Reforging Gun Culture in the American West: A Conversation with Bryce Andrews
This episode with Bryce Andrews about guns and ranching in the United States is the fifth piece of the Violent Environments series, which explores how violence is enacted through, for, and on environmental spaces, including land, water, and air. Series editors: Kristen Billings, Rebecca Laurent, and Rudy Molinek.
Cultural stories about the American West glorify the violence that settlers enacted over Indigenous people and ecology through the past two centuries—violence which continues to this day. Ideas of settler colonialism, masculinity, rugged individualism, and U.S. gun culture engulf the ongoing history and stories of the West while revering colonial agricultural land use as sacred and American. When writer and rancher Bryce Andrews inherited a revolver from his grandfather, he began to reckon with his ties to the legacy of colonization and environmental violence in the region. To learn about his reflections and reckonings, I spoke with Andrews about his newest book, Holding Fire: A Reckoning with the American West. From his small ranch outside Missoula, Montana, Andrews described his evolving lifelong relationship to the landscape of the American West and the role of guns and violence in his life and work. Andrews reflects on what we do with the legacies we inherit and what a path forward might look like for the West.
Stream or download our conversation here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rudy Molinek: Could you start off by introducing yourself and your book for those who haven’t read it?
Bryce Andrews: I have written three books now – all of them focusing to some degree on the way in which people interact with the wilder corners of the Rocky Mountain West, which is where I make my home and my living as a writer, rancher, and farmer.
My most recent book, Holding Fire, begins with inheriting this revolver from my grandfather. My grandfather was a person who, like me, loved the American West and believed in some of the myths that attend it. I was out here working on a ranch in Montana, and I inherited this gun that seemed to fit my life so closely and really, at the time, felt like it tied me into this lineage of proudly Western men. I used it in the course of ranching to put down cattle that I couldn’t cure and as protection when I was in the woods, but the book is about the ways in which I came to worry about what it was doing to me and what our collective obsession with and interest in firearms and weapons has been doing to us and to the American West for the last couple hundred years.
I grew up in Seattle, far away from cattle and ranching, thinking about those places and picturing them in the ways that they were depicted in movies, art, and music: this place where you had a chance to bend or break the world into shapes that suited you. And that by doing that, you were doing something good. That there is untamed country and that the people who do the work of taming it are at once at odds with but also close to the wild ecosystems and wild animals that characterize the place. So, as a kid, I inherited some interesting ideas about that and developed some strong attractions to the West as I imagined it. This book is about the ways in which that myth ignores some of the brutality and violence that’s braided into the history of the American West and its present. One of the things that really motivated me to write this book is wanting to explore my place in that, and whether I could find some ways to approach my work and my life here differently.
RM: Ranching has been the core of your Montana experience, and ranching requires a lot of tools, one of which, as you talked about, is a gun. What is the distinction between a gun as a tool versus a gun as a weapon, if there is any distinction?
BA: The first part has to do with different ways of looking at a gun: as a tool, as a weapon, or, I would argue quite commonly in the West, as a totemic object—an object from which a person derives a portion of their identity. Most of my experience has been with using guns in extremely appropriate ways, like to bring a rough but necessary form of mercy to an injured cow, or to carry as protection against a very real threat of mauling by bear (although, honestly, I would say bear spray works a lot better, knowing what I know now).
But I’ve also experienced what it feels like to slide from that appropriate use of a weapon as a tool to something that’s a lot darker, which is beginning to let it infiltrate your sense of self. And I think I said quite clearly in this book that I believe, after having thought about this more than any human probably should and obsessed about how to write it down, that our tools shape us. The tools that we choose to keep and carry, and particularly the ones that we keep close, which is something that we definitely do with guns in this country, they begin to shape us. They shape us by the opportunities and possibilities that they offer us within easy reach. A friend of mine once told me when a guy buys a backhoe, everything starts looking like it needs to be a hole, which is to say that tools in some sort of weird, inanimate way, advocate for their own use. And our society, the American West, the United States, in general, is full of guns. We have so many more per capita than average. We have more guns than people. And that offers us some extremely scary choices on a really regular basis.
RM: We’ve talked about how the gun affects an individual, but also how guns have pervaded our society. It might be useful to connect those two ideas. How does a violent environment emerge out of individual attitudes?
BA: One part of it has to do with the mythologies that surround that particular tool and the ways in which we locate our cultural identity and attach it to the object. I think it’s really fair to say that we lionize guns and the carrying of guns and the use of guns in our culture and have for a while. I think the other part of it has to do with the sheer numbers of the damn things. If you put enough of something in circulation, it becomes normalized. And we’ve told ourselves so many profoundly mistaken stories about what they do to us and the role they play in the world, that we have a lot of layers to unwrap before we get back to something that feels healthy. I will say, though, that I never wanted this book to be prescriptive. It was not my intention to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do. What I wanted to do was look honestly at something that disturbed me and to try to find a way to carry forward what I believe is valuable in what I’ve inherited from the people and the culture that comes before me, and to leave behind or move away from the parts of it that I think are damaging: damaging, first and foremost, to the native ecology and native cultures of this place, but also damaging to the people, like my family, who came into this landscape.
