For Love of Country

Why land will always have a hold on us.  

February 2015By Comments

A stretch of land off U.S. 385 between Marathon and Fort Stockton.
James H. Evans

The mare pasture at the Seven L Ranch is horse heaven. Just half an hour from the Gulf of Mexico and close to the little burg of Devers, this field looks level from a short distance, though really the ground undulates with tiny hummocks of thick-growing bahia grass, salt grass, and Bermuda. Lines of bramble and short scrub trees grow along culverts and a live creek, delineating the pasture’s wide boundaries. The sky is very blue. At the approach of a truck, the horses turn and raise their heads in unison, and when the truck stops and its occupants climb out, the horses amble toward them with the deliberate, unhurried speed of old friends greeting one another. The mare band consists of mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, and cousins. They are slick-sided, big-barreled, and gleaming, the spires of their ears perked and their expressions soft and curious as they semicircle around their visitors. 

Texans have always yearned for land and fine creatures, and here, at the Seven L, it is easy to fall in love with this grassy abundance and these robust, personable mares arching their pretty necks. It is easy to want this beauty and bounty. Virtually nothing in ranching is genuinely easy, though, and whatever success and quality the Seven L can boast come from long decades of careful planning and management. “The ranch is one-hundred-ten years old this year,” says Paxton Ramsey, who owns the ranch along with his mother, Susan Ramsey, and his sister, Romney Velazquez. “It means everything to me. It’s what gets me up before my alarm clock, a responsibility that is one-hundred-ten years old.”

A Texan’s reverence for land ownership comes somewhat naturally. Ranching, while it has changed over time, remains one of the state’s great identifiers, and while folks in other places undoubtedly forge profound connections to their properties, Texas is different in that the core of the state’s history is inextricably bound to the keeping and parceling out of land. 

A brief, whirlwind history lesson: In the 1700’s, Spain began handing out land grants to those willing to endure the hardship of staking out lives on a sparsely populated and dangerous frontier. While the Spanish didn’t settle Texas in large numbers, they were responsible for the invaluable addition of horses, cattle, and sheep to these parts. (Interestingly, some of the original Spanish land laws, especially about community property, coastal ownership, and preventing forced sales of land, are still in use.) By 1821 Mexico had taken over, and to populate this vast territory, the new government courted foreign settlers with land allotments of 4,428 acres for grazing, plus another 177 acres for farming, along with tax incentives and Mexican naturalization. Mexican law also prevented seizure of a homestead should a settler fall into debt. The land wasn’t free—certain fees were charged—but the grants were darned cheap even for then, about 3 cents an acre, which was less expensive than land in the United States. 

As any Texas seventh-grade-history student knows, settlers did come, and lots of them. Empresarios like Stephen F. Austin contracted with the government to procure and establish single men and families in Texas, and by doing so, these empresarios themselves earned premium tracts of land. When the Texas Revolution rolled around, in 1836, soldiers were rewarded for the fight with the promise of acreage, and afterward, during the decade of the Texas Republic, the General Land Office oversaw the distribution of more than 40 million acres to veterans and settlers in “headright” certificates. African Americans and Native Americans, it should be noted, and those who fled military service, were deemed ineligible for those land grants. In 1844, when Congress was considering the annexation of Texas, land was again a primary concern: in the proposed treaty for statehood, the United States would take on the Republic’s $10 million of debt, along with 175 million acres of its public territory.

Except this didn’t happen. The Republic’s public domain wasn’t worth $10 million, according to Congress, and the treaty was rejected. Texas therefore came into the Union with both its debt and its unappropriated lands. This turned out to be important. While federal lands now checker the expanse of other Western states—like Nevada, which is 81 percent federally owned, or Utah, whose land is 66 percent federal—less than 2 percent of Texas is made up of federal land. The rest is privately owned or controlled by the state. Texas, in other words, is held by Texans. Texas is ours.

Our fierce desire for property, then, finds its roots in an old, dusty collective memory of a time when there was land available, tens of millions of acres of it—so long as you weren’t African American or Native American, that is. The state was born from land grabs. The Spanish claimed it, despite the presence of Native Americans who had been here for millennia, then the French, then the Spanish again, until Mexico took it from Spain and the Texicans wrenched it from Mexico. Land was everything, worth fighting and dying for. Worth keeping. Worth wanting.

