Cowboy is a Verb: Finding the Feminine on the Open Range
By Lily Iona Mackenzie
My Introduction to Amy Hale Auker
I discovered Amy Hale Auker when my publisher, Pen-L Publishing, created a Facebook group for its authors. Amy is one of them and has published Winter of Beauty, The Story is the Thing (both novels), and Rightful Place, her nonfiction WILLA Award Winner.
What drew me to Amy’s work is the world she inhabits, one to which most of us don’t have access. Part of a rare breed, she lives and works on an Arizona ranch where she writes of the land and its creatures, where “she is having a love affair with rock, mountains, piñon and juniper forests, the weather, and her songwriter husband who is also foreman of the ranch,” states her bio. “She guides her readers to a place where the bats fly, lizards do pushups on the rocks, bears leave barefoot prints in the dirt. Where hummingbirds do rain dances in August, spiders weave for their food, and poetry is in the chrysalis and the cocoon. She tells stories about the real world where things grow up out of the ground, where the miracle of life happens over and over and over again, where people can and do survive without malls or Arby’s.”
I recently interviewed Amy because I grew up on a farm in Alberta, and I wanted to learn more about how she combines her work as a cowgirl with her work as an author. If my stepfather hadn’t given up our farm near Calgary many years ago, I might still be astride my horse Smokey, wandering the prairies. During those years as a young girl, I absorbed valuable lessons about our responsibilities to the land and all that resides on it. Farmers are constantly on call, there being a strong symbiotic relationship between animals, crops, the land, and humans.
This training helped me later when I embraced my own vocation as a writer. I discovered a similar bond exists between writers and their material. Most will admit that they have to write. It’s as important as eating. Amy illustrates this interrelatedness by balancing her work as a cowboy with her calling as an author, the two worlds feeding each other.
Lily Iona Mackenzie: When did you first start writing and what motivates you to write?
Amy Hale Auker: I have written all of my life, in some form. My first collection of essays, Rightful Place, was published by Texas Tech University Press in 2011. It won the 2012 WILLA award for creative nonfiction. While I was waiting for it to be peer reviewed, I wrote another book of creative nonfiction that is frankly awful and will always live in the drawer. It highlighted for me the difference between cathartic writing and careful craft. I also wrote two novels that Pen-L Publishing picked up. They published the manuscripts in reverse order that I wrote them because The Story is the Thing is non-traditionally structured. Winter of Beauty is more linear and has a gentle storytelling approach. This was a good call by publisher Duke Pennell.
What motivates me to write? I can’t not write. My husband uses a word that makes me uncomfortable. He says I am driven. And perhaps it makes me uncomfortable because it is true. All I know is that after I cultivated the habit of morning pages, a la Julia Cameron, I get really itchy if I skip that practice. I am always in the middle of a manuscript, either the initial writing or the editing, a process I love. I waited until my late 30s to truly dedicate myself to my lifework and time feels short. To quote a song that my editor Andy Wilkinson wrote, “I have something to say.”
Lily Iona Mackenzie: How did you end up on this working ranch in Arizona, and how much time each day do you devote to the land and animals?
Amy Hale Auker: I was born into a livestock family in Texas and lived on ranches off and on while I was growing up. When I was 19, I married a working ranch cowboy, and we raised our children on big cow outfits, living on cow camps in remote areas. When our marriage dissolved, I grieved leaving the land and the way of life. However, a series of events dumped me down on an Arizona cow outfit with yet another cowboy. Gail Steiger has been running Spider Ranch for over 30 years, where I now am. When I got here seven years ago, he said, “I don’t need you to cook for me or clean house. I can do my own laundry. I need you to get on your horse and ride. I’ve been working this place alone for too long.” It was a change for both of us.
I was born to a cowboy, married a cowboy, gave birth to a boy who doesn’t want to do anything but punch cows. I’ve been listening to cowboy stories since I was en utero. But since I moved onto the Spider, I’ve earned my paycheck as a cowboy and it has changed my life… and my writing. I am making my own stories.
