"Good afternoon, and welcome to "Eye on the West", the show that brings you stories of the modern American frontier, and the men and women who live there. I'm Nathaniel Morgan.
"We're travelling down this pitted road on our way to the Clarendon farm - the last family-owned and operated ranch in Calicutt County. In fact, aside from a few large Cargill winter wheat plantations, there's no agriculture left in Calicutt County at all, huddled as it is against Montana's Rocky Mountains. The temperature barely rises above freezing between late October and May. The population of Calicutt County hit a high of almost thirty thousand back in nineteen oh two, and has been dropping ever since.
"So what keeps the Clarendons here? Why have they stayed while all their neighbors left for jobs in the city? Well, that's what we're going to ask them. I called last week, and they should be expecting us. There's their farm now.
"Their buildings seem well-kept-up, although the winters here are harsh. Let's see - there's the farmhouse, some sheds over there - and that old staple of American farms, the row of deceased pick-up trucks. Two barns, one wooden and one cinderblock. Oh, there's Mr. Clarendon.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Clarendon! Thank you for taking the time to meet with us!"
"Howdy! T'aint nothin', t'aint nothin', it's kind of you to drop by. I got the boys out mindin the herds, so I got time."
"Well, we surely do appreciate it. So your animals are out in the fields? We were hoping to have a look at them."
"A-yup, one herd's out in the south pasturage, the other's up on the hill. But we got some of the young'uns here in the paddock - come on 'round the barn."
"Great. So, Mr. Clarendon - if I can get right to the point, what is it that has kept your family here? Ranching is a tough business - why are you still at it?"
"I dunno. I love the life, that's all. So do my boys. An' we're doin' all right - prices been goin' up recently, we got no debt. I could retire if I wanted, but I love what I do."
"I'm glad to hear it. But surely, then, the fact that you have money has to tempt you do do something eas-SWEET CHRISTIAN GOSPELS!"
"TH-TH-THAT'S YOUR HERD??!"
"Naw, this is just the young'uns. The herds are out in the fields, like I told ya."
"But those are bears!"
"You herd bears?!?"
"I... ... Bears?"
"A-yup. What'd you expect? Can't make any money herding cattle no more."
"I... uh... how long have you been herding bears?"
"All my life. Father, too, and grandfather. He was the first one to take up bear ranching - started it as a sideline. Then the bottom fell out of the beef market in '30, and he took up with bears full-time. Ursine Joe Clarendon, they called him. Well, before they called him One-eye."
"Um. There have to be thirty bears in there."
"Um. How many, uh, bears do you have in total?"
"Three hundred and forty-two. We had more, but it's October and we do the slaughtering in September. We had seven hundred this summer. Now that was a full paddock!"
"I, uh, I bet it was. Isn't it, uh, dangerous, raising bears?"
"Oh sure it is. But you just have to know how to handle them, same as any animal. They don't much like being pushed around, but you can cajole them, get 'em to do what you want. Sure, they got five-inch fangs and three-inch claws, but you just have to be smarter than they are. It's still just ranching. I just think of them as particularly canny cows with fangs and claws."
"I... right. And it's just you and your sons?"
"Oh heck no. I have to take on hands in the summer - mostly Mezcans. The local boys, they're soft, they don't want to come help even for short-term stuff like the roundup or the branding. I pay good money, too."
"You brand bears?"
"'Course I do. How else could I tell if they were mine?"
"Um. Sure. So, uh, how many, uh, how many hands do you hire?"
"Depends on the year. This year we hired ten in May, another six in June."
"Yeah, but we hired the six in June to replace some of the ones we hired in May."
"Don't look like that. 'Taint like that at all. Ain't nothing happened to them boys. They just run away. Clean back to Mezco, I 'spect."
"Ah. Well, that's, uh, right. So, um... what do you do with the bears?"
"Well, like I said, we butcher about half of them in September. There's forward contracts on the meat - we make pretty good money there, and it reduces our risk. So there's the meat. And, of course, we also make cheese."
"Yep! Marlene gets up at five every morning to milk 'em."
"You milk bears?"
"I don't, my wife does. I only milk them when she's sick. Mostly I'm out by then, fixing the fences, riding out to the herds. Gotta keep a close eye on the bears or they can get into trouble right quick."
"I bet... Mr. Clarendon, I have to confess, you've almost completely destroyed the interview I had prepared for. I mean... bears? I thought you raised cows."
"That's all right. Most folks do. Why don't you come up to the house, gather your thoughts - I'm sure Marlene has some refreshments ready."
"That's mighty kind of you. I just... bears..."
"Aw, you make it sound like it's something. These here are just brown bears. My cousin Zeke, up in Fairbanks - he raises grizzlies. Now that's ranching."
- Sun Ra
Columns by Sun Ra