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Cowboy Dreams

As a kid, I wanted to be a cowboy. That seems desperately old-fashioned, but as a suburban adolescent I yearned for that simple and passionate life, riding rimrock country on a trusted horse, amongst sagebrush and arroyo. While my contemporaries built youthful fantasies around Superman and GI Joe, mine were drawn from my father’s bookshelf, where I found Western novels, including those of the artist and writer, Will James.

Immensely popular in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, James was a folk hero to my father’s generation. He was not an author who chanced to write about cowboys; instead, he cowboyed, and then wrote it down. His heartland was the open range, and his twenty-six novels contain glorious sketches and paintings of wild mustangs, lone horsemen, and sagebrush. I fell headlong into his book Smoky, written in 1926, as well as The Lone Cowboy, penned in 1930.

In time I woke from my cowboy dream, lost track of the novels, and forgot about Will James for about forty years, until a meandering journey to Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park brought it all back again.  The trip was a quest to understand the core elements of that part real, part mythical region we know as the West. The Park seemed an excellent place to start.

Well off Canada’s Highway One and near the small community of Val Marie, the Park was created in 1988 to represent the Canadian prairie biome. The solitude and spectacular ecology of Grasslands make it a haven for seekers, romantics and avoiders of the beaten tourist track. If you chose Grasslands as the spiritual heart of the Canadian West, you wouldn’t be far wrong.

Walking the Park’s interpretive trail above the historic Frenchman River, with Seventy-Mile Butte in the distance, I was struck by an intriguing sense of déjà vu. What was it about the subdued pastels of grass, rimrock and badland, the endless horizontal vistas under a dome of prairie sky, that made them so familiar? A subsequent tour of the local historical museum gave me the answer: the paintings of Will James.

My western quest had taken a sudden new turn. Returning home, I searched out the old novels and began to research my forgotten childhood hero. A truly amazing story emerged.

Will James was actually Ernest Dufault, born in St. Nazaire, in the Province of Quebec, in 1892. He too was smitten by the cowboy life, and spent all his spare time dreaming about and sketching imagined life in the West. Leaving his home at the tender age of fifteen, he got off the train in Saskatchewan, and began working on cattle ranches in the wild south country. His learning curve was enormous: within two years, the young Ernest had mastered English, horseback riding and cowpunching. And he continued to sketch, on envelopes, bunkhouse walls, on anything he could lay his hands on. Horses dominated his art, and that love affair would continue to for all of his short life. Slowly, young Dufault began to invent his own western image, both in his mind and on sketch paper; ten gallon hat, black vest, scarf knotted around the neck, pointed boots, pant cuffs turned up, a Bull Durham roll-your-own held casually in the side of the mouth. Always mounted on a horse, or standing next to one. With jet-black hair, hawk nose and chiselled features, this young man was as handsome in real life as he was in his self-portraits.

Name has much to do with image, and during this time Ernest began experimenting with anglo, western-sounding handles for himself, eventually settling on the monosyllabic Will James. That was a prophetic early step along a journey towards fame, fortune, and an early death.

As I researched further, I found references to Ernest Dufault/Will James popping up in various Canadian prairie communities during his six-year stay in Western Canada. One of his trademarks was to leave a signed and dated sketch or photograph of himself wherever he went. These artifacts, together with local histories and rancher accounts, have him passing through or working in communities like Maple Creek, Ravenscrag, and Gull Lake as well as Val Marie. A sole postcard the young man sent to his family was postmarked at Sage Creek, in the isolated Milk River country of southern Alberta.

As he drifted from one ranch to another, Ernest found an older mentor in Pierre Beaupre, a fellow Quebecois, who helped him learn English and the ways of the Western cowboy. In 1911 they filed adjacent homestead claims in what would become the Grasslands Park, nearly a century later. “Bopy,” as Will affectionately called him, was to become a seminal figure in James’ autobiographical novel, the Lone Cowboy.

A scrape with the law followed by a stint in the Maple Creek jail nourished James’ fugitive tendencies. Upon being released he fled south across the Montana border, leaving literally everything behind–his homestead claim, his partner, his family ties, his real name and his Canadian identity. He was now fully remade as Will James, Montana cowpuncher, rodeo rider, storyteller and itinerant artist. Legend has it that James met the great cowboy painter Charles M. Russell, who encouraged him in his work and got him started writing his stories down. Those early works came to the attention of the popular New York magazine Sunset, and soon Eastern readers were devouring James’ short stories and sketches.

