Bryce Andrews is the author of the memoir Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West (Atria). He has appeared on Montana Public Radio and PBS and his essays and short works have been published in High Country News, Big Sky Journal, Camas Magazine, and Backpacker. Andrews lives in Montana, where he manages a conservation-oriented cattle ranch.
In Badluck Way, you recount your unique experience of living and working on the fragile interface between tame and wild — a wilderness area and a ranch. Do you think there can ever be peace between ranchers and natural predators?
Bryce Andrews: I have more hope for balance, and for coexistence, than I do for a bloodless peace. The lives of ranchers, livestock, and predators unfold on a huge, wild landscape. The Sun Ranch, for example, is around 21,000 acres of benches, hills, creek bottoms, and forests. The Sun, then, is 25 times the size of Central Park. Unlike the park, great swaths of the ranch consist of impenetrable thickets, steep mountainsides, or sinkhole bogs that spell disaster for cattle and horses.
In my part of Montana, a rancher must graze his or her herds across a vast, crenulated landscape — a landscape that has grown increasingly full of predators. She or he must do this with the bare minimum of hired help, due to the razor-thin margins of modern agriculture. The end result is that great bunches of dumb, slow, delicious livestock are turned loose each spring in hills that belong to quick-witted, hungry predators. Given what I know about wolves and cattle, it is hard for me to imagine that our summers will ever be wholly without violence. The wolves will take cattle from time to time. Ranchers will lose sleep, and then their tempers.
If we hope for something, let it be less blood on both sides of the equation. With each passing year, and each new gruesome wreck, we learn more about how to share the land with predators. Over time, this process can lead us to a form of coexistence that is sustainable, if not entirely peaceful.
What do you hope readers take away from your debut title?
BA: I hope that Badluck Way conveys a deep appreciation for the work of ranching and an equally strong sympathy for wild animals, like the wolf.
Did any writers influence or inspire you in writing Badluck Way?
BA: Yes, absolutely. While writing Badluck Way, I thought a lot about Mark Spragg’s Where Rivers Change Direction, James Galvin’s The Meadow, and John McPhee’s Irons in the Fire.
Are you working on anything now? Do you have a topic for your next major endeavor?
BA: Right now, I’m working on two important things: The first of them, and the most relevant, is a nonfiction book about five years spent managing a ranch in Montana’s Deer Lodge Valley. That ranch, Dry Cottonwood, is one hell of an interesting place. It’s beautiful, rugged, and crisscrossed with the tracks of wild animals — much like other spreads I’ve managed and worked on in the West. Dry Cottonwood, however, also sits at the heart of the nation’s largest Superfund cleanup site. The Clark Fork River, the principal stream of the Deer Lodge Valley, is deeply contaminated with arsenic, lead, and cadmium. These far-flung remnants of Butte, Montana’s copper boom pock the floodplain with dead zones and toxic sediments.
Dry Cottonwood bore scars from the heyday of copper mining, and it had other wounds, too. When I arrived, the ranch had been used hard for decades. Noxious weeds, patches of barren soil, and a history of overgrazing by sheep and cattle had led some to consider Dry Cottonwood broken beyond repair.
The book is about the consequences — both natural and social — of contamination. It is about building a home in a compromised landscape and the marathon task of turning Dry Cottonwood from a ruinous path.
Secondly, in partnership with a friend, I’ve made arrangements to lease a large chunk of land near Missoula. We plan to graze natural, grass-fed cattle there, and sell meat to people within and beyond our community. As the operation grows, I will work with the University of Montana to start a ranch-based apprenticeship program combining the hard work of agriculture with a curriculum in ethics, aesthetics, science, and writing as they apply to the contemporary West. I hope that this program will give young people access to the sort of transformative experience I was fortunate enough to have on the Sun Ranch.
What are some of your favorite works of nonfiction?
BA: Here are some, in no particular order: Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold; The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin; Coming Home to the Pleistocene by Paul Shephard; The Unexpected Universe by Loren Eiseley; and Monster of God by David Quammen.
When you travel, do you stop at bookstores? Any particular indies make a lasting impression?
BA: I always stop at bookstores when I travel, but my most vivid memories are of stores that I visited as a child. I grew up in Seattle and always liked wandering through the old Elliott Bay store. I spent a lot of time in the University Book Store, too, since my dad worked at the Henry Art Gallery. When I visited Portland, I made a point of seeing Powell’s. I was fascinated and confounded by the size and scope of that labyrinthine place.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
BA: My side of the bed has no nightstand, just a section of wood floor within easy reach, where various things languish. At present, the following texts occupy my floor: Maps and Dreams by Hugh Brody; Horses, Hitches, and Rocky Trails: The Packers Bible by Joe Back; A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor.
If you were a bookseller for a day, what book would you want to put in every customer’s hand? (Besides your own, of course!)
BA: When faced with that question, my mind lapses into a state of total emptiness. The sensation is nice, really — almost meditative, since the world’s noise drops completely away. But I think it means I’d make a terrible bookseller.
If you could invite three authors (past or present) to a dinner party, who would they be? What do you think would be the topic of conversation?
BA: Richard Hugo, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and Ernest Hemingway.
We would discuss the sound and shape of good words, the strange ways in which people grow up, and the egotism of authors. All that, or fishing.
Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West, by Bryce Andrews (Atria Books, Hardcover, 9781476710839). Publication Date: January 7, 2014
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