Is Steve Rinella a better hunter, writer or historian?
I’m tempted to go with “hunter” only because the other two don’t have the possibility of grizzly bear tracks circling as you do your thing. In “American Buffalo,” Rinella does just that-hunting down and then field dressing a whole buffalo (single-handedly) as the bears prowl.
Me? I would be long gone. Imagine the scene: you’ve got several hundred pounds of freshly packed-up meat from your downed buffalo and you are making multiple trips from the kill site to where you need to load up on the riverbank and pack out. And there are grizzly bear tracks all over the place. Again, me? Gone. Out of there. Help yourself, bears. I’ll just take this one little tenderloin and be on my way.
Call me a wimp.
But Rinella is a strong writer and equally compelling historian and anthropologist.
“American Buffalo” is one of those surprising books that starts with a simple concept and just keeps on giving. Rinella tells it all with a calm, understated style. He is in the middle of the story and yet completely at ease and comfortable with all the material, which include his own actions. In my mind, that’s tough to do. I think Teddy Roosevelt would appreciate Steve Rinella-his tenacity, his outdoor spirit, his hunting skills (of course).
Then there’s the whole matter of the buffalo. From the buffalo nickel to buffalo stampedes, Rinella covers a whole range of topics that show how the buffalo has imprinted itself on the American psyche. The subject was right there-waiting to be plucked-and Rinella shows his deep curiosity for the subject from a variety of perspectives.
The information comes at you in easy-to-digest fashion. Rinella tugs you along by the nose, gently, and shows you what he’s learned about a “lost icon.” The writing is gripping and vivid…and the simple topic of the buffalo leads Rinella in dozens of interesting directions, including some history and migration of animals and early man.
Rinella is self-effacing and endlessly colorful-without going overboard.
“I slip my rifle down from my shoulder and lay it quietly across my knee. I’m breathing slowly as I concentrate on the smells and the sounds of the woods. I move ahead a little more, picking my path very carefully to not make noise. I hear nothing but a distant chickadee and the gurgle of flowing water. The frozen ground is quiet against the knees of my wool pants. I move a little more and then stop. Away from the river, the forest is an impenetrable tangle of young spruce. The odor of the animals is no longer on the breeze. Just as I’m hoping that the buffalo didn’t head into the tangle, I hear it.”
To my taste, this is effortless reading. It’s simple, straightforward and compelling. Rinella is equally adept at discussing the myths of the Bering Strait or unearthing an archaeological dig in New Mexico. By the end of “American Buffalo,” you feel like you could bump into Rinella in a bar or over a campfire and just pick up the conversation. This had some of the same feel as David Foster Wallace, including the footnotes but without the smart-ass commentary. (Hey, I love David Foster Wallace but you know what I mean.)
In Rinella’s hands, the subject of buffalo becomes a prism for all sorts of topics, from biology to anthropology to weaponry, mysticism and evolution. The last few chapters involve a detailed deconstruction of a buffalo Rinella shoots and kills in Alaska followed by a harrowing exit from the wild, with all the buffalo parts and meat along for the ride down the river. The field dressing of the buffalo may not be to everyone’s taste (don’t read while you’re eating) but I admired the fact that a single human did all this work (particularly after all the stories of slaughtered buffalo going to waste or drastically under-used over the centuries).
Along the journey, you have to step back and look at man’s interaction with this animal and marvel at the relationship. Is the buffalo an icon only because “we” pushed it to the brink of extinction and then brought it back? Should our relationship with the buffalo tell us more about our relationship with the animal kingdom, with the wild?
I hope Rinella finds another prey to stalk. Soon.