For twenty years Dan O’Brien struggled to make ends meet on his cattle ranch in South Dakota. But when a neighbor invited him to lend a hand at the annual buffalo roundup, O’Brien was inspired to convert his own ranch, the Broken Heart, to buffalo. Starting with thirteen calves, “short-necked, golden balls of wool,” O’Brien embarked on a journey that returned buffalo to his land for the first time in more than a century and a half.
Buffalo for the Broken Heart is at once a tender account of the buffaloes’ first seasons on the ranch and an engaging lesson in wildlife ecology. Whether he’s describing the grazing pattern of the buffalo, the thrill of watching a falcon home in on its prey, or the comical spectacle of a buffalo bull wallowing in the mud, O’Brien combines a novelist’s eye for detail with a naturalist’s understanding to create an enriching, entertaining narrative.
Some 20 years ago, Dan O'Brien, intoxicated by the Black Hills region of South Dakota, purchased the Broken Heart Ranch and began running cattle on more than a thousand acres. Though the decision ultimately cost him his marriage and, at times, his peace of mind, he feels a connection to the land and the lifestyle that continues to justify the decision. When necessary, he has even worked as an endangered-species biologist or English teacher in order to support his ranching habit. His engaging book, Buffalo for the Broken Heart, details both the rebirth of his ranch as well as himself.
"Desperate to rediscover purpose" in his life and disillusioned with working like a serf for the bank while supporting cows--those lumbering, small-brained icons of the plains that O'Brien describes as "a sort of reverse beast of burden. I was carrying them!"--he made a snap decision one day in January 1998 to take in 13 orphaned buffalo calves from a fellow rancher. Later, after much soul searching and contemplation of both practical and emotional matters, he decided to jump headlong into buffalo ranching. He expected differences between the two animals, of course, but was pleasantly surprised by the buffalo's self-sufficiency. Since buffalo are native to the plains, they are much gentler on the land and are able to find most of their own food and water. Plus, their meat is healthier than beef (and delicious to boot), and buffalo do not need the heavy doses of antibiotics, steroids, and hormones that cattle require--a process O'Brien likens to "locking children in a room with ice cream and potato chips and treating the health problems that result with expensive medicine."
O'Brien is a splendid storyteller, and his narrative is a skillful weave of the history of the buffalo on the Great Plains, colorful portraits of fellow ranchers, descriptions of the plains' rugged beauty, and a clear-eyed account of the harsh realities of ranching in this unforgiving landscape. --Shawn Carkonen