The Spider is a Forest Service allotment. In other words, we are harvesting what comes up out of untillable ground using ungulates, in this case cows, in as sustainable a way as possible. We are harvesting your public lands. We work with Arizona Game and Fish, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the U.S. Forest Service to do this in a way that is best for everyone involved—the people, the land, the domestic animals, and the wildlife.
Lily Iona Mackenzie: Do you have any help other than your husband?
Amy Hale Auker: Sometimes. This is huge rough country and a bigger crew is not always the best way. We have two different guys who help us when we need it because three ropes in the branding pen makes a world of difference. But Gail always says he’d rather put $75 of high grade alfalfa in a cow than pay for an extra cowboy for a day. We only feed the cows when we are making a pasture move, but the promise of alfalfa creates a gentle experience for the cows, which makes for gentle cows. Cows are smart. We are training them every time they see us. In this rough country, if they want to get away from us, they can. So, hopefully, we are teaching them that we are the good guys and that we are all on the same team—even if they only see us three or four times a year.
Lily Iona Mackenzie: When I see the photos and brief blurbs that you publish on Facebook, I realize that you’re appealing to a very romantic vein in American life—the cowboy/cowgirl who can live on the land and manage the animals that proliferate there. Why do you think this world fascinates many readers?
Amy Hale Auker: We are growing food. There is a mindset in industrialized, digitized America that growing food is for peasants. But that mindset is shifting. People are nostalgic for the dirt, the land, the simple black soil on a carrot pulled from the earth. They buy small yappy dogs for their apartments because they miss the contact with a species other than their own. So, yes, there is an appeal. That is why the cowboy poetry and music movement is so popular.
However, your use of the word “romantic” pushes a button for me. The American West has been romanticized. It has become a place where we’ve forgotten the campfires and the dirt and the work. We’ve made instead poems and music and reenactment scenarios not so much about raising food as paying entry fees and cooking bar-b-que.
The American Cowboy, a little late on the agriculture scene because there have been horse and herding cultures all over the world for centuries, is an icon. Icons only work if there is something of substance to back them up. The cowboy as icon only works if we keep the bedrock behind him (or her). He is not some model of character or ethic or integrity, but a husband of the land, a grower of food. He is not an actor getting his share of the corporate take by reciting the words of scriptwriters and making his horse rear in time to the music. The cowboy is not a nostalgic touchstone from Saturday matinees, but a present day reality, saddling his horse and getting greasy in the shop and building fences. He is tending cows, taking care of the land. Six-guns and wooly chaps and parades and rodeos aside, the cowboy is a steward of precious resources, a caretaker of animals.
Lily Iona Mackenzie: You have a busy life as a writer and grandmother. Do you also have any young kids at home now? How many children do you have?
Amy Hale Auker: I have two children. Oscar is almost 24 and recently made me a grandmother. Lily Rose is almost 21 and is attending university with a major in English. My husband has a son Oscar’s age. We have had an empty nest for some time now, and I have to admit that my writing is something that I nurture just as I did children.
Lily Iona Mackenzie: How much time do you have for the marketing aspect of being a published writer?
Amy Hale Auker: Marketing and promotion are my least favorite parts of this gig. But like many true introverts, I embraced social media early on. Social media allows me to make connections with people without driving 35 miles to town or even leaving my office or having to talk on the phone. It allows me to share the natural world and the work I do and the books I write. That part of marketing is the least itchy for me.
I view my time as precious, a commodity. On days when I am in my office (not horseback), I try to imagine a pie chart and devote only a small slice to promotion. I could do more, sure, but I don’t think there is a set formula for success. I think it is mysterious to a degree. The two ingredients that I know are in the mix are excellence and work. I would rather spend more time on making my writing excellent, of the highest quality, than peddling it to the masses. That said, I am forever grateful to my readers, especially those who take the time to write a review or even a personal email to tell me how my words have touched them or told some part of their own story.
Lily Iona Mackenzie: In pictures I’ve seen of you, you appear to be a very “feminine” looking woman. How do you balance the rough “masculine” aspect of ranching with this softer side?
