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Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production scrutinizes a host of today’s commonly held assumptions about the cattle industry. Red meat isn’t making Americans unhealthy, writes author Nicolette Hahn Niman, an environmental attorney turned California rancher. Nor should cows be so vehemently blamed for drought and climate change. Cattle-ranching, she writes, can be extremely beneficial to the land.

At the height of Hahn Niman’s legal career, she was hired by Bobby Kennedy Jr. to start a national campaign to reform meat-industry pollution. A few years later, she got into the ranching life when she married Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch in Northern California. The natural meat company is well-known for traditional husbandry methods, no hormone use, and environmental land stewardship. In Defending Beef, Hahn Niman, who happens to be a long-time vegetarian, seeks to add nuance to what she considers to be an oversimplified public discussion about beef's environmental and health impacts in the U.S.

She explained some of these nuances in a recent conversation.

Will you elaborate on your claim that, while there are slightly more cattle, there are overall fewer large animals on farms in the U.S. than there were a century ago?

It’s commonly perceived that numbers of all livestock have increased exponentially over the past century. But if you add up all large farm animals, the number is actually lower now. Red meat is eaten less, and there are fewer animals on the landscape. Of course, part of this is that the animals are killed when they’re younger. This country used to slaughter at 5 (years old); they now do it at 18 months. So you end up getting more meat with fewer animals on the land.

Let’s talk about methane. It’s commonly accepted that cows emit a lot of methane and, therefore, contribute significantly to global climate change. But, as you say in your book, there are far fewer ruminant mammals roaming around now than there were prior to European colonization.

The methane thing has captured people’s imagination. The number of ruminants in the globe—animals like cows, elk, deer, buffalo—is lower today than it was historically. … The single biggest cause of human-generated methane in the 1980s was from rice-farming, and because that became known, and because there were concerns about global warming, there was pressure on the rice industry to reduce their methane emissions. To me, the same rationale should be applied to cattle and beef. Is methane from cattle an intractable problem? No. There are easy methodologies for reducing the amount of gas. Putting small weights in the cow’s rumen (the first of several compartments in a cow’s stomach) can bring gas production down by 25 percent.

Can you talk about how we’ve learned to blame cattle for deforestation, and why that’s not necessarily true?

There are parts of the developing world—Brazil, Sudan, Indonesia—where fairly major deforestation is happening. In Brazil, the leading trigger really is the creation of fields for soy-cultivation. There are a variety of causes of deforestation; raising cattle is one of them. But my point is that (deforestation) is not intrinsically related to cattle-production. People shouldn’t be doing that to raise cattle; that’s a very bad human decision. But if it’s not inherently a part of it, I don’t think it’s fair to attribute (deforestation) to (cattle-ranching).

In your book, you acknowledge that soil-erosion and desertification are happening at such a rate that the world will run out of topsoil in little more than a century—and yet this isn’t a result of too many cattle. You argue that it’s a matter of managing cattle properly: Close, dense herds that are consistently on the move. Will you explain? 

I do not deny that cattle can have an impact on the land that is negative. I dispute the characterization of this damage as “overgrazing.” What people are seeing in the American West is not overgrazing; it’s improper grazing. It mostly has to do with allowing the cattle to be too dispersed and not tightly managing them. … In 1800, there were 70 million bison on the land. Our whole global ecosystem evolved with these enormous herds.

Much of the western U.S. has experienced drought for three years in a row now. How do you respond to critics of the cattle industry who say that grazing exacerbates the drought?

The overall understanding of how much water it takes to produce beef is misunderstood and exaggerated. A pound of beef and a pound of rice (are) not that much different as far as how much water it takes to produce it. When you look at the actual figures, (beef) is not that different than a lot of other foods. Chocolate, coffee, sugar—these are all water-intensive foods.

