Dianne and I are products of the land. We grew up on farms in Nebraska. Dianne’s family farm was roughly on the 100th meridian, the line of demarcation between the moist and temperate eastern U.S. and the “high and dry” western U.S. Sometimes the eastern influence would dominate and it would be a good year. Other years the western influence dominated, reminding one, life gives no guarantees.
I grew up 250 miles west on the high plains of the SW Nebraska panhandle, solidly in the high and dry steppes of the Rockies. Geographically, the area was naturally more akin to the plains of eastern Colorado and Wyoming that border the panhandle. Farming and ranching are tough anywhere, but the altitude and aridity of the panhandle made a profitable year on the farm an anomaly and I recall my family spending a lot of time getting by while “waiting for next year”.
In spite of the reluctance of this land to yield an easy living, the high plains became a part of me. There was something life giving about persevering, in asking the land to give enough and watching it oblige in surprising ways. I learned a lot as I watched my father and mother recover from the various gut punches delivered them over the years as I grew up. Hail storms in July that left a winter scape smelling of green chop, early and late freezes that turned harvest prospects to salvage operations, and blinding blizzards that buried roads, buildings, and livestock that took a week to find again were part of the experience. But they always had the courage to mourn and fret through a long night(s), then come out to discover what was left and decide how to use it to “get by until next year”.
Returning to the farm in 1977 put this laboratory of life education to the test. A broken farm economy led us to alternative agriculture raising llamas. New primary insults displaced the weather and market based calamities we were familiar with. Government bureaucracy and regulation regularly interfered with markets, conduct of business, and caused delays that forced us to find work arounds while we “waited until next year”. Our clothing business began as a work around and has now become both a passion and mission. It has deepened our appreciation of llamas and has taken us to their place of origin, the South American altiplano.
A special connection has developed with the Aymara herdsmen that tend the Andean llamas. It becomes apparent when I walk on the sparse landscape of the Andean plateau to help Felipe gather the herd. There is the familiar feeling of freedom and oneness with the land that I have when I gather the pack geldings on our foothill pastures of Colorado. It’s the same feeling I had gathering the feeder calves into the lot at night when I was growing up in Nebraska. The familiarity goes beyond that feeling.
I am acutely aware that Felipe fights the same battles we have encountered in today’s world only in a more primitive and wild environment. The battle to stay connected to the land; to preserve the land; to maintain the stability of a traditional culture tied to an agrarian economy; to create, maintain, and pass on a stable environment for his family; these are common to both of us. These values and resources feel quite vulnerable against the forces of nature amplified by the advance of unflinching modernity that assigns no value to these dearest assets.
Felipe speaks no English; I speak little Spanish. We understand each other perfectly.