Sunday, December 09, 2007

Buffalo for the Broken Heart

I recently finished reading a fascinating book, Buffalo for the Broken Heart, by Dan O'Brien.

It was a random pick-up at the local bookstore. Something in the title caught my eye, then the jacket blurb made me look more closely. By the time I'd skimmed several pages, it went into my (admittedly oversized) "to buy" pile and made it safely home. Something about its promise made me pick it up soon thereafter; once I picked it up, I was hooked.

Buffalo is a quiet book. It's part personal memoir, part natural history, part cultural history, all interwoven into a well paced story that captured my heart and imagination. It's the tale of a relationship between a man and his South Dakota ranch, the Broken Heart. There's love and heartbreak, comraderie and loneliness in this book, along with beauty and unimaginably necessary daily gambles.

Having moved back to the prairie after several years in the longleaf pine forests of the deep south, I'm finding myself fascinated by the differences between the 2 places. I expected and was moderately prepared for the difference in vegetation and climate, but the differences in mindsets and cultural assumptions is surprising me. I find myself appreciating how the local history of a place infuses its people with a sense of identity that I'd never really noticed before, even people who move into an area rather than having been raised in it.

In Mobile, the people seemed to have a baseline identify still founded upon the old Deep South cultural identity of plantations, cotton growing, and the almost aristocratic society that it created. Entertaining was an everyday, gracious artform there, and the homes tended to be classic and richly decorated.

Here, the people seem to have a baseline identify still founded upon the "wild west", with its necessary independence of spirit and underlying rebellion. There's a mistrust of anything too "fancy", and a sense that cattle and farming are both intrinsically good and tragically fated to break people's spirit.

In Buffalo for the Broken Heart, O'Brien recounts how he (and countless other Great Plains ranchers) try to wrest a living from the prairie by raising cattle. As he describes it, it's basically a no-win situation, based on a disconnect between cattle and the prairie environment compounded by a disconnect between natural forces and the market economy. After almost losing his ranch (saving it only by taking a job elsewhere and sending money back, while a neighbor looked after it), O'Brien hesitantly decides to try running bison instead of cattle. It's an incredible gamble and an almost unbelievable amount of hard work, but he makes the commitment and describes both the joys and the fears of the process.

Our little 10 acres will never support a bison, but bison lived here 150 years ago and helped shape this land. There's even a depression behind the draw that I suspect may be the remnants of an old buffalo wallow. The descriptions of O'Brien's prairie lands, of how the cattle fought them and how the bison reveled in them, were evocative and haunting. I can picture bison on our land now in a way that I wasn't able to before reading this book.

I know where the past of this land has been. I wonder where its future lies.

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