They once darkened the plains

When I visited the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge last year, I fell in love with the only wild American bison (a.k.a. American buffalo; Bison bison) I had ever seen in my life.  Though ‘wild’ is somewhat of a misnomer given they are isolated to the refuge.

An American bison (a.k.a. American buffalo; Bison bison) standing in a small pond (2009_05_22_020940)

Nevertheless, the moment I saw a small herd meandering across a meadow toward the distant trees, I had to stop to snap a few images of the two who stayed behind to mill about a small pond.  I felt as though my eyes rested on a piece of history nearly lost and now only a remnant of its once great glory.

An American bison (a.k.a. American buffalo; Bison bison) scratching its face on a tree (2009_05_22_020943)

Watching one of them scratch its face on a tree enchanted me as though I watched an alchemist conjure gold from lead.  What a common, simple act, yet I could not turn away.

An American bison (a.k.a. American buffalo; Bison bison) standing in a meadow (2009_05_22_019935)

There was a time when the ground shook under the feet of herds so vast that they covered the land from horizon to horizon.  There was a time when the plains turned dark as night as these behemoths moved about in numbers so great that it would boggle the mind.  There was a time when they roamed their world with freedom.  Though I haven’t the power to give that back to them, I can give them my respect and admiration.  They deserve as much.

8 thoughts on “They once darkened the plains”

  1. What an extraordinary creature. When I was a very young child I once saw a solitary American Buffalo in Bristol Zoo, and even at that age I knew it was a bad thing for a big, powerful herding animal to be alone in a small enclosure. Not the way things should be. Zoos have improved a lot since then and I know many of them do important work. However I can’t bear to see animals kept behind bars and haven’t been to a zoo in nearly forty years.

    There’s something about their eyes that gets to me. I can see it in that last photograph. It hits like a dart every time and fills me with melancholy. And I really don’t know why. Maybe it goes back to my experience at Bristol Zoo, filled with sadness as that solitary beast’s eye turned in my direction and I was left feeling powerless to help or comfort and ashamed at having paid to see him.

    Beautiful images Jason. As always.

    1. Clive, you just explained precisely how I feel about zoos, aquariums, wildlife parks and similar venues. I appreciate the role they play in conservation, in breeding of endangered species, in education and so on, and I know they have focused much time and money on improving conditions for the animals, but I haven’t visited such a place in decades. Like you, my last such excursion left me feeling tainted for having paid to see beautiful wildlife held in captivity.

      And I couldn’t have described it better: I’ve always felt there’s some communal lamentation in the eyes of bison. Even those I remember seeing as a child left me feeling wounded in some way, as though I’d been witness to some unidentified pain they feel and I’d been powerless to do anything about it. That’s anthropomorphizing, I know, yet it makes them all the more powerful in my eyes.

  2. My respect and admiration, too. I’ve only seen them once, on a farm. Magnificent and sad at the same time.

    Their shaggy coat reminds me of musk ox, the beast I’d most like to see in all the world.

    Wonderful photos.

    1. Thank you, Jain. If I remember correctly, the first time I saw bison was as a very young child. The animals were on a ranch or farm, something like I remember from the movie Radio Flyer–and it touched me just as it touched the kids in that film. They’ve haunted me ever since.

      And I’m so with you about muskox. Oh my goodness! Aren’t they just magical beasts? Yes, they’re high on my list of things to see.

  3. If you want to see bison in natural habitat, venture up north to Yellowstone National Park. They are there by the thousands. Very impressive. And they are free to roam the park at will. Even taking over parking lots from us tourists if they wish.

    Thanks for sharing the pictures.

    1. Thank you, Leah! I know there are larger numbers up there. That’s definitely a place I want to visit for the moose, the bison, the bears (oh, the bears!), and the overflowing amount of natural beauty and wildlife that can be seen. I’m ashamed to say I’ve only been once many years ago, and I was less than photographically inclined back then–so the only images I have are in my memory. Sounds like a really good reason to go back!

  4. I can’t look at bison without recalling that chilling scene from Dances with Wolves (one of the 5 best movies of all time!). I feel such a mix of awe, wonder, and sadness when I see them. Such magnificent creatures.

    1. The word has always stuck with me, Ted: tatanka (from the Lakota language). Like you, Dances with Wolves sticks in my mind when I think of bison. Seeing them now reminds me of the movie’s visuals that really cemented in my mind how much the animals lost.

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