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Wild Idea: Buffalo and Family in a Difficult Land Hardcover – September 1, 2014
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“Making strong, lasting connections between the rugged land and the strong people is a staple of life on the Great Plains. Dan O’Brien’s gift is helping people understand this connection and the basic and difficult truth that sustainable living is not simple; it is as matted and dense as the thick fur that defines the buffalo’s very nature.”—Tom Daschle, former U.S. senator from South Dakota and former U.S. Senate majority leader (Tom Daschle 2014-02-26)
"[Wild Idea: Buffalo and Family in a Difficult Land is] a book that elegantly explores the tension between hope and futility in one man’s effort to kindle restoration on the Great Plains."—Carson Vaughan, High Country News
About the Author
Dan O’Brien is the author of numerous novels and memoirs, including Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch, winner of the Western Heritage Award for best nonfiction. His books Stolen Horses, Equinox, The Indian Agent, and The Contract Surgeon are available from the University of Nebraska Press.
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Enter Dan O'Brien. In love with the Great Plains, where he had spent most of his life, he got the notion around 1990 of buying his own small ranch in South Dakota, called the Broken Heart, and raising grass-fed buffalo. A few years later he met Jill, who ran a restaurant in Rapid City. She bought into his vision -- his wild idea -- of raising free-roaming buffalo on the prairie and harvesting them as humanely as practicable, as a way of restoring at least a small portion of the Great Plains to the ecosystem that existed before European-American agricultural practices destroyed it. But the Broken Heart was too small, so Dan and Jill hocked virtually everything they had to buy the Cheyenne River Ranch in southwestern South Dakota, adjoining an Indian reservation and the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, and to establish the Wild Idea Buffalo Company through which they sell their buffalo meat.
WILD IDEA: BUFFALO AND FAMILY IN A DIFFICULT LAND is the story of their vision and its gradual, though still incomplete, fulfillment. It also is the story of their evolving domestic life, the growing up of Jill's daughter Jilian, various dogs and horses, and the trials and triumphs of a cast of friends.
I bought and read WILD IDEA because, after having read "Rewilding the West" by Richard Manning, I was interested in learning more about the "wild idea" of replacing the cattle-and-agricultural-grains paradigm with one of free-roaming buffalo grazing on natural grasses. I in fact learned a fair amount, especially about the "harvesting" of the free-roaming buffalo, which O'Brien does on open grassland with a $250,000 mobile facility that handles preliminary processing in accordance with governmental regulations. O'Brien also has the cooperation and assistance of Native Americans (some of the buffalo that O'Brien and Wild Idea harvest come from Indian reservations). To my mild disappointment, however, buffalo are not the principal focus of the book. Instead, the majority of the book is devoted to "family" -- that second subject named in the book's sub-title. Dan, Jill, Jilian, and two other members of their extended ranch family, Erney and Gervase, are interesting and good folk, and many of the tales of their life on the plains are heart-warming. But, as I said, I wish there had been more about buffalo and the Great Plains ecosystem.
O'Brien is a veteran writer, with at least ten previous books under his belt. He is a good, smooth writer, if not a great one. There are patches that are a little too precious, corny, or sentimental for my taste. All things considered, however, WILD IDEA was a worthwhile book.
I did want to learn how well his business has done after he joined up with the Boston investors. Perhaps he'll write another, make a buffalo trilogy.
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