I’ve recently discovered an affinity for the American bison.
A few weeks back I finished A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz (which I recommend). It covers the missing hundred years of American history from the time Columbus lands in the Americas to the Pilgrims landing in Plymouth. It was during the chapters on the plains that I began to fall for the bison and their heartbreaking story.
As late as the early nineteenth century, some thirty million buffalo roamed the Plains. “In terms of kilograms of matter belonging to one species,” observes the biologist Tim Flannery, America’s bison herds “formed the greatest aggregation of living things ever recorded.” Yet this massive population had barely survived the second half of the nineteenth century, when hunters with repeating rifles killed herds en masse: for hides, for tongues, for sport–and for the U.S. Army, which sought to drive Indians off the Plains by exterminating the buffalo on which they relied. The last wild buffalo in Kansas was killed in 1879 […] By 1900, fewer than a thousand buffalo remained in all of North America. (Horwitz, 188)
So, I was naturally ecstatic when I learned that Antelope Island here in Utah has a huge population of bison. And to honor my spirit animal, I did a little painting!
There are some great descriptions of these
charmingly quirky majestic beasts in A Voyage Long and Strange.
Up close, what seemed most comical was the buffalo’s front-loaded physique. Its weight and reddish-brown hair bunch around the shoulders and neck, with the torso tapering down to an improbably small bottom and skinny, piglike tail. The huge head is so shaggy that the wool almost covers the buffalo’s horns and small, sleepy eyes. And the legs, particularly the short, small-hoofed forelegs, look much too delicate to support so much bulk. (Horwitz, 189)
Horwitz went on to find a man, Keith Jarvis, who kept a few buffalo on his land. Jarvis spent some time speaking on the nature of these creatures:
“I’ll tell you about buffalo,” he said. “Try to corral or crowd them or force them in any way and they get all on edge. Cattle don’t do that.” He gazed at the herd. “People get all soft and fuzzy about buffalo, but they’re wild animals, they’ll never be your friend. They tolerate me because I feed them. But they’d just as soon gore me as not […] They’re strictly hed animals,” Keith said. “Find one and you find ’em all.” […]
“They may look funny,” Keith said, “but it’s no laughing matter when they pivot on those little feet and go over you or through you.” Still, he sometimes found his herd amusing, too. “The beard’s what I’ve never figured out. When they drink, it goes in the water, and when they run, it drags along the ground. Can’t imagine what good it does.” (Horwitz, 188-189)
I just have a lot of love and respect for these endearingly unique beasts! Hopefully, I’ll get some more paintings done of ’em.