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:
$24.95
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.”

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING IN TAOS, NEW MEXICO www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    HawkWatch International seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our awesome team! This position will provide support in all aspects of the department. We are looking...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details:
  • HAND CRAFTED LOG HOME IN TETON VALLEY
    on ten acres. Full view of the Grand Teton. 35 miles to Yellowstone and 20 minutes to Grand Targhee Ski Area.
  • ACREAGE WITH HOME, SHOP, BARN FOR SALE!
    Must see for sng/extd fam or corp retreat in pines! $1,030,000