Like many Americans, I thought I already knew everything I needed to know about buffaloes. I’ve read books about buffalo, visited a few buffalo herds, studied a little about buffalo ancestors in paleontology classes at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, learned something about Native American interaction with buffalo from museums and archeological sites throughout the West, and I even have a degree from the University of Colorado, which makes me a Buffalo. Boy was I wrong.
Steven Rinella‘s fascinating, entertaining book American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon is packed with fresh facts, stories, observations and lore about buffalo. Rinella even presents buffalo details that I already knew with such insight and humor that I didn’t mind reviewing them. Rinella could probably write about dirt and make it interesting—he sure makes buffalo chips seem intriguing. “The perfect specimen,” Rinella writes, “has the circumference of a baseball cap, with folded layers like a sheik’s turban.”
American Buffalo arose out of Rinella’s lifelong fascination with buffalo, and the book is suffused with his childlike wonder about this animal that will be infectious for the reader. But what really makes American Buffalo a page-turner is Rinella’s account of his trip to hunt wild buffalo in Alaska, which is interspersed with chapters about his forays to investigate different facets of the buffalo, such as his journey to Oxford University to have the DNA of a buffalo skull he’d found in Montana tested, or his foray to Jamestown, North Dakota, where he saw a 26-foot-high statue billed as “the world’s largest buffalo” and failed to spot the white buffalo, White Cloud, who lives in a pasture there.
In 2005, Rinella won an annual lottery that Alaska holds to grant a handful of hunters permits to kill a wild buffalo. Alaska “acquired excess buffalo from the National Bison Range” in 1928. Once the herd had a sustainable population, the state began to permit limited hunting. Few of those who win this permit lottery actually succeed in killing a buffalo, because there are a number of complications: the buffalo live in a remote area accessible by bush plane (though the hunter is not allowed to kill a buffalo on the same day that he flies in a plane), the hunter can only kill the buffalo on public land, though the buffaloes prefer to roam on private land owned by a company that promises to prosecute trespassers, and the hunter may not use motorized vehicles or enhanced technology, such as night vision scopes, to kill the buffalo.
As the book opens, Rinella is preparing and enjoying some cracklings from a buffalo he’s just killed, so it’s clear that he’s succeeded in his quest, but as the full account of the hunt unfolds, it’s hard to believe that he actually pulled it off. Many of the chapters about Rinella’s hunting expedition end with great cliffhangers: Will he have to trespass in order to get a look at a buffalo? Will he encounter those grizzlies he spotted? Will he succumb to hypothermia or “buffalo fever”? How on earth will he pack all of the buffalo meat out of the wilderness without being gobbled by bears?
It’s clear that Rinella is a skilled, experienced hunter to be able to have succeeded at such a difficult feat. It seems he spent his whole life preparing for this hunt. As he writes during a discussion of nomadic hunters:
“Taking off to wherever the animals are strikes me as a perfectly noble reason to move around. In my life, maybe half of my moves around the country have been with that goal in mind. The other half were meant to get me close to particular women. (I’ve been frustrated to find that one move seldom accomplishes both of those things.)”
In addition to his welcome humor (“Nowadays, wolves occur in numbers that remind me of my monthly checking account balances.”), Rinella works hard to convey visual information with great clarity, often through surprising and novel similes, such as when he’s trying to get the buffalo’s severed leg into his backpack, which he writes, “is like trying to stuff a really fat kid into a sleeping bag while he’s lying on the floor and playing stiff-as-a-board.”
His analogies are funny and apt, such as when he defends the buffalo from charges that it was nearly exterminated because of its stupidity. Instead, Rinella writes, it’s just that the arrival of firearms didn’t allow the buffalo to evolve the necessary wiles to defend itself quickly enough:
“Think of a space alien movie, the kind where extraterrestrial invaders come to earth and use weapons of ridiculous potency to lay waste to humanity. In those movies, are the human protagonists portrayed as stupid? No, they’re portrayed as surprised and defenseless…[The buffalo] were wiped out so quickly that they had no time to adjust to the risk of a predator that could kill them from five hundred yards away.”
Rinella’s simultaneous love for buffaloes and his desire to kill one—just one—ultimately proves to be not at all paradoxical. His quest to understand this animal intimately culminates in his stalking, killing, and eating of one buffalo cow. “Seeing the dead buffalo,” Rinella writes, “I feel an amalgamation of many things: thankfulness for the meat, an appreciation for the animal’s beauty, a regard for the history of its species, and yes, a touch of guilt.”
If anyone has earned the right to kill a buffalo, it’s Rinella, and his account of how he accomplished this will hold the attention of even non-hunting readers. I don’t know if there’s any other topic that has obsessed Rinella so thoroughly as has the buffalo, but I hope so, because I’d sure like to read another book from him soon.
See also my reviews of: