We spent last weekend at Madroño with Shawn and Susanne Harrington of Asterisk Group, who are designing a visual identity for the ranch suitable for use on business cards, website, food labels, letterhead, gimme caps, T-shirts, coffee mugs, bumper stickers, etc.
Since so much of what we hope to make Madroño stand for is based on a very specific sense of the place and its unique qualities, we wanted to give Shawn and Susanne (and their son Oliver) a tour of the ranch. They especially wanted to get a first-hand look at the buffies, thinking that they’d be an ideal image for the ranch, but unfortunately, as far as the Harrington family is concerned, the Madroño bison remains a mythical beast, more rumor than reality.
It was a gray and drizzly Sunday morning when Robert Selement, our trusty ranch manager, came by and picked us up in his big ol’ pickup. Robert may love showing the place off even more than we do, and Shawn and Susanne oohed and aahed in all the right places, even though the misty weather meant that we had to imagine the normally breathtaking views from up top.
The high point of the tour, of course, was to be a close-up view of the bison, complete with newborn calf (or perhaps calves, as several of the cows seemed to be on the verge of dropping babies). So imagine our chagrin when, after driving all over the ranch for two hours, we failed to get even a single glimpse of them.
You might think it would be hard to lose a herd of thirty or so critters, each weighing in at a thousand pounds or more, even on a place as big as Madroño, but, as Robert said with some asperity, “We’ve got buffalo poop, buffalo hair [where they’d rubbed up against convenient tree branches], and buffalo tracks, but no buffalo.”
Bison are interesting animals. With a dearth of natural predators, they once roamed the North American prairies in untold millions, and were vital sources of food and other necessities for the Plains Indians. Then the railroads started building across the continent, and the real slaughter began. One of the notable things about bison is that they don’t run away when they hear a gunshot or see one of their fellows fall. Instead, they tend to wander over and nose the corpse of their fallen comrade, in a manner that can seem uncomfortably close to mourning.
This, of course, is one of the reasons they were almost eradicated by nineteenth-century buffalo hunters, but it most assuredly does not mean that they are in any way tame. In fact, they retain a distinct whiff of wildness, even on a ranch; a sublime atavism shines from their dark eyes. When we were in New York last month, we met a rancher from Pennsylvania at the Union Square Greenmarket who told us, astonishingly, that he invites school kids on field trips to wade into the midst of his herds and pat his bison. Just the thought of that made all the hair on our heads stand straight up. (It was quite a sight.)
As if their immense size and somewhat, er, unpredictable temperament weren’t sufficient encouragement to treat bison with a healthy respect, they’re also astonishingly fast and agile. They can jump into the bed of a pickup (or so we’re told; fortunately, we haven’t yet seen that firsthand), or across a cattle guard, or over a four-foot fence (when, that is, they don’t elect simply to go through it). They can work up a substantial head of steam—up to thirty-five miles an hour, in fact, which is faster than even Robert’s trusty pickup can go on Madroño’s steep and rocky roads—and they can move as fast backward as they do forward, which is why they’re sometimes used to train cutting horses. And, as we learned last weekend, they have apparently evolved the ability to turn invisible when they want to.
Shawn and Susanne were pretty good sports about it, and Oliver just wanted to play with an old ammeter that was rattling around in the back of the truck. (It’s hard to predict these things with any certainty, but Oliver at age five seems bound for a career as an electrical engineer.) But I know Robert was concerned; the fence that can keep bison in when they want to go out has yet to be invented, and we feared that they might have decided to pay a social call on the neighbors. Again.
This is always an awkward situation, not least because you can’t really compel bison to do something they don’t want to do—like, for instance, return to your property. Fortunately Robert has conditioned them to respond to the rattling of a bag of feed cubes, and can usually tempt them back from wherever they’ve strayed with the promise of treats. But having several tons of ornery meat invade the place next door is not exactly the way to foster neighborly feelings. (In March the foreman of a West Texas ranch shot fifty-one bison that had gotten loose on his property from the place next door. The fact that the place next door was a hunting ranch, and the bison would otherwise have ended up as little more than targets in a shooting gallery for rich Texans, didn’t make the story any less shocking.)
Fortunately, our neighbors have thus far responded with patience and good cheer, even when the bison cornered a herd of their terrified cattle—it must have looked a little like a scene from one of those old Westerns in which a gang of outlaws menaces some frontier town.
By the time we had to leave, late Sunday afternoon, Robert still hadn’t tracked them down. We lamely told Shawn and Susanne that we hoped they’d come back another time to see the buffies (who finally turned up above the trout ponds, safe and sound and on our side of the fence; I’m quite sure that if bison could snicker, they were snickering at us). I mean, they couldn’t possibly pull that disappearing act twice in a row, could they?
Well, could they?
What we’re reading
Heather: Katherine Howe, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
Martin: Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science