Will Bakerís new book is "Tony and the Cows: A True Story from the Range Wars" (Confluence Press, 2000, $20).
"Itís a very plain title because I couldnít think of anything catchy," said Baker.
"Itís the starting point for an essay on environmental matters. I just took the range issue as a kind of test case, one that I ended up knowing more about."
The Tony of the title is Tony Merten, an avid environmentalist who lived in the New Mexican desert. He and Baker met at an Earth First! Rendezvous in 1995 at the Trinity River in Northern California.
"He was a very striking figure, a big guy, looked like a Viking in shorts," said Baker.
But Merten was a lonely, troubled man. He felt that the end of the world was coming sooner rather than later due to manís mismanagement of natural resources.
"My impression was that he wasnít that downcast about it," said Baker. "We drank home brew and told doomsday stories about the environment, but also told some jokes."
Baker said he didnít know that Mertenís pessimism ran much deeper than fashionable. He realized it too late, a few years later, when he was mailed a copy of Mertenís suicide letter.
Strangely, at about the same time Baker learned of Mertenís suicide, he also learned that his friend had been a suspect in a grisly crime.
Bakerís father-in-law, Babe Penn, was the brand inspector in a New Mexico town 25 miles from Mertenís home. He kept Baker up-to-date on a recurrent crime: Someone was shooting cattle. In two separate incidents, an unknown sniper gunned down 34 head of cattle, actually calves, and let them rot in a remote wilderness study area. The chief suspect killed himself the day after being questioned in the incident. That suspect was Merten.
"There was never enough evidence amassed to justify even a search warrant," said Baker, "although Tom Bill Black, the chief brand inspector, had a gut feeling that he was on to the right suspect."
For one thing, when Black questioned Merten, Merten was very militant about his belief that cows didnít belong on the range, that they were alien species.
Why would an environmentalist shoot animals?
"The argument is that (radical environmentalists) have to do something dire to stop some ghastly genocide against people," said Baker. "And livestock have wrecked a lot of habitat.
"Iím doing my best to tease people into thinking (about these issues)," added Baker. Those who have read the book have a strong reaction to it but perhaps not the reaction Baker intended. People want to be told what to think.
His book is full of arguments and facts about the declining wilderness in the American West and the tensions between ranchers and environmentalists, but doesnít tell the reader what to think.
"If I had the answer Iíd love to give it to you," he said. "My whole take on a lot of environmental issues is that not only are there no easy answers, there are no answers you can fully commit yourself to at all. I wanted to present that dilemma. It boils down to compromise Ė how we are going to stay economically prosperous and at the same time protect wild things. And to be perfectly frank, I donít think you can do both. And thatís an answer that people donít want to hear.
"The important thing to me was that a sensible, intelligent, passionate individual who cared about the natural world was driven into a corner where he felt he had no option but to shoot himself. Thatís what got my attention."
Baker is not the pessimist that Merten was. But he agrees with environmentalists who complain that the wilderness of today is being studied, monitored and regulated to an unbelievable degree.
Baker was born in Idaho and grew up in the West. He taught at UC Davis from 1969 to 1995 and bought a little farm in Capay Valley more than 20 years ago. He describes his life on the farm as something like a Marine boot camp at a Zen monastery.
"Itís not pastoral and laid back, itís hard work but terrifically invigorating," he said.
"I tried raising five calves last year as a little experiment...thatís part of my heritage, too, my background. I only lost $480, which people tell me is really good for the cow trade."
And somehow he finds time to write.
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