Act: Inspiration

Two Stories

February 14, 2020

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found the news headlines over the past month to be difficult to bear. I don’t know why we’re at each others’ throats politically and culturally in this nation. At one point, not so long ago, it felt like we were making progress on important issues, including food, water, and climate challenges. Out West, a decade of acrimony over ranching and public lands gave way in the early 2000s to a hopeful bridging of urban-rural and red-blue divides centered on collaboration, land health, and shared goals. The regenerative agriculture movement took off. The news was good – and it still is underneath the daily finger-pointing and shouting that passes as modern civics these days. It’s just harder to find.

In the spirit of reflection, I’d like to share two stories of regeneration and hope – one about a milking cow who had to learn how to eat grass and one about a moment of human connection during a march in downtown Manhattan. Although they were written a few years ago, they feel like they’re from a different era. But they’re not. They represent issues just as important today as they were back then – maybe more so. In any case, I hope you will enjoy reading them.

Dolly and Hannah

Dolly taught Hannah how to eat grass.

Both were Jersey milking cows that lived on the James Ranch, a 400-acre slice of heaven on the Animas River, north of Durango, Colorado. It was a ranch we visited often when our twins, Sterling and Olivia, were young, partly to see inspiring stewardship in action and partly to bask in the enchantment of a truly beautiful place. We would take long walks together as a family across the lush green fields, over to the fish ponds, down to the river and back, sharing the sense of wonder and excitement that comes with exploring new things in life.

It’s also how we met Dolly and Hannah.

They belonged to Danny James, one of five children of Dave and Kay James, who are enterprising pioneers of progressive cattle ranching and regenerative agriculture in the area. Returning home after college, Danny decided to start an organic, grassfed artisanal cheese dairy on the ranch, a venture that has successfully grown over the years to include local restaurants, farmers markets, and many satisfied customers.

Dolly was Danny’s first dairy cow. She was friendly and funny, with bulging eyes and boundless curiosity. Sterling and Olivia always insisted on seeing her as soon as we arrived, laughing with delight when she ambled over acting like she recognized them too. She’d stretch her graceful neck toward the kids, leading with her wet nose, until human and animal were just inches apart. This greeting ritual would end with a big sniff by Dolly, followed by the stamping of gleeful feet and a lot of giggles.

Danny described Dolly as kind and patient. He had never milked a cow before and she tolerated his fumblings in the milk barn without complaint. He attributed her good nature to being raised in a dynamic farm environment as a young cow that included goats and other barnyard animals. Hannah was a different story. Although she looked like Dolly’s sister, she was as skittish and wary as Dolly was friendly, easily frightened by a quick motion or sound. She wouldn’t allow our kids to approach, preferring to observe the greeting ritual from a safe distance. The difference was their upbringing.

Desiring to expand his operation with a second Jersey cow, Danny found one for sale at a dairy in Utah. However, because he was new to the business he failed to ask the owner the right questions, he admitted. After a long drive, Danny arrived at the dairy only to discover it was a confinement operation, full of flies, stench and cement. After loading the cow – known as E349 – into a trailer and handing its owner a check, Danny was presented in turn with a handful of syringes containing antibiotics that the dairyman said were required to keep the animal from getting sick on the return trip. Turns out, she had chronic mastitis (a disease of the udder) which is why the dairyman wanted to sell her. Danny felt duped, but took E349 – rechristened Hannah – home anyway, assuming that all would be well.

Danny was in for another surprise, however. After arriving at the ranch, he opened the trailer door to a pasture full of clover and other yummy grasses, but Hannah refused to exit. After some gentle coaxing, she stepped into the pasture’s knee-deep grass – and stared blankly at the lushness with her bulging Jersey eyes.

Hannah didn’t know how to eat grass.

Raised in a dark, dank, cement warehouse without mental stimulation and fed only corn and other industrial products, Hannah had no cow sense at all. Fortunately, Danny knew what to do. He fetched Dolly. She taught Hannah (by example) how to eat grass, walk on uneven ground, cross a ditch, and not be afraid of running water, among other normal cow behavior. Sadly, she couldn’t teach Hannah to be curious or friendly – it was too late for that.

Hannah was sweet and innocent, but she was also a product of her environment – as we all are – steel and cement in this case. She remained skittish, which is why she hung back during Dolly’s greeting ritual with our children. Hannah’s issues weren’t her fault, we explained to them. She had been raised to be a milking machine, not a cow, conditioned for cement, not grass. Happily, they witnessed Dolly help Hannah recover some of her ‘inner bovine’ over the course of our visits.

Although Dolly and Hannah have passed on, Danny told me that Dolly’s daughter, Molly, two granddaughters, and four great granddaughters are still in the herd. Dolly was the foundation of his now thriving business, he said, as well as a lovely animal. To this day we fondly recall the two Jersey girls and their bond with each other in that slice of heaven, long ago.


The Roar

At 1pm, 400,000 people fell silent. One minute later, the roar began.

It was September 21st, 2014, and Sterling and I stood on Central Park West near 72nd street in New York City, which had been designated by organizers as the Solutions section of the protest march – the solution being food in this case.

We were surrounded by people carrying signs that said “Cook Organic Not the Planet,” “Support Local Food” and “Label That Shit.” Behind us was a large group from the Climate Reality Project, in whose midst vice-president Al Gore magically appeared earlier in the morning. Their solution was renewable energy. In front of us was a noisy crowd of climate justice activists, many of them young people. One man wore a superhero costume with a green wig and a big smile.

It was the People’s Climate March, the largest climate protest ever at the time. Organizers expected 100,000 marchers and got 400,000 instead. The event was timed to send a signal to the more than one hundred world leaders set to arrive in Manhattan the next day for a critical Climate Summit at the United Nations. The march also intended to help break our political complacency and inaction on climate change in this nation by giving voice to average citizens, demonstrating in the process that dissent still mattered in a democracy.

