A literate memoir from out where the buffalo roam.
Novelist and nature writer O’Brien (The Contract Surgeon, 1999, etc.), who led a difficult enough life trying to raise cattle in the hills of southwestern South Dakota, found himself confronting still more troubles a few years back: his wife left him to pursue a medical career out of state, drought set in, and such little profit as was to be made in ranching disappeared with a rise in costs and drop in cattle prices. (“I sure hope we break even on this deal,” one of his rancher friends remarks, apropos of one misguided business venture or another. “I need the money.”) Already unusual among his neighbors in his concern for the ecological health of his place, O’Brien raised more than a few eyebrows locally when he decided to ease out of cattle ranching—which, he argues, is an alien economy in the context of the Great Plains, environmentally devastating and anachronistic—and introduce bison in the place of cows. “The difference between cattle and buffalo is obvious enough for anyone to see,” he observes: Buffalo require little water, are less picky eaters than cows, and move around as they browse (so they don’t graze a patch of grass down to the roots). O’Brien’s account of the bison’s return, mixed with entertaining sketches of his human neighbors and visitors, is bittersweet, especially in its closing pages. As a chronicle of ecological restoration, his report is premature: He’s only been at the buffalo game for a couple of years, the market is still dicey, the land unhealed, the future uncertain.
But as a chronicle of life in a lonely and difficult place, O’Brien’s story is timeless—and entirely welcome.