When you have an area of degraded land, whether it’s been poorly grazed, or it’s abandoned, you have very little water retained. The total number of inches of rain you get annually is a far less important figure than how much is held in the ground. That’s what actually needs to be the focus. Well-managed cattle-raising that keeps a dense vegetative cover on the ground might be the optimal way … to create ground that holds onto water. It just kind of flips this whole issue on its head.

Cattle-grazing, when it’s done right, has an incredibly beneficial effect as far as how water works in our ecosystem. It could actually be a really good counter-drought strategy. And I don’t think that anyone really knows how exactly to do that. It’s an idea that people are beginning to realize … you do this correctly, and you’re actually going to be using water a great deal more effectively, and therefore, maybe we should actually be doing this in drought-stricken areas.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production

By Nicolette Hahn Niman

Chelsea Green

288 pages, $19.95

Published in Literature

On Oct. 8, 2008, several elite leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—also known as the LDS or Mormon Church—went on the air and urged members in California to boost their involvement in defeating the state’s legalization of same-sex marriage.

The LDS Church was one of the last to join the Protect Marriage Coalition—mostly composed of conservative religious groups, including Catholics and Orthodox Jews—but they were certainly not the least. Elder M. Russell Ballard’s call to action was clear. “Many of you will text message, blog, make phone calls, walk your neighborhoods,” said the then-80-year-old on camera. “These methods of engaging will be major elements of informing people of the issues and of the coalition’s position.”

The Protect Marriage Coalition claimed victory on Election Day: Proposition 8 passed with 52.2 percent of the vote, and gay marriage in California was temporarily eliminated. According to some estimates, Mormons made up an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the early volunteers who walked door-to-door in election precincts. On Voting Day, there were 100,000 volunteers staffing get-out-the-vote efforts, a sizable portion of whom were LDS. Financial contributions from Mormons in and out of state made up as much as half of the nearly $40 million raised on behalf of the measure in a state where they account for 2 percent of the population.

A new book, Seeking the Promised Land, examines Mormon political behavior by looking, among several points of inquiry, into their responsiveness to church leaders. The authors are professors: Notre Dame’s David Campbell, J. Quin Monson of Brigham Young University—both of whom are Mormon—and John Green of the University of Akron, who is Protestant. Calls to action from LDS leadership are infrequent, so when the leaders speak uniformly with specific directions on political issues, the authors argue, most Mormons follow their leaders. Of course, Mormons are overwhelmingly aligned with the GOP, much like the African American vote is Democratic, which is not always the most desirable political situation to be in.

The Mormon vote, while thought to be a lost cause for Democrats, could just as easily be taken for granted by Republicans. The Mormon constituency, in other words, could easily find themselves overlooked and marginalized in the political sphere. Furthermore, Monson, of BYU, cautions that the imbalanced Mormon Republicanism “ought to be concerning, because (it) has potentially some negative consequences for the church as an institution.” If the church is perceived as partisan, missionaries proselytizing among non-Republicans could face a tarnished reputation among groups of possible converts.

Why are Mormons so overwhelmingly Republican? The short answer is that they, as voters, look to protect their traditional values, the authors argue. They are a communal and homogenous group that exhibits a high level of faith in their everyday lives—abstaining from alcohol, caffeine, etc.— making them distinctive. Their belief and culture are heavily focused on the family, and this can bleed over into politics with issues they see as “moral,” such as gay marriage and abortion.

This is not to say Mormons have always been predisposed toward the Republican Party. After Utah was granted statehood in 1896, Mormons were largely Democrats, because the Republicans of that era, in addition to being against slavery, were against polygamy. Mormons eventually became bipartisan; their values were not so at odds with the greater culture as a whole. The 1960s, however, brought with it a sexual revolution and significant cultural change that caused disruption. During this time, Monson says, “you see Mormons gravitating toward the Republican Party for the similar reasons that evangelicals did”: a defense of traditional values. The ensuing culture war pushed Mormon voters further to the right.

That rightward drift has continued. The authors found that young Mormons are more likely to be Republican than older ones. Mormons growing up in the ’80s and ’90s aged in a cultural environment where their faith and politics tightly aligned, something that their parents and grandparents wouldn’t have seen so definitively, Monson says.