Will James literally embraced the American West, cowboying and rodeoing through Montana, Utah and Nevada, working as a stunt rider in Hollywood, sketching, and writing everything down. He saw himself as indestructible, but bronc riding and a habit of binge drinking were taking their toll. His marriage to Alice Conradt, daughter of a wealthy Reno ranching family, brought some temporary stability to his life, and his stories lengthened into novels. These were wildly successful: Smoky, The Lone Cowboy and several others were bestsellers, reprinted over and over again.

All the James books are written in a slangy western vernacular which now seems dated and a bit silly, but which captivated readers at the time. They held particular appeal to boys, and my father admitted to being under the James spell as an adolescent, just as I was. This speaks to the power of myth, as it passes unchanged from one generation to the next.

America in the 1930’s was a nation undergoing rapid urbanization and industrialization, but Will James’ novels reflect none of that. They were about frontier: cities, factories, even automobiles found no place in the James books, and that was part of the secret of their success. In spite its passionate embrace of the Machine Age, American identity was still rooted in the rugged, independent frontier cowboy, and James reinforced that belief. Writing about an unfenced, free-range ranching lifestyle that was largely gone, Will James gave Eastern  factory workers, straphangers and intellectuals alike the opportunity to fantasize that era back to imaginary life.

The Lone Cowboy, James’ “autobiography,” is a fascinating fabrication. In it he makes no mention of his Quebec roots, offering instead this fantasy origin: born on a remote Montana cattle ranch, both Will’s parents are killed in an accident when he is a child. He is subsequently adopted and raised by the French-Canadian cowhand Bopy. Later on, Bopy drowns in an ice-filled Montana river. This clever fabrication provides a logical explanation for Will’s lifelong French accent, while at the same time eliminating any possibility for story verification. All possible loose ends in the Lone Cowboy have been carefully snipped off.

Will’s newfound celebrity status was both a blessing and a curse. Book royalties allowed him to buy a Montana cattle ranch that was to be a romantic haven for himself and Alice. He landed movie contracts for both Smoky and the Lone Cowboy, but was soon shut out of any significant role in either film because of his drinking habits. With fame came increased scrutiny, and people began to question the gaps and inconsistencies in Will’s life story. Like his famous contemporary Grey Owl (real name Archie Belaney), he lived an elaborate lie. The resulting psychological pressure on James was enormous. Paranoid about having his real origins discovered, he swore his Quebec family to absolute secrecy, and then cut all ties with them. Not even his wife knew the true story. An obvious outlet for all this pressure was booze, which his celebrity status provided him with in abundance. Will’s binges and blackouts became more and more common, and his artistic output finally ceased altogether. When he died at age 50 of cirrhosis of the liver, the world lost a mythic—and tragic–hero.

I still have my father’s well-thumbed copy of Smoky, which was given to him by an aunt in 1929, when he was eleven. The book now occupies a proud place on my bookshelf, and serves to remind me of that adolescent dream. Although I never became a cowboy, my life has been somehow tied to grassland, sagebrush, badland and butte. Will James had something to do with that.

(A previous version of this article was published in Western Living magazine.)

Army of 500

The Bald Range is an open, grassy mountainside tucked in among the pine forests of the central Okanagan. Elegant bunchgrasses and hardy balsamroots abound. Native bees and other insects attend the flowers while overhead, solitary raptors work the thermals. The Bald Range is a landscape well suited to epiphany, but its humble beauty has been marred. Historical overgrazing, fire suppression and all-terrain vehicles have each left their legacy of damage.

Part of that legacy is a truly spectacular infestation of a noxious alien weed known as Saint Johnswort, on a portion of the Range. This European weed is common in many parts of BC’s southern Interior and the Lower Mainland, but the populations are typically small and scattered. This is due to a highly successful biological control insect known as Chrysolina. This fat, glossy beetle was purposefully introduced in BC in the early 1950’s and it became a very successful immigrant, spreading its progeny throughout the southern half of the Province. The beauty of Chrysolina is its voracious appetite for Saint Johnswort, and its total disdain for any other plant.

As a longtime volunteer and occasional consultant on the Bear Creek Bald Range (one must be specific—BC has several Bald Ranges), I was acutely conscious of its Saint Johnswort infestation, which in places made up 90 percent of the vegetation, displacing bunchgrass, balsamroot and pretty much everything else. But oddly, there were no Chrysolina attackers. This particular beetle is easy to spot, due to its iridescent black body, but several close inspections of the Bald Range during peak season never revealed a single beetle. This was strange, since the beetle is considered well established by Provincial authorities, and can be found everywhere that its host plant is found.

