Friday, January 25, 2008

One Man's Memories Part 1

By photographer Tom Mangelsen, who grew up on the prairies of Nebraska.

"From a twelve-year-old's perspective, Ned Martin was a giant of a man, over six feet tall with bright blue eyes; always in overalls and a sweat-stained and wrinkled straw cowboy hat covering his balding head. The hat seemed almost as permanent as his smile.

"In the corner of his mouth there was always a toothpick, ready for the next steak I suppose. Nearly everything we ate was raised on Ned's ranch, mostly hogs, chickens,and cattle. Ned was a proud and gentle soul who cared about his livestock. He often named his favorite animals. They were more to him than just another dollar or another pork chop. The chickens ran free. The henhouse had kerosene lamps that provided a measure of warmth on colder nights. The barn was full of horses and milk cows. Mostly, Ned's animals had space; they had a life beyond being fattened for the market. Ned also loved having wildlife around his place. He left brushy hedgerows and woodlots for pheasants, rabbits, and deer. Red-tailed hawks sat in the cottonwoods. He saw no need to have the tidiest ranch in the neighborhood and most of Ned's neighbors felt the same way. There was plenty of room for both wildlife and livestock.

Diet Start

The scene in front of me now is a far cry from what I remember. Wading knee-deep in a quagmire of olive brown excrement and mud, the herd inches forward. They stretch their necks toward the prone stranger's camera lens, nostrils flaring, with curious black liquid eyes nearly the size of baseballs. For the first time in my life I have come face-to-face with all those hamburgers and T-bones I have eaten and suddenly feel ill. The feedlot is huge, a mile square. The closest cattle are Black Angus, but beyond them are several thousand white-faced Herefords, some standing on the drier mounds that have been pushed up into small hills by bulldozers, the majority wading in the muck. Earlier in March it had rained and snowed for days and I imagine the scene—far more miserable. Fortunately it has been warm and windy the past week. Even with the wind at my back, the acrid smell is barely tolerable. Wet and mildewed, the grain next to the feedlot had been ground up with cornstalks into a silage mash smelling of molasses. Not a woodlot or brushy hedgerow is in sight, and only an occasional cottonwood. This feedlot is one of the largest of a dozen or so in the area, a few miles west of Grand Island, Nebraska, bordering the old ordinance plant where bombs and munitions were stored during World War II. This location was chosen because it is in the center of America, far from any shore.

"So how did it happen, this scene before me of cattle knee-deep in their own waste? Grain storage elevators overflowing and mountains of government-subsidized surplus corn piled on the ground?

... andjoyohoxing