The Water Buffalo Postulate


I first heard of the Water Buffalo Postulate in a snowbound cabin near the Canadian line. Several friends were sitting around a wood stove after a vigorous day, sharing tales of danger and derring-do.

One friend, I’ll call him Joe, rolled up a pant-leg, revealing a badly scarred calf muscle.

“Water buffalo,” he said.  As a young officer in Vietnam, Joe had been walking point on a night patrol. In the pitch dark, he stumbled upon a mother water buffalo, which charged to defend its newborn calf.  His fellow soldiers opened fire on the beast as it drove a horn through his leg.

The wound was ragged and dirty and required that Joe be shipped out to a hospital.

It was the worst thing that had happened to his young life and he felt terrible. Some peasant family had lost its prize buffalo, Joe was hurting, and he was separated from his platoon.

While he was convalescing many miles away, his patrol was caught in a night ambush and suffered massive casualties. The soldier who had taken his place was killed. That taught Joe a lesson, he said.

“What I though was the worst luck in the world — getting gored by a water buffalo -- probably saved my life,” Joe said.

And so was born the Water Buffalo Postulate. To wit: Sometimes, the thing you think was the worst luck ever actually turns out to be your lucky break.

Don’t mistake the Water Buffalo Postulate with Pollyanna’s old chestnut about every cloud have a silver lining. Sometimes, bad luck is bad luck. Sometimes, disasters are disastrous.  But sometimes, a bit of perspective and the passing of time can improve the situation radically.

 You’ve seen the Water Buffalo Postulate at work, I bet: Turned down for the dream job that you later learned was far from what it was cracked up to be; or maybe heartbroken by a potential mate, only to later realize how utterly incompatible you would be been as a couple.   

The Water Buffalo Postulate applies on a planetary scale, as well. Having Earth get smacked by an asteroid is, from a certain perspective, a bad news indeed. One such collision wiped out the dinosaurs, and earlier ones created several mass extinctions over the aeons.

But one of those collisions in Earth’s early days gave this planet a unique tilt at the axis. That tilt, in turn, gives planet earth its four distinct seasons. Life forms have spawned uncountable, beautiful adaptations to exploit the changing seasons: mass migrations of geese and swans; the stately antlers of moose or caribou; the golden turning of larch needles, all are responses to the cycles between the long, winter nights and the lovely balmy evenings of summer. None would be here to grace our lives, without that violent collision while the earth was forming.

Happy Holidays. Remember the Water Buffalo Postulate. The days are getting longer.

What events in your life seemed disastrous at the time, but appear much less so today?

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Ben Long has never seen a water buffalo, living in Kalispell, Mont. He is senior program director for Resource Media.

Image: An Asian water buffalo in Thailand (courtesy of Wikimedia.)

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