Amy Hale Auker: We all do a balancing act of some kind. I am very feminine in that I LOVE LOVE LOVE being a woman. Aphrodite gets the Golden Apple most days while Persephone, Athena, Artemis, and Hestia dance around the fire to keep her warm and fed. Demeter and Hera sit in honorary rocking chairs in fluffy robes and slippers, always there to give advice. But I don’t give a fig for the kind of femininity that the glossy magazines are selling. That isn’t about being a woman. That is about being a consumer. I prefer patchouli oil to deodorant or antiperspirant.
I just went ten days without a shower and guess what? My body doesn’t smell bad. I shared a bedroll with my husband the whole time. I drink lots of water, eat foods that are as close to the source as possible, and am not afraid of horse sweat and dirt. I let my hairs grow. They wick sweat away from my skin so it doesn’t harbor bacteria (the source of odor… duh). I wear denim and leather with a wool under layer, a felt hat on my head. But when I get home, I love a hot bath and wearing girl clothes (probably more hippy chick than fashionable). I drink my whisky on the rocks.
But socially I prefer to talk about ideas, books, creative process, the natural world, the snake I picked up in the creek, the berries I finally identified that grow in Weber Canyon, the phase of the moon, how much rain we got in the last storm, the day this past week when we saw two bears, one in the morning, one in the evening….
Cowboy is a verb. It is something that you do, not something that you are. It isn’t about your outfit. It is about a skill set. I work with men, and rather than be one of them, I just be me. If I flank up on the drive, get that hiding old mama cow out of the bushes, am willing to ride the extra distance to scoop that steer off the side of the canyon, and do my share of toting the heavy things, I find that gender only matters if they want it to. I do have a physical handicap in that I am under five feet tall and weigh about 110 pounds. This means that sometimes I have to use my brain more than my brawn to get something done. I have to outthink some situations, find ways to use leverage instead brute strength. I have to get creative about solutions rather than depending on my ability to out-muscle something.
Consider this: As a cowboy, what I do is take care of cows. A cow’s whole life is centered around the mother/child relationship. Her whole life revolves around ovulation, copulation, gestation, and lactation. I believe a woman is well-suited to be a caretaker of this process. My husband says he prefers to hire women because women listen. He isn’t talking about taking orders or instruction (because I have been known to yell sarcasm across the drive in self-defense). Rather, he means a woman listens to what is going on around her—to the land, the weather, the cows, the horse between her knees, even the conversation amongst the crew. This makes femininity an asset on the job.
Lily Iona Mackenzie: How much of technology do you take with you when you go on roundups?
Amy Hale Auker: Before this fall, none. We sleep out in camps most of the time when we are making a pasture move. Because this is national forest land, we are rotating all of the time to minimize our impact. I recently got a smartphone, and I have to be careful to take care of my battery so I can take photos. In most locations, I don’t get a signal, but recently a new tower was erected that made connectivity in these mountains much better. During the past four weeks I found that I was able to tweet and post to Instagram and Facebook from a few locations or when I come in to headquarters. I have gotten some interesting feedback and it encourages me to continue to tell this story of growing food on your public lands.
Lily Iona Mackenzie: Are you able to shut out the “real” world and its endless demands?
Amy Hale Auker: We call it “unplugging.” The fall 2015 issue of RANGE magazine has one of my essays in it about this very subject. But the truth is, I try very hard not to allow the world to make endless demands on me even when we are not working cows. I read Life Work by Donald Hall several years ago. When I woke up to the knowledge that writing was my lifework, I started practicing saying no and allowing my heart to help my head make decisions about where to put my time and my energy. We only have so much energy, and we must husband it like we do money and other resources. This is my one wild and precious life, to quote Mary Oliver. I must recognize that every day. The real world is down in the creek bottoms. The real world is where the black hawk cries. The real world is determined by where we focus our attention. What is important?
Lily Iona Mackenzie: What do you do to relax?
Amy Hale Auker: At home or at cow camp? We don’t have a television at home, so I guess we do the same things in both places—read books, play cribbage, sit outside to watch the sun go down while the water runs on the garden. Pet the dogs. Listen to Gail play music and sing.
I am an avid backpacker, but I rarely hike anywhere but the ranch we are on. I have now done two solo hikes down in the bottoms of these canyons, and I can see ahead to late April and early May when the water is flowing, and I will go again. Silence is relaxing for me. Solitude is necessary.
