Hope and futility on the Great Plains

Review of ‘Wild Idea: Buffalo and Family in a Difficult Land’ by Dan O’Brien.


Wild Idea: Buffalo and Family in a Difficult Land
Dan O’Brien
272 pages, hardcover:
University of Nebraska Press, 2014.

Nebraska author Mari Sandoz once wrote, “I don’t recognize any hopelessness in any struggle with nature. Defeated we are, of course, for death is inevitable, but to the people that seem interesting to me the struggle is a magnificent one in any event.” It’s a sentiment befitting South Dakota author Dan O’Brien’s latest memoir, Wild Idea: Buffalo and Family in a Difficult Land, a book that elegantly explores the tension between hope and futility in one man’s effort to kindle restoration on the Great Plains.

After nearly two decades helping to re-establish the peregrine falcon on the Rocky Mountain Front, O’Brien, a writer and endangered-species biologist, rescaled his focus. He wanted to restore the prairie to its natural state — not just the birds, but the entire “complex web of life clawing to keep its balance.” 

If bison evolved with the rest of the wildlife, he concluded, surely “they were a management key for bringing back all that had made the Great Plains ecosystem thrive.” The book chronicles the germination of Wild Idea Buffalo Company, the enterprise O’Brien subsequently founded on the banks of SoDak’s Cheyenne River to harvest and sell 100 percent grass-fed buffalo meat. In doing so, O’Brien seamlessly intertwines the relationships built around the fledgling operation — with his ranch hands, with wealthy investors, with old friends and new family. Through it all, he deftly narrates the struggle, frequently allowing his doubts to simmer on the page.

“But still, that internal, nibbling feeling persisted,” he writes, “that twelve hundred acres in the vastness of the Great Plains was a nearly meaningless victory. I knew that almost every creature that used our little ranch ranged far beyond its borders.”

Readers hoping to immerse themselves in the science of the Great Plains ecosystem may, at times, find themselves disappointed in O’Brien’s preference for broad strokes over tightly focused details. Others may wish he’d spent less time on family drama and more on the environmental crisis. But it’s here, in the links between the business, the family and the land, that Wild Idea sparks something bigger than itself, a cosmic feeling of connectedness, “that they all may be one.” It’s here, too, that O’Brien’s gritty lyricism really sings.

“The Great Plains is like riding on the wheel well of a fast pickup traveling a rough road,” he writes. “If you don’t hold on and sit down you are going to bounce out. If you do sit down, you find that there is no cushioned seat — just your own bony ass between your guts and the cold, hard steel.”

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