As far as iconic figures go in the Americas, it’s hard to beat the cowboy.
Wade Davis, the renowned anthropologist and writer, and Luis Fabini, a Uruguayan photographer, have set out to help broaden that definition with their new book, Cowboys of the Americas, available on Oct. 8. For more than a decade, Fabini travelled across Canada, the United States, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay to document what he refers to as “extraordinary centaurs.”
Davis became involved after meeting Fabini and becoming intrigued with the images he’d taken. “A big part of why I took on this project was to help Luis out,” he said. “I’d always been interested in the relationship between people and horses, but it wasn’t until I started doing research for this book that I began to realize just how remarkably congruent the development of human civilization and that of the horse really is.”
Here, alongside a selection of Fabini’s photographs from the book, Davis discusses his work on the book, delving into cowboy myth, reality and what the future holds for a lifestyle that’s existed since the 16th century.
On what defines a cowboy
I think what really defines a cowboy is their relationship to the horse and to the land. One of my favourite lines in the book is the following description of a group of cowboys: “They all walked as if their feet hated to touch the ground. That came from a lifetime spent on the back of a horse, and it is with that splendid animal that any story of real cowboys must begin.”
On deconstructing the myth of the cowboy
As I started researching, I was surprised to discover that essentially everything we know about cowboy culture according to American mythology is untrue historically. There were very few shoot outs in the American West — in fact far fewer killings by gun than there are today. We also have this idea of cowboys as being tall, independent males, when in fact they were generally small Latinos or African Americans who worked in teams.
In the wake of the American Civil War, the West was seen as the only remaining pure part of the nation — the landscape was infinite and it accepted the reinvention of self. As a result, the cowboy became this iconic figure created by popular pulp fiction and corrupted by the film industry.
I think people still perceive cowboys as mythological figures of American lore — it’s certainly a driving force in the American imagination. Someone like Ralph Lauren can create an entire fashion statement around the cowboy myth, and there are still cowboy films being produced.
Throughout this writing process it was just so delicious to be able to deconstruct such a myth. I mean isn’t it ironic that Ronald Reagan — America’s greatest cowboy president — learned to ride horses on a film set?
On the book’s lack of cowgirls
I often get asked why there’s no mention of women in my books, and the answer is simply that the cultures I’ve studied revolve around a man’s world. These are the experiences I’ve had, so that’s all I can write about. In this particular case, I wasn’t trying to do a complete story of the cowboy; rather, I was simply doing an essay to back up Luis’s photos. As far as I can tell, there were no photos of women and no mention of women during his time spent on the ranches. The cowboy phenomenon is dominated by men and that’s why the essay is focused on men.
On what he took away from writing about cowboys
After delving into the essence of the horse to the extent that I did, I will never ride one the same way again. I gained an understanding of their incredible sensitivity and connection to humans, and from now on I will be a much more sensitive rider.
I think the most important part of this process was being able to deconstruct a myth. Doing so helps us assess our imagination and our idea of history. I didn’t write this book with the intention of having any final statement or cause; I simply wanted to tell a story about the history of cowboys.
On the future of the cowboy
I think there’s a horrible contradiction, which is that the cowboy lifestyle is so rich and nostalgic, and yet for the most part — in terms of ecological footprint — it’s sort of hopelessly inefficient. As urbanization becomes the new trend, people are looking at the inefficiencies of cattle ranches in terms of water consumption, grain consumption, methane production, impact on landscape, etc. Much of our land is unrecognizable compared to what it once was simply because of the impact of cattle.
Perhaps the best example of this is in the American West, as discussed in the essay: “The four states of the Upper Colorado Basin — Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado — devote 90 per cent of the water they draw from the river to the growing of crops, with nearly 90 per cent of this production as forage for cattle. In California, Arizona, and Nevada, roughly 85 per cent of the water allotment goes to agriculture, and roughly half of this land is again devoted to raising meat. The production of a single pound of beef requires an average 1,800 gallons of water. The ranching way of life is made possible only by the most massive of public subsidies — not just price supports for cattle, but also the tens of billions of dollars that have been spent to reconfigure and divert all the rivers of the American West.”
When you read statistics like this, it really makes you wonder how the cowboy lifestyle could possibly be sustainable into the future.