Friday, May 18, 2012

To Bison

This morning, listening to a new podcast (for me) from PRI's RadioWest, I was surprised and delighted to hear Western historian Dan Flores being interviewed about that most enduring of American iconic beasts, the bison.

Delighted because I had gotten to know Dan a little during my time at University of Montana, having spent a couple of weeks ranch-sitting for him one winter break which mostly consisted of my going out to feed his two horses every morning (both of whom would let me know emphatically with nips and snorts whenever I was late) chopping wood for the fire, and making sure the place didn't burn down from it.

Delighted also because its hopeful message at the end was in such great contrast to much of the news I've been absorbing lately. Dan actually thinks that it might be "a good century for the bison." He sees the coming decades as ones in which there will be a great crusade for restoring the American west by bringing bison back onto the landscape as wild animals. (Currently they mostly inhabit limited rangeland within National Parks or on private, commercial ranches.)

He thinks "a very large bison commons somewhere on the Great Plains is likely to be in our future," the creation of which he suggests will rival the Twentieth Century's designation of the great National Parks such as Yellowstone and Glacier. He ends by stating that in this century we will once again have bison roaming the plains as wild animals.

After finishing the podcast I started thinking about an article I wrote in a frenzy late one night for a little local monthly English language newsletter called What's New? in which I talked a little about what it means to live in the American west and take part in its vastness. Obviously the paper's not linkable (how quaint!) so I'll reproduce it in its entirety here:

Missing America’s Best Idea
Students sometimes ask me what, if anything, I miss about back home. I rub my chin for a moment thinking, before I tell them, in all seriousness, “microbrews and National Parks.” The former I can live without if I must — after all, too much choice can be just as paralyzing as none at all — but the latter causes me greater pangs of longing.
And Montana, the state I most recently called home before coming to Japan, boasts not one, but two National Parks within its borders: Yellowstone, home to geysers and grizzlies; and Glacier, named after its most obvious feature at the crest of its Going-To-The-Sun Road.
When I say “National Parks” what I really mean is wilderness. Those places where you might see more animals than people in a day; where you don't have to contend with traffic or gadgets. (And that definition would exclude Yellowstone most times of the year — at least along the roadways.)
That’s not to say that there are not some truly fantastic open spaces, forest lands, and mountain ranges in Japan. There are. And in Ehime we are blessed to have them just outside our door. But the one element that is missing is the wildness. Sure, you can see monkeys or the occasional tanuki just outside Niihama in the hills. There are wild boors and copper pheasants and mamushi (a deadly poisonous snake) up there (I’ve seen them all) but the scale of it is different. Sure you can wade for hours through sasa grass; but even still, you’re never really more than an hour’s car ride away from a village or town.
But there lots of other places in Montana or Alaska or California or Idaho that are vast and virtually no one knows about because they haven’t been designated as “National Park.” I’m thinking of the Frank Church Wilderness in Idaho or the Bob Marshall in Montana. In those places you could wander in, get disoriented, and never be heard from again.
When we say to students glibly (or they to us) “America is big country” the idea of its true vastness sometimes gets lost. You just have to spend thirteen hours driving across Montana on the interstate highway to start to get a sense of this phenomenon. You cross into it from the Dakotas, plowing through endless wheat fields, with only a rural auction or a UFO show on the radio, your eyes starting to droop, your foot heavy on the pedal, the car humming along at a hundred miles an hour and you’re not getting anywhere — ooh, there’s a house or an antelope — you turn off the interstate to relieve the intensity of the boredom. A backroad, just as boring, though now heading through rolling hills, another house, a horse, lodgepole pines. Now rolling hills, green, some scattered trees, the mountains begin piling up and they go on and on and on.
One way to get an idea of what I am talking about — short of going to the time and expense of actually visiting — would be to watch the recent Ken Burns PBS documentary The National Parks. Subtitled America’s Best Idea, it chronicles the history of the National Park system from its inception in 1864 (none other than Abraham Lincoln signed the preservation of Yosemite in California into law) to the present day.
Now if there were only some Yona Yona Ale available in the local supermarket to have while watching — I suppose Yebisu will have to do.
While we're at it, I'd like to propose a toast to bison. To their great, shaggy staring stolidity. To their increase. To their dispersal and thriving once again across the Great Plains.

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