There was another signal: with the crossing of the symbolically significant 400 ppm (parts-per-million of carbon dioxide) threshold approaching and a make-or-break UN climate summit in Paris only fifteen months away, time was running out. All of these were good reasons to travel from New Mexico to the Big Apple, but they were especially good reasons to bring a child along.

There was one more reason to go: the joy of simply being there. It had been a long time since I had participated in a protest march and I had forgotten what an intensely visceral experience it could be, full of stirring emotions and earthy sensations. As Sterling and I took our places, three things about the crowd struck me right away: the colors, the smiles, and the sounds. Many protestors wore T-shirts to express their affiliations – green, blue, orange, red, yellow, white and so on (one solitary dude wore all black). My favorite T-shirt said simply “Save the Humans!”

Many of the groups were from colleges – in fact, I bet that half of the march’s participants were under the age of thirty and many were people of color, which was also cheering. There were smiles everywhere. Maybe it was a sense of relief people felt at being given a chance to actually do something about the condition of the world. Maybe it was also the sense of communal purpose we felt, standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow humans – all four hundred thousand of us.

Maybe it was the music. Photographs of the march that I saw later did not capture the riot of sound taking place, from the nonstop African-style drumming and the protest chants to the singing, talking, clapping, and laughter heard all day. It was like being part of noisy, restless, exultant, mammoth, living creature, coiled and ready for action. Coiled for hours. Surely, we would be moving by now, I kept thinking. I kept an eye on an inflatable Earth a block ahead of us, which vibrated periodically, suggesting imminent marching. Meanwhile, I hugged Sterling, counseling patience, and urged him to soak up all the sights and sounds of this amazing moment in time.

Then everything stopped. Silence fell from the sky like a shroud. It was 1pm. That’s when we heard the first rumble. It began at the end of the line, somewhere near 89th street. It was a low guttural sound, almost feral, like something wild on the move. It came toward us, rising in pitch and volume quickly, moving like a herd or a wave. As it approached, the air held its breath. It was supposed to be a shout but it sounded like a roar – a roar of celebration. A roar of defiance. A roar of protest and frustration and hope.

Sterling and I raised our hands above our heads and roared as loudly as we could. The sound swept away from us, down the Avenue of the Americas and beyond.

I roared for all those who couldn’t be there with us, my family, our friends and colleagues, classmates, teachers, parents, endangered animals, celebrities, ranchers, farmers, distant strangers, wild animals, the dead and the not yet born. I yelled in frustration and in hope as well. I yelled at the moon. And when we were done, it felt good to have roared. I gave my son another hug. Then we marched.

In a nice bit of irony, the route of People’s Climate March cut through the gaudy heart of Times Square, placing us under the smoky gaze of two-story tall fashion models. The contrast was delicious. We had entered one of the cultural epicenters of indifference toward the challenges of our times and the canyon walls seemed to smirk at our protest.

Then in a flash everything changed. It happened at an intersection where the police had halted the long line of marchers to let traffic cross. Sterling and I stood near the head of the line when an open-topped, double-decker tour bus sailed into the intersection. Spying the protestors, a group of tourists in the top section spontaneously raised their hands and cheered loudly. We cheered right back. I glanced at the New York City police officer who was directing traffic.

The cheering had made him smile.

The entire exchange lasted eight seconds, but the cheery triangulation between protestor, tourist, and cop that took place suggested a universe of possibility – that despite our apparent differences we could come together and get things done. People get it. If our leaders would lead, we’d be a lot farther down the path toward resolving our problems.

At the end of the march, Sterling and I kept walking. We had only this afternoon and next morning to see New York and I could tell that the buzz of the big city was attractive to him. We crossed to the United Nations zone, checking out the national flags on the parked cars, before heading to the Staten Island ferry to take a quick peek at the harbor and the Statue of Liberty. It was a beautiful day, warm and full of promise – and more protest. In the banking district, we came across a sit-down demonstration by activists objecting to Wall Street’s complicity in the climate crisis. Although about a hundred cops surrounded the brave little band of protestors, I could detect an echo of the roar in the air.


Dolly and Hannah was initially written for Richard Louv’s new book Our Wild Calling: How Connecting with Animals can Transform Our Lives (Algonquin Books, 2019). If you are not familiar with Richard’s inspiring work to reconnect humans with nature, children especially, I strongly recommend taking a look:

The Roar is part of a book Proposal for a travel memoir that I hope to write someday titled The Threshold, which focuses on a series of trips I made leading up to the Paris Climate summit in 2015, which I attended. It reflects on how much our world has changed.


Teaser photo credit: By Daniellagreen – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Ed. note: This piece is excerpted from Courtney’s weekly newsletter Terra Firma. You can subscribe to it here.

Courtney White

A former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist, Courtney dropped out of the 'conflict industry' in 1997 to co-found The Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists and others around the idea of land health. Today, his work concentrates on building economic and ecological resilience on working landscapes, with a special emphasis on carbon ranching and the new agrarian movement. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Farming, Acres Magazine, Rangelands, and the Natural Resources Journal. His essay The Working Wilderness: a Call for a Land Health Movement" was published by Wendell Berry in 2005 in his collection of essays titled The Way of Ignorance. In 2008, Island Press published Courtney's book Revolution on the Range: the Rise of a New Ranch in the American West. He co-edited, with Dr. Rick Knight, Conservation for a New Generation, also published by Island Press in 2008. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his family and a backyard full of chickens.

Tags: building resilient societies, regeneration, regenerative cultures