Sometimes a story wraps itself around you and won't let you go. For me, Laurie Wagner Buyer's memoir, Spring's Edge, is one of those stories. Her book offers a rare insight into her life as a rancher's wife, a way of living that is at once remarkably sturdy and frighteningly fragile.
Buyer and her husband Mick—he in his mid-sixties, she some twenty years younger—raised cattle on six hundred acres in the mountains of Colorado. It's a tough life, made more difficult for Buyer by the realization that her husband is fast reaching the point where he can no longer manage the physical work. Since he intends to leave the ranch to the children of his first marriage, she has essentially no stake in the ranch to which she has contributed so much. What will she do—what will they do—when her husband can no longer live the life on the land that keeps him going? What will happen to their marriage if their work on the ranch no longer holds it together? On top of this, Buyer's father develops cancer. It is a situation that would bring most of us—those used to more comfortable, more predictable circumstances—to the brink.
But the Buyers soldier on, doing every day what must be done to keep the ranch going, the new calves alive, their fragile relationship in one piece. Buyer's journal of four difficult months in 1997 is a quietly compelling story of a doomed marriage and a ranch life under pressure from rising land taxes and encroaching developments. "We're on top of the mountain looking down at the wreckage of the times," she writes. "Age, inability, financial impossibilities, an anti-ag attitude in the community..." As local ranchers sell out, hay prices rise, and local agricultural businesses fail, the people who stay on the land demonstrate a tenacious heroism, although they pay a very high personal price.
Through all these challenges, it is the land itself that sustains and endures. Buyer's lyrical descriptions of the earth's coming alive with spring are full of hope and promise. "More snow, some rain, lots of sun, and our world will dance a greening jig," she writes. Later: "Snipe song ripples through the sky. Spring comes again fresh-faced and welcoming." Still later: "I sense the atmosphere hanging on life's balanced scale, ready to tip into full spring with the weight of one more robin, one more blooming pasqueflower."
But while winter is long ("A remember-winter wind cartwheels off the peaks with chilled intent"), the people are strong, and Buyer revels in their strengths. Her husband is "a man born to the land, bonded to earth by his birthright and by his stubborn, even zealous, dedication to a way of life." Her friend Gail loses her front teeth when she's helping check cows for pregnancy: "The fiftieth cow flung her massive head and hit Gail smack in the face. Teeth and hat went flying...[S]he grabbed her hat, stuffed a couple of tissues in her mouth, and went back to work because there were still ten cows to go." It is as if these men and women both draw their strength from the land and develop it in opposition to the land's brutal hardships.
A prizewinning poet, Buyer tells her story skillfully, working from journal notes (sixteen legal tablets) gathered, assembled, and polished. She focuses on the present, but also gives us intriguing glimpses of a puzzling past, enough to give us a sense of the development of this marriage but not enough to answer all our questions. (A remark on her website, that she "came west from Chicago as a mail order bride," compounds the mystery.) The book's epilogue, written some ten years after the events documented in the journal, brings the reader up to date with events in the Buyers' lives.
Spring's Edge tells a remarkable story. I won't forget it, and I don't think you will, either.
From the author's website: Born in Edinburgh, Scotland and raised on Air Force bases around the world, Laurie came west from Chicago as a mail order bride to live a homestead existence on the north fork of the Flathead River near Glacier National Park. The next 25 years found her living and working on remote cattle ranches in Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado.
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