Fealty to the GOP may not end any time soon. However, Mormons contradict their partisanship on certain key issues. “When LDS teachings are out of step with conservative orthodoxy,” the authors write, “Mormons generally follow their church over their party.” In 2013, for example, Dieter Uchtdorf, a member of the church’s governing First Presidency, was among other faith leaders who met with President Obama about immigration reform that would have created a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. Obama’s policy, Uchtdorf said, “was totally in line with our values.”

What this means for the future of Mormons in American politics is not entirely clear. There seems to be no sign of strong Mormon Republicanism waning. But many Mormons are, above all, faithful to their church.

“When those messages from the church hierarchy are consistent and repeated over time,” Monson says, “the members respond.”

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Seeking the Promised Land

By David E. Campbell, John C. Green and J. Quin Monson


312 pages, $26.99

Published in Literature

California author Armistead Maupin has returned with the ninth and final volume in his much-loved Tales of the City series, The Days of Anna Madrigal. Maupin, who has long refused to be pigeonholed as a “gay writer,” writes about contemporary San Francisco and the love lives of both gays and straights in an era confronted with a dramatic reassessment of the ways in which people choose to love.

In this standalone novel, Anna, a 92-year-old transgender pioneer, realizes her last days are filling with small surrenders: “You could see them as a loss, or you could see them as simplification.” And she feels compelled to attend to unfinished business in her childhood hometown of Winnemucca, Nev. “It’s something old people do. … Old ghosts.”

Inspired by Christine Jorgensen, once George Jorgensen, a real-life former Army private who scandalized the nation in the early 1950s with a sex change, Maupin’s protagonist followed suit in the ’60s and became an activist who inspired others who struggle with sexual identity. Born Andy Ramsey, son of a Winnemucca madam, Anna Madrigal has transformed herself into a gentrified landlady, a citizen at the vital heart of her city, San Francisco, rescuer of stray cats and other wanderers, and a revered symbol for the LGBT community.

She also struggles with the knowledge that she, herself, has been a bigot. Decades ago, she’d thrown verbal poison at a Basque teenager who’d made advances to her when she was still a boy. In a moving interior metamorphosis at the climax of this novel, one that resonates with her earlier physical changes, Anna finally comes to terms with her confusion as a young man who was afraid of departing from the norm, while hiding a deep desire for lingerie and painted toenails. Owning her humanity in all its complexity, she returns to the gravesite of the young Basque boy in search of forgiveness.

The book is a fitting end to the Tales of the City and shines with Maupin’s uncanny ability to reveal people and their innermost secrets to themselves.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Days of Anna Madrigal

By Armistead Maupin


288 pages, $26.99

Published in Literature

In 1876, a woman named Jeanne Bonnet, who made her living catching and selling frogs to San Francisco restaurants—and was repeatedly arrested for wearing trousers in public—was shot to death.

A mention of Bonnet in a book on unconventional women intrigued the Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue, author of the 2010 best-seller Room, and she’s spun the few available facts into a rollicking story of post-gold rush San Francisco.

Frog Music is told from the perspective of Bonnet’s friend, Blanche Beunon, who witnessed the murder. Blanche is a smart, resourceful woman who is a well-known burlesque dancer and high-class prostitute. In France, she performed in circuses, dazzling audiences with her equestrian act, while her lover, Arthur, flew on the trapeze. But after Arthur injured his back in a fall, and the Franco-Prussian War broke out, hitting Paris hard, the couple fled to California in search of better fortune.

Frog Music moves back and forth in time between the shooting of Bonnet, whom Donoghue calls Jenny, and the story of Blanche and Jenny’s friendship, which begins when Jenny, riding a pilfered high-wheeled bicycle, collides with Blanche on the street.

