I recently started reading the book Hard Light, by Michael Crummey. I’ve read other books by Crummey and I like his style and his themes. He writes about small town Newfoundland and he writes historical fiction. The interesting thing about Hard Light is that it is a collection of family vignettes, short stories that last one or two pages, peppered with reproductions of photographs of tough people in tough places having tender moments caught in a moment of living a tough life.
What speaks to me from these pages is a universal sameness between people in small towns everywhere. No matter the culture or the landscape, we are all the same in our hearts. On the surface our wants and needs may seem very different but underneath there is more similarity than difference. One way to explore this theme of universal sameness is through stories that cut deep into the everyday fabric of our lives. When I read about a Scottish-born fisherman off the rocky coast of the North Atlantic Ocean, I can also picture a Hispanic sheepherder in the high country of northern New Mexico.
One of the common themes is open spaces. Historically the land in the lower San Luis Valley of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico has been open to common use. Before the Spanish traveled to the area in the 1500’s, the Native American nomadic tribes roamed the land following the herds of buffalo, antelope, elk, and deer. Their way of life was threatened by missionaries establishing small colonies of settlers in plazas connected by travel routes. Only a few Spanish stayed in the area, discouraged by hostile native tribes trying to re-establish their territories, but the legacy of Spain remained and was carried on by farmers, ranchers, traders, and others coming north from Mexico.
Land grants were established without benefit of fences and barriers. Moving herds of sheep or cattle from winter to summer ranges and back again was generally accepted. Later, with the arrival of European colonists lured by the railroads and promises of homesteads, adventurers from eastern states, and capitalists looking to establish towns and commerce, fences became common and land grants were usurped. Keeping people from their ancestral grounds or traditional grazing and hunting lands became contentious, sometimes fought out in the courts and sometimes fought out in private, personal conflicts involving angry words, guns, and sometimes sabotage.
Today, some 400 plus years after the Spanish first came to the San Luis Valley, open space is still valued and protected. Sheep herding, albeit in smaller numbers, is still practiced in the old tradition. Cattle are moved back and forth from mountain range to valley floor (still nearly 8,000 feet above sea level) usually in small herds. The lack of vegetation and water mean that livestock needs a wider range of land in order to be successful.
There is something sacred and timeless, going back to the very heart of the land, being able to look across the land for fifty miles or so of clear vision and few or no barriers. A fence only mars the view. As the Newfoundlander looks across the ocean in all kinds of weather and rejuvenates his soul, so does the rancher in the San Luis Valley look across the rolling land to the mountains in the far distance and fill his heart up once again.