Lily Iona Mackenzie: If you had another life, what would you be?
Amy Hale Auker: A hermit. I would live in a cabin in the woods, off-grid, and write. I’d have a huge garden, chickens, and a little milk goat. I’d go on long hikes where there are no trails.
Lily Iona Mackenzie: How do you fit a writing life into the daily demands of a ranch?
Amy Hale Auker: They feed each other. Writing and riding. Because we are on a rotation schedule with the forest, we move cows for weeks and when they are where they are supposed to be, we do other things. We both have creative endeavors, so we must shift our focus. I write morning pages by headlamp or firelight while we are working and then transcribe them to the screen when I get home. I may have five or six weeks of office time between cow moves. The daily demands are few during those times because these are mountain cows and do not depend on us daily. We may build or fix fence, pack salt and protein blocks, shovel horse shit out of the barn, cut a load of firewood. The horses have to be fed, and we have dogs and chickens, a garden. We both have gigs, performing on stage from time to time. But for the most part, I have the freedom to write or backpack in the spaces between cow works.
This job feeds the writing. I don’t want to read a book by a writer who is sitting in the corner of life taking notes. I want read a book by someone who is living, loud and proud, and writing in the creases of passionate reflection. If that is the kind of book I want to read, then I have to be writing that kind of book as well.
Lily Iona Mackenzie: Are you working on another novel or collection of essays?
Amy Hale Auker: Always.
Amy Hale Auker: Creative nonfiction. The lyric essay. First-person narrative.
Fiction is a platform where I can say something in someone else’s voice, and I am sure that someday I will write another novel, but not until a fresh and timely subject presents itself, something so powerful that I can’t turn away.
Lily Iona Mackenzie: What do you find most difficult about writing?
Amy Hale Auker: Marketing. Writing is the easy part. I do have to be careful not to say the same thing over and over again. After all, the things we love are the things we love, right? The bats and birds trading shifts at sundown. The lizards doing push-ups on the rocks. The bear tracks in the sand. If I think I’ve already written it too often, I make a note to get a tattoo in its memory instead. That is why I have a fox, curled up and sleeping, on the inside of my right wrist and a bear paw on my left foot.
Lily Iona Mackenzie: What is the best thing about writing for you?
Amy Hale Auker: The spark… the still point… that moment when the White Goddess visits and I just know what the metaphor should be, what the dance will look like if I can… just… find… a… pen.
Lily Iona Mackenzie: How much of a story do you have in mind before you start writing?
Amy Hale Auker: None. I have a phrase, a character, a metaphor, a moment. It all blossoms from there. My novel, The Story is the Thing, started with a poem on my website called “Lots of Gone in Her Eyes.” That particular piece never made it into the novel, but it started the story of Charlie. I thought she was the main character, but Uncle Bill came along and began to talk to me one morning in cow camp. I wrote most of that book on yellow legal pad in longhand with Uncle Bill talking in my ear. I recently found out that The Story is the Thing was awarded a silver star as a finalist in the WILLA awards. I was a little surprised by that because Uncle Bill is the main protagonist . . . not a woman. But, poor man, his story is encased in the stories of some very strong women, so perhaps the judges took that into consideration.
Lily Iona Mackenzie: What do you like to read? What’s your favorite genre?
Amy Hale Auker: I read as much literary fiction as I can get my hands on, a lot of memoir, the short stories in The New Yorker and Harper’s, and The Sun from cover to cover. I crave strong writing. Right now I am reading Alexandra Fuller, Don DeLillo, and Elena Ferrante. I am a huge Jess Walter fan. I love Sherman Alexie, Jim Lynch, Anthony Doerr, and Louise Erdrich.
Lily Iona Mackenzie: Is there anything else you want to leave with the readers of this interview?
Amy Hale Auker: Ha! No. I am tired of me, me, me, me. The only thing I would add is an invitation to follow me on Instagram and Twitter if you want to know more about your national forest, cows, and a little Amy-weirdness to boot! And I want to thank you, Lily, for deciding to interview me based on a few cell phone photos of my #cowboydays. You may have gotten more than you bargained for!
Header photo of horse silhouette at sunset courtesy Shutterstock.