Strange Horizons, May 23, 2016
Reviewed by Dave Truesdale
This story takes place from June ’76 to May of ’78, but whether the year is 2076 or 2176 is open to debate, and really doesn’t matter enough to impact the storyline. It is related by the granddaughter of a cattle rancher in northern California in what appears to be a series of journal entries.
Cattle ranching to supply beef to the country is nearing its end, Gro-Meat having taken over. Gro-Meat is not synthetic, but real beef grown in vats, thus signaling the end of cattle ranching. The owner of the ranch is approached by a government representative willing to pay a fine sum if the owner is willing to let her cattle be the subject of an experiment. A retro-virus will be injected into the “lead” cows of each smaller herd that will hopefully spark something in their primitive DNA, giving them the wanderlust their forebears had tens of millennia ago—rather than now, when they are bred to stay in pasture and have no inclination to roam. The idea being to let this last herd migrate up and down the middle of California as part of the new “wilding” effort being implemented, now that drought has decimated much of the former fertile San Joaquin Valley’s crops—and to turn this large swath of the state into something beautiful rather than its present condition, that of being ravaged by climate or Man.
Of course, the retro-virus doesn’t work as expected and expresses itself in a very negative way, turning the docile temperament of the cows into something unforeseen, to the point that they must be destroyed. So much for good intentions with one of the last remaining herds of cattle in the country.
The author makes an attempt to liken the former wandering instinct of the cattle to the wanderlust in mankind, as the granddaughter of the once-proud cattle ranch (with her ranch a bust and cattle dead) finds herself enjoying driving and camping up and down California and enjoying its return to a state of nature, and grace. The final lines of the story give an accurate feel for what the author wishes the reader to take away from his story:
“I love life on the road. You’d think I would get lonely, but I don’t. I’m not the only one out here, traveling the roads. There are dozens of us, exploring this new valley, witnessing the changes. The trees are coming back to the abandoned farmlands, slowly but surely, and with trees come shade, and wide roots, and more varied habitats. The wetlands creep ever inland, bringing birds, snakes, frogs, and critters that have been absent from this valley for millennia.
“I look back on my ranch life as if another person lived it. I don’t have regrets, but I do wonder about something.
“Why did it take me so long to realize that life isn’t meant to be lived in one place?”
Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award six times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Now retired, he keeps close company with his SF/F library, the coffeepot, and old movie channels on TV. He lives in Kansas City, MO.