American Buffalo

OF ALL THE CREATURES that have made their homes in the wild sprawls of North America, none has been more firmly planted in human dreams and endeavors than the American buffalo. For much of the past ten thousand years it served as everything from pantry to clothing store, shelter to tool chest to sewing box — sacred to millions of people across countless seasons. And in more recent times, emblematic of that familiar American trait whereby we come to identify with certain shining pieces of the wilderness, then eventually nearly wipe them from the face of the Earth.

Given the breadth and complexity of our long dance with the buffalo, this topic might seem best suited to authors of great scholarship. Or in the case of Steven Rinella, ones blessed with furious curiosity. Clearly, here’s a man in touch with his inner ten year old — a circumstance that by all indications has a lot to do with his having spent much of
his youth untethered in wild places. In this book, Rinella is capable of somehow dazzling listeners at dinner parties with tales about the birth of the buffalo-head nickel; then, later, on the way home, waxing poetic about the Empire Carbon Works in St. Louis, which claimed to have processed 1.25 million tons of buffalo bones in the late 1800s, mostly for fertilizer. Alas, he spends far less energy on current issues, including the ongoing slaughter of buffalo outside Yellowstone National Park — part of an effort to protect domestic cattle from a disease called brucellosis.

What saves Rinella from being led totally astray by side stories and minutiae is a narrative backbone assembled from his own dogged pursuit of a buffalo when hunting in the wilds of Alaska. Initially undertaken with a brother and two friends, ultimately completed alone, the journey is filled with intrigue — from the challenge of finding animals in such a vast landscape, to the difficulty of guarding a carcass against hungry grizzlies. Clearly, Rinella is competent. But what makes this part of his story sing is that he brings to it an exquisite sense of surrender — a wise, cheerful nod to the fact that the arc of his adventure is being cast by the whims of the wilderness.

Rinella makes frequent mention of conservationist William T. Hornaday, who had a great deal to do with saving the American buffalo from extinction at the end of the nineteenth century. In later life Hornaday often worried about biologists growing ever more disconnected from what they were studying — becoming little more than clinical, hyperrational researchers. Science, said Hornaday, was losing its heart. While Rinella isn’t a biologist, in American Buffalo he proves himself a thoughtful, well-seasoned amateur naturalist. And more to the point, a guy with the kind of heart William Hornaday would find hugely pleasing.