A newborn buffalo breathes (iconic?) significance into my disjointed narrative (of intimate specifics?)
A newborn buffalo breathes (iconic?) significance into my disjointed narrative (of intimate specifics?)
by Jim Macdonald (April 22, 2010)
We trudge through the mud and melting snow, feet thoroughly soaked, thinking mostly of the best route to a dry step. Then, we stop; we have to stop. Fifty yards away we see a small group of bison roaming slowly in our direction. We immediately scan trying to count, when I notice to my delight the smallest little buffalo calf I have ever seen. She or he is sucking milk from her mother. The calf is so newborn that afterbirth is still visible from the mother. Our hearts melt; we let out high-pitched cries of excitement. Tears almost start flowing from my face. Here are two of us witnessing a joyous day for the small group of buffalo, other expectant moms in their midst. The baby, whose legs look like little sticks, sucks milk, walks a few steps, then sticks her or his nose to the grass, before finally returning for another drink. The other buffalo, now aware of us, continue to eat grass and meander.
We get low and quiet, trying to take in the scene, excited and overwhelmed with emotions. However, the bison are in our path; we have to hope they continue to move because there's no good way around them. Because we are so wet, we plant ourselves on a dry patch of grass toward the edge of a steep hill. The herds keep moving, and there's occasionally tension between some of the buffalo cows, especially near the calf. In small little rushes, they creep closer and closer, pinning us into our location. I begin to become frightened and start gathering my things for further retreat. Then, the buffalo, agitated with each other, begin a quick jog right nearly on top of our position. To my chagrin, I'm now only 5-6 feet from the calf and two other buffalo. I let out a cry of "Oh no" as I fear being trampled, but they stop short, giving us time to scramble down a few more feet. Separated from some of our gear, other buffalo eventually stop nearly on top of it; our radio goes off while this is happening, and we fear that the buffalo will become spooked. Then, they plop down and sleep, leaving us 2 1/2 hours to wait for them to get up and move so that we can recover our stuff. We watch them sleep, some completely on their sides, and I wonder how they sleep without getting very uncomfortable from their horns. Are they about ready to give birth?
I could go on, but let me stop. I experienced all of this just two days ago on Montana's Horse Butte Peninsula just west of Yellowstone National Park. And, I think it's important to stop and understand the context of this situation. These 10 buffalo are some of the 3,000 or so wild bison that are usually not found in Montana, except in the spring time during calving season. By May 15, management plans decree that they will be forced to return back into Yellowstone National Park. Agencies including the Montana Department of Livestock; Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks; the National Park Service, and the U.S. Forest Service will take these buffalo, newborn and all, using helicopters, ATVs, agents on horseback, and force them to march miles and miles back into Yellowstone. Newborn calves taking their first steps will be required to run the gauntlet; last year, video shows one of them being forced to march with a broken leg. Another agency, the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) came to Horse Butte yesterday and took bull bison for a study. According to eyewitness reports, APHIS "first darts the bulls to inject a drug to knock them out, then collects their semen by inserting a large vibrating probe in their anus. Before injecting the downed bulls with the reversal agent that wakes them, they spray-paint a thick blue line across their magnificent hind quarters." APHIS has been doing this north of the park and now is disturbing the beautiful scene I described above.
In other years, this cruelty also includes slaughter of large numbers of the herds. The management plan for 2008 ultimately led directly to the death of more than 1,600 bison.
Why does this happen? The absurdities are for other essays; they have been talked about at great length by others.
I want to focus on where the unique presence of living and breathing buffalo finds life in a real moment couched within a cruel context, one that often has us look at bison as generalities at the expense of seeing them the specific way I did in my story. What I mean by that is so often we think of buffalo as iconic; we think of them merely as symbols perhaps of an America that used to be with 30-40 million bison roaming the Great Plains, an ancient beast of the past that we've memorialized in buffalo nickels, in state flags, on the very seal of the U.S. Department of Interior. And, even if we realize that buffalo are still around, we generalize them as I have in this sentence here. We talk about "the" buffalo, rather than this or that grouping of buffalo. Buffalo become nothing more than an idea, whatever you make of that idea - whether we are talking about the relationship with Plains tribes, or a healthier alternative to beef, or those animals that are commonly found all over the roadways of Yellowstone. We often idealize buffalo and yet forget that right now there's a calf that's not more than a few days old, taking in the cold night of Horse Butte, probably bedded against her or his mother, with no idea that maybe as early as tomorrow that that calf's herd will be forced on something akin to a Trail of Tears, only one that happens year after year after year.