This gun that I got from my grandfather, I started to attach it to this history of violence in the West, against people and place and animals. And there came this winter, where I began to move towards self-destructive thoughts with that gun. There were moments when I would be alone in a ranch house where I was tending cattle, thinking about death, or thinking about the violence that was part of my life and work. And I would feel just how easy self-destructive behavior becomes when there’s a gun and it’s always within reach. I felt the edge of something really dark and difficult there, and it completely changed the way I looked at that gun.
RM: Where are you now in relation to ranching? And where is your grandfather’s revolver now?
BA: The heart of the story is that I decided to remake the revolver. I decided that, without throwing away the gift from my grandfather, I wanted a tool with really different affinities and possibilities. And so a good portion of this book is devoted to learning the art and craft of blacksmithing under the watchful and exacting eye of a wonderful person named Jeffrey Funk, who’s got to be one of the most skilled blacksmiths on the continent and runs this program that people can and absolutely should visit which is called the New Agrarian School. Jeffrey helped me take this gun and make it into a tool that’s purpose-built for rewilding. It’s a tree planting spade. It’s made for stripping away, in the case of our farm, a soil cover of introduced pasture grasses. I built this tool from the metal that was in the gun. You can actually see traces of the cylinder and the barrel – all the aspects of the gun remain visible. I’ve been using that to reforest and rewild a pasture on our farm that’s been cleared for cattle for about a century.
So that brings me to the second part of your question, which is about what’s my relationship to agriculture and ranching now. The short answer is that it’s complicated. My wife and I worked really hard to get to this place where we have a small ranch (either a small ranch or a big farm depending on your standards). We still graze cattle, but we’ve made this shift because we understand the carbon costs of raising cattle. We no longer breed our own calves. We purchase open cows – cows that would be culled from the herds of our neighbors and would otherwise be going to feedlots, and we finish them on grass and sell the meat locally. So in the way I look at it, hopefully that means a net reduction of cows living in this valley. I’ve also begun to look at the land that I manage as an agricultural person really differently. I look at it according to that concept of reciprocity – because it’s feeding me, I have to know how to feed it. I used to think that was about how well could I do cattle grazing: how healthy could my pastures be? And now I look at that a little more broadly. We’re planting this area with native species, but we also have diversified what we do on the farm. We have a you-pick raspberry patch, and what’s amazing about that is the way it allows people who otherwise wouldn’t connect to the idea of eating directly from a place to do so. This whole process has made me think more broadly about the way people and places can be mutually sustaining. And I hope that our farm can be a small example of that.
History is an hourglass tapering to us—to you. The past must come through us to reach the future. Because of this, what we embrace will endure. What we resist will begin to fade slowly from being. Since I remade the revolver, I’ve been convinced that you and I, alive, occupy a position of immense responsibility and creative power. There is hope in a hammer swing, though the past is stubborn metalHolding Fire, page 251
RM: What is your family history relative to the colonial history of North America and the settlement by Europeans of North America?
BA: On my dad’s side, it goes back to William Bradford, who was the governor of Plymouth colony and on my mom’s side, it goes back quite far through French Canadian trappers and voyageurs. That’s always given me this feeling of complicity in the things that are difficult and uncompromising about the past, and that guilt was often paralyzing for me. The length and depth of my family’s history here has been troubling, but also profoundly motivating. You think about the people who wrought these massive changes on the continent for good or ill, and you realize they’re just people and what they did can be undone, or redone, or changed. One of the profoundly wonderful things about us as a species is that we are capable of big shifts in the way we think and in the way we treat the world around us. We have this inexhaustible energy for changing the world around us, which has an enormous creative potential as well as a destructive one.
There’s this possibility of a future that’s different than the past. My friend, Germaine, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said, “Listen, the last 200 years were bad, full stop: bad for Indigenous people, bad for ecology on this continent. It’s up to us to make sure the next 200 years are better.” And in some ways, that’s all I really need to wake up in the morning and think, “Okay, here’s something to guide what I do between breakfast and dinner.” These ideas of cultivating a culture of nonviolence become really interesting when you start thinking like that.
Featured image: Sunset in Montana’s Jocko Valley, near where Andrews lives and ranches. Photo courtesy of Bryce Andrews.
Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.
Bryce Andrews is the author of Down from the Mountain, which won the Banff Mountain Book Competition, and was a Montana Book Award Honor Title and an Amazon Best Science Title of 2019. His first book was Badluck Way, which won the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, the Reading the West Book Award for nonfiction, and the High Plains Book Award for both nonfiction and debut book. Andrews grew up in Seattle, Washington, and spent a decade working on ranches in the high valleys of Montana. He now lives near Missoula with his family.
Rudy Molinek is an editor at Edge Effects and host of the podcast Under Our Feet, where he explores stories of the inextricable links between humans and the earth in Wisconsin. His writing has appeared in Wisconsin People & Ideas and Agate magazines. Website. Twitter. Contact.