Wild Idea is a book about how good food choices can influence federal policies and the integrity of our food system, and about the dignity and strength of a legendary American animal. It is also a book about people: the daughter coming to womanhood in a hard landscape, the friend and ranch hand who suffers great tragedy, the venture capitalist who sees hope and opportunity in a struggling buffalo business, and the husband and wife behind the ranch who struggle daily, wondering if what they are doing will ever be enough to make a difference. At its center, Wild Idea is about a family and the people and animals that surround them—all trying to build a healthy life in a big, beautiful, and sometimes dangerous land.
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About the Author
Dan O’Brien is the author of numerous novels and memoirs, including Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch, winner of the Western Heritage Award for best nonfiction. His books Stolen Horses, Equinox, The Indian Agent, and The Contract Surgeon are available from the University of Nebraska Press.
Read an Excerpt
Buffalo and Family in a Difficult Land
By Dan O'Brien
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2014 Dan O'Brien
All rights reserved.
Some summer nights, when I step out onto my ranch house porch, I am met by the immense, roiling waves of color from the northern lights. In other seasons I find coiled rattlesnakes or perhaps a wind so cold that skin will freeze in minutes.
By any economic ciphering, choosing the Great Plains for my home has caused me to slip behind my contemporaries who chose New England, or California, or the hills of Georgia. Still, like loving a drunk, I had little choice. For over forty years the prairies have been my home and I've shared them willingly with all of the species that call them home. It took many years for me to understand that this place is more than a chaotic jumble of species clawing at each other to assert themselves. It is a complex web of life clawing to keep its balance. I love the wind that stokes me as I sit on my front porch, even when it is too cold to endure. It is the wheezing breath of a single, huge, living thing, and I am a part of it.
Between 1972 and 1990 I worked as a biologist, first for the State of South Dakota and then for the Peregrine Fund, based at Cornell University's famous Ornithology Laboratory. I had no formal training in biology so my duties were really the work of a technician, always seasonal, and always in the mountains and plains of the Intermountain West. The focus was on helping to reestablish the endangered peregrine falcon to the cliffs along the Rocky Mountain Front, but my mind always wandered to the entire ecosystem that the birds depended upon—the rolling, untold miles of grass that we call the Great Plains.
The falcons were raised from captive parents, first at Ithaca, New York, then at Fort Collins, Colorado, and finally at Boise, Idaho. My colleagues in the labs hatched the chicks and I picked them up at about one month of age. My job was to get the chicks to one of several dozen release sites then do my best to see that they learned to fly and hunt for themselves. It was wonderful work, freewheeling and physically challenging. I traveled by pickup, horseback, helicopter, and on foot to a different site every day. Almost everyone who helped in the effort to reestablish peregrine falcons was young, but it was more than youthful exuberance that kept us going. We were driven by the conviction that we were doing something of real value. As early soldiers in the environmental struggle that is still searching for definition we sensed that our lives were under siege by immense forces beyond our control.
DDT, used aggressively for decades by agribusiness, is a powerful insecticide that increased crop yields around the world. But it was clear to most of us that the benefits were grossly outweighed by the harm. The toxic chemical quickly spread into the entire food chain and did damage to all sorts of species, from soil microbes to human beings. In 1972 DDT was banned from use in the United States. By then it had nearly wiped out many bird species at the top of the food chain where the poison accumulated. The peregrine falcon, a pinnacle species, was decimated by DDT because it fouled up the falcon's reproductive system. The first people to notice and respond were a small group of falconers who hunted with and kept peregrines in a quasi-captive state. Those of us with an acute interest quickly became involved. In the end it was a massive effort by thousands of people that brought the peregrine back from the brink of extinction.
The peregrine falcon was placed on the endangered species list in 1970 and it stayed there until several hundred nesting pairs had returned to their old haunts. One day in the fall of 1994 I saw four peregrine falcons in one afternoon on the plains east of Colorado Springs, Colorado. I had never seen peregrines in that area before. I was on my way back to my little ranch on the northern edge of South Dakota's Black Hills after a summer of releasing peregrines. Since April I'd been going strong, and because I was anxious to get home, I wasn't even looking for peregrine falcons. But that day they seemed to be everywhere. During my entire life I had sighted only a few wild peregrine falcons and that afternoon I stumbled across four. It was a sign, and by the time I got home I had made up my mind that my work with the peregrine was finished.
When I got back to my ranch, I sat on my front porch and looked southeast toward where Bear Butte rose up from the prairie floor like a sentinel guarding the Black Hills. The butte looked lonely and the sight of it made me wonder what I would do with my life from that day forward. It would be another five years before the wheels of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked through the red tape to remove the peregrine falcon from the endangered species list, but it was already clear that the peregrines living on the eastern shoulder of the Rocky Mountains would be with us for at least a few more generations. The immediate crisis had passed.
