Years ago, my family owned a sprawling ranch outside of Kirbyville, a town marked by a general store and a dozen houses, in southwestern Missouri. The wooded, smoke-colored landscape was cloaked in American history—the Civil War was fought on many of the 6,000 acres, and the homestead itself was originally owned by the family of author Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain. To me, in typical childlike indifference, those details seemed weightless. What mattered, what made the long road trip from Colorado to Missouri worthwhile, were the wide-open spaces, the long horseback rides, and the bison that roamed the land. For as long as I can remember, we called them buffalo, although their proper Latin name is Bison bison.
Until I was 13, I spent every spring break and many autumns at the ranch. Some mornings, I would wake to find the herd grazing outside the fence that enclosed the homes, barn, and gardens. I'd pull on jeans and a fleece, run outside, and clamber to the top of the fence for the best vantage point. The animals were so close I could smell their muskiness, and from my perch I could look down and spot where the calves' humps were gradually pushing up under their rust-colored fur. I'd try and make eye contact, and I'd quietly talk, but I was never allowed to reach my hand out. They were, by all accounts, still wild.
When we ran into the herd on horseback, we kept our distance—sometimes even backtracking over difficult terrain. The buffalo never charged, but we kept our voices low and our eyes alert for a lifted tail, a sure sign of aggression. I recall my parents and the ranch hands instinctively edging their horses between my docile pony and the powerful beasts.
My deference for the bison was born of observations made in the saddle and at the top of the ranch's fence. That's where I studied the animal, where my American history lessons came to life, and where I tried to imagine our ranch without the animals' magnificent presence.
For such a celebrated symbol of the West, the bison has suffered a grim history. When the White Man arrived on the Great Plains, the herds were so robust that early explorers reported that the horizon appeared to be in constant motion. But, in the 1800s, the fur trade's unrelenting demand for buffalo hides and tongues, the railroad's cavalier slaughtering (bison were considered a nuisance), and the government's determination to starve and weaken the American Indians decimated the population. At the turn of the 20th century, fewer than 700 animals remained—down from some 60 million. Today, there are about 200,000 bison, few of which are truly wild, in the United States.
On my family's ranch, the herd's numbers were closely monitored—too many bison meant the land couldn't sustain their grazing. Too few, and noxious weeds would encroach upon the rich expanses of Savannah grass and alfalfa. Unlike cattle, bison are not stagnant; they tear at grass tufts and chew as they walk. They can easily roam 10 to 15 miles a day, eating along the way. Their hooves constantly till the soil, uprooting unwanted weeds and giving fallen grass seeds a new beginning. It's a symbiotic relationship: The land nurtures the herd as the herd nurtures the land.
Each fall the men would hunt. They'd suit up in leather boots and cold-weather gear, load their guns, and set out in the ranch clunker. I was never allowed to tag along: I was too young. But I remember the crack of gunshots cutting through the crisp, misty morning during our last trip to the ranch. The air smelled of wood smoke and soggy oak leaves.
Later that afternoon, a pickup truck carrying a massive, lifeless body trundled through the gates, and I ran across the wide lawn in pursuit. The truck came to a stop just outside of the meat locker, which sat adjacent to the big yellow barn. Using a pulley system looped around a tall white oak, the men suspended the bison, head down, until it dangled a dozen feet off the ground. After a long while, the animal's stomach lurched loudly and emptied its contents onto the dirt below. Chewed-up grass and acorns mingled with bright red blood. The real work was about to begin—the task of skinning and breaking down the body. The meat would age in the dark chill of the meat locker before finding a new home in the freezer—and then on the dinner table.