So I added this observation to my list of Bald Range questions and curiosities, and carried on. But by the summer of 2015 it was obvious to our cadre of Bald Range volunteers that the Saint Johnswort infestation was spreading, and spreading rapidly. Saint Johnswort is a well-known herbal remedy for depression, and I figured we now had enough biomass to cheer up several provinces and territories.

I put in a call to Catherine Macrae, an invasive plant specialist with the Ministry of Forests in Nelson, BC, to see if there was any chance of getting a few beetles. She told me the Chrysolina was experiencing one of its periodic down cycles, and few were available for capture and re-release. But she promised to keep my request in mind. Then in the spring of 2016, Catherine’s technicians found a burgeoning population near Nelson, and I got an urgent notice that 500 beetles were coming via express bus to my home town of Summerland.

I arrived at the bus station promptly at the appointed arrival time and—no bugs. Frantic and knowing the beetles experience high mortality from shipping delays, I called Catherine. She gave me the tracking number and I contacted every depot on the various bus routes between Nelson and Summerland, the destination. No luck. “In transit” was the standard unhelpful answer. The Bald Range’s chances for a Chrysolina rescue were fading fast. I waited several anxious hours, made the round of phone calls again, and found the package was sitting at the bus station in Kelowna. The warehouse person reminded me that it was Saturday morning, they were closing in 45 minutes, and would re-open again on Monday. In turn, I reminded myself that it was over an hour’s drive from my house to the Kelowna bus station.

Pedal to the metal on Highway 97, my ancient Suzuki smoking from overexertion, I had visions of beetles dying slow and excruciating deaths in the airless, weedless Kelowna bus warehouse.  But somehow the gods of Kelowna’s endless out-of-phase traffic lights smiled on me, and I sailed right through to the north end bus station, where the package awaited. The warehouse person was not at all pleased to hear that the box was full of insects, and he very reluctantly loaned me a razor knife to open it with. And there, carefully packed in five vented plastic containers, nestled in Styrofoam and sharing a cold pack, were five hundred live, active insects. I thanked the apprehensive warehouse man profusely, and made a beeline, or rather a beetleline, for the Bald Range.

To get to the Bald Range, one drives twelve kilometers up the supremely dusty and washboardy Bear Creek road, a kilometer up a spur road, and finishing with a steep ten minute hike to get on to the Bald Range itself. I had transferred the bug containers from the box into my pack, and now I began to worry that my black backpack was acting as an unintentional solar oven, and the bugs would overheat and die on the very last leg of their epic journey. So I did the hike in record time. Arriving at the middle of the Saint Johnswort infestation, I was relieved to see the bugs were still active in their containers. Now I faced a dilemma that I hadn’t thought of before—where was the best place to put them—a dry spot, a wet spot, a spot with young plants, or mature plants? In the end I decided on five separate locations, each slightly different, and I marked them with my trusty GPS for future reference.

 

I have been on the margins of biological control for many years, but never actually participated in an insect release. So gently emptying these bugs from their containers was the culmination of a very long personal and ecological loop. Now I was embracing the full contradiction of biocontrol—introducing a new alien species to control an existing alien species. But these are exactly the kinds of delicious paradoxes that keep drawing me back to ecology.

My Chrysolina release was one of the handful of acts of random beauty one gets to be a part of in a lifetime. This delivered beetle population may, in their insect wisdom, take to the Bald Range, or they may reject it and die. After all, they were many kilometers and generations removed from their home country of England. One very plausible outcome of the release: the beetles will be successful, but the niche that Saint Johnswort formerly occupied gets filled by a new alien species from our foul and burgeoning cornucopia of invasive weeds.

Most of my tiny iridescent army of 500 came out of their containers easily, but there were a few which I had to coax out on to my finger, and then place on to a carefully chosen Saint Johnswort leaf. Those last few holdouts seemed genuinely grateful, and so was I.

Bottling the 2015

“We’ve been making wine for 3,000 years, how hard can it be?” George, my vinicultural Jedi master, was fond of repeating that deceptive statement. For several years, George and I batched our separate Zweigelt grape harvests together, and then he would do the technical vinting part. I would be around to help with the crush, and later to wash bottles and press corks. Eighteen months after each harvest, I was the grateful recipient of several cases of the lovely ruby-red Zweigelt, to which I affixed my own appellation: Yippee Calle. Regrettably, George and his wife Gerri moved from the Okanagan in 2016, but just prior to their departure, George brought me two 23 liter glass carboys full of the 2015 Zweigelt harvest, still fermenting. “Rack it in December, and then bottle it in June of 2017,” he said, making it sound so easy. I carefully stored the carboys in our unheated cellar, along with the black widows and boxes of childhood momentos our kids have yet to claim.

