fear for the health of their cattle. Although the transmission of brucellosis from bison to cattle is hard to establish (Wyoming elk are the main suspects here), the livestock industry calls for the shooting of trespassing buffalo. The state of Montana allows private hunters to cull the herd by issuing several hundred hunting licenses every year. Its Department of Livestock loads stray buffaloes onto cattle trucks and sends them to slaughterhouses. In response to public outrage, state officials have begun to haze bison back into the park where they face starvation. The National Park Service in turn caps the Yellowstone herd at its sustainable maximum of 3,000 animals. It rounds up excess buffalo and trucks them off to be butchered.
On the flip side, cows are still grazing in Grand Teton National Park. The 1950 act that established this park also made provisions for the continuation of grazing privileges. Ranchers, who were already established in the vicinity, as well as their heirs and designated successors, were grandfathered in. In order to concentrate and limit the destruction free-ranging cattle wrought within park boundaries, federal managers set aside 14,000 acres for use by permit holders. They fenced and irrigated this allotment at taxpayers’ expense.
Competition between bison and livestock over pasture seems to fuel antagonism as much as, or even more than, the fear of contagious disease. Ranchers also routinely complain that bison damage expensive fences and injure their animals (in addition to coyotes breaking into hen houses and entering sheep pens). Wildlife observers, however, claim that bison try to walk around fences or at times even jump them. No mean feat for a 2000-pound animal. Trying to find solutions for all parties involved, environmental organizations like Wyoming’s Buffalo Field Campaign negotiate safe zones for buffalo with sympathetic landowners. Volunteers help with fence repair but insist that the true culprits are elk. A few ranchers have opted for bison-proof electric fences, up to seven feet high; these also keep out pronghorn antelope and deer.
The crusade against trespassing wildlife finds its most horrific expression in the custom of crucifying coyotes on barbed wire (the western equivalent of nailing crows to barn doors.) Allegedly, the sight of their dead brethren will drive the "varmints" away. Occasionally one finds several carcasses strung along a fence line; desiccated or crawling with maggots, skulls pierced by fence poles, eyes filmed over or turned into gaping holes, they form a macabre procession. Some may wear baseball caps, a sweatshirt, even a Santa hat. Sometimes they bear handwritten messages mocking their deaths.
One can hardly begin to explain such actions against animals, and towards humans the explanation recedes even further. In their dealings with unruly nature or even their own kind, individuals as well as societies are wont to commit acts of transgression. Forever the critic of lifestyles and their underlying values, Thoreau categorized his New England neighbors—and people in general—by employing metaphors of ambulation: "Some do not walk at all, others walk in the high-ways; a few walk across lots."
Frequenting gay bars in turn-of-the-millennium Wyoming clearly put Matthew Shepard on the wrong side of a cultural divide. The 21-year-old University of Wyoming student was beaten and robbed on the rangelands near Laramie. He had defied rigid sexual norms, had refused to let others define his boundaries. Matthew’s killers, who first befriended him, tied him up with his own shoelaces and left him to die on a fence, in a pose reminiscent of reviled canines.
Not long after the crime, the property owner dismantled his fence. Perhaps there is still hope to walk a West that Thoreau deemed the stage for moral progress, a West that is "but another name for the Wild."