I began my liberation (I wouldn’t have known to call it that) many years ago in Kentucky when every afternoon I nerved myself to ride my backyard horse. I had to nerve myself because without the benefit of an instructor or a trainer, I was more or less at the mercy of whatever my father had chosen for me—first, a rather tame old mare (but skittish, like all mares, and prone to shying), then a fierce-enough young gelding. I never knew where either of them came from but since my father, a publisher, was not a rider and knew nothing about horse business, I expect some friend in that world chose these two creatures.
At that time suburban development had not yet devoured the surrounding countryside, which was mild, overgrown, taken up by thin woods scraggly with briars and honeysuckle and the still-fenced remains of abandoned truck farms. I took to carrying wire cutters so I could take down strands of those old fences in order to explore new territory.
I learned to stick to the old mare even when she shied, and the wild gelding only threw me a couple of times, once injuring my lower back so severely I sat a long time in hot bathtubs to help with the pain. I never considered complaining to my parents because the answer would have been, No more riding.
Fortunately I was never more severely hurt, and so I began by the time I was fifteen to push further into the country, bounded by a four-lane highway to the East. I knew better than to try to ride through traffic; eventually I found an enormous concrete culvert, maybe twenty feet high, which led a stream under the highway. It took some nerve, and a good deal of persuasion, to get the gelding to venture into the culvert, through shallow running water and under the thunderous noise of traffic overhead. But he did it eventually, and I sailed through triumphantly. Real country on the other side was now open to me.
On a long ride, I discovered Wolf Pen Mill Farm—then belonging to its original owner, Rose Cooper—and explored the rocky road, once the only wagon road to Cincinnati, past the old grist mill and further to the triple waterfall. Decades later, when Wolf Pen was on the market and threatened with development—one investor wanted to turn the old mill into an upscale restaurant—I was able to buy it and preserve it with a conservation easement. It all began with my ride through that culvert.
The same sense of adventure brought me to the Southwest twenty-five years ago and to what was then a small town at the southern tip of the Rockies. The town has long since lost any hint of the wildness that drew me here, and I think I may find a way before long to escape its confines.
The Southwest has also brought me into close contact with the adventurers who are here because the landscape and the culture seem to offer opportunities. Not only opportunities to ride, raise horses, and race them, but to cut loose from conventional expectations. These men are often Trump supporters because they admire in him the same kind of language and out of control behavior that makes them western outlaws. I admire, and fear, the outcome.
This raises serious issues for those of us—and there are many, especially women—who know now with certainty that the land we live on and the planet itself are threatened by the very activities the West is known for: raising cattle and horses, and raising hell. Several conservation groups here, especially the Quivira Coalition, attempt to bridge the gap between the adventurers and the land conservationists, teaching new ranching practices to those willing to hear them. But the ongoing slaughter of our tiny population—130 in New Mexico and Arizona—of reintroduced endangered Mexican Grey wolves tells me that we have done nothing to blunt the edge of western blood-thirstiness. Or little. Rational arguments about the rarity of wolves attacking cattle have little effect; we are dealing with a dreaded archetype here, the animal that above all symbolizes the untamed West.
After my first interview, last night, for The Silver Swan: In Search of Doris Duke, I realized yet once again how difficult it is to persuade anyone that Doris’ essential wildness was and is as precious as the green light in a female wolf’s eyes. And since I know that it was her wildness that not only excluded her from acceptance and history but also was the very element in her personality that drew me, I see a hard road ahead.
As the female wolf killed here Thursday on suspicion of cattle attack symbolizes, for me, the true spirit of the West—the adventure, not the adventurer—so Doris’ willingness to separate herself from the stereotype of “correct” female behavior shows me that it can be done.
But the price exacted by a culture determined to keep us in our place is high. It has always been high and I think it may always be high, because we represent a threat to the foundations of capitalism.