"Most farm and ranch wives have to work 'off the place,' to help make ends meet," writes Mary Zeiss Stange in the preface to Hard Grass. "This is one way to describe my situation. I simply work farther off the place than most."
Indeed she does, by any measurement, whether miles or mindsets. Zeiss Stange is a professor of women's studies and religion at Skidmore College in upstate New York, and the owner of the Crazy Woman Bison Ranch, which she and her husband Doug, a former academic, adopted in 1988, in southeastern Montana, 2,000 miles away. Her ability to dwell in seemingly opposite worlds—academia and rural ranching, East Coast and Eastern Montana, feminism and hunting—is what makes this memoir so engrossing. She is, in the parlance of her Carter County, Montana neighbors, "different"—which, Zeiss Stange points out, is not necessarily a compliment: "[It] is the operative term for anything new or foreign or innovative or threatening."
Zeiss Stange brings her outsider's perspective, her academic's skill in research and analysis, and her passion for place to this clear-eyed look at life in what to many Americans is still "the Big Empty," the immense expanses of arid grasslands of the western Great Plains. Her memoir works its way into the landscape and its stories as she and Doug gradually work their way into knowing the "roughly seven square miles of parched stubble, puckered-looking prickly-pear cactus, desiccated sage, and struggling ponderosa pines and junipers" they bought.
Knowing the place had been hard-used by its former owner, a cattle rancher, the Stanges at first have no interest in ranching, intending to let the grasslands and breaks recover to provide good habitat for their hunting forays. They soon realize that ranching may offer a way to restore the prairie to health—but not just any ranching. First they try llamas, and then they settle on bison, recognizing that these native grazers have beneficial relationships with the prairie community.
Restoring bison not only gives the ranch its name, but also gives the Stanges a connection to the place—both the landscape and its human community—that neither of them expected. As Zeiss Stange writes, "Yet, I sometimes think despite my better judgment, I have sunk roots here. And so I hope to use my sometimes-outsider perspective to present an honest portrayal of what living in this powerful landscape can do, for better and for worse, to those of us who call it home."
From geology to racism and the Indian Wars, from a thoughtful look at branding as an example of unnecessary cruelty now preserved as traditional custom to her own lessons in hunting and feminism, Zeiss Stange weaves a complex and thorough portrait of the place she has come to call home. My only quibble with Hard Grass, in fact, is that very thoroughness: at times, the book seems more like a detached scholarly treatment than a memoir of a beloved place. Perhaps that's a literal reflection of Zeiss Stange's continuing emotional dilemma about whether the Crazy Woman Bison Ranch really is home, as she writes near the end of the book: "Neither Doug nor I can imagine, right now, living here forever. Nor can we, right now, imagine leaving here forever." That's a tough space to dwell in.
Mary Zeiss Stange is a professor of women's studies and religion at Skidmore College, where for eight years she served as director of the women's studies program. In addition to her books Woman the Hunter, Gun Women: Firearms and Feminism in Contemporary America, and Heart Shots: Women Write About Hunting, she is the author of numerous articles in major magazines, newspapers, and scholarly journals. The Crazy Woman Bison Ranch is located near Ekalaka, Montana. Visit her website.
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