- Wild Idea: Buffalo and Family in a Difficult Land by Dan O’Brien
For those unfamiliar with the work of writer, teacher, and lifelong outdoorsman Dan O’Brien, his latest book, Wild Idea: Buffalo [End Page 392] and Family in a Difficult Land, is an impressive introduction to his talent both as storyteller and visionary environmentalist. In telling the story of how and why he developed his Cheyenne River Ranch in South Dakota into a state-of-the-art operation producing grass-fed, humanely killed, and field-dressed bison meat, O’Brien also gives us the moving story of his own family and work relationships, bird dogs and falconry, as well as a history of the Great Plains and the sacred relationship between the land, the buffalo, and the Lakota people. In a sweeping narrative drama that reads like a Tolstoy novel, O’Brien connects these relationships into how he achieved the “wild idea” of founding a company that would provide humans with healthy red meat while also restoring large herds of bison to the Great Plains as a step toward restoring a healthy balance among humans, native wildlife, and the larger grasslands ecosystem.
Bison bison, the scientific name for the animal popularly known as the American buffalo, is the largest mammal native to North America and a keystone species for a functioning prairie ecosystem. Their selective grazing of grasses and forbs and their continuous movement allow the plants to regenerate and spread over a wider area through the fertilizing effects of bison dung. Over millennia, bison have uniquely evolved to have few natural predators and to survive climate extremes of summer heat or winter cold. O’Brien argues persuasively that the natural beauty and abundance of the Plains have been severely damaged by over a century of land degradation through the mismanagement of cattle ranching and agribusiness. Replacing cattle with wild buffalo, as well as the sustainable harvesting of buffalo without using feedlots and slaughterhouses, is his solution.
Those familiar with his work will enjoy another diverse yet gripping family narrative that provides a compelling sequel to his earlier memoir, Buffalo for the Broken Heart (2002), and effectively unifies previous texts. In the first book, O’Brien relates why he converted his Broken Heart Ranch from a resource-depleted cattle ranch to an environmentally friendly bison ranch and the tribulations involved. Broken Heart ends with O’Brien deciding to move to a much larger ranch in the Cheyenne River valley, between the Black Hills and the [End Page 393] Badlands, to continue his experiment with bison on a larger scale, and that is where Wild Idea begins:
For over forty years the prairies have been my home . . . a huge complex web of life clawing to keep its balance. I love the wind . . . even when it is too cold to endure. It is the wheezing breath of a huge, living thing, and I am a part of it. . . . 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.(3–5)
O’Brien finds, however, that a bigger ranch comes with bigger problems: his work of fixing and healing is endless, ranging from the broken ranch to broken bones to broken relationships, both personal and business. Ultimately, a visit from a customer–venture capitalist from Boston gives O’Brien the opportunity to attain the capital needed to expand his company and achieve his vision of large landscape restoration, albeit with the usual compromises demanded by partners who invest for profit. O’Brien learns that even buffalo cannot escape the pervasive market pressure for metrics, sales goals, and return on investment. As they sit on an atv observing the herd, though, the timeless, fearless, communal energy emanating from the buffalo powerfully transcends the business viewpoint: “Only a few buffalo bothered to raise their heads to appraise us. I turned off the engine and let the silence settle. We didn’t say a word and the buffalo moved...