It is not that buffalo are not iconic and that the relationships they hold to us aren't often true; it's that when we forget that there's a mama likely giving birth or about to give birth somewhere in those hills that you get to from Rainbow Point Road, outside of the manmade political boundaries of Yellowstone, we make these general notions of what buffalo are meaningless or altogether false. It is okay to wonder about the history of destruction of the bison as a story in a genocide that the general "we the people" have often failed to acknowledge, but when we don't see these buffalo snorting and peeing and chewing grass (or like the buffalo nearest our gear, making the chewing motion for hours without ever actually dipping her head to the grass), we aren't likely to grasp the presence of the story. What happens to the buffalo isn't simply an abstraction about yesterday that somehow relates to today; it's an abstraction about yesterday that is having real consequences now, has real actors right now, and is of urgency to those of us living and breathing with them right now.
Let me try to illustrate my general idea, my specific point with another story.
By day, the spot in the Porcelain Basin, within Yellowstone National Park's Norris Geyser Basin, could teem with tourists. For most, it was a spot of unearthly thermal activity and astounding colors. Imagine Venus, only with trees nearby; it seemed poisonous and unearthly, except for those trees growing where nothing organic seemed plausible, even if that seeming is actually untrue - the colors are caused by algae growing at different temperatures in the water of the thermal runoff.
However, at night, all we could see was the darkened outline of the boardwalk where we held each other tight, the clouds moving about, sometimes moving away enough to expose the moon. By moonlight, we could see darkened steam rise all around us. What was unmistakable was the popping and crackling of the geysers and thermal springs; we could hear the water rushing under us. Yet, most of all, we saw each other, two people daring to find a lonely spot at the end of this boardwalk. I saw her face, her arms, her legs. My own body felt sexual excitement, though I was embarrassed by it. You see, I had never even so much as kissed a girl. Here I was on only my second date with my new girlfriend (my second date ever with anyone); I couldn't possibly know that it wouldn't last much longer. This night, there was a kind of magic, holding her close, sharing stories, and feeling all the intensity one can feel when one's affections at last were met with affection in kind. Just before deciding to leave, she put her cold lips to mine twice. Yet, even as this chemistry between us was the only thing that mattered, I somehow doubt it would have meant the same thing without the boardwalks, without the cold air, without the shivering going on just above a cauldron of sizzling heat. This I knew was a special moment; these moments are far too few in life.
I was 20; it was June 1994. I will never forget it or the sour circumstances that followed. Four nights later on a different boardwalk and in a different geyser basin, she broke it off with me, saying she feared I could never be happy. That followed a few weeks later with the most intense depression of my life; a depression so deep that I had no interest even in killing myself - I had moved beyond that. When she left Yellowstone reasonably wanting nothing to do with me, I never saw or heard about her ever again.
Yet, for a night, the reality was intensely magical; longing for moments like that again - and I've had more than a few but not nearly as many as I would like - would drive me nearly insane more than once.
We can talk iconically of Yellowstone, of places - if you know them - like the Norris Geyser Basin, of first kisses, or first girlfriends. We can talk iconically of moments. Yet, how often do we really allow ourselves to search the intimacy of experience and to know Yellowstone, to know a geyser basin, to know a first kiss? Do we remember? I think we do often; we often have something in mind. Yet, we don't share, and we cloak ourselves in generalities, and we don't let ourselves deal with the reality of today, of how those pasts still are very present today. We bury and we run and we symbolize and generalize, but we disembody it. We don't dare share what it is we are feeling and experiencing, bottling it up - perhaps unable to express it, unable to share it. In my case, I know I am afraid right now; why else would I be driven to write an essay like this? I am afraid for that calf especially; however, I also fear for myself and wonder what sorts of things might accidentally trample me (how is that for cloaked metaphors and generalities? - I'll have to keep writing to do better).
And yet, we have to keep the narrative together - we have to see how the icon lives and breathes now, or how that living and breathing moment has a special significance. We have to see those 10 buffalo, that precious and sweet calf and her family, as breathing beings but also inside a context of now and of history that we cannot and must not ignore. And, we have to see our lives like that as well. We cannot run from these experiences just because they do not fit well with our current narrative; I doubt I could have written tonight if this thought didn't bother me greatly.
Truthfully, right now there are buffalo that need a break to go their way. They need agencies hell bent on pushing them cruelly back to stop, and they could use our help to stop them and recognize them as living and breathing and struggling right now. And, just as truthfully, it would help if we could see this situation as part of a longer narrative that we cannot ignore, that needs our care and attention. Just as I need to work out things in my past experience and incorporate that fully into the specifics of my current experience, just as we all do, I think in the course of doing that we can also weave in what's going on right now on Horse Butte.
I hope you're okay, buffalo! I will do whatever I can to help. And, as for the rest of the stuff I shared and why that would arise in the course of these thoughts, I think I'm ultimately getting at trying to live more magic moments. Starting with the buffalo and all the people who are seeing what I'm seeing would be an excellent place to start.