Editor's note: “Cheatgrass Dreams” is a finalist in the Creative Nonfiction Book category of the 2021 High Plains Book Awards.
Theodore Waddell is a well-known artist, but “Cheatgrass Dreams” is a finalist in the High Plains Book Awards Creative Nonfiction category. The book is illustrated with Waddell’s iconic impressionistic artwork, drawn from Waddell’s 30 years of running cattle in central Montana.
This is a real-life, not a romanticized version of farming and ranching in Montana. The title catches both the necessary optimism and the inevitable disappointments of wrenching a living from the prairie. Cheatgrass, a noxious and invasive weed with barbs like porcupine quills, challenges the dreams of a rancher like drought and grasshoppers do.
As the daughter of a Montana dryland farmer who raised Angus cattle, I loved the detailed and accurate descriptions of calving, fencing, broken down equipment, culling and selling cattle, and harvesting. But readers don’t need a farm or ranch background to appreciate this book. It highlights small town characters, both admirable and sad—most of whom frequent the Corner Bar in the small town of Roy. Marvin who “laughed most of the time and had great laugh lines amongst his wrinkles” appears often, and Marvin’s funeral brings out Waddell’s meditative side: “. . . knowing that, as our friends die, our turn is coming—inviting a constant reexamination of what we have and what we care about.”
This dive below the surface and the crisp, direct writing style lift the book above an ordinary account of ranch life. Waddell evokes the birth of a bull calf without poetic rhapsody: “Her water breaks. Big foot, big calf, too bad. . . Feet out now. Hips lock. . A bit more. . . a little more. Here she comes. Good job. . . Nice bull calf. Lucky me.”
Waddell’s “. . . love for this life—the grass and sky, prairie and wind, mountains and snow, animals and friends. . .” was, he says, tempered by necessary choices such as which cattle live and which die. These difficult choices influenced Waddell’s decision to quit ranching and become a full-time artist, but we have this handsome and evocative book—dedicated to “cows who have changed my life.”
Lou Mandler is a retired educator and author of a memoir, articles on Hemingway, and a forthcoming biography of Billings mayor Willard Fraser.