Thursday, August 25

ode to the great beast

There's been a lot of buffalo in my life recently. And that's not a metaphor. I'm talking bison, the modern day progeny of those wild fuzzy big-headed beasts that used to roam the prairies of North America before we killed them all.

When I was a child, I saw a painting of a herd of buffalo running off the edge of a cliff. So intent were they at getting away from the hunters, they would stampede and willingly fall, line after line, to their doom. When I looked at it, I felt panicked. I wanted to warn the buffalo, but I feel now it wouldn't have done much good. 
A friend made on vacation.

I drove to Colorado this past week with Asif and Little Gen. A road trip that was supposed to take eight hours, took us twelve because we accidentally took the wrong route. And when I say we, I mean I. But because we were on the scenic route, we saw buffalo roaming freely across the grassland. And when we stopped the car, two adults and one baby buffalo came right to the fence and looked at us before turning to graze in another direction. I would imagine we were as much an oddity to them, Little Gen jumping out of the car with her camera and running across the road, as they were to us. But it still felt like stepping back into a wilder time.

Brushing Sam
Close to the farm where I work is a pen with about eight buffalo and a couple long-horn steer enclosed. When I walk Sam the horse back a trail along the gully, he stops suddenly, ears pricked forward, head held up. He sees something strange. He sees the buffalo. From the road, you wouldn't even know they were there. They see us, too. We just look at one another, as if trying to fit a new piece into the puzzle of our experience. I guess these buffalo have never even seen a cliff, but I wonder if somewhere, deep in their DNA, they remember prairies and pioneers and Indians riding bareback.

Sam won't let me ride him at all on the trail. As soon as we reach the iron gate that marks the start of the dirt path, he decides to go home, with or without my consent. I fight him until I think he's going to accidentally back over the edge of the gully and dump both of us in the ditch. A former championship jumper, Sam grew up in an arena. Buffalo were not involved. So we walk the trail together.

Whenever I see buffalo, I am suddenly filled with an unfamiliar awe, like I'm witnessing something special; something that shouldn't exist or doesn't really, like a dinosaur. It's nothing like looking at a cow, which seems weak and mass produced, with the wild selectively bred out of it. A buffalo seems closer to the divine design; even its eyes are deep and secretive. I kind of want to ride one. I'd just hold on to his woolly mane.

On the wall of a Thai restaurant.

Why do buffalo excite me? I'm not sure, but I seem to have a particular liking for other large mammals. I feel equally impressed by elephants and their complex emotional range. And yes, I'd like to ride one.

I still remember the first time I led a horse by a rope, it's hooves clicking rhythmically on the pavement; this huge animal that could easily trample me, was completely in my control. I felt powerful. 

American buffalo have endured for centuries without extinction. They make me feel strong.



  1. The buffalo in the photo certainly seems pretty tame. Did he let you have a go on his skateboard?

  2. In this case, you should take the next road trip to Yellowstone. Been there?

  3. Where DID you see that picture! One of those rude incursions into the innocence of childhood!

  4. I grew up seeing bison (or American buffalo) - maybe since I lived in Montana. But I knew they were ornery (my dad's childhood best friend raises them for meat - they're leaner than beef), so I didn't want to ride them. But I've always wanted to ride an elephant... and a camel (ever since I had a dream years ago riding one in Egypt - it will happen, someday), make that an Asian elephant that I want to ride. My roommate from Zimbabwe and I had this argument about the domestication of Asian versus African elephants and which caused more injuries and deaths. I said the Asian was more domesticated, and she countered with how I could know that. Well, I thought it could be proven. How often have you heard of an African elephant being ridden, used in a circus, or towing trees for humans?! And I've seen an African elephant - he didn't like us (I could tell).

    All that to say, well, I don't know why, but I just wanted to share, I like your blog, it makes me laugh, and I'd shared it with my friends in Africa and California (I'm friends with your sister Chelsea). Last year I was hiking in North Dakota, came upon a rank smell, and found a decomposing bison (I have a pic on my blog, Sept. '10 I think). There were no cliffs from which he fell, but I still think I'd like to encounter the bison during a time when they were vital to the Indians' sustenance and thousands were thundering the plains - kinda like in the movie Dances with Wolves, minus the bite of buffalo heart.