For nearly forty years, I’ve called this animal a buffalo. Somewhere along the way, I learned it’s also called a bison–American bison, to be exact. But that didn’t make it any less a buffalo, it just now had two names–interchangeable, like pig and hog.
At Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, the part near Cadiz, Kentucky, I’ve driven through the Elk & Bison Prairie numerous times, once even having to stop the car completely, because buffalo–er, bison–had surrounded us (I was with my dad). It was a transcendent moment, having these beasts on all sides, who could end us with one toss of the head, these icons of the American plains.
There are cities named after it; there are national brands with the word in their names; the animal is used in countless folk and Americana songs. But I learned, not too long ago, that to call this furry behemoth a buffalo, is to call it the wrong thing. After all these years, I decide to look it up, to see if there’s a difference between the two terms. What I discovered surprised me. It turns out the only true buffalo are in Asia and Africa (think water buffalo). What we have in America is actually only a bison. Though it’s no less majestic, it’s also no more a buffalo.
Imagine all the names of things that must be changed now, things integral to the very culture we inherit, and that we hope to pass on to our kids and grandkids! Doesn’t this revelation make you wonder if everything we assume to be true is really just made up? Or that we’re making it all up as we go?
Okay. I might be overreacting. But now, when I see Blue Buffalo dog food in the grocery store, with a little blue bison leaping on the logo, I think, “Your brand’s a lie!”
Have you ever driven off with something on top of your car? If you’ve done this, and had the pleasure of hearing said item slide back and down off the roof at sixty miles-per-hour and counting, realizing too late what was happening, then you know the feeling that drops into your gut like dead weight. The feeling hits, and on its heels is the fear that the item is now, quite possibly, irrecoverable. Well, I was able to find my wife’s keychain. It was in the gravel and dry grass of the median on Saturn Parkway (so named for the former Saturn car factory, not the planet), where I nervously searched as vehicles blew past about ten feet away. Finding the keychain would’ve felt like a victory, except most everything previously attached to it was either missing or obliterated.
That was over a year ago. Yesterday, however, the feeling hit again, this time from a different thing feared irrecoverable: this very blog. Doing a little site maintenance, apparently I deleted a file I shouldn’t have. I knew I had no business tampering with those files, but I figured I’d learned enough that I wouldn’t make any fatal mistakes. Wrong! There’s a reason WordPress offers templates: because people like me have no business tinkering with code. Long story short: whatever it was I did to my website removed access to every single post I’d ever published at alandrue.com. I panicked. So much work lost, I thought. This was a minor tragedy. Since I’ve yet to publish with any outside entities, my blog is essentially my writer’s portfolio, and I’m quite happy with some of the posts. But I thought I’d blown it. I thought I was going to have to start over. Thanks to the friendly, understanding, and level-headed technician at GoDaddy (I wish I remembered his name), my site is running flawlessly now, like I never once got trigger-happy with my sacred files. And as I often do, I learned a lesson the hard way. But at least I learned it.
**Clarification for those who’ve never owned a blog or website: GoDaddy is the service that provides both my web hosting and my domain security (put simply, they provide my virtual real estate); WordPress is the service through which I built and continue to maintain my blog. There are other approaches. This just happens to be the path I took.
Imagine if we weren’t predisposed to notions of fate or destiny, or if we didn’t inherit beliefs about divinity from our elders. Imagine if our earthly end was truly a matter of chance or likelihood, and we accepted it as such: an accident or freak illness claims us, or we achieve an age correspondent to our life choices and genetics. None of this idea of unfinished business or unmet purpose in life would influence our feelings about death, that is, if we left no room in our brains for fate or destiny or divine intervention.
It’s difficult–unnatural, even–to trust a phrase like “it was just her time” when faced with an early death. Traffic accidents are the worst, because almost everybody drives, and almost everybody’s loved ones drive, so there’s a pervasive feeling it could happen to anyone at any time (like a terrorist attack or a mass shooting). But if we go a few weeks without news of a fatal car accident, we permit ourselves to slip into a false sense that those things definitely do happen but not to people we know. And just as we’ve settled into our comfortable driving routine, it happens. It may not be someone we know, but it could’ve been, and that’s often enough to unnerve us for a week or two.
Lately a new feeling’s crept in: guilt. When I hear of an early death, I eventually reach a vague sort of spiritual non-geography wherein I wonder, fearfully, if I’ve earned the life I continue to live, while so many who seemed so worthy–young victims of accidents; soldiers; cancer patients–have had theirs cut short. Am I worthy of the years my genetics are likely to grant me? Have I stored enough credits to cover the near-misses I’ve racked up on the interstate? Perhaps the answers to these questions are always both yes and no. None of us is qualified to judge whether a person merits his very life; we can’t know the value of that, not in any quantifiable terms. It lies outside our collective jurisdiction; it resides in a nether region, in the place where the forces both compelling and extinguishing life are found–a region off-limits to our conscious yearning, a land outside our control. I suspect life itself to be the biggest mystery I’ll ever contemplate. Imagine having all the answers–would we want them?