Claiming Ground by Laura Bell
“This is a book that compels you to the last sentence, both because of its sheer beauty and its profound meaning. It makes you think of Thoreau out in the woods, confronting the essential. This is just a fresh, wonderful piece of writing, about the isolated and attentive kind of life almost nobody lives nowadays, or ever did.”—Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong
In 1977, Laura Bell, at loose ends after graduating from college, leaves her family home in Kentucky for a wild and unexpected adventure: herding sheep in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin. Inexorably drawn to this life of solitude and physical toil, a young woman in a man’s world, she is perhaps the strangest member of this beguiling community of drunks and eccentrics. So begins her unabating search for a place to belong and for the raw materials with which to create a home and family of her own. Yet only through time and distance does she acquire the wisdom that allows her to see the love she lived through and sometimes left behind.
By turns cattle rancher, forest ranger, outfitter, masseuse, wife and mother, Bell vividly recounts her struggle to find solid earth in which to put down roots. Brimming with careful insight and written in a spare, radiant prose, her story is a heart-wrenching ode to the rough, enormous beauty of the Western landscape and the peculiar sweetness of hard labor, to finding oneself even in isolation, to a life formed by nature, and to the redemption of love, whether given or received.
Quietly profound and moving, astonishing in its honesty, in its deep familiarity with country rarely seen so clearly, and in beauties all its own, Claiming Ground is a truly singular memoir.
Laura Bell’s work has been published in several collections, and from the Wyoming Arts Council she has received two literature fellowships as well as the Neltje Blanchan Memorial Award and the Frank Nelson Doubleday Memorial Award. She lives in Cody, Wyoming, and since 2000 has worked there for the Nature Conservancy.
Meet Laura Bell on her book tour
From our Q&A with the author:
Q: You grew up in the American South. What first drew you, when you were in your early twenties, to the high desert basin of northwest Wyoming? Was it the landscape or the people or the wildlife? Has that changed over your many years living in the West?
A: It was the land, all the space and the ability to live my childhood dream, a life horseback. In the thirty-plus years I’ve lived in Wyoming, I’ve come to love that it’s a state where cattle and people and wildlife can migrate hundreds of miles, irrespective of roads. It’s a grand sweep of life and landscape. And my work now with the Nature Conservancy helps to protect that.
Q: What was the most frightening or surprising thing you encountered as a young sheepherder in the Big Horn Basin?
A: That I had actually gotten what I said I wanted, which was to be alone. It was very frightening to realize that I had that power, that as a grown up, no one was going to come and take me back home. It was both thrilling and terrifying.