Jenny Bonnet is a remarkable literary creation, a fierce free spirit who “wears her bruises like parade gear” and speaks in a charming Western patois. Jenny’s probing questions about who is taking care of Blanche’s baby son lead Blanche to retrieve the child from a horrifying child-care mill for working mothers, but she then has trouble caring for him and complains about it. “Keep him or don’t, is what I say,” Jenny tells Blanche. “Fish or cut bait, but don’t gripe.”

Jenny causes Blanche to rethink her entire way of living. After Jenny’s death, Blanche upends everything to try to catch the killer.

Although Bonnet was born in France, in Donoghue’s telling, she embodies the spirit of the West in the 1800s, with her disregard for conventional morality, inexhaustible gumption and determination to pursue life according to her own template. Frog Music is a rich historical whodunit that gives readers much to relish.

This review was originally published in High Country News.

Frog Music

By Emma Donoghue

Little, Brown and Company

416 pages, $27

Published in Literature

Too hefty to be carried in a hip pocket or even a daypack, William Wyckoff’s How to Read the American West is a field guide unlike any other, with a focus on patterns, variations and the distribution of landscape features.

Inspired by Peterson’s glorious bird books, How to Read the American West draws attention to eco-tones, watersheds, settlement patterns and corridors of connection (such as interstates or historic trails), and to questions of use, scale and control. Ultimately, it considers our grip on the land—and the land’s grip on us.

Cross-referenced and studded with photos and maps, this guide invites us to browse, linking waypoints by topic more often than by region. It capably leads the reader through 100 entries arranged by theme. Much as birders learn to distinguish dozens of sparrows, we learn to read the nuances of the West.

Wyckoff teaches earth sciences at Montana State University, and for a cultural geographer, he has a rather poetic voice. “Much of the West’s appeal remains connected to its physical musculature, its sheer material, visceral presence,” he writes. The Big Country’s sky is “wedded to the land beneath it by the interplay of atmosphere and terrain.” Chapters on cloudscapes and cacti, on Mormon architecture and vineyards, on military spaces and bungalow burbs form entwined strands in a narrative bolstered by facts and statistics.

The past pervades each page and, to a degree, still shapes the present. Folk-style “worm fences” made of dovetailed logs zigzag across Rocky Mountain pastures but are gradually disappearing. Similarly, roulade-like hay bales extruded from automatic balers are replacing traditional “bread loaf” haystacks. Numerous cultures have endowed Western landscapes with their legacies, whether symbolic, such as Navajo lore about four mythical mountains, or material—the Bureau of Reclamation’s barrage of dams.

“Landscapes tell great stories,” Wyckoff states in his introduction. “But we need to know where to look for them and how to make sense of what we find.”

This guidebook shows us where and how, with a raptor’s acuity and broadness of vision.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

How to Read the American West: A Field Guide

By William Wyckoff

University of Washington

440 pages, $44.95

Published in Literature

For 25 years, Peter Essick traveled the globe as a National Geographic photographer, and he was recently named one of the world’s 40 most-influential nature photographers.

In 2010, Essick began “a potentially controversial” project in his native California: shooting in Ansel Adams’ Sierra Nevada—and in Adams’ signature black-and-white style.

Paying homage to a master without imitating the work is a delicate balance to strike. Essick’s results, though, are stunning. In The Ansel Adams Wilderness, he captures groves of shimmering aspen trees and alpine lakes, whose calm surfaces perfectly mirror the granite formations and pine trees above. Quotes from Emerson, Thomas Cole and others, plus Essick’s own notes, round out the book.

Essick, like Adams, conveys a deep respect for his subject matter. And he defends his use of digital technology: If Adams were working today, he says, “He would have a similar model” of the latest camera—although “his would probably be better.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Ansel Adams Wilderness

By Peter Essick; foreward by Jamie Williams

National Geographic Society

112 pages, $22.95

Published in Literature

In her deft debut novel, Colorado writer TaraShea Nesbit imagines the lives of the wives of the men who were stationed in New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, working on the Manhattan Project during World War II.

