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  • katmwilliams

Buffalo or Bison?

From my window I can observe a congregation of large brown monoliths on my neighbor’s hillside. They might be religious artifacts of some prehistoric culture or stones deposited by glaciers. But they’re not stationary. Almost imperceptibly, they move. Suddenly, one breaks into a run, swiftly for such a colossal apparition. Others join him, perhaps for the pure joy of running. And the spectacle clarifies: It’s my neighbor’s herd of bison on a romp. Some must weigh at least a ton. Some are mere calves, but they too outweigh the average steer.

In a daydream mood, I can imagine that they’re part of the millions of bison that once ranged over the plains of North America and I can conjure up a tribe of warriors wielding bows and arrows chasing them on their fleet ponies. But then reality intrudes. There are no more than fifty of the magnificent creatures and they’re enclosed by a fence.

My neighbor’s fence has become an object of local awe and gossip. It’s made of steel tubing welded on the spot, topped with strands of barbed wire angled outward, giving the premises a penitentiary look. The story is that one day my neighbor forgot to close the gate and some of his bison wandered from their designated playground. Remembering to close the gate would have been the commonsense solution, but nightmares of the herd escaping and wreaking havoc must have visited my neighbor, hence the blue chip fence. Of course, a determined 2,000 pound bison could breach that enclosure as if it were made of Kleenex, but no matter. The fence enables my neighbor to sleep at night.

But it’s a reminder that the past is past. The “open range” – the vast midwestern pasturelands free of fencing – ended over 100 years ago. From the seemingly inexhaustible numbers of bison, there ensued the wanton slaughter that nearly extinguished the species.

“Seventy-five thousand buffalo have been killed on the plains this fall for their hides alone,” according to an entry in the Kansas Daily Tribune, Nov. 8, 1872. “Buffalo” Bill Cody claimed to have killed 4,282 of the beasts. And there were stories of sportsmen shooting bison from trains and leaving their carcasses to the coyotes and buzzards, another example of squandering resources that has characterized our species.

There’s also this: The bison were rescued from extinction by the expedient of breeding survivors to domestic cattle, so that most bison today are a somewhat adulterated version of the original. That’s not to say that they’re without grandeur and dignity. They have a look in their eyes that’s completely missing in Hereford or Angus cattle. It is the inimitable glint of wildness. I would never dream of slipping over the fence and attempting to pet one of them. A man I met some time ago who was raising bison for meat told me about trying to coax a bison bull into a trailer for a trip to the butcher.

“I chased him for a mile, then he chased me for a mile,” he said. He was grateful that his four-wheeler was able to outrun the beast – barely. Bison can reach speeds over 40 miles an hour, nearly as fast as racehorses.

“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Thoreau. But we will never bring back the pristine state of nature that existed before the ravages of civilization. Still, I’m grateful for my neighbor’s herd. It’s like having a small zoo next door. The bison never fail to excite my sense of wonder. Preserving these endangered embodiments of history needs no justification.

On my own farm across the gravel road from my neighbor, I’ve been trying to restore a patch of the Tall Grass prairie that once covered a large swath of the country. After 20 years, I have a meadow covered with Big and Little blue stem, Indian grass, Switchgrass and a spectacular diversity of flamboyant wildflowers. But I also have a plague of invasive noxious weeds. My neighbor’s project requires a fence. My project requires the use of herbicide. That may clash with the idea of preservation, but without the herbicide, my project would be quickly defeated by the hostile weeds.

One expert said it would take 500 years to restore the prairie to its original state. Some contend that this will never come to pass. Turning the soil, they say, destroys the complex web of organisms that make the prairie flourish. But who knows what might happen in 500 years? I don’t expect to be around to see, but climate change and the exhaustion of water resources may put an end to irrigated farming in Kansas. The “Buffalo Commons” is a proposal to return a major expanse of the Great Plains to native prairie and to reintroduce the American bison, according to the argument that the current use of the drier parts of the plains is not sustainable.

Which brings us to another issue: “bison” or “buffalo?” The answer is simple: “buffalo” roam in Asia and Africa, “bison” in North America. The song, “Home on the Range,” is therefore guilty of error when it says, “Give me a home where the buffalo roam…” Likewise, the moniker “Buffalo Bill.” By the way, the expression “to be buffaloed” means “to be intimidated.” Buffalo and bison are both capable of inducing that feeling.

Speaking of relevant songs, “Don’t Fence Me In,” was an immensely popular song, written by Cole Porter and Robert Fletcher, sung by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Gene Autry, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney and even David Byrne of the Talking Heads. It’s a nostalgic paean to freedom: “Let me ride through the open country that I love…Don’t fence me in.” I sometimes hum that song when I’m out spraying as I pass my neighbor’s bison and brood upon his fence.

We are living contradictions. Fences serve our desire for privacy. They promise protection. But they also foil our passion for freedom. We build fences to keep undesirables out and to protect our prized possessions within – consider the partially built wall on our southern border. And we resort to poisons to promote our health and to raise our crops.

None of these reflections inspire me to stop pursuing a 500-year project our to stop admiring the noble beasts across the road. Restoration of bison and prairies may ultimately be futile pursuits. But futility sometimes has its charms.

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