An Intersection of Traditions

“George Wyndham once told me that he had seen one of the first aeroplanes rise for the first time and it was very wonderful but not so wonderful as a horse allowing a man to ride on him. Somebody else has said that a fine man on a fine horse is the noblest bodily object in the world.”

–G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
Charlie Belden Photo. Pitchfork Ranch, Meeteetse, Wyoming.

I once got into an argument with a man at the South Dakota State Fair. A farmer, obviously, and slightly intoxicated, he confronted me with a rude dubiousness at the very idea of using a horse to move cattle. 

“Why wouldn’t you just use a four wheeler?” he said. 

Try as I might, there was no shifting his perspective. The only way, in his mind, to deal with cattle was from the back of a machine. From his limited worldview in the flat section of green land in his corner of the world, I’m sure it made sense to him. 

He wouldn’t consider that a four wheeler cannot go the places that a horse can go. It cannot climb mountainous terrain, cross wide rivers, snake through the timber, or pick its way through sage brush. From the perspective of herdsmanship, four wheelers take second place, as well. It’s well known that “four wheeler cattle” are less used to the presence of men and are skittish and uncomfortable when they do see one. On the other hand, a horse naturally walks at the same pace as a cow. The right cowboy and horse can very quietly move, sort, cut, rope, and doctor an animal without disturbing the herd or the sick animal. Gadgets, such as those that attach to a four wheeler or tractor in order to “catch” a cow in the pasture, are blasphemous to a good cowboy. Gadgets like this make a fun job difficult, and replace skill and care with steel and noise. The real question should be the opposite of the one posed to me: “Why wouldn’t you use a horse?” 

Perhaps the most insulting part of that man’s question was the dismissal of an entire culture, an era (which is changed, but not bygone), and a way of life. Haughty as he was, he forgot that only a few decades ago, when there were no gadgets to move cattle, it was only the cowboy who could. He forsakes the heritage of keeping cattle in favor of convenience and progress. He forgets that while the four wheeler may be stricken with a flat tire or empty gas tank in the middle of the pasture, the horse would still walk him home. 

The skills of the cowboy originated out of need, from the time of the paniolos who tamed the wild herds of Hawaii and the Spaniards that brought cattle to the Americas. From this era was born makers of fine silver, leather, saddles, and rawhide; the nobility of a horseman and his finished bridle horse; the art of handling cattle quietly; the camaraderie of working with other men of the same mind; and the freedom of experiencing a wild life in wide open country. We are the descendants and inheritors of this fine legacy. The forms of the lifestyle have changed a great deal, but such is the way the centuries move. Nothing can remain exactly the same. Yet, it is the looking back, the preservation, and the carrying of the past with us that brings meaning to the present. 

“The two most authentic people in the world are Catholics and cowboys.” 

—Fr. Bryce Lungren
Myself and my good friend, Kyle, roping in the branding pen at another historic Wyoming Ranch: The Campstool at Devils Tower.

There are variations in techniques used by the cowboys and vaqueros of North, Central, and South America, but for the most part, everything remains exactly the same as it was three centuries ago. Cowboys begin their morning placing a fine saddle on the back of a good horse, bridle him with a best-suited bit, place their leather-soled boot in the stirrup and step on, shake out their rope when they see an animal in need of doctoring on the range, rope her skillfully, and tend to her quickly. The traditional model remains because it works.  

Just as one can draw a direct line from the techniques of cowboys today to their ancestors-in-trade, so can one draw a direct line from the Catholic Church of today to Jesus Christ himself. Take Father Bryce, for instance. He is a Catholic priest in northeast Wyoming. His bishop in Cheyenne represents the archbishop in Denver who represents the pope in Rome. Pope Francis can trace his Chair back 2,000 years to the moment Christ handed the Keys of the Kingdom to Peter, the first pope. Neat, huh? 

As old as the culture of cowboying is, Christianity has about 1,700 more years of history. There is something surreal and comforting about being held in the arms of something far older, wiser, and larger than oneself. To walk into a Catholic Church, which Chesterton says is the only thing that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, is to immediately be swept away into the divine. The peace is unmistakable. Why? It is the only place that the Word Incarnate resides, and has for centuries. That’s right, Jesus Christ is in the flesh at the front, in any Catholic Church in the world. 

Catholicism is the first Christian Church–the only one to be founded by Christ himself. Has the Catholic Church failed numerous times? Of course. It consists of fallen men and often stands in opposition to secular society, especially today. Yet, for two millenia, it has risen from the ashes, righted wrongs, and held the lantern out for truth. 

“Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”

–G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

As many times as men have tried to reinvent the wheel, as it were–to create a “truth” outside the lines of the Catholic Church, they always fall short. Even if a great percentage of truth is present, there will always be a little something that isn’t. 

To borrow a common metaphor from Laurie Robinson in My Name is Lazarus

“Mother Church is an entire stained glass window. All the other denominations that splintered off her during the Reformation and later contain only one or two, or at the most, several colors of the vast array of hues in the Church Christ founded. In my conversion, I sought the full spectrum and was not betrayed.” 

This is not to call into question the faith and love of our brothers in Protestant denominations, for it is often great and passionate. The only thing I intend to question is the truth, for that is what we are all seeking. 

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye. shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. 

–Matthew 7:7

Sometimes, to know our identity, we must retrace our steps back in time. Our culture has done all it can to ensure we forget our heritage. Never has a society hated tradition so much, but I firmly believe that in tradition we find truth. Otherwise, why would traditions last? “Tradition liberates us,” says Father Jason Charron. “It frees us from inventing ourselves and being slaves to a novelty.”

A final, parting thought, which resonates with those of us involved in tending to animals. We know that good fences make good neighbors. May we not so easily dismiss the richness of our inheritance. 

“There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.” 

–G.K. Chesterton

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