Lessons from a Buffalo Skull

The sunlight had lost its power. My son Harold and his buddy Austin were overdue by a couple of hours at least. They were supposed to be swimming and fishing their way down a couple of miles of winding creek to the next paved road, where they could walk back into town to Austin's house. Austin's father was worried about them, and so was I, so I rode with him in his big flatbed, banging down a two-track that was as close as you get to the creek in a truck.

We yelled for them and honked the horn a couple of times. It was late August, and the big cottonwoods of the creek bottom were just starting to turn yellow. The willows and chokecherries there were a massed wall of green, one of the thickest places I know of, a haunt of whitetails, an occasional black bear, more rarely, a grizzly or two. We headed back to the pavement, parked on the bridge and waited, the cool water of the creek rippling below us, wondering silently how much trouble two boys, 11 and 13, could get into in all that jungled bottomland between here and the next road.

After a half hour or so, we saw Austin toting a heavy grain sack, and behind him, my son, carrying two spinning rods, one of them his own tiny ice fishing rod and reel we'd found in the mud at the local reservoir and cleaned and greased back into action. They emerged from the wall of green, and came slowly up the edge of the hayfield to where we stood waiting on the road. Austin carefully set the sack on the grass. They were sunburned and mudsmeared, nettle-scalded and alder-whipped. Austin's foot stuck out the side of a blown out shoe. "Buffalo," they said, almost at the same time. "We found a buffalo skull."

More than a skull, it was a collection of bones, big jaws turned orange by time and minerals, and the two iconic horn bases, a dusty, ancient black. It was the horns that they had seen while swimming by, two dark points sticking out of a cutbank, the animal buried five feet deep in silt laid down by hundreds or thousands of years of spring floods. This year's flood--the epic snowpack runoff of 2011--brought it back into the light. The boys dug it free with willow sticks and with their hands, prying out parts of a creature that lived an almost unimaginable life in a time of, perhaps, dire wolves and men with atlatls, clothed in furs against the relentless cold.

The skull rests now in a box under a couch. The boys say they will try to glue it together some day when winter's boredom drives them to the task. On a shelf near the couch, an obsidian hide scraper sits, found in our yard by my son when he was still playing with plastic pirates, digging holes and filling them with water from the ditch to sail the plastic ship. That seems like such a long time ago, but it was less than an instant.

That scraper and that skull remind us that we are only part of a long line of hunters who have lived right here. We are witness to only a brief flash in the endless line of wild animals that have passed or lingered at this spot, lived and died here, in this place where the Old North Trail once passed between the ice sheets, where, when the ice was gone and the grasses grew tall and thick and rich, the buffalo and elk and pronghorn drifted each winter, to take advantage of the furious winds that cleared the snow for miles. The wind is still here. So are the elk and the pronghorn and the mule deer and whitetails, and if we act with the force of our better natures, they always will be, at least for any length of time that we can, as human beings, have any effect upon. Someday, the buffalo may join them again.

We people, cursed or blessed with a normal span of three score and ten, or four score and ten, tend to believe that the world is always on the cusp of ending, simply because our own time is up. An old jawbone sticking out of a cutbank, an arrowhead emerging from the mud in a summer rain, gives the lie to this notion. The world can, and does, go on and on. Yes, we are inhabitants here, with our houses and our roads, our farms and factories and cities, but we are honored visitors, too, regaled with gifts of sunrise and sunset, backstrap steaks and frogs' legs and walleye filets, rivers running, warm summer rain and the sparkle of sun on fresh snow. From whom much is given, we are taught as children, much is expected. It would be a mighty shame, a colossal act of ingratitude, if we wrecked the place.

An ancient skull dug free of its tomb by strong boys on an adventure reminds us: the world can, and does, go on and on. Whether it goes on and on in beauty, with clean rivers and game herds and birdsong, or in dust and silence and strife, is truly up to us.