The racking went okay. You transfer the young wine from a full carboy to an empty one, leaving half a bottle worth—and the residue—in the bottom. George had instructed me to top up the newly filled carboy right to the top with a bottle of plonk—to exclude as much oxygen as possible. There was no way I was going to pour bad wine after good, so I cracked a bottle of the precious 2014 Zweigelt, to top things up.

All through the month of May the two silent carboys weighed in the back of my mind. Would the June bottling be successful? Did I have all the right paraphernalia? What if I’d already wrecked the wine? Three millennia of anxiety pressed down.

June arrived. Taking a preparatory inventory, I had plenty of bottles, but no corks. All that was on offer at the winemaking store were plastic corks of standard length, and short ones made of real cork.  I debated with myself, and opted for the short real corks; there was already enough plastic in my life.  If the wine started to go bad because of short corks, I planned to start an accelerated drinking program.

The cork dilemma resolved, it was time to set up a bottling station in the kitchen. First I brought up the two full carboys from the cellar. One at a time, I negotiated the steep, rickety stairs, holding the carboy like a sleeping child so as not to awaken the sediment. Then a few more trips to fetch the empty bottles and the corking machine. The carboys were set up on the kitchen counter, with bottles bunched tightly on the floor just below them, so I could gently and continuously siphon wine to fill each bottle.  I knew this would be a messy process, so I put a bunch of bath towels down first. Fortunately the towels were all of a dark red color.

The siphon. I had bought this crucial piece of equipment custom, a rigid tube that had a baffle at the bottom–to avoid siphoning up wine residue. The siphon was just the right length: when placed in the carboy, the shepherd’s crook at the top projected a few inches above the carboy mouth. But it did not come with a hose, so I bought a length of aquarium hose at a petshop, and slid one end on to the top of the siphon. Everything now in place, it was now time to prime the siphon, and allow gravity to do its work. I emulated George’s deft, time-honored and highly symbolic move, bending down to suck on the far end of the hose, then switching the hose from mouth to bottle just when full siphon is achieved, but not before you are left with a surprisingly pleasant half-mouthful of young wine.

It was working! I sat back to relax for a minute, and then saw the bubbles. Wine hates oxygen, and there was a tiny stream of air bubbles entering the wine flow right where I had attached the hose to the siphon. Panicked, I shut everything down. Crimped the hose with a gear clamp at the connection point, to no avail. Added a second gear clamp, but the evil bubbles continued. I went back to the petshop and bought a smaller diameter hose, plus a short connecting fitting that would go inside both the siphon and the hose. The air leak continued but the bubbles were less dramatic, so I was making progress. I pulled out the fitting, and wrapped it with plumber’s Teflon tape, which has essentially no thickness, and after wrapping on about twelve feet of it, I finally achieved an airtight, wine-worthy seal, and re-started the bottling process.

Bottling wine

The trick to filling the bottles is to get that all-important half inch of airspace between the wine and the bottom of the cork. George could hit it bang on, by switching the siphon hose from the newly filled bottle to the next empty one, at precisely the right time. I was overfilling one bottle and underfilling the next, so once the carboys were emptied I had to laboriously readjust the levels in most bottles, using a funnel and a spare bottle.

The final stage was bottling, which actually went quite smoothly. The corking machine consists of a spring-loaded platform for the bottle, a receptacle that holds the cork, and a lever that pushes the cork into the bottle. As you begin to press down on the lever, the cork holder compresses the cork slightly. Then you press harder, the cork slides down just the right distance into the neck of the bottle, a satisfying thump is heard when the lever reaches the end of its travel, and you have finished corking the bottle. Slide that bottle into the waiting 12-compartment cardboard wine box, position the next bottle, load in a new cork, and repeat.

Don bottling

It was suppertime when I finished lugging the wine boxes down into the cellar and cleaned up the kitchen floor. The half liter or so of chewy wine left in the bottoms of the carboys called out to me, so what the hell. I emptied it into a large wineglass, residue and all, and enjoyed it with a supper of sockeye salmon marinated in fresh Saskatoon juice.

Yippee Calle
Yippee Calle