Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Wild Horse Annie And The Last Of The Mustangs: The Life Of Velma Johnston

David Cruise & Alison Griffiths

2010, Scribner

Velma walked over and peered through a gap in the slats, expecting to find cattle or sheep. Instead, she saw a horrifying tableau of mutilated horses, some barely alive. Her eyes caught sight of a colt, or what was left of him, lying trampled, his bones crushed and coat blood-soaked. A number of horses had bloody stumps instead of legs. Others had sections of their hooves torn off and hides shredded by buckshot. A stallion stood with his head bowed, blood seeping from empty eye sockets. He had been blinded to subdue him. It was only the tight quarters that kept many of the horses upright. A penetrating stench, the combination of blood, urine and feces, rose from the truck while flies swarmed over the brutalized animals, jammed so tightly they couldn't flick the insects away with their tails.

In the spring of 1950, Velma Johnston was a 38-year-old woman permanently crippled up by a childhood attack of polio, but she was a fighter who'd carved out for herself the life she'd always wanted - a husband, a home, and horses. When she noticed blood flowing out of a livestock truck near Reno, Nevada she followed it to the stockyards, intending to let the driver know he had a hurt animal on board. What she found was the intended end of the wild horse in the American West - a bloody, violent death for the mustangs, thousands of dollars in slaughter sales for the chasers, and a more complex victory for the Burea of Land Management (BLM), the government agency that oversees vast swathes of public land in the United States.

The BLM's attitude was that the mustangs were a nuisance at best and a pest at worst, and needed to be eliminated. The authors trace that attitude back to various issues of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the use of 'free' wild horses as a profitable source of meat to satisfy a growing market for commercial dog food, endless competition and violence over grazing rights, a new industrial market for horsehide in conveyor belts. But ultimately, the policy that the survival of the range and the rancher depended on the extinction of the mustang lay in the post-WWI expansion of ranches, and the heedless use of the range to feed herds. Over-stressed native grasses died; the plants that replaced them were less nourishing and when they also failed to hold the earth together as well, the topsoil began to wear away.

There was no incentive for conservation on the public land. Everyone owned it and nobody owned it. It was the classic dilemma of the commons, where no one takes responsibility for a resource that is free for all, and therefore it is ruined by all. And ruin was exactly the state of the grazing lands in the early 1930's when drought struck.

In 1934, Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act. From that act came what would eventually be the BLM, and its power over 143 million acres of public land. From the beginning, the big cattlemen had a big voice with the BLM. The agency, under pressure to do something about the depleted grazing lands, blamed the mustangs. And by 1950, the BLM was claiming they'd removed over 100,000 horses from the range. Which is roughly where the middle-aged secretary from a hardscrabble ranch in Nevada stepped in. By the time she died in 1977, she'd gone from an independent operator whose first forays into saving the mustangs was to literally sabotage pens of miserable horses in the middle of the night and release them back into the wild, into a savvy political operator who used direct-mail campaigns and media sympathy to circumnavigate a hostile bureacracy. Her results - and her dogged determination to enforce the laws she got passed - would have been impressive for anyone; for a working-class woman struggling with physical pain, working a full-time job and caring for a sick husband, it was extraordinary.

The authors don't flinch from discussing Johnson's less attractive side. She's quite calculating about her depiction in Marguerite Henry's version of her story, Mustang: Wild Spirit Of The West, and she clashes with other mustang activists over the years. Worse, she essentially steals the work of a rancher named Gus Bundy, whose spectacular photographs of mustangs being chased by airplanes in a 1951 roundup were repeatedly used by Johnston without credit or payment. As the authors point out, she worked for a businessman for most of her adult life and she certainly knew a few things about copyright.

For anyone who read the Henry fictionalization of Johnson's life and work, some of the most interesting sections here are chapters 9 and 10, which focus on the relationship between the writer and her subject. Henry was already famous for her children's horse books when she began the project and Velma grew to like both the personable author and the cachet of being associated with her. Marguerite Henry employed her usual folksy style to make a kinder, cuddlier - and considerably less aggressive - Velma. Her family is made more of a rural sterotype, people who can't string three words together without uttering some pithy bit of down home wisdom. Her husband Charlie is transformed from a loving but wordly roughneck 13 years older than her to a sweet neighbor boy named Charley. Velma's disfigurement is only hinted at, her job is downplayed, and altogether she's made over into a simple, happy young wife who stumbles across a brutal injustice and fights back successfully using right as her shield. The simplification is understandable, but I never found Henry's version as satisfying as her other, equally folksy books. Maybe it was the serious content - there's something about those gruff and lovable poor folk that doesn't quite gell with slaughtered horses and trips to Congress.

The writing style is clear and the research was thorough and honest. Cruise and Griffiths make a big story thorough and enjoyable, and while Wild Horse Annie doesn't have the power or lyricism of a great work of nonfiction, it easily surpasses most of the competition.


Simon & Schuster

Find A Grave

Running Wild (1973) at IMDB (movie based on Velma's life)

Bureau of Land Management Environmental Education Resource

Time Magazine - July 27, 1959 article


Kelley said...

I have been searching high and low for a children's reader book from the '60s that was the first book I ever read. I believe it was called "Little Brownie" and I remember the cover being a forest or hunter green and I thought there was a brown pony or horse on the cover with a "Tom Sawyer"esque boy rubbing the pony's/horse's neck. Does this book sound familiar to you? I have found a book by the right title, published in 1961, by Edith Osswald and Mary M Reed, illustrated by Doris and Marion Henderson, but the cover doesn't look at all right to me.
I'm going through your website trying to find all the pictures of book covers you've posted but still haven't found it. I would dearly love to find a copy of this book! Thanks. :)

Sarah said...

It sounds like a cute book, I hope you find it! The only thing I've posted here so far that seems possible is Peanuts The Pony


which was illustrated by Mary Maud Reed.