Nesbit writes in the collective voices of the women, whose physicist husbands suddenly announced, “We are going to the desert,” without offering too many details. The women cannot even tell their relatives exactly where they are headed. “Our mothers understood,” Nesbit writes. “Our mothers had kept great secrets.”

The collective narration gives the prose an incantatory rhythm that suits the story, once the reader becomes accustomed to the frequent contradictions within a sentence. For example: “We arrived in New Mexico and thought we had come to the end of the earth, or we thought we had come home.” Out of the threads of each woman’s experiences, a tapestry is woven, revealing a peculiar, complex and yet temporary society.

The families are assigned houses inside a fenced complex patrolled by Dobermans and mounted guards. “We handed over our cameras. We denied we kept a diary.” The women know their scientist husbands are engaged in a secret war project, but most have no idea what is really going on.

Since the wives can’t share their lives with people outside the compound, they confide in each other and form a lively society, throwing cocktail parties, swapping clothes and minding each other’s children. “The military officially ran the town in one way,” Nesbit writes, “and our husbands in practice ran the town in some ways, and we ran the town clandestinely in others.”

The suspense for the reader comes from wondering how much the women know about their husbands’ work, and what they think about it. The answer varies for each of them, but none of them knows the complete truth until they see the devastation the atom bomb inflicts on Japan. The aftermath leaves them all deeply affected, even as their trajectories splinter from collective to individual again. Some decide the U.S. was justified in using the bombs; others, horrified by the unprecedented destruction, want to dedicate their lives to limiting nuclear weapons. In the end, however, all of them are bound by the part they played in the atom bomb’s creation.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

The Wives of Los Alamos

By TaraShea Nesbit

Bloomsbury USA

240 pages, $25

Published in Literature

If it’s possible to paint in words alone—to create a wildly colorful story of grief in sentences layered like one of van Gogh’s swirling night scenes—Colorado author Peter Heller accomplishes it in his second novel, The Painter, narrated by artist Jim Stegner. A fly fisherman with a violent streak, Stegner is determined to overcome his tragic past, but he can’t seem to avoid causing more pain for himself and others.

When Stegner moves from Taos, N.M., to an off-the-grid cabin tucked into the mountains near Paonia, Colo., he finally finds himself in a landscape he considers “a good place … to make a field of peace, to gather and breathe.” But not long after he’s settled in, his dark side resurfaces, and he kills a man in an unpremeditated act. Instead of spending his days as he had hoped—painting canvases and fly-fishing as the sun dips below the horizon—Stegner packs up and leaves Colorado to pursue a commission in Santa Fe, N.M., hoping to outrun his guilt.

The murdered man’s brother, burning with the desire for revenge, and an eclectic host of law-enforcement officials stay hot on the artist’s heels, and even as he tries to dodge the tragedy and violence that follows in his wake—including the deaths of his parents and the murder of his daughter by a drug-buyer—he can’t evade it. “That engine. Grief is an engine. Feels like that,” muses Stegner. “It does not fade, what they say, with time. Sometime it accelerates. I was accelerating. I could feel it, the g-force pressing my chest.”

Even though Stegner’s interior conflict adds depth to the story, the plot lulls at times when the narrator’s thoughts alone fill the page. However, Heller—an award-winning adventure writer—masterfully creates enough suspense to hold the tension taut in this book’s more-action-packed moments, which include shootouts, car chases, a barn-burning and an unexpected final scene.

Heller’s deep-feeling narrator tells his story in a candid, casual voice that ultimately extracts sympathy from the reader. With an ending that’s surprising and fresh, The Painter will leave the reader wondering what it takes to salvage something artful from a painful past.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

The Painter: A Novel

By Peter Heller

Alfred A. Knopf

384 pages, $24.95

Published in Literature

You’ve heard of The Horse Whisperer. Now, meet The Horse Lover, a cowboy on a mission to save wild mustangs—1,500 of them, all nickering and snorting at the Mustang Meadows Ranch in South Dakota.