The sun was going down and putting on a show for anyone who would take the time to watch. The colors in the autumn grasses pulsed with the breeze and the individual blades cast shadows on each other. As the grasses waved, the colors moved from gold to red, and I thought about all the life that depended on that mosaic. I thought about the mammals, from rodents to deer and antelope. I turned my best ear to the breeze and imagined that I could hear the movement of the billions of insects that supplied the baseline protein for the ground nesting birds for which the prairies are famous. The falcons were again preying on those birds and, at least for awhile, all those wheels would continue to turn.
Many other species are endangered or threatened and it occurred to me that I could become involved with protecting the black-footed ferrets, the eagle, swift fox, or any number of insects or grasses. But over the preceding eighteen years I had learned that concentrating on a single species was only treating the symptom of a problem. A compromised ecosystem is almost always the cause of distress for any species. I sat on my porch contemplating the rest of my life and I recalled much of what I had seen while traveling back and forth across the High Plains. Blowing topsoil, stinking feedlots, subsidized crops irrigated with precious water, and all the ancient, nonhuman inhabitants forced to eek out a living on the edges. The stars came up and, because it was autumn, Orion rose in the gap between Bear Butte and the Black Hills. It was one of those magical nights when time seems to slow to the speed of moving constellations.
My thoughts came to buffalo. They have long been an icon of this waning wilderness. During the last half of the nineteenth century, in one of the great human disgraces of all time, we slaughtered all but perhaps a thousand of the world's buffalo—for sport, for a few body parts, and to help in the decimation of the Natives who relied on them. We nearly lost a unique species that thrived only in the center of the North American continent. I thought hard about that as a million stars moved across the sky in front of me. It made me sick to think of the injustice, and before Orion's sword had swiveled to point at Harney Peak, I knew that my future would involve at least an attempt to put things right on the Great Plains and buffalo would be a part of that attempt.
In the nearly twenty years since that decision I have done my best to heal the portion of northern grasslands for which I am most responsible. Many mistakes were made as the result of my own failings, but also because the science of grassland protection and restoration is not well understood, because the vagrancies of climate and weather are not calibrated to match the span of a human life, and because resources on the Great Plains have always been sparse. I got off to a poor start by planting trees and hybrid grasses that were supposed to grow in a dry, harsh land. I signed up for government programs that encouraged such practices. But I should have realized that trees do not belong on the plains. If they could survive on their own they would have been here from the beginning. Trees need constant care, and the ones I planted dwindled and died. The hybrid grasses I planted had been bred to grow in almost any climate, but they had no evolutionary connection to the mammals and birds of the Great Plains and they too didn't survive. Native birds and animals need the native plants they evolved with—the nutritious, hardy, deep-rooted perennials that have been nearly extirpated over the last century.
My effort began with twelve orphan buffalo, which in a few years built to a herd of fifty animals on my little ranch of twelve hundred acres. The beleaguered grasses responded favorably to the massaging of buffalo hooves and everything on the ranch, from the smallest sedges to the people, seemed to strengthen. In the early years of the new century, I lived with my partner, Jill, her daughter, Jilian, and my oldest friend, Erney. We called the place the Broken Heart Ranch—named for the disused cattle brand, a number 3 laid on its face with a V underneath. Jill has always been a chef and restaurateur. Back then she owned the best white tablecloth restaurant within four hundred miles of Rapid City, South Dakota. Erney and I had been pals since 1970. We met when I was a graduate student in literature at the University of South Dakota and Erney worked for the State Highway Department.
Erney and I had come together at a meeting of falconers and instantly became fast friends. I didn't know why he took to me, but I was fascinated by the fact that this self-taught, simple man knew the Latin names for all the birds of prey, the common orchids, many species of cacti, and lots of bromeliads. I didn't even know what a bromeliad was and I will always remember how he explained it to me. We had spent the entire day watching our falcons chase rabbits and pheasants through the woodlots and cornfields of a glorious South Dakota autumn. As the sun slipped to the western horizon we took a few minutes to sit beside a pond and shoot enough migrating mourning doves to make a dinner. Erney has always been materially poor, and since we met he has owned only one fine thing. He earned a meager $285 per month but somehow managed to save up $4,000 to buy a Browning Exhibition Grade superimposed shotgun, complete with gold inlays. The gun came with a laminated wallet-sized certificate of ownership, with the serial number embossed along the bottom. He stroked the gun as if it was a prized show dog. "She's finer than frog hair," Erney said with a wiggle of his wooly eyebrows.
Erney has never been an agile or coordinated man, but he shot the shotgun with a fluid grace that somehow fit the arch of the migrating doves. I marveled at the confidence of his swing and the ease of his follow-through. Erney knew the doves would come from their feeding field to their evening watering hole, so he was careful to position me in the very best place for shooting. But even with the best angle, my score paled in comparison to his. He had a sixth sense for the twists and turns of the dove's flight.
