Reclaiming ancient grasslands…

Author:  Dan O’Brien

Buffalo for the Broken Heart Cover (194x300)It actually sounds pretty boring. A financially strapped loner buys some buffalo for his desolate ranch in western South Dakota. Although maybe it only sounds that way because I know next to nothing about buffalo husbandry, Great Plains desolation or cattle ranching. But give author Dan O’Brien half a chance and he might just have you thinking about saving up for a bison ranch of your own. Buffalo for the Broken Heart is his thoughtful and moving story about his efforts to restore the plains to their original state – the way they were before the arrival of Europeans and their clueless cattle.

Cows – omnipresent from burger joints to steakhouses worldwide – were originally domesticated in southwest Asia and had never set hoof on North America until the Spanish brought them in the 16th century, letting them loose on the vast deserts and prairies of the continent. Consequently, cattle in the United States have never been particularly well adapted to the many harsh challenges and unique plant species in the environment. It is this unforgiving evolutionary reality that has made it hard for ranchers to succeed in the West without using artificial means such as nutritional supplements and antibiotics or without causing extensive environmental degradation.

Searching for a grassy lunch...

Posing before lunch…

Conversely, bison ancestors have been in western North America for half a million years, developing behaviors that have allowed them to adapt to the tough conditions found there. Motivated by such ideas, O’Brien – a successful author, but a not so successful cattle rancher – is drawn to the idea of bison ranching, hoping that a more natural and evolutionarily nuanced approach to the land will allow him to subsist on the land he loves.

American bison on the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.

American bison on the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.

Almost on a whim, he buys 13 immature bison and brings them back to his ranch near the Black Hills of South Dakota. As he accumulates more of the beasts – mortgaging everything he can get his hands on in the process – he is astonished at how rapidly the health of his semi-arid grasslands turns around. Full of passion, determination and plenty of self-deprecating humor, his story is both poignant and enlightening. Whether he’s writing about fence building, western ranching psychology, bison biology or grassland ecology, O’Brien succeeds at conveying why he loves the isolation and unique beauty of his Great Plains home. The zealous enthusiasm he so effectively expresses made me want to head west on Interstate 90 and see if he’d let me hang out with him for a while.

If you like great writing and if the idea of restoring North America’s vast grasslands resonates with you, I can strongly recommend Buffalo for the Broken Heart. Equal parts interesting history, gritty adventure and passionate nature writing, this modern day ranching memoir is a remarkably profound and poignant meditation on humanity’s place in the 21st century.

— D. Driftless

Reviews of other books about the Great Plains:

Seasons of the Tallgrass Prairie   /   Boneheads   /   Bad Land   /   Great Plains   /   The Heart of Everything That Is   /   Storm Kings   /   Prairie Fever

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