A million bellies

October 02, 2009 at 5:10 PM • Filed under Arizona cattle round-up 2009

The story of a dozen people on horseback pushing herds of loose cattle across grasslands at the foot of the Dragoon Mountains in southeast Arizona doesn’t have to start on top of a saddle or in a cow pen, but can start, as it did for me, underneath Madison Square Garden in New York City during rush hour. This is where I found myself after the train from Vermont dropped me in adjacent Penn Station, my plan being to stay with my parents overnight and fly to Arizona the next morning. My eventual mission: to join in the annual cattle round-up at my aunt's ranch. My immediate mission: to make it to the 7th Ave. taxi stand without getting knocked over as I rolled my suitcase past hundreds, thousands – no, let’s say millions, because that’s what it seemed like – millions of people darting and weaving and bobbing around each other while running to make their Penn Station commuter train after a long day of work. 
Eventually I reached the escalators and stairs that feed people into and out of the 7th Avenue entrance to the Garden and Penn Station. And suddenly my Arizona destination popped into my head and I began to realize that in a few days I would not only be participating in a dusty, time-worn, exhilarating agricultural process, but a process which would ultimately mean that people like the ones coming down this escalator -- these people on iPods, yakking on cell phones, staring into books, spearing pizza slices into their mouths -- would get to eat a burger, or maybe a steak. Obviously, we all know conceptually that what ranchers do out West affect what people all over the country consume, but the interconnectedness never felt so immediate to me before, probably because of the disconnect of being under Madison Square Garden and thinking about moving cattle herds across desert grasslands a few days later. 
Yet how many of these New York commuters would know what went into their steaks? 
  Would any of them appreciate the human effort and work of nature that went into the raising of the cows?  Would they feel any gratitude to my aunt, her cowboys, or the animals themselves?  The answer is obvious, but it left me a little awestruck. Even though I've worked on small farms and written about local food production in Vermont, this was the first time I felt so let down by the obliviousness of total strangers. I wanted to bring the escalators to a halt, get on a bull horn (ooo, pardon the pun) and tell everyone in the 7th Avenue mouth of Penn Station at that moment about the hard work that was about to take place on a ranch in southern Arizona on behalf of their bellies. So nah!
Then I got to the top of the escalator and came to my senses. They work, too, I thought. Do you appreciate what they do?  I felt a bit sheepish about my self-righteousness. But then again, it's food we're talking about. We can all do without legal services. We can all do without fashionable clothes. We can all do without another blockbuster movie. But food?  Once - certainly in southeast Arizona at the time cattle ranching arrived in the 1800s - what was most needed was most revered...