A Word with Cat Urbigkit, author of Shepherds of Coyote Rocks

Photo © Cat Urbigkit

This month we’re thrilled to publish the beautifully written Shepherds of Coyote Rocks, by Cat Urbigkit. From one angle, it’s the memoir of a woman realizing a longtime dream of guiding a flock of sheep through lambing season across western Wyoming’s open range—against odds and in the face of nature’s wild, unpredictable elements. From another (in fact the author’s) angle, with an outward lens, it’s a story of the American wilderness and of the relationships and entanglements of its creature inhabitants. Through Urbigkit’s eyes, we come to relate to the boundlessness of this place as to feel both totally vulnerable and totally in awe of it.

Urbigkit’s only companions on this journey are the guardian animals, large dogs and a pair of burros named Bill and Hillary, who we come to know intimately and who repeatedly prove their worth in their devotion to protecting the flock. With the sheep, they form a caravan participating in an ancient tradition, transhumance, the migration of people with their livestock. Though a way of life for herders around the globe, much is misrepresented about the environmental, ecological impact of transhumance on public lands. Among the day-to-day ruggedness, Urbigkit carves out a convincing treatise defending her freedom to experience the land in this way and extolling its world of benefits.

We caught up with Urbigkit recently and asked her some questions about living and writing Shepherds of Coyote Rocks.

Q: In this book, you chronicle a longtime dream realized, of tending sheep, alone, on Wyoming’s open range. Why was it important to you that you did it alone? Had you hoped the experience would lead to some measure of self-discovery? Or did something else motivate you?

Cat with her critters.

Cat Urbigkit: I wanted to immerse myself in the experience of living in the landscape, to be without distraction. Rather than looking to another person, I would look to the land and the animals for what I needed, and for companionship. With the close working relationship I have with the guardian animals (especially the dogs) I never felt alone or lonely, and I relied on the dogs to help me know what to do.

This wasn’t a journey of self-discovery, but it most certainly was adventurous. I looked forward to stepping out of my camp every morning, never knowing what would happen next, but just trying to be ready for whatever the day and the rangeland had in store for me. Having a degree of self-sufficiency is satisfying, but I was dependent on the animals as well. And of course husband Jim kept my camp stocked with supplies from home and town.

Q: When you talk about your sheep and your guardian dogs in the book, there’s equally an air of tenderness for them as there is of matter-of-factness about their job (of lambing if you’re a sheep, of protecting the herd if you’re a dog). Did you find it hard, on the range, not to get too caught up in their personalities, not to see them as just pets? How much do you think your and their survival depended on it?

CU: My time on the range made me see the animals even less as pets and respect them more as the unique and magnificent animals that their species have evolved to be. To watch a ewe give birth to a tiny lamb in the snow, tucked into a stand of sagebrush, and to see the lamb get up on wobbly legs for its first life-ensuring drink of milk is to know this is a species meant to survive. People who think sheep are stupid and weak have never spent time with range sheep. They are as meant to be there as the wild ungulates that share the same range.

The guardian dogs are the heroes of my existence on the range. I learned – as some of the stories in the book detail – to learn to trust their judgment, and they learned to communicate with me very effectively. These dogs have been bred for thousands of years to be guardians, and for independent decision-making. They must be able to judge the threat before them, and to respond. They give their lives to protect their charges, and for that they have my complete admiration. And love.

Q: Transhumance, the ancient tradition of people migrating long distances with their livestock, seems to be in peril in the U.S., at least on Wyoming’s public lands. Apart from livelihoods lost, why is it important to nature and wildlife—to the whole ecological equilibrium in the wild—that the tradition be allowed to continue?

CU: The landscape has evolved with the presence of grazing animals, and with the people who move with them. For me its importance is at the heart of human culture, as I repeat in the book, because I am one of a global population of shepherds, of people who move with their livestock.

The landscape that we have come to love so well would no longer be the same without transhumance – from changes in plant and animal species presence and composition, to the changes in local communities as traditions are lost and ranches disappear. It’s a loss up and down the ecological and social chain.

I don’t want to witness landscape management where humans are not welcomed. A landscape without its working components lacks substance to me – it’s false, and doomed for catastrophe.

I was given a gift from a Bulgarian herder a few years ago. It is the carved wooden head to a shepherd’s crook (a staff used to catch sheep). The carved head depicts a ram’s head, a wolf, and a snake. The herder explained that all good things come from the earth – from the lowly serpent crawling on its belly, to the sheep that sustain us, and to the predator that wants to join in the feast. His point, which I agree, is that we are all necessary components of an intact ecosystem.

Photo © Cat Urbigkit

Q: Can you take us through a typical sun-up-to-sun-down on the range? Was every morning simply invigorating, or were you at times terribly exhausted by the trek? What is it like to feel constantly on vigil for wolves and birds of prey?

CU: My only predictable routine would be that I would be up before the sunrise, and would return to camp at sunset. Every day would begin invigorating (indeed, most mornings were cool or cold at an elevation of about 7,200 feet) but that was before I opened the door to go outside. Having days that were so unpredictable made for a fairly constant level of excitement or anticipation. My family jokes that when you live on a sheep ranch, you start the day with an idea of what you are going to do that day, but then you step outside and find out what you are really going to do.

When you live in such close connection to nature, natural elements are the most powerful forces in your day.  The most important element, of course, is weather. It would determine whether I could drive or would be trudging through mud. It would determine whether lambs could be suffering from freezing temperatures, or overheating from a blazing sun.

The animals – both wild and domestic – were the other factors that set my activities for the day.  If there was a predator in the area, or the sheep were distressed, my time was consumed with addressing these urgencies. If the animals were content, it meant my day would be relaxed and I could write, explore, or even take a nap. But the animals always came first.

Some days I would find myself falling asleep any time I sat down—that was pure exhaustion. You know how, at some time, everyone experiences nights in which you toss and turn, your brain unable to rest, worrying? I never had a night like that on the range. I was either awake and up, or sleeping soundly.

Photo © Cat Urbigkit

When you live with the constant threat from predators, your senses are heightened. You slow down and continuously scan the landscape around you for anything that might seem odd or out of place. You watch the ground for tracks, and watch other animals for strange behaviors. You are – even subconsciously – on the lookout for danger. Are there ravens or magpies congregated in one area? You pay more attention to the sounds of the night. Your ears strain to hear the howls in the darkness of night, to be certain the sounds are the songs of a coyote, and not a wolf.

It can be exhausting, but becoming so much a part of the landscape means that you feel very much alive, and you also become familiar with death. The cycle around you, encompassing you, includes both elements.

Q: Did you begin writing about the experience while in the midst of it—and if so, when did you write?

CU: Writing is like breathing to me, and I write every day. It helps me to organize my thoughts and puts events in perspective. I wrote most evenings in camp, after the sun had gone down – usually no more than 30 minutes, and never longer than an hour (because I generally couldn’t stay awake that long). On easy days, I would sit outside my camp and catch up on my journal, and expanded some of those entries into essays that eventually transformed into the book.

I did take a wonderful stack of books with me to camp, all written from 1860 to 1930, most about the early sheep industry in the West. These books, and their archaic language, had an influence on my writing. They were used as both historic references, and inspiration.

It sounds romantic to write by glow from the flickering candlelight, but that flickering light would soon woo me to slumber.

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