There’s an obvious timelessness with land—the ever-present rocks and sky—that is at odds with the very human wish to put a stamp on a property, to forge a history and attach it to a place. Paxton Ramsey acknowledges that his tenancy is temporary, though the effort to shape, cull, and improve the Seven L, or any other ranch, is worth it. “My grandmother told me, ‘This land will never be yours; you’re just borrowing it from your children,’ ” he says. “Name one other business or lifestyle that has that mission statement or operates under those terms. Ranchers are focused on successors, and a key part of that is realizing that you’re part of something bigger than yourself—and that you’re leaving something better than you found it.”

Paxton talks while making dinner in his kitchen. Outside, his two youngest daughters play hide-and-seek in the dark. Erica, his wife, will be home soon; his dad, Cullen, peruses the paper. His mother, who inherited the ranch from her mother, listens quietly from her wheelchair. “When I’m out there fixing fence,” Paxton continues, “I know that for more than one hundred years before me, someone in my family was doing the same thing. Ranching is a pretty humbling experience. It lets you know how small you are. You’ve got the heartache of fires and storms. The people who came before me have gone through that too, and you’ll give your kids the opportunity to do the same.”

He glances at his mom. “It’s best to work with family,” he says. Susan’s face blazes with emotion. “Yes!” she agrees.

Ranching is full of promise. There is always the potential to do well. Even in poor, undernourished, or flinty country, there are things that can be produced. Use the rocks to make a fence or the pine trees to build a barn. Dig the dirt to make an adobe home. Raise a calf to eat and trade another to your neighbor for hay. Harness the wind and pull water from the ground. Grow grass. It’s your country to protect or exploit, conserve or improve. What freedom there is in that notion—to do what you want on your land. Of course, the risks involved in ranching are real. You could fall off a windmill or get stomped by a mule. You could go broke if it doesn’t rain. The trick is to balance the needs of the land and the animals on that land with the weather, the rhythm of the seasons, and the financial constraints of the rancher. That’s some trick. Good thing that time is sometimes, usually, hopefully, on the side of the rancher. 

Ranching is inherently unfettered by the sort of time that constricts us in office towers or classrooms or suburban homes. There’s a clocklessness to ranching work, for the task at hand will take as long as it must take. There’s no way around that. Angus don’t have deadlines, at least none that we know of. A wristwatch or an alarm ping on your phone won’t change the minds of the cows who must be penned but are hiding on tiptoe in the cedar brakes. Often, you can’t have exactly what you want when you want it on a ranch. It takes a long time to stack that rock wall, build that barn, raise that calf, grow that grass. It will take a lifetime to get to all that work, and then when you are gone, it will take the next person a lifetime as well. There’s something soothing in that idea, an optimistic glimmer that this world will keep spinning despite far-off wars, troubles at home, shaky economies, and human frailties. 

Children of ranchers commonly work alongside their parents, dragging calves to the fire, fixing fence, driving trailers from one pasture to the next. These coming generations are necessary, and the next time you go to the county livestock show, take a moment to watch the kids shoveling manure in the barns or fluffing the tails of their show steers. We need those kids. Less than 2 percent of the U.S. population raises the products that give the rest of us food, clothing, and shelter. As long as people manage to stay alive and sane, the need to care for the land and livestock will go on too. 

On a day-to-day basis, much of ranching work is done alone. It takes only one person in a vehicle, for instance, to make the daily or every-other-day tour of the ranch’s windmills to check that water continues to flow from each of them; company on these mundane excursions would be nice, sure, but the second person—a spouse, child, or hired hand—can almost always be employed at some other task, such as putting another ride on a two-year-old colt, tackling a stack of bills, or attending to an Algebra II lesson on the computer in the kitchen set aside for homeschooling. No one is around to see your antics goading two dopey steers back into the right pasture after the escapees apparently wormed through an unknown gap in the fence. No one hears the cussing when you discover the carcass of a good ewe, curled up dead at the bottom of some skinny arroyo. (“Aw, sheep,” a long-ago acquaintance of mine once scoffed. “Sheep just want to die.”) You’re likely to be alone when you slam your hand in the tailgate, ruining a thumbnail, and alone when you are bumping toward home, the only one taking note that the turkey vultures have returned from migration and the limestone seep, gone dry from drouth, has begun trickling water again. 

It also means that no one is typically aware when you’ve done something particularly well. No one sees that extra-mile effort or your ingenuity at problem-solving. Well, accolades aren’t all that important. Self-worth, however, that’s a different matter. “How do you measure your satisfaction with who you are when you go to bed at night?” Paxton asks. “Other people, they may not see you riding these good colts and pulling a calf out of quicksand. I could ride away from her, and no one would know I spent four hours to pull her out. And even then, I still have a chance of losing her—but I have a clear conscience about that.”

