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National Book Critics Circle
Wednesday, December 24th, 2008
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American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon

by Steven Rinella

American Buffalo: A Review

A review by Jane Ciabattari

Steven Rinella's fascination with buffalo began in the late 1990s when he unearthed a buffalo skull while hiking in the Madison Range in southwest Montana. A Michigan native who grew up hunting deer and honed his skills in the Upper Peninsula, this guy is a serious hunter, not unlike the Montanans I've known who hunt deer, elk and moose for food, not trophies, and who think the most ethical and sporting way to go after a bear is with a bow and arrow.

American Buffalo is the story of Rinella's hunt for buffalo from the Copper River herd in the foothills of Alaska's Wrangell Mountains, as one of 24 random winners of a 2005 bison permit. It also is an anecdotal encyclopedia of buffalo history and lore from the Pleistocene to the present, exploring what he calls "the long saga of humankind's involvement with buffalo."

Branching off from his main narrative are tributaries that meander through a range of sources, spreading out to cover such factual matters as the origins of the buffalo-head nickel, the massive number of buffalo deaths by drowning that occurred in the 19th century, and how the modern conservation movement offers them protection. Rinella travels to Oxford University to discuss the DNA from his buffalo skull find with geneticist Rebecca Shapiro, a leading expert ("Poop's great," she tells him. "You can get the animal's own DNA and also the DNA from its intestinal parasites"). He flies to the Brooks Range of Arctic Alaska to talk to archaeologist Mike Kunz, whose discovery of a Paleo-Indian point in 1978 offered the first tangible proof of a connection between the Paleo-Indians who hunted buffalo in the mid-continental United States about 14,000 years ago, and the Siberian nomads who are assumed to be the first Americans, having followed in the path of the buffalo from Asia to Alaska via the Bering Land Bridge.

Indeed, one could create a trivia contest from Rinella's energetic Googling and field research:

Number of buffalo living in North America today? Half a million.

Number of those buffalo in private hands? 96%.

Cost of a "canned-buffalo hunt" on private lands? $4,000.

Dominant Great Plains buffalo hunting tribes? The Crow, Blackfoot, Sioux, Pawnee, Kiowa, Comanche.

Top speed for a running buffalo? Forty miles per hour.

Number of bulls each year who die from horn goring while competing with other males during mating season? Five percent to 6%.

Number of visitors to Yellowstone National Park injured by buffalo from 1980 to 1999? Twice as many as mauled by bears.

The meat of the book -- Rinella's description of his Alaskan buffalo conquest, from flying in, camping, tracking and killing to field-dressing his thousand-pounder -- is laced through with pungent details. A fresh buffalo track, he writes, is "a clean, palm-sized circle with a split-open crack down the center." The perfect buffalo chip "has the circumference of a baseball cap, with folded layers like a sheik's turban," he explains in a typical metaphorical riff. A buffalo dung campfire burns with a good heat and smells of "cinnamon and cloves, dried straw and pumpkins."

Rinella describes his kill in the opening section of the book, then loops around to give more detail later, when he encounters the buffalo herd that will yield his target. He becomes briefly philosophical. "Killing a large animal inevitably gives me a sense of sorrow. . . . This is the curse of the human predator," he writes, proof he is better at the practical than the mystical.

The butchering takes many pages, and might be best skipped by the squeamish. Like the rest of Rinella's narrative, it includes numerous asides -- about the ritual use of buffalo skulls by the Arikara Indians of the Missouri Valley, about the influence of a buffalo's grazing land on its teeth and longevity. Then comes the riskiest part of the hunt (ironically, Rinella gives this section short shrift).

Perhaps the most fascinating section of this immensely readable book is how Rinella finds ways to cook virtually every bit of his buffalo, from the fat behind its eyeballs to its tongue and marrowbones. But this should be no surprise in these austere times. This is, after all, the author who re-created recipes from Escoffier's 1903 foodie classic "Le Guide Culinaire" with his own ingredients from the wild for "The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine," and who has written an essay titled "Locavore, Get Your Gun."

Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short story collection Stealing the Fire and is president of the National Book Critics Circle.


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