Heartz: James Galvin’s book, "The Meadow," gives a glimpse into Colorado pioneer life

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Cody Heartz

— Here in Routt County, we know just how remote and indiscriminate the Northern Colorado landscape is. From the top of the ridge behind my house I can see the towering angular peaks of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area casting shadows on verdant valleys and hidden creeks, and if I turn around, I can look out onto rolling sage-blanketed foothills that give way to the molted semi-arid grasslands of the Western plains.

By combining prose, poetry, parable and fact, James Galvin attempts to mimic the litany of natural beauty from which his, and our, inspiration is drawn. His book “The Meadow” — an eclectic amalgamation of memoir, prose, fiction and nonfiction — is a finely wrought and powerful collection of anecdotes. Set almost entirely on a swath of borderland south of Laramie, Wyo., and north of Red Feather Lakes, it focuses on the centurylong heritage of a particular homestead.

Galvin, who grew up on a ranch overlooking the titular meadow, has an intense connection to the land, and it is borne out in his writing. The people he writes about — Lyle, Ray, App and Clara — share the same binding relationship with the same piece of land.

Much of the book is devoted to Lyle, a humble, sagely reticent hermit who is said to have spent so much time working out in his pastures that “he didn’t have moods, he had weather.” So strongly is Lyle identified with his fields that when he claims he can hear the music of the stars on clear winter nights, we know that he isn’t exaggerating. Lyle also belongs to that class of elder-folk who seem incapable of exaggeration.

Man’s connection to the earth is a well worked-over topic. However, by looking deeply into lives of pioneer families who were indebted to land, “The Meadow” introduces fresh insight on the matter. The early Coloradans who Galvin introduces us to seem as much a part of the land they worked as the changing season, the coyotes hiding in the willows, or the game they depended on to make it through the winter. The book gives readers a glimpse into a way of life that attempted to extract concrete yields from ephemeral means. Ultimately, their legacy is as tied to the land as they were: “the history of the meadow goes like this: No one ever owns it, no one ever will.

The people, all ghosts now, were ghosts even then; they drifted through, drifted away, thinking they were not moving. They learned the recitation of seasons and the repetitive work the seasons require.”

As the tradition of farming and ranching in Colorado fades into the realm of things that used to be, Galvin chronicles the loss without the frenzy or anger some of his peers are prone to.

It’s refreshing to read a nature writer defend the honor of ranchers and cowboys. Conservationists too often malign these working-class Westerners. As a member of both groups, Galvin has a powerful insight into what is causing the disappearance of the West, that bold and elusive chapter in American folklore. He knows the reason why can’t be fleshed out in polemics, and that isn’t what this book attempts to do.

The closest he ever comes to offering some kind of explanation is by saying, “Nowadays, the meadow isn’t considered worth haying … machinery is cost-prohibitive in relation to annual yield.” But he eventually concedes that perhaps “we are a different breed of Westerners.”

Galvin grew up in northern Colorado and now lives just across the border in Tie Siding, Wyo. He is best known as a poet. Having published six collections of poetry, a novel,“Fencing The Sky,” and the enigmatic “The Meadow,” he has emerged as an important and influential voice for the rural American West.

“The Meadow” is available at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore and by special order at Epilogue Book Co.

Cody Heartz is a full-time resident of Steamboat Springs. Cody is especially interested in writings that deal with the American West. He has a degree in English from the University of Colorado and is pursuing an Master’s in creative writing from Warren Wilson College. In his free time Cody enjoys spending time with his wife, skiing and fly-fishing.

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