Saturday, January 28, 2017

Book Review 381: The Buffalo Book

THE BUFFALO BOOK: The Full Saga of the American Animal, by David A. Dary. 384 pages, illustrated. Swallow paperback

David Dary’s book is as much about the American gun nut as about the buffalo. Give an American a firearm, and his instinct is to kill something. The bigger the thing, the better.

Not only Americans. In the 19th century, British sportsmen — of the type who proudly claimed to have killed 100,000 brace of grouse — traipsed the plains of the United States and Canada wearing silly hats and shooting buffalo in a barrel. (Other nationalities as well, including a baby tsar, who, however, was such a bad shot that a mere 5 buffalo died for his pleasure.)

“The Buffalo Book” has a distinctive Kansan tinge; Dary was a third-generation Kansan, and he talked to the old-timers. Kansas was, for a while, the center of the buffalo murder, thanks to the presence of three rail lines to carry off the skins.

The skinners were comparatively useful persons; they at least harvested the skins (although they had to kill 3 buffalo to get 1 skin). Where there were no railroads, Americans shot buffalo just for the tongues. And where there were railroads, churches sponsored excursions so their believers (don’t ask what they believed in) could shoot buffalo for the pleasure of watching them die.

The Army advocated killing the buffalo in order to exterminate the Indians, although in Dary’s opinion Generals Sherman and Sheridan had relatively little impact. The skinners had pretty much accomplished the Army’s goal by the time the generals testified to Congress.

By 1895 or thereabouts, there were probably fewer than 1,000 buffalo left. By 1989, when Dary published the second edition of “The Buffalo Book,” he estimated the population was about 100,000. (Today it is said to be over half a million, although hardly any are not partly Asian cow.)

“The Buffalo Book” is largely a series of anecdotes, of greater or less reliability. Almost none of these anecdotes demonstrate any interest in or respect for the buffalo as buffalo. The longest chapter is about trying to train buffalos to pull wagons.

After reading this “full saga,” the status of the buffalo as America’s national mammal seems to be a sick joke.

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