Saturday, November 12, 2011

In a Palace of the One Percent

In mid-October of this year, my wife and I spent a four-day weekend on a thousand-acre working ranch located in the San Juan Valley of southern Colorado, a few miles across the border from New Mexico. The ranch sits about seven miles up from the two-lane main road that winds through that exhilarating landscape. The pavement faded out barely a mile in. From there, we rode dirt the rest of the way, up a pine- and oak-wooded mountain until the last hundred yards where it finished in smooth, freshly laid bluish bitmac that circled in front of a large log cabin facing the San Juan Mountains: 8,000 feet; clear, thin air.

And I mean large cabin: this one covers at least 2,500 square feet, sitting on top of a three-car garage (automatic door, of course) and a six-bed sleeping loft above the sprawling living room. There were three other richly appointed guest rooms toward the rear, off a long hallway along the side facing south, and then the large main bedroom facing the San Juans, where Elizabeth and I slept and could watch dawn rise over the San Juans every morning. The entire cabin is warmed by radiant floor heating and is constructed of massive pine logs (type unknown), grouted together with composite glue.

The elaborate—though, as we learned directly, cheaply built--plumbing rises from a mountain stream two miles below, the water driven through a couple of pump stations. The same stream also winds through a large gravel quarry on the property and is habitat for trout. How and whether this all works together must be taken up elsewhere.

Our wonderful generous host is the daughter of a wealthy Chicago banker who died last year. He willed the ranch to his grandchildren, but, it is feared, they are too urbanized to embrace this high-country palace. Whatever we may think of the set-up here, a far worse fate may await this heaven, as I saw in the suburbs of Pagosa Springs.

As an OWS supporter (or at least its underlying principle), I will not pretend one bit that I didn’t enjoy the hell out of my stay, don’t want to return and have no desire to live in such a place (though I’d want a smaller, cozier space, and simpler and sturdier plumbing.)

From my understanding, the Banker was one of those broadly built, strutting, growling, cigar-chomping, whisky-swilling capitalists who roamed the plains of the twentieth century in large rumbling herds: maybe an enjoyable, novelistic character to know within short slices of time under certain conditions, but perhaps not at others. (Today’s species of rich man—the one-percenters--seems clad in  sleek chrome, with a thin gleam of egalitarianism on an easily scratched surface, if you’re of a mind to claw away.)


Full Frontal Bear

Judging from these photos, I have an inkling that this portrait of the Banker is true.

The Banker was a big game hunter. I’m not opposed to hunting in principle, when practiced legally and sustainably. I even accept the argument that American hunters are in the main law-abiding, and are vital allies in the conservation and environmental movements (as seen in this recent NYT article) . . .

. . . but again, this is another issue too elaborate to follow here, except to say no one leaves this life physically alive and, like it or not, we’re all irrevocably bound to the mysterious epic cycle of Life and Death, no matter how righteously we try to entangle ourselves from it. All that is up to Someone Else.

Still, the more I think about the stuffed bear, the bobcat, and the mountain lion, I sink into greater sadness and deeper anger at the pointless cruelty, vanity and waste of their deaths. These animals are top predators, each of whom plays a vital role in their ecosystems. They are not food animals for us. They mostly do not exist in excess populations that endanger other species, necessitating their culling (though exceptions may be made for mountain lions).


And despite their contrived poses of savagery and aggression—they are only skins stretched around molds—it’s safe to disbelieve that any one of them was killed in self-defense. If so, someone needed to take a forest safety course, and quickly; or, at very least, be prohibited from going anywhere near a nature trail.

They were killed for one reason only: vanity. Male vanity. A man taking life solely to show his power, wealth, and weight.

Trophy hunting, we understand, is an old tradition in primitive societies around the world. For most of our millions of years here, we were favored prey of carnivores everywhere, so the human male’s ability to hunt and kill, both to bring back the meat, and to defend himself, his family and community, was perfectly right. It can even be viewed as a holy act through a certain frame.


Having hunted myself long ago, I well-remember the racing river of adrenalin through my system, the mounting suspense and thrill of hunting. (I never hit anything, but yes, I could take up hunting again under certain circumstances.)

Still, to take a life, to take its light, no matter how considered or urgent the reason, is always a deadly serious matter and what we see here is not serious at all, but simple violent strutting, better suited to an end-zone dance on a fall Sunday afternoon. While on a hike around the property, my fellow hiker and I came upon a metal hunter’s nest nailed halfway up a tree and I thought “Cheaters . . . can’t even get down in the brush and stalk.”

The vast majority of humans no longer live in the savannahs and forests, or even on farms. At this point in time, we are not the endangered. We are the endangering. And, in a horrific paradox, if we carry on as we are, in parasitic pursuit of a so-called freedom (a human and spiritual idea that plays little or no role in the workings of Nature) we will become the endangered again. But it’s not the leopard in the tree we will have to worry about—it’s the ruthless might of Nature Herself, stronger than any of our bombs.

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

(Photos by author)

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.


Anonymous said...

The principal of Oakton High School in Fairfax Co. Virginia, shot a cougar in California and had it mounted in the school as a mascot. (Their team is called the Cougars.) The widely respected principal was forced to take it down because students objected so much. He noted that if he were about 50 miles further out in the country, where people actually hunt to live, there would be no objection. Although the hunter of your story is not a country fellow, the distaste for hunting is becoming an urban versus rural issue in the US, with the urban groups claiming a cultural superiority.

Thomas Burchfield said...

Thanks for your comment! I believe it's more than cultural superiority (though that element is there). The success of our civilization, IMO, has given the appearance that we've cut ourselves off from the cycles of Life and Death, which has led to a deep and unfortunate--even dangerous--squeamishness. I actually advocate that every child--at least in this country--be taken on a hunting trip at *least once* (a real one, not a sit-in-the-blind-and-wait-for-something-to-walk-by trip). This, I believe, can give kids a eye-to-eye view of how things work in Nature.

I have to say, though, that this only applies to the American experience. In many other countries--esp. Asia and Africa--people hunt mostly for sheer subsistence and this continues to drive species to extinction and contribute to the die-off we're experiencing right now (the West African white rhino, which was announced recently, is the most heart-breaking example).

So again, I'm for hunting regulation and still don't care for sport-trophy hunting. There are better ways to crow like a rooster, especially these days.

Again, thanks for contributing to the debate!