Warm yet unsentimental engagements with a cattle ranch on the Palouse.
Fleeing the deteriorating conditions of Santa Cruz, freelance writer Freeman-Toole, her husband, and their two children make tracks for the Palouse on the Idaho-Washington border. There, in the high, dry grasslands along the Snake River, she and her son Ambrose (husband and other son preferred town) come to know Liz Burns, who runs by the skin of her teeth a cattle ranch situated in Hells’ Canyon, on the last free-flowing stretch of the river. It’s primarily a one-woman operation, with occasional help from ranch hands who double as beatnik poets and bluegrass musicians, and Liz has plenty to teach mother and son about the beauty of the place and its way of life. And it’s no cakewalk, that life, so full of work—but it is a testament to how diminished we become when removed from our labors, how by adding to the measurable stock of the world (through the time-scoured act of ranching) we fully intermesh with it. There are concurrent reflections on the author’s youth in Southern California and snippets of family history that flesh out her emotional background, but the thrust and beauty of the narrative has to do with the canyon and the Burns family ranch. So much leaves an impression on her—Nez Perce petroglyphs, the bad old days on the Snake (Liz’s father tells her: “You think hogs smell bad, well you oughta smell hogs that’ve been living on fish!”), bats in the ranch house bathroom—and if traces of melancholy drift through like wood smoke, it’s because the ranch and canyon, for all their toughness, are fragile outposts for all the safety and shelter they impart in a world unraveling at many of its seams.
Freeman-Toole’s voice is easy on the ear, and her stories have that clear, sere quality that marks the land she came to love. (16 photographs)