Ranchwomen seem as much a part of the earth as the grass they depend on. Their lives are entwined with the soil and sky—they are subject to nature’s whims. They do not often seek company other than the natural world that surrounds them. And they love their lives.
I have lived on a ranch in the Hill Country, but I’m not a ranchwoman. I was for a time involved in “weekend ranching.” I know how it feels to walk through scrubby brush, herding scatterish sheep. I once pulled a calf from its mama’s womb, and I’ve warmed orphan lambs inside my coat. I’ve scraped the murky slime from water troughs and helped mend fences.
But my experiences don’t compare with those of a woman who rises every day with the sun and works outside until she’s physically too tired to go on, knowing that her work feeds her family.
A ranchwoman gets out in whatever weather the day gives her and tends to her animals. She rides out in nighttime thunderstorms to bring goats in to shelter. During extremes of icy cold and scorching heat, a ranchwoman spends more time than ever taking care of her livestock.
To her, ranching is not a hobby. It is not a weekend affair. Ranching is day-to-day, year-to-year, relentless labor. It is sowing, plowing, hauling, checking, fixing, counting, feeding, defending, and nursing. Ranching is life. It is a dance with nature—an intimate relationship that few people these days experience. It is recognizing the red hues of the agarita berries—knowing when to make the tiny berries into jelly and when to eat them fresh from the bush.
My brushes with ranching and my fondness for older ranch people I’d met piqued my curiosity and led me to this story. I wondered about the women on Hill Country ranches and I began asking people—county extension agents, friends, ladies in the beauty shop—if they knew of women ranchers. I was surprised by the responses. It seems just about everyone around here knows a ranchwoman. In fact, I’ve begun to wonder if it’s mainly women, not men, running Hill Country ranches.
I set out to find women of different generations living in various parts of the Hill Country. I told myself I had two aims: to provide a historical record of their ranching practices, and then to go beyond the facts to draw out their personal thoughts and experiences. More simply, I wanted to communicate their lives to others, to tell their stories.
I began working on the ranchwomen project in the spring of 1993, when my daughter was one year old. I was living in Kerrville and working on a graduate degree in journalism/photojournalism at the University of Texas at Austin. The project started as an assignment for a class on documentary journalism taught by J. B. Colson, who started the photojournalism program at UT, and Bill Stott, then a professor of American Studies who is considered an expert on the documentary work of Walker Evans and James Agee. At that time, I interviewed Lorelei Hankins, Joan Bushong, and Marguerite Stevenson. After being encouraged to expand the project into a book, I interviewed and photographed other ranchwomen, and I revisited the original three. As I learned more about ranching, I realized I was documenting a way of life that was vanishing before my eyes. Each new generation signifies further subdivision of family ranchland. Sometimes the land stays in the family and the next generation continues ranching, but on a smaller scale. Sometimes people from the cities who want places to hunt buy the land. And ranching has become an arena for bigger players.
These factors mean that young people who hope to earn their living ranching will probably not be able to do so on inherited land as their parents did. They will have to buy more land, but how will they afford that? Several of the ranchwomen I interviewed predicted that small ranch operations will soon be a piece of the past.
Through the following years, my work on the project was sporadic, displaced to the back burner by the chore of making a living, the absolute joy of being a mother, and even the inconvenience of cancer. But going out to the ranches and visiting with the grounded ranchwomen always renewed me. It was being out in the rugged land, away from people, and hearing the sounds of birds and wind and even the cattle and sheep that helped me know something of the peace ranchwomen seem to find out on their land. And I discovered for myself why they are able to work so hard for so little money. I believe that every day, when they feel the dry, clean Hill Country wind and see the sun rise and set in a glory of colors, they feel renewed. I think their spirits are nourished. And that’s why they live the hard lives they’ve chosen.
As Amanda Geistweidt Spenrath so eloquently explained, they are women who know themselves and know exactly what they want from life.
The Texas Hill Country
The Texas Hill Country is located in the middle of the state, near San Antonio and Austin. Although the region’s precise boundaries are described differently by various sources, in this book the Hill Country refers to the lower part of the Edwards Plateau, bounded on the west and northwest by an imaginary line from Uvalde to Rocksprings to Sonora to Eden to Fife, and on the north and east by the Colorado River, with the southernmost border along the Balcones Escarpment (inside a line from Del Rio to San Antonio to Austin.)
Many people believe the Hill Country is the prettiest part of the state. Its elevation ranges from 750 to 2,700 feet, and the air is often drier and cooler than in surrounding areas. The terrain is mainly hilly and rocky, with an abundance of rivers, trees, and wildflowers.
I felt the truest way to document ranchwomen was to let them speak for themselves—to take myself out of the text as much as possible.
I used a tape recorder during interviews and transcribed the conversations word-for-word, to the best of my ability. I arranged the text in commonsense order and then fine-tuned it.
At first, I planned to leave the oral histories exactly as they were spoken. But William Stott read them and urged me to edit. “You’ll be doing your readers a favor,” he said, citing Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer: Only the most uncharitable (or inept) journalist will hold a subject to his literal utterances and fail to perform the sort of editing and rewriting that, in life, our ear automatically and instantaneously performs.
When we talk with somebody, we are not aware of the strangeness of the language we are speaking. Our ear takes it in as English, and only if we see it transcribed verbatim do we realize that it is a kind of foreign tongue.
Now, I certainly did not change any speech into prose. I think the ranchwomen spoke very well for themselves, and I love hearing their voices come through in their words. Instead, I did very minimal editing to clarify sentences that would have been confusing. I did not change or add any thoughts, ideas, opinions, or intent. I did, however, correct a few grammatical errors.
When people see their spoken words written on paper, they usually are taken aback. This was the case with several of the ranchwomen, who were dismayed when they saw their words written down. In speaking, they had been less “correct” and formal than their written words would have been. But it’s the same with everyone. And I assured them I would explain this in the introduction so the readers would understand.
J. B. Colson and Walker Evans influenced my thoughts regarding the ethics of documentary photography. Evans viewed documentary photography as a way of recording reality, without undue manipulation by the photographer. For his portraits on migrant workers for , Evans reportedly set up the tripod and let his subjects arrange themselves in front of the camera.
I set out to record ranchwomen in this fashion. Consequently, the photographs in this project were not set up, except by the person I was photographing. I did not tell them where to stand or where to look, as a portrait photographer might. Sometimes, for portraits, I told them I was going to take a close-up shot, and then watched them do whatever they chose to do for that photo. Some smiled, some didn’t, some looked at the camera, some did not.
A person presenting herself, rather than being posed by the photographer, makes the photograph richer with meaning, I believe, and more honest.
I used a 35mm camera—a Canon EOS 630—and Ilford black-and-white film. I processed the film myself. High-resolution drum scans of the negatives were made at River City Silver in San Antonio. I then edited the images using Photoshop CS4. The editing of photos was restricted to the kind of editing one can do in the darkroom without drastically changing the meaning of the photo: cropping, burning and dodging, and adjusting contrast.
In the text, my narration is given in brackets. My questions are in italics.