I happened to pick this title up from a display at the library, and found out that this was a fascinating way to spend last Sunday afternoon. The book is part of an ongoing DK series called “Eyewitness Books” and each title takes a particular subject (e.g. cowboys, Vikings, books, weather etc.) and leads the reader through an overview of that subject using lots of high quality and well curated photographs and explanatory text. It’s mostly photographs though, and by doing this (and as the aim of the whole series), it feels rather as though you’re walking through a museum looking at all the different pieces that make up the exhibit.
It’s not text-heavy, but by looking closely at the photographs (as you would the displays at a museum), by the time you’ve read the book, you feel as though you have a much better understanding of whatever the topic was (in this case, cowboys). It’s really great.
Here’s some of what I learned about the world of the cowboy from the last reading:
There are variations of cowboys all over the world who have been doing this type of job for decades (and longer):
- France has gardian in the southern provinces
- Hungary has the csikosok
- North African countries have had similar cowboys with different names
- The Romans had buteri
- 1500’s Spain had vaqueros (cowboys) and churros (the people who actually owned the land)
- Argentina has the gaucho
- Venezuela has the llanero
- Chile has the huaso
Which of course makes perfect sense, but this was new information to me. It’s obvious now, of course.
Other pearls of knowledge:
- Stetson hats (which a lot of cowboys are famous for wearing) was started by John B. Stetson who was an Englishman who came to Colorado as a gold prospector and noticed the need for appropriate hatwear.
- The name Mustang (wrt horse) comes from the Spanish mestena which refers to “horse herd”. Originally, the herds of horses were wild on the Southern Plains and the Conquistadores harnessed them to help them as they came into new territory.
- The quarter horse is so named for its really fast speed at the quarter-mile. Huh. I had no idea about this as I had been thinking that the quarter horse name referred to its breeding stock (i.e. that the horse was 25% of this breed, 25% of another breed etc.)
- And then, I got reminded of the comic character Desperate Dan who was also eating his way through Cactusville… (He was a character in the British children’s comic magazine called The Dandy and was the world’s strongest man who shaved with a blowtorch as his facial hair was so tough. He could also lift a cow with one hand…)
So I found this really interesting on so many levels that now I am searching for more of these Eyewitness Books as they are a great introduction to big subjects… Loved it.
In the past few years, I’ve become really interested in the history of places (both the place that I live and also those of the places that I visit), and I enjoy learning about the different narratives that make up the more complete picture of a place. So, when I came across this title at one of the FoL book sales, I was intrigued.
I’d also been interested in seeing how many of the titles that I’d purchased at last year’s FoL book sale I’d actually read, and realized how very small and paltry that number was. And — I’ve also started my Fall Book Buying Ban which means making a concerted effort to read more titles from my own bookshelves. I did this last year and it was pretty fun so thought I’d start it up again.
Plus I’m heading to England next month and I can always find some interesting titles over there. Need to get some space freed up in the shelves for those treasures who cross the Atlantic on the home trip.
So, all this to say that reading this particular title was good on several different levels!
This title is one that examines America’s contemporary frontier (as in the “Wild West” frontier). As the publisher writes in the back cover copy: “[T]he sparsely populated American frontier – declared as “closed” by Frederick Jackson Turner a century ago – remains open…” and this book explores the history and current (as in 1993 current) status of “frontier counties” (i.e. counties that have fewer than 2 people per mile population distribution wise). In other states across the U.S. and if you live in a metropolitan area, this stat may sound impossible to have in this day and age, but for a lot of Western counties (a la old cowboy film scenery), it’s very much of a reality.
I live in West Texas (in the Panhandle, really), and the county where I live was one of those frontier counties until a few years ago. You may have heard of the saying, “Big Sky Country”, and that is where I live. The topography is pretty flat, you can see for miles, and the sky is huge and uninterrupted across the horizon. There’s a joke around here that says “the country is so flat, you can see your dog running away for two weeks!”… Arf. Arf.
I love it here, and miss the view when I visit cities (especially NYC which I love but is also claustrophobic for me after a while). I’ve lived here for quite some time, but there are still some days when the region catches me by surprise (e.g. if I see a working cowboy complete with spurs and hat at the grocery store like I did the other day). When that happens, it’s like seeing a living piece of history and I really appreciate the link to the past.
Driving around the Western states, author Dayton Duncan introduces the reader to some of the people who choose to inhabit these frontier counties. Most of his focus stays on the more typical pioneer states (such as those in Texas, New Mexico and others), but he does include states as far away as Oregon and California since they were the destinations for many of the families who traveled the Overland Trail in their covered wagons and on horseback.
(It’s amazing when you sit down and think about it. The pioneers and their families knew that they would probably never go back from where they came – how brave is that especially when one considers the complete lack of information that they were working under!)
As he drives around to meet the folk who live here and to cover some of their history, Duncan maintains his respect for the townsfolk without having to resort to stereotype and lazy reportage. As the miles go by, he writes about topics as diverse as the extinction of the buffalo herds and the process of choosing where to put a SuperMax prison facility to the known history of the nation’s First Peoples and Billy the Kid (both the legend and the evidence that’s left). Billy the Kid was a real person, but it varies as to how long he lived, where (and how) he died, and what his legacy may mean. (Actually, the place touted as his burying place is on our way west to the mountains near the Texas/New Mexico border.)
This was published by an academic press, so it wasn’t an easy read (in terms of how dense the material was), but it was really interesting to me. There was a lot of overlap between historical events at the time (slavery and pioneer travel for example), and a lot of the history that Duncan relates was new to me and I found it fascinating. (For more about one particular African-American frontier town in Kansas, see here.)
I’m very glad that I pulled this off the shelves to read, and am now digging around my TBR to see what other little treasures that I can dig up….
The spring time months in some parts of the world means flowers opening, trees budding, and a relief from severe cold weather. Here in West Texas, spring tends to mean something else: Dust.
You may have seen the dust storms in cowboy movies of the past: high levels of wind, dust close to the ground (and up) turning the lower part of the sky brown, tumble weeds blowing across the screen… My friends and country people – this is all true for where I live. There’s little Hollywood hyperbole needed to convey the dust storm experience on screen.
And we have had a dusty few days this week, including a haboob which arrived late yesterday afternoon. (I didn’t know about it as I was inside, but the pics look impressive.)
People complain about the dust, but it’s to be expected when one lives in a semi-arid environment (like where we are), we haven’t had any truly large rain storms since before Christmas (only 0.2” rainfall so far this year), we are in the midst of a severe decade-long drought, and there is little ground cover (mostly due to agricultural concerns). (In fact, I saw an article where one of our local towns was going to run out of water in 60 – 90 days if we didn’t get rain. Run. Out. Of. Water!)
And yet people continue to groan and mumble about the water restrictions for watering their lawns, and businesses hoist signs saying “We have private wells” so they can avoid the code restrictions and water their landscaping with impunity. Without rain and further water exploration research, it’s not unforeseeable that semi-arid (and other arid) places are going to turn in to deserted towns (a la cowboy movies).
All this to say that we made the MSN front page this morning with our dust storm of yesterday…
I don’t have the answer to solving the water shortage problem – it’s not just here in West Texas – but I do wish people would focus some resources on researching options. If one of our neighboring towns runs out of water (and we get no more rain), what then?
(And, to bring this back to bookishness, in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, part of the back story is that Texas has withered up and been blown away to end up an uninhabitable place. And then of course, I have to mention Tim Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, Dorothy Scarborough’s early classic The Wind, and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath…)
I love living in West Texas. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not being alarmist, but the question remains: will there be a habitable West Texas to love in 20 years time?