Steven Rinella is one of the excellent writers associated with Outside magazine, which over the last couple of decades has carved out a niche as the place that publishes smart young writers who have polished prose styles and a willingness to put themselves in difficult positions in the wilderness—think Jon Krakauer and Into the Wild. Rinella’s new book, American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon, combines these attitudes with an intimate sense of natural history. The result reminds its readers of cultural attitudes they’ve assumed without question, teaches them new things, makes them laugh, and has an adventure narrative as fast paced as any novel.
Rinella gives us the natural history of the buffalo. He tells again the story of its fundamental cultural significance to Native peoples, but with nuance that might upset some folks comfortable with their platitudes. He gives the history and reasons for the last great slaughter that left only a captive remnant of what had once been our continent’s dominant species. He gives the exquisite details of his own hunt for a wild buffalo.
In the 1950s a small herd of plains buffalo were released in Alaska. They soon found their way to isolated valleys hidden in a little-known mountain range. The herd has grown slowly and is again a dominant species in that small place. The state of Alaska awards a few hunting permits a year, all of which come with an enormous number of caveats and restrictions. In 2005 Steven Rinella won a permit, and he was one of four whose hunts were successful.
Rinella is not one of the yahoos who drink a case of beer and head to the woods to shoot at anything that moves. He is a thoughtful, even philosophical hunter, who studies the creatures he hunts and understands the implications of what he’s doing. The meat is important to him, and he makes sure that his readers know the details of getting wild meat from the wilderness to the refrigerator. He presents a deeply environmental attitude, although his version is clearly not one that some people will be comfortable with. After his hunt, he reflects, “Seeing the dead buffalo, I feel an amalgamation of many things: thankfulness for the meat, an appreciation for the animal’s beauty, a regard for the history of its species, and, yes, a touch of guilt. Any one of those feelings would be a passing sensation, but together they make me feel emotionally swollen. The swelling is tender, a little bit painful. This is the curse of the human predator, I think.”
Steven Rinella reads from American Buffalo at Nicola’s Books on Wednesday, January 7.