Buffalo: by Little Sister Hayes @Tranquility474
May 2009. When I flipped open my phone to call my husband and ask him to come pick me up from work, I remember feeling that even the seemingly trivial task of pressing the buttons of my phone was so very difficult. The exhaustion had come upon me suddenly midmorning like a hurricane, and when my husband arrived even walking to the car was just too hard for me without multiple stops to rest. I knew something was very wrong.
Ron took one look at me and headed for the hospital. By the time we arrived, I was too weak to get out of the car so Ron carried me into the ER and rushed to the desk. People instinctively scattered away in front of us and the hospital staff triaged us in a separate waiting area before quickly bringing me in for treatment.
The next week went by in a state of delirium. Ron wasn’t allowed to visit me, and the medical personnel who took care of me were identical to each other, impossible for me to distinguish due to their full regalia of isolation gear. A few times nurses asked incredulously, “Are you sure you don’t want the TV??” but I cringed away from both light and sound. Fever meant I could only bear closed eyes and darkness.
That’s when the herd arrived. My fever brought clear, unmistakably vivid visions of buffalo who remained me with me as a persistent involuntarily obsession even after I was eventually released to come home. During my week in the hospital, my nearly every thought was of buffalo. I’d had no prior special interest, and now their image was the only thing my eyes could conjure. My thoughts fixated on that word: Buffalo. Buffalo. Buffalo.
I’ve been tracking my annual reading lists all my adult life, and while I average about 30 titles each year, my 2009 reading list remains my lifetime best of 75 books, with 2010 following at 61. We’re not talking audio books either. During my long recovery at home following my hospitalization in 2009, reading and sleeping were my primary activities. Both years, I was reading with a mission: I wanted every scrap of information that was available about buffalo.
Even after being released from the hospital, my new obsession with buffalo showed no signs of fading. I’m very spiritual so it quickly became obvious to me that this was some sort of message. I peacefully realized and accepted the explanation that for whatever reason, I needed to be in the presence of buffalo. It didn’t bother me that I didn’t have more to my plan than that. I figured when I was in the presence of buffalo, the rest would become clear. All of the most important decisions in my life have been acts of faith anyway.
Buffalo Field Campaign arrived as my answer to: “How can I fulfill my mission to be around buffalo?” and one year after my hospitalization (May 2010) I was bunking in a rough wooden cabin with a group of mostly male animal rights activists on the shore of mostly frozen Hebgen Lake, Montana. Snow swirled outside as we huddled around the metal wood stove in the center of our walls of bunk beds and game planned our strategy for each day. To this day, I count this experience on the short list of the most significant in my life. We spent that week off grid and off trail in protective pursuit of the last herd of wild buffalo in North America, counting and reporting their locations. On night patrol, as lacy snowflakes collected in my eyelashes and in the beards of my teammates, we crisscrossed the barely visible roads and put up reflective traffic signs and cones when we found buffalo bedded down for the night on the comparatively warm pavement. The stars were so bright and plentiful that I signed up for both day and night patrol most days simply for the sheer beauty of each. (I figured I could sleep when I was back home in California, and I definitely did!)
The timing of our visit was strategic; wild buffalo give birth to their calves each May. On Mother’s Day morning, my group was no more than 20 feet away from a mother buffalo as she gave birth to a classic red haired bison calf in the presence of the other females in the herd, and seeing the orderly intentional way in which each auntie in the herd came forward to acknowledge the new little one was a moment I will remember always.
Most bison that live on the various boutique ranches in North America are a hybrid of cattle and bison genes, but the Yellowstone bison are the last actually pure bison on our continent, saved by a Texas rancher’s wife named Mary Ann Goodnight who had the courage, compassion, and foresight to follow her life’s calling: she had a standing arrangement that she would generously reward any of her husband’s ranch hands who brought her orphaned baby buffalo, whom she then raised to adulthood. When Yellowstone National Park was established, Mrs. Goodnight donated her herd to rebuild and protect the species.
We could spend hours discussing the various nuances and impacts of these decisions, and the political climate in the states that share borders with Yellowstone. Bottom line is: the Yellowstone herd is allowed to grow to defined annual limit and is culled each year in order to maintain the species while placating various concerns about uses for public lands (or as I like to think of it, “Who gets to eat the grass?”). Meanwhile, buffalo advocates are motivated both by this species’ spiritual link to our continent’s indigenous populations and by the environmental perspective that buffalo are a keystone species and their presence shapes the ecosystem of Yellowstone in fundamental ways.
Spiritually, buffalo set a clear example through their actions: Face the battle. Lean forward into the storm and the elements. Their bodies are uniquely designed to manifest this message, featuring powerful skulls, iconic horns, and shoulders crowned with massive manes of fur. Buffalo survive and withstand. I didn’t know it when I first received the message to look to the buffalo back in 2009, but over the past ten years this guidance has proved to be my touchstone. A few years ago the tables turned in our marriage, and the man who had carried me into the ER that day was so weakened by a life-threatening virus that at rock bottom he needed me to hold his iphone when he attempted to summon the energy to talk with his friends. While we waited six months in the Cedars-Sinai ICU for a life saving heart donation and he was being kept alive by machines, our faith kept us strong - and for me that strength was personified by the buffalo I had witnessed a decade earlier. Lean into the storm; face the battle; stand your ground; look out for the herd; peaceful resilience will ensure group survival.
I am so grateful to be sharing these memories with you from the vantage point of the entire family now recovered and in good health. I also encourage each of us to remain alert and open to persistent positive messages - they will undoubtedly help in our collective future.