The work’s aloneness may account for the reason that a chance encounter with a ranching friend at the feed store or, in the small-town way, in two trucks pulled cab-to-cab in the middle of the street can induce an eagerly shared, one-sided font of information. The speaker’s torrent may include family news, opinions on cattle auction prices, details about home improvements, or a suddenly recalled tale about a tool lying in tall grass that had been spied from the back of a broncky colt during a ride in a far-distant pasture, this tool’s being a neat old thing hardly ever seen or used anymore but alluring enough despite its mantle of rust and dirt that it was worth gingerly sliding off the high-stepping, white-eyed colt, dragging it to the horse’s nose for inspection, and then just as gingerly climbing back aboard the snorty horse and humping the object (whether it’s ancient sheep shears, a long-handled wrench, or a Model T jack) over to the nearest gate where it could be picked up later, when a more reliable and less vertically inclined ride had been procured to retrieve it. It can take twenty minutes for the speaker’s informational flood to recede, and it is only here that the listener can either interject an exit strategy or put forth a question that hoists the sails for the speaker’s second wind. At times there is nowhere else I’d rather be than sitting snug in a truck with the heat blasting and the windows down, listening to a friend, red-nosed with the cold, talk with excitement about the hijinks of cornering an ornery, one-horned cow in the pasture, muscling her into the trailer, and getting her unloaded at the sale barn. 

It sounds fun, doesn’t it, all that roaming around and wrestling with nature? I suspect it is fun, at least sometimes, in the way that hard work and productive work can be deeply satisfying. This is some of the allure of ranching and of holding land—that there’s an honesty to it and a clarity of the overarching duties. I don’t ranch myself. The knowledge I have about ranching comes chiefly secondhand, from watching the toil of my friends and listening to their talk. The very bottom of what they do, the bedrock of their considerable industry, is the nurture of living beings, both plant and animal, so that more living beings, both plant and animal, can live. 

I’m not the only one to find this beguiling. The state is presently going through a land boom, in which city slickers are buying country places. This has happened before; it’s not new at all. “Land in the past couple of decades has been inflating in dollar value faster than almost any other commodity save maybe computer stocks,” John Graves wrote in Hard Scrabble back in 1974. “The why of this lies perhaps mainly in the sort of buyers who have been running prices up—city people almost entirely, reacting to jammed urban ugliness as well as to anxiety about the future.” The world moves faster than it did in 1974, and it is smaller too. True, investment in land can soothe the shakes brought on by thoughts of a future economic ruckus. But I’m inclined to believe, or hope, that what’s really driving a dentist from San Antonio to buy a forty-acre hangout in Rocksprings has more to do with her soul than her pocketbook. Land can bring quiet and slowness to lives blasted by the ceaseless bombast of social media and popular culture. Sometimes the tweets worth noting should come from actual birds. 

Plus, there’s a timing issue that’s pressing, for that old saw about God not making any more land is indisputable. In the 2013 book Hillingdon Ranch, which traces the history of a 129-year-old family property in Kendall County, authors David K. Langford and Lorie Woodward Cantu point out that the state’s population is expected to climb to more than 45 million people by 2040. Likewise, they say, Texas is losing open country faster than any other state in the nation. Such pronouncements can be slightly panic-inducing. If I can’t buy land now, will I be able to later? Will there be any left?

Though I can’t claim to be a rancher, I do admire them. And while the little twenty-acre empire where my husband, son, and I live is captivating, I’ll admit—only a bit shamefully—that we lust for more land, a bigger place, pastures and canyons and creek beds beyond the reach of earshot and eyesight. This is nuts, I know. The yen for more property isn’t a reflection of dissatisfaction or ingratitude with our present place, which, truthfully, pleases us a great deal and suits our present situation. Rather, that want for more country is simply greed, the desire for more aloneness and more majesty, for different varmints and plants and rocks. It’s to have the chance to know a place, to start the long romance of finding out what birds nest in which trees, of how the water courses in a heavy rain, of stumbling across a midden of flint from some long-ago knapper or figuring out how to best cover the bare spots of land still raw and sore from when cattle and goats grazed there ages ago. 

A piece of country is a living being. It’s a chance to do many things. It’s the potential for nearly endless work and discovery. If there is enough time, what knowledge unfolds from the stewardship of these acres? Amid the drouths and the downpours, what things do you discover? The answers are probably too numerous to grasp, though the appetite to find out is there. That, in the end, is the pull of the land. 

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