“When my brother told me he’d agreed to keep hundreds of wild mustangs on his ranch, I thought he’d temporarily lost his common sense,” writes former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the author’s sister, in the foreword to H. Alan Day’s memoir.

The 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act dictated that thousands of mustangs on public land be rounded up, corralled and offered for adoption—something for which many of the animals proved utterly unsuitable. That gave Day the idea for his project: a refuge for wild horses.

Already a cattle-rancher who owned and managed two ranches—totaling 250,000 acres, in two states—Day bought a third, a 35,000-acre property in South Dakota, just to provide a home for unwanted mustangs. “This was an opportunity to plow unfurrowed ground in building the first wild horse sanctuary in the United States—a never-before-done project,” Day writes.

He describes the fun he had in meeting and caring for his new charges, as well as the problems and frustrations involved in trying to keep 1,500 horses—that’s 6,000 thundering hooves—healthy and happy at his wild equine rest home. Fortunately, he had help: The federal government paid 100 percent of the project’s cost during his four-year contract with the Bureau of Land Management. Still, Day has harsh words for the way the BLM manages mustangs.

“The Bureau of Land Management treats wild horses as numbers and objects rather than as individuals to be treated with love,” he writes. “Man is the worst enemy of mustangs, especially men in helicopters who cause terror and trauma. If you don’t make friends with them and teach them that you’re not their enemy, then you are.”

When the contract expired, Day rebid for it and lost; he then sold Mustang Meadows Ranch to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in 1993, and another contractor took over the care of the horses.

Asked if he’d do it again, given the chance, he answers without hesitation: “Make me 30 years younger, and I’d damned well do it over again.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Horse Lover: A Cowboy’s Quest to Save the Wild Mustangs

By H. Alan Day with Lynn Wiese Sneyd; foreword by Sandra Day O’Connor

University of Nebraska Press

264 pages, $24.95

Published in Literature

After nearly two decades of literary silence, former mystery writer Bernard Schopen is back with Calamity Jane, a new novel that asks serious questions about the West.

His protagonist, independent filmmaker Jane Harmon, returns triumphantly from Hollywood to Blue Lake, Nev., to showcase The Last Roundup, a documentary she’s made about the townspeople’s lives. Jane’s received “bouquets of encomium and accolades for her assessment of the rural West and the American desert, of what should be done in it and who should do it.” The Last Roundup even aired on PBS.

Winnifred Westrom, the book’s narrator, is a former schoolmarm and closet poet who reassembles the story of Jane’s one-year sojourn in Blue Lake and tries to come to terms with this modern-day Calamity Jane (as the locals call her), who’s wreaked havoc on their lives at every turn. Winnifred has sympathy for the realities that Jane’s film portrays, but also “feels it at odds with (her own) sense of things.” After all, Jane arrived with “ideas and attitudes shaped by Out There teachers. … She took us in, made us material to be worked by her art and didn’t recognize us otherwise.” This emotional flaw keeps Jane from penetrating or even recognizing the barrier that stands between her viewpoint and that of the town.

Jane’s larger-than-life stories of two characters—Brock Walden, a Don-Juan-of-the-West TV star who owns a local ranch, and Ione Hardaway, the pistol-packing manager of Walden’s livestock operation—miss the hidden details that don’t fit into her well-crafted narrative: the stuff of ordinary rural people who ain’t tellin’ their secrets to nobody.

“Out There,” the sensibility that shaped Jane’s version of the Wild West, collides with “Out Here,” the authentic Real West represented by the town. Schopen has taken a wise, smartly written, complex look at the everyday mysteries to be found, and perhaps solved, in a group of human beings with various passions, Achilles’ heels and a near-addiction to small-town gossip, which is often flavored with the truth. Can Jane, with her limited awareness of other people’s inner lives, ever understand what this land means to those trying to wring a livelihood from it? Or will she always be an outsider, bending the truth to fit her own myth?

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Calamity Jane

By Bernard Schopen


270 pages, $16.95

Published in Literature