Monday, August 2, 2010

Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch by Dan O'Brien

Why I read it: A love of the outdoors, and a fascination with the wide open places of the west.

Summary: The author, an Ohio boy turned Great Plains rancher, converts his ranch from cattle to buffalo, keeping in line with his desire to return at least his corner of the land to its original, pre-European settlement state. He recounts the history of the land and its use, including stories of those early settlers, and hints that there is much more to the restoration than just the introduction of the buffao herd. His life gets reinvigorated, too, after a divorce that left him angry at himself for letting his life run away from him.

My Thoughts: These are the words I grew up to, the poetry of Schoolhouse Rock. Westward expansion was not, to a six-year-old in the mid-1970s, told through the theories of Frederick Jackson Turner, but instead impressed upon us by "Elbow Room."

"The trappers, traders and the peddlars,
The politicians and the settlers,
They got here by any way they could,
The Gold Rush trampled down the wilderness,
The railroads spread across from east to west,
And soon the west was opened up for good."

I remember the visual vividly: a train rushing across the continent crushing trees, clearing the way for America to follow in its wake. Perhaps in three and a half decades our sensibilities have changed, but back then, the trampling of the wilderness, and all of the species of birds, mammals and other animals associated with it, was seen by most as nothing more than progress.

Dan O'Brien is fighting the good fight to bring back the wilderness.

Long before he was involved with buffalo, he had a passion for peregrine falcons, helping with their reintroduction to the land. Of course, all of these animals are tied together in some way. We forced domesticated cattle onto the land, creatures bred for centuries to graze on the green grassy fields of Europe, hoping that they would thrive in the unpredictability of the open Plains. Whether or not it has worked is up for debate; yes, Americans eat a lot of beef, but the land, the ranchers and the cattle have suffered in many ways.

Cattle tend to overgraze their land, at least in comparison to buffalo. That habit leads to habitat destruction for numerous species of animals that historically have thrived on the plains, shrubland birds and more. What the author has done by reintroducing the buffalo is restore the old habits of that creature, more nomadic browsing, scraping for pockets of water, trasforming the land.

The book is eye-opening for East Coast huggers especially, those of us who grew up in large cities and look to the west for the mythic American cowboy. The author tries to debunk the myths, and rightly so, but there is some truth in the historical vision. There is romanticism in the solitude of the Plains, in the thought of living life your way, of unchaining one's self from the world of cubicles and commutes. Sure, it has its hardships, but some of us would certainly take a crack at it, even if it's just an even swap for stresses in life.

I hope that the author has found happiness in the end. I get the sense that his thoughts were at the right depths when he penned this title, that he could use his solitude for healing and not end up pondering suicide, as so many others have, including some close to him. At least in one sense, his transformation has been completed. Check out the Wild Idea Buffalo Company at your leisure.

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