Ten days ago, news of Al Wiederspahn’s death was a whiplash which cracked quickly around the Cowboy State. His loss is felt keenly by many of us beyond his family and friends because of the many contributions he made to his community. While a very private man, Al was generous with his time and considerable intellect and those of us fortunate to benefit from his wisdom also gained precious insights into his beliefs, opinions and hopes for the future. A conversation with Al was always a journey, a meandering trip that touched on all manner of related subjects before ending up at the required destination. He was a model for civility; always polite, always proper, always impeccably dressed. While one of the most patient people imaginable, he was not always patient. Al could not stand hypocrisy, stupidity, or dishonesty and he was not shy about expressing his opinions of the unworthy. Very politely. Properly. And while handsomely attired. Al served on the Board of Directors of the Stock Growers Land Trust since 2009, and as Chairman for several of those years. He was passionate about our work and the opportunity we have to conserve not just land, but Wyoming’s “cultural landscape.” He gave a great deal of time and energy to our Land Trust and was a greatly valued mentor, leader, conscience, philanthropist, counsel – and perhaps most importantly, expansive thinker. What follows is something Al wrote for the Land Trust’s newsletter in 2010. Not only does it describe our work at its very best, it also reminds us of what we will miss most about Al.
THE RANCHING CULTURE
It is a privilege for me to serve on the Board of the Wyoming Stock Growers Agricultural Land Trust. While much of WSGALT’s work focuses on the conservation of ranch lands, it is perhaps less recognized that by preserving agricultural uses on those lands, WSGALT also furthers the protection of a culture; the culture of ranching.
Culture has been described as the total way of life that characterizes a group of people. By any measure or definition, ranching embodies a singular culture. The ranch culture is comprised of a distinctive set of cultural components, which include animal husbandry, architecture, courtship, cuisine, dance, dress, etiquette, free enterprise, gestures, individual freedom, language, music, values and work ethic. It is primarily through the agency of their culture that people interact with and modify their environment. Ranch culture affects certain attributes of the land, reflecting the way of life of the people who live and work on it. The ranch culture’s relationships with the physical environment create a unique “cultural ecology.”
The stewardship exercised through these relationships has preserved sustainable environments that are largely unchanged by human behavior. Many of Wyoming’s prodigious landscapes are inextricably tied to production agriculture. Our State’s defining physical features – climates, landforms and natural vegetation – are particularly well suited to stock-raising. Ranching’s human activity, with all its attributes and works, has preserved open space, protected habitat for wildlife and provided food and fiber for a nation. The ranch culture is in alignment with resource conservation because ranchers’ lives and livelihoods depend on the good stewardship of those places entrusted to their care. That is why one of WSGALT’s premiere objectives is to facilitate ranch families’ personal decisions concerning their private property, allowing the creation of conditions that will protect ranches for future generations and preserve both a landscape and a way of life. Through the creation of a properly crafted conservation easement, WSGALT provides a means to preserve the “cultural landscape” of ranching.
Cultural landscapes have been defined as “geographical terrains which exhibit characteristics, or which represent the values, of a society as a result of human interaction with the environment” or as lands which “represent the combined works of nature and man…” or, more philosophically, as “a set of ideas and practices embedded in a place [which] captures the relationship of [its] tangible and intangible qualities.” The value of such cultural landscapes is coming to be increasingly recognized and appreciated.
A noted geographer, Pierce Lewis, has stated, “The attempt to derive meaning from landscapes possesses overwhelming virtue. It keeps us constantly alert to the world around us, demanding that we pay attention not just to some of the things around us but to all of them – the whole visible world in all of its rich, glorious, messy, confusing, ugly and beautiful complexity.” Ranchers have always been attuned to this complexity and to the productive, cultural, aesthetic and, yes, theological meaning derived from the landscape.
By protecting ranchlands and ranch life, the Wyoming Stock Growers Agricultura Land Trust works to preserve ranch culture, ranch landscapes and this important cultural ecology of Wyoming – and well it should. After all, “culture” is our middle name.