Sunday, March 01, 2015

The once and future

I got into the sheep ranching story somewhere in the middle of the book. Both of my encounters with El Cubano Victor Hernandez happened at the end of the grazing chapter and now after trailing the sheep for a dozen or so miles and being part of the shearing festivities last weekend I'm hooked in a big way.

The story began to tell itself during the two day trek to the Abeyta ranch in Mogote, Colorado a couple of weeks ago. The shearing of the sheep, an event that is deeply communal, has given cultural context to the tale. If I treasured meeting Victor and trailing the sheep to Mogote, being part of the shearing has only deepened my appreciation for the rich history and uncertain future of sheep ranching and the proud culture of family, faith and the land in the San Luis Valley.

In the corral

In the chute

Aaron Abeyta gives a push

Inside the shearing trailer


Bob Barr's shearing rig

Branson Barr feeding the EZ Baler

400 pound bales of wool

Not so long ago the Abeyta family’s neighbors in Mogote would pitch in to gather the sheep and to prod them through a long chute where each would be shorn with hand shears. It was hard, time consuming work that produced forearms like Popeye’s.

Today a handful of friends and neighbors, all volunteers, arrive at the ranch to help Los Abeytas with the shearing but as much, it seems to me, to be part of an age old ritual and to be part of the clan. The clan is united by a shared history of lean times and the hard work of wresting a living from the earth. It is united in a separateness born of its history, ethnicity, income and loss.

If in the old times the shearing was done by the family and the clan, today the shearing itself is done by Tom Barr’s hired hands who shear a sheep with an electric razor in three minutes or less. Tom and his four assistants hail from the Mormon farming community of Sanford which lies about thirty miles from Mogote just past La Jara. I asked him how long he had owned his roving rig and he told me, “My dad built the thing in 1965 so it’s fifty years old. I remodeled it ten years ago. Put new siding on it. That guy (pointing at the number three shearer) did the work.” To my knowledge Bob has the only family owned shearing operation in southern Colorado and he and his vagabond crew drive as far as Montrose to shear sheep. What happens if Bob folds his tent is a question that looms as large as what happens when the 76 year old Cubano can’t herd the sheep anymore. The forecast is partly cloudy in this part of the San Luis Valley where the future of the Abeyta sheep operation mirrors the uncertainty of the Hispano ranching culture in southern Colorado.

One dead ewe and another just hanging on
Running sheep is not for the meek. There are nicks and cuts from the shearing and not every animal survives the march from the Taos Plateau. "We lose a few each year. Just like human beings, some are not strong enough to make it." Andrew Abeyta tells me. It's a poignant truth in a life rooted as strongly as faith to the land.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Open 2015

Silent Running
Opening March 10 and ending April 3 I’ll be part of the exhibition Open 2015 at PhotoPlace Gallery in Middlebury, Vermont. This will be my fourth group show at PhotoPlace. I am honored to have had "Silent Running" selected by the esteemed educator and photographer Jeff Curto, Professor Emeritus of the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

It’s hard enough to choose images to submit to shows with themes. It’s something else again to select a handful of images from about a million. Ever since I started to develop the Fog Series in 2013 it has hovered near the surface of my consciousness so when choosing photographs to submit all were from that series. I happen to know Jeff has a poetic streak and may even have a soft spot for lyrical images.

Appropriately enough Silent Running was taken during the Putney Regatta on the Connecticut River in Putney, Vermont several years back. It's rather pictorialist I think, something Alfred Stieglitz relegated to the photographic dust bin a century ago. Maybe it's coming back.

To see all the images in the show click on the link below and page down.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Pie in the sky

The history of homesteading in America began with the Homestead Act of 1862 and continued through 1950s mostly in Alaska and the great barrens of Southern California. In the Homestead Act of 1938 five acre patches of the Morongo Valley east of Twentynine Palms were leased to the delusional for $5.00 and the pledge to develop the land in the most minimal way. For most that was to build a simple cabin or buy one pre-built for $1,000 or so. Water, alas, was not as easily accessed and at the sole expense of said lessee. For those who created a habitable abode a “Patent”, a kind of ownership, was awarded. 

It should be no surprise that the vast majority of these homesteads have become feral denizens of the unforgiving desert. A few survive today and can be had for $30,000 or $40,000 complete with water, electric and A/C.

If there is a community hub for this vast aridness it is Wonder Valley where there’s a bar and restaurant that looked like it could actually function though there’s no guarantee of that. 

Of homesteading in general the intrepid John Wesley Powell proffered that it’s a pretty good idea when there’s sufficient water and land to support a family unit but that west of say the longitude of central Texas you're selling folks some pie in the sky and world of hurt.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

First Ewe. Last shepherd.

I walked for two days with Victor Hernandez as he trailed his sheep from their forage across US 285 from San Antonio Mountain in northern New Mexico to their late winter pasture in Mogote, Colorado just east of Antonito. Make that two epically muddy slogs through ankle deep sludge that left my shins aching for a week. Victor looks like he’s sauntering but I could barely keep up.

While Victor did the trailing it was the Australian Sheep Dogs, Daddy and Puppy, that did the real herding, nipping at the occasional tail to keep the flock moving.

Starting out on a diagonal course to US 285

Victor and the flock with the north flank of San Antonio Mountain in the background

Entering the pasture in Mogote. Hay and water at the ready.

I learned that Victor had been bivouacked with los borregos at San Antonio since September and had earlier grazed the sheep in the high mountains of the Cruces Basin.

The sheep, all descendants of single ewe from the 1920s, will be sheared on February 20 or 21 depending on the availability of the shearers. According to patron Andrew Abeyta there will be nicks and cuts aplenty, some of which can have deadly consequences. I will be there for the assembly line but hope to miss any mortal wounds.

Lambing will occur in March and in September the critters will be sold to the buyer in Center, Colorado at the sweet little price of $2.00 a pound give or take. Last year the Abeytas sold 400 at about 100 pounds per. Andrew was prompted to say, “I wish I had more at those prices.” Still there are no guarantees in the up and down market for baby sheep.

Did you know that most ewes birth twins or that the sheep eat snow to get their fluids?

Sunday, February 01, 2015

On the road to Wind Mountain

The first right that accesses the Taos Plateau north of US 64 on US 285 is marked Wind Mountain. TP 178 if memory serves. Barely a mile in I spied a ramshackle corral in six inches of new snow. Corrals, as you know by now, draw me like Manchego cheese to Marcona almonds. And as a bonus beyond the corral sat this well worn abode. That sky didn't hurt either.

Corral close up.

Sheepherding adventures to grace these pages shortly.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Flat out beautiful

The Taos Plateau from the west rim of the Rio Grande Gorge just above the John Dunn Bridge

Between Victor "Cuba" Hernandez and the Taos Plateau you've endured a plague of arid expanses on these pages. The Plateau is a sweep of land that exemplifies William deBuys' description of dry places making the lamentable transition from grasslands to desert scrub. It's also part of the new Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, the lesser part to almost everybody but me.

And speaking of the immortal Cuba, I'm excited to report that I will helping him herd 500 sheep to Colorado within the week. Patron Alfonzo Abeyta's grazing lease ends on January 31 and the borregos must head north or be left to wander the plateau for eternity.

And now I can say "more to come" with absolute certainty. Applause line.

An abandoned corral east of Pinahetosa Peaks
Old homestead near Cerro Chilla

"Monument" will be the subject of a two person show in May at Wilder Nightingale Fine Art in Taos I will share the spotlight with the talented painter Peggy Immel. Be there or be square in the parlance of the sixties.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Working Hands

This photograph dates back more than forty years. It's from Old Sturbridge Village in western Massachusetts on one of our frequent visits to the charming recreation of a New England farm town in the 1820s. It’s a place our family loved when the children were young and when we were first in the thrall of the four seasons, the patina and the history of early America. Still are.

Old Sturbridge depicts life in rural Massachusetts of that early time. Interpreters play the roles of blacksmiths, basket makers, coopers and the like. It was a magical place to celebrate Thanksgiving in the old tavern, something we did several times when we lived in Wellesley.

The elder shown here deftly wields his knife to forge a whistle out of a pea pod. His weathered hands pay homage to rigorous life on the frontier. The brim of his straw hat shields hands from the high November sun.

It's a scan of a negative from my first DSLR, the seminal Pentax Spotmatic, and though I've lost some shadow detail, the image carries me back to the richness of New England and deep feelings that will never fade.