Bison to Barrel

We’re on the deck of a local bar drinking draft pints while watching over the lake in Saskatchewan Canada. The group of locals tell the bar tender they shouldn’t have let us get the draft and buy us each a bottle of the locally brewed pilsner, aptly named Pilsner. It is noticeably better in bottles. It doesn’t take long for conversation to lead to oil. They all seem personally effected by the commodity stockpiling at the US-Canada border as it is extracted faster than it can be shipped to refineries. “If only they’d build the Keystone,” someone says. We casually talk about why we think the Keystone Pipeline is not getting built, which is because “Your president is an environmentalist.” Is Obama even an environmentalist? Is the quest for oil independence even related to an environmental ethic? Is The Boom an intentional over-supply? I settle, The Keystone is Obama’s Hetch Hetchy.

In a few days we’ll be in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The little badlands, where TR himself ventured “to pursue the strenuous life,” following the deaths of his wife and mother on the same day in 1884. This is the conservation President who created the concept of nationally preserved land in the wake of white pioneers “improving” their way across America’s terrain. Grassland plains teaming with over 60 million bison where reduced to categorized piles of pelts and heads for sport and in a conscious effort to induce Native Americans into submission. Yellowstone was the first National Park and saving grace for the last of the North American mega fauna. 

The preservation of parks was a democratic act of congress that was enacted “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” TR proceeded to protect vast tracks of wilderness including Yosemite and its Hetch Hetchy Valley. Despite John Muir’s preservationist appeal to his presidential friend, TR sided with his advisor Gifford Pinchot in support of the resourceful use of nature. The interior secretary granted San Francisco’s application, viewed as “the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people.” The pristine Hetch Hetchy would later be damned allowing pristine Sierra runoff from the Toulumne River to flood the valley reservoir as a source of potable water for California’s bay area. 

Bison on a prairie plateau in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Crossing the vastness of grassland we approached a distant field of dark lumping specks. We approached and hesitated and watched, stunned at the swaying field of shoulder swagger. Occasionally a big one would hulk down, four stiff legs in the air and velveteen backs slamming into the ground. It was a stunt that became affectionately known as “the big man roll down” leaving dustbowl craters where we were once attempting to identify delicate alpine meadow plants.  

I was pulled into the breath and musk of the bison envisioning a pre-Anthropocene age where their migration was escorted by Mammoths. We watched and endless stream of mounted bison heads now resurrected as prophets of wildness. We waited for the last of the animals to finish the commute to the prairie plateau as they emerged at the crest of the valley. The herd rolled deep and we pressed on, threading the needle of beast gods and their babies. There are 2000 lb big boys on lookout at the edges of the herd. They pivot their entire bodies just to move their heads. What even is the disposition of a bison? Wondering if this generation has inherited a rightful ancestral grudge they let us pass, massive stoic heads at work on the grass.

Sunsetting walk back, Maltese Cross site burns sunset flares in the park. America’s attention turned to the newest pioneering decimation. Skinning the land, exhuming ancient descendants of all mammoth bodies living before it. The ages have been at work on mechanizing immortal time. A single cavalier bison in the camp site, on the road, obstinate solo bull defending the mineralized petrified wood.

Natural gas flares at road-side fracking site in North Dakota

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