Invasion of the Feral Cows; Rain Follows the Plow?
Foto Friday: Sacred datura
Invasion of the feral cows
The Gila National Forest is going to start shooting cattle — of the feral kind — that are wreaking havoc in the Gila Wilderness in southern New Mexico. As many as 150 head of unbranded cattle, apparently remnants of a livestock operation that went belly up in the 1970s, have been trampling the land and wrecking streams and eating forage and even getting aggressive with hikers. In other words, they’re doing what cattle tend to do on public lands. But since these cows have no owners to pay the whopping $1.35 per-month per-cow-calf-pair fee to do these things, they’re in violation of the law. Thus the planned bovine hunt.
The Center for Biological Diversity has been pushing the feds to do something about the cattle for ages. But the Associated Press reports that ranchers and “rural advocates,” whatever that is, are opposed to the hunt. They want the opportunity to round up the cattle and take them to market so as not to waste an “economic resource.” Keep in mind that the livestock industry typically advocates shooting wolves (because they can eat cows) and wild horses (because they compete with cattle for forage).
On Twitter, “The Slickrock Stranger” asks wryly whether this means the feds will also go after Cliven Bundy’s & sons’ cattle, which can be considered feral, as well, since they have been illegally grazing BLM land in Nevada for ages. Don’t count on it, Stranger.
It makes me wonder: Will there be a Save the Wild Cows movement akin to the wild horse one? Will a CGI version of Clift Montgomery drive across the Nevada desert freeing feral cows from Clark Gable’s ropes at Marilyn Monroe’s behest in a bovine-centric remake of the 1961 film, The Misfits?
While you consider that, here are some (sorry) morbid data points putting this event into perspective:
63,965 Number of coyotes killed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services in 2021, mostly to protect livestock.
663 Number of feral chickens killed by Wildlife Services in 2021.
549 Number of feral cats killed by Wildlife Services in 2021.
0 Number of feral cattle killed or euthanized by Wildlife Services in 2021.
On the 1870s theory of Human-caused climate change
Okay, so, a lot of you may already know the history behind the saying, “Rain Follows the Plow.” I did not until, well, last week, when I was researching this piece about Arizona water politics. I have always assumed that it was just some folk saying that the white American colonial-settlers used to reassure themselves that moving to the arid West was going to be okay and that once they started farming the rains would come.
But people in the mid-19th century actually took it a lot more seriously, as I found out from reading “Rain Follows the Plow: The Notion of Increased Rainfall for the Great Plains, 1844-1880” by Henry Nash Smith. “Rain follows the plow” was shorthand for a theory of human-caused climate change held by folks who perhaps should have known better.
Take, for example, Ferdinand V. Hayden, the USGS surveyor and scientific explorer who led expeditions through the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado, among other places. Hayden believed that the Plains were arid because the Rocky Mountains stripped moisture from Pacific storms and he also subscribed to an earlier theory that planting trees could increase rainfall (set forth in George P. Marsh’s 1874 book, “The Earth as Modified by Human Action.”) So, he proposed planting a bunch of trees along the edge of the Plains so the “forests may be restored to these almost treeless prairies” and rainfall would match the forested East.
But it’s not just trees. In 1875 one of Hayden’s colleagues attributed a “popular notion of a climatic change” — i.e. increased rainfall — to plowing the land and building railroads and telegraph lines. As crazy as it sounds, Nash Smith notes: “the American Association for the Advancement of Science likewise gave at least indirect endorsement to the notion that rainfall might be increased in the arid West through human agency.”
So, once this theory was developed, it could be used to influence politics. In the 1870s, John Wesley Powell and others wanted to alter the public lands system to make it more compatible with the realities of the Western U.S. Since there wasn’t enough rain for viable farming, they figured the standard 160-acre homestead wouldn’t be adequate to sustain a family, and advocated for withdrawing Western lands from homestead entry. But another faction — including real estate interests — wanted to keep the current system intact, because, they believed, developing the arid lands would banish the aridity.
Another Hayden associate, Samuel Aughey, put it like this in a report to the Public Land Commission: “It is the great increase in the absorptive power of the soil, wrought by cultivation, that has caused, and continues to cause an increasing rainfall in the State (Nebraska).” Later a real estate speculator named Charles Dana Wilber rephrased Aughey’s words as “Rain Follows the Plow.” That became the homesteaders’ battle cry as they did war with the “owners of the great herds of cattle” who were trying to rework the public lands system to their benefit, according to Wilber.
The “Rain Follows the Plow” theory wouldn’t survive the droughts of the 1880s and 1890s, by which point there were plenty of rail and telegraph lines, farms, plows, and other development to coax precipitation from the sky if it were true. It was replaced by different versions of the same concept, whether it be exploding dynamite in rain clouds to blast the precipitation free, seeding the clouds, building dams and pipelines or desalination plants.
And, of course, there’s the current version apparently believed by the developers and their enablers: Water will follow the housing development, even in the arid West.
Foto Friday: Sacred Datura
There is a place in southeastern Utah, out on the Great Sage Plain, where the sage is all gone, many of the cacti have been trampled into oblivion, and the grasses and flowers decimated by grazing. Cattle and horses’ hooves have ground the cryptobiotic crust into fine dust. But every summer, after the monsoon arrives, the roadside ditches bustle with viridescent shrubs, the leaves so dusky green they seem more suited to jungle than desert.
Sacred datura; jimsonweed; thornapple; moonflower.
The huge, pure, and delicate yet utterly concupiscent flowers are night bloomers. They awake only after dusk takes the edge off desert heat and exude a haunting odor in the moonlight. Rise early enough and you, too, can find one still awake, a pollen-dusted bee clinging drunkenly to the pale yellow pistil, ravaging it with frenzy, filling you with jealousy and envy. Oh to be the bee. Oh to be that bee’s tropane-alkaloid dreams.
It is perhaps the most dangerous flower and the most erotic. The silky skin of the bloom, the sultry depth of the green, the thorny flesh of the seedpod. Eat it and, at best, you will suffer hallucinations and, possibly: fever, delirium, respiratory depression, vomiting, psychosis. You also may die. I once knew a guy who ate some datura seeds. He tripped for six days. Even worse, after he thought he had flushed it out of his system, and he was trying to function, the hallucinations would return without warning.
I think it’s my favorite flower, rivaled only by the sunflower and the dandelion. And in these snow filled winter days, the photos I’ve made of datura remind me of summer, of warm nights, of August rain, of the starlit hummingbird moth piercing the bloom with its proboscis and doing no damage at all.
Great piece! Those cows are a part of Western history. They conjure up images of Goodnight and Loving. Clearly a humane roundup is going to happen. But first we need a multi-million dollar study to figure out how many can remain sustainably. How many cows wallowing in a drainage are too many? Then turn out the captured beeves on fed-maintained acreage, and feed them hay in winters. Adopt the pretty ones...
Now I see that inside the journalist beats a fine dryland prose poet. Datura follows the rain.