Friday, December 6, 2013

The Thunderbeast has a taste for salt

At last, my blue Subaru Outback, with its ton of books and clothes and art supplies and camping gear, chugged up the final hill. On the hull and grill were the collected dust and unfortunate insects from the National Parks of Rocky Mountains, Arches, Canyonlands, Mesa Verde, and Chaco Culture; the cities of Denver and Albuquerque; and the long string of townships and open country along interstate 70 and highway 55. Finally, I came to the entrance of Wind Cave National Park. I would stay here for a while. Beside the emblematic wooden sign, painted brown with engraved yellow letters, was the great beast of the frontier. The bison, or American buffalo. Probably a bull, with its looming shoulder hump, massive head, shaggy black fur, curved horns, muscular forelegs. He lumbered along the prairie, sniffed the air, brought his head low to munch the grass. I pulled over for a photo, but stayed in the car. I thought it best to be safe with a wild bison. Upon resuming the drive, I shortly passed a sign: “Buffalo are dangerous. Do not approach.”

Further up the road, there were more of them. They wandered about the prairie, and in the road. No fences barred their path. I slowed dramatically, and as I approached, they ambled to just barely out of the way. The road cut through open prairie. The great blue dome of sky above stretched to far horizons in all directions. The omnipresent grass waved in the wind, and so did the branches of the ponderosa pine trees, at the prairie's edge, and covering the hills. The beast of American yore in the setting of yore. The great plains.

A few miles on, a coyote ran across the road, and continued his bounding until he was a toy in the distance. More cautious than the bovids, he looked back towards me and continued to run away, this time at an easy lope.

Parts of the prairie were pockmarked with holes. Beside them, the prairie dogs stood on their hind legs and surveyed the landscape, ready to sound the alarm. The ones near to the road bounded on all fours to the nearest hole when my car rolled by.

I pulled up before the visitor center, exited the vehicle and entered the building, met my new co-worker Amanda, received instructions for how to reach my new residence. In a hidden corner of the prairie, the housing area resembled a miniature suburb, complete with the backyard basketball hoops and volleyball net. The biologist Barb, from two doors down, having received a Facebook message from Amanda, greeted me as I pulled in, and showed me to my door. A sizeable apartment, with two bedrooms, and a desk in the living room. As the first to move it, I claimed that precious wooden cuboid. I tested my gizmos, and found an absence of phone signal or functioning internet. I wished to connect with friends, and inform them that I had arrived. But I lacked the means.

My smart phone, for all its high-tech bragaddocio, wasn't good for much here, except an alarm clock. I later learned that north from the visitor center, at the junction of roads, phones could gain signal. On a cold and windy evening, I fired up the engine of my subaru, and drove uphill. The car chugged and strained less than it had on the road trip, for its great load of stuff had moved into the apartment.

Up hill, at the junction, I pulled over, and turned off the engine. A group of ten or more bison grazed, their humped forms silhouetted against the darkening grey sky. My phone gained a few bars. I called my friend Raven in Los Angeles, and she answered. As we talked about my adventures in Arches and Canyonlands, a bison ambled my direction, and others followed. I thought it perhaps coincidence. I soon realized it was not. They walked to my vehicle. Then the creaking and popping noises of tongues on metal. They licked the salt, which had accumulated on my hull throughout the road trip. As more of them surrounded me and the car seemed to rock gently under the caress of beastly tongues, I became concerned. Only a narrow bit of metal was between me and an unpredictable herbivores. Should I turn on the engine? Would it disperse the bison or anger them? As more gathered, I asked Raven for a pause in conversation. I had seen the animals move from the path of cars, albeit reluctantly. I turned on the engine. The bovids backed off, by a few feet. Before they could resume their pursuit of salt, I drove further up the road.

It is wise to exercise caution around bison. We often underestimate the herbivores. Bison evolved alongside wolves, grizzly bears, forest fires, and subzero winter temperatures; they were bred in a world where only the strong survive. Against real or perceived threats, the bison often practices the strategy of “the best defense is a good offense.” It's first weapon is it's thick skull, used as a battering ram. At full gallop, the beast becomes a freight train with fur. It will also gore with horns, and kick and stomp with hooves. Between 1980 and 1999, in Yellowstone National Park, bison injured more than three times as many people as grizzly bears did.[1]

Hence, the Native Americans played a deadly game every time they embarked on a bison hunt. (The Lakota are the first people of the Wind Cave area.) There is at least one cliff used for a “buffalo jump” in Wind Cave National Park, as documented by archeological evidence. In this famed technique, Native American hunters drove the bison herd to stampede over a cliff—and break their legs. More hunters waited below and finished the animals with arrows and spears. Then the people reaped the rewards, the raw materials for many months of survival in a harsh land. The bison's hide became clothing and the canvas for teepees, its liver and muscles became meat, its bones became weapons, its hooves became glue, and its manure became fuel for fires, which kept people warm when the snow fell. Extra meat was preserved as pemmican, an older equivalent to high-energy bars, and a needed source of winter sustenance.

Considering the bison's essential and central role in life, it should be no surprise that the Lakota people honor them in religious stories. Wind Cave is sacred to the Lakota people, who describe it as their place of emergence—where they came up from their subterranean birthplace, to inhabit the surface world. The bison too, were born at Wind Cave, according to Lakota stories [2]. When the wise medicine man Tatanka had a vision from underground, and saw the people on the surface caught in the throes of winter, he came up through Wind Cave, and transformed himself into a bison . He sacrified himself, gave his body, so that the people could live. Hence, The Lakota would not dishonor the Earth by wasting a single portion of Tatanka's precious gift.”[3]
I am amazed and intrigued by the stories which the native people tell, as I usually am when I travel the wild lands of this great nation. Albeit, the “wild” part has been greatly reduced since the white man showed up with a gun. White men exterminated the wolves, bison, grizzly bears, black bears,cougars, and many other animals from this prairie. Thanks to some forward-thinking people in 1913, the bison came back to Wind Cave, in the form of imports from Yellowstone and the New York Zoological society. These animals became the ancestors of the modern herd. Today, forward-thinking people bring back another noted animal, a smaller one with an elongate body. I shall have more to say about that endeavor in future posts.

1. Bison and people can safely share the range, provided that we observe each other from a distance. More survival tips from Rich Johnson.
2. The Lakota creation story is online, at the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe site:
3.  "The Lakota Ways", PBS Homeland documentary site
4. For amazing footage of the Yellowstone Bison herd (and their clashes with wolves), see the National Geographic documentary Thunderbeast.
5. The above drawing was inspired by a Chiricahua Apache story wherein the young hero Child of the Water faces a monstrous Bison.

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