Not only did Erney shoot more doves than I did, he cleaned two doves to my one. Then he cooked them with a couple dozen baby potatoes, a handful of diced carrots and celery, and generous pinches of salt and pepper. I had never seen a Dutch oven used the way they were meant to be used and was mesmerized beside the simmering pot buried in a pile of ruby-red corncob coals. The smell of baking dove breasts in that still evening air mingled with Erney's gentle tutorial. "A bromeliad is a sort of plant that doesn't need to have its roots in dirt. Don't need much moisture." He stirred the coals on the Dutch oven lid, looked up at me, smiled, and again wiggled his shaggy eyebrows. The smell of the doves and the idea of bromeliads were exciting him. "There are hundreds of species. Some of 'em have great flowers—related to the succulents, grow up in the crotches of tropical trees."
I was young and dumb and thought he might be bullshitting me. He nodded his head and smiled again through his unmanicured beard. "You know, those furry looking, orchidy flowers up in the trees in the Tarzan movies." I nodded my head to keep him talking. "Suck water right out of the air. Trap it up there in those trees when it rains, hang on to all sorts of stuff. Trees, telephone wires, Aztec and Mayan ruins. Some of them look a little like weaverbird nests. Cool flowers."
"You've seen these things?"
"Mostly pictures. Sometimes in the flower shops. Don't have any in South Dakota."
"You ever been out of South Dakota?"
"Couple times. Nebraska to work. Went elk hunting in Wyoming, but didn't have the money for a license, so I was the camp cook." He lifted the lid of the Dutch oven with a stick and sniffed like a bear. "No bromeliads in Wyoming either." He stirred the pot with the same stick. "Grab you a bunch of these Dan'l, they're about as good as it gets. Finest kind."
I was in my midtwenties, Erney in his thirties. I had begun my quest to own a ranch by buying a dilapidated farmhouse on twenty-six acres on a contract for deed. The total price was seventy-two hundred dollars with nothing down and payments of a hundred dollars a month. Erney and I ran an illegal wire from a power pole and a water line from a defunct cistern to the house. We damned near froze to death that first winter, but we stuck it out in that drafty house, along with a jolly band of bird dogs and falcons. When I got my degree I traded up to a 320-acre place on the edge of the Black Hills. That ranch was a move three hundred miles west, where the prairie was still intact. I moved because I thought I might be better able to write.
Erney was a confirmed bachelor who everyone loved despite his questionable personal hygiene and iconoclastic ways. He reminded me of Henry David Thoreau, but a laconic version with the bark still on. To my knowledge he never had a girlfriend, though women have always enjoyed his company. Just before my move to the Black Hills, Erney quit the State Highway Department when they stopped giving him time off in lieu of overtime pay. He went to work for a rancher—the same rancher who had given me summer jobs during graduate school—who would allow him time to fly his falcon and read his books. He had been slightly crippled as a teenager, the result of two construction trucks coming together and breaking his femur, so I wondered how he would do as a ranch hand.
He was never one to be careful and was notorious for disconnecting all the "bullshit safety features" of newfangled equipment. He worked for that rancher for only a couple of years before his gloved thumb got twisted off in the power takeoff of a tractor. The four months of rehabilitation didn't teach him much. When he returned to work at the same ranch, he went right back to disassembling safety equipment.
Though he has never been one to take care of himself, he has always taken care of the people he likes and every animal that enters his sphere. His mind was always full of wisdom about Great Plains wild animals, birds, weather, livestock, and vegetation. He was the product of a life close to the Dakota elements and he had a knack for observation. He spent long nights reading natural histories in poor light as he had smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes and butted them out by the hundreds into empty coke bottles. He had come up hard, in a house with no indoor plumbing, no television, and no chance for education beyond high school. He was in his early forties when he called me and said the rancher we had worked for was filing for bankruptcy and that he was out of work. I told him that I had plenty of work and a place for him to live, but the farm crisis of the 1980s had caught me too. There wasn't any money to pay him, but that didn't matter to Erney. He showed up with a worn-out Luv truck, four cardboard boxes full of books, a battered trunk of clothes, and thirty dollars in his pocket. The prized shotgun was gone, sold off when the checks from the rancher began to bounce. I only asked him about the shotgun once. I could see it was painful.
I was having trouble scraping up my mortgage payment, so after my summer stints working for South Dakota Game and Fish, I decided to find a winter construction job. Erney moved in to watch the place in 1986 and he has been with me ever since. He got to the ranch just days before I left for California in search of work, where construction was supposed to be going strong. The snow had already begun to gather in the pasture draws and it was cold. We sat in front of the wood burner and talked.
Excerpted from Wild Idea by Dan O'Brien. Copyright © 2014 Dan O'Brien. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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