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!”
A long commute can be nice. What I consider long is thirty minutes or more, which is what I graduated to when we moved from the urbs to the burbs. My morning drive morphed from three miles into twenty-seven. Indeed, when it was only three miles, I’m not sure I even qualified as a commuter. Doesn’t the term imply a lengthy drive? Anywho, what a drab topic, right? What can happen in that thirty-to-forty-five-minute haul is the real meat of this blog post.
Within that climate-controlled space, my tires a coarse whisper on the pavement, more music at my fingertips than was ever possible at any point in the history of the world, and the solitude inherent in traveling solo—within that space, I’ve written poems; I’ve witnessed the condensation of a bison’s breath on a frosty morning; I’ve seen cascades of ice clinging to walls of limestone, and sky so wide that eighty miles-per-hour felt more like flying than driving. Significant passages of my Masters thesis were hashed out on Interstate-65. All that time alone with my thoughts was bound to produce something.
However, there’s a different side to the commuter life: I’ve also seen a windshield covered in blood; a woman sobbing so hysterically I wondered how she could drive; and wide swaths of rolling pastureland cleared of trees and leveled for the construction of office buildings, whose utilitarian aesthetic insults the natural beauty it replaces. The other night, I was jarred by the sight of a fully-lit construction site, not far from where I drive past the two bison every day. What an incongruity in a place that otherwise would be supporting cattle. Now they’re abusing the night sky, too, I thought.
Yet I know accidents happen, and hearts get broken. I know we need office buildings. I know that, as a family who moved south of town a few years ago, we’re partially responsible for the progress that is disrupting the landscape. All one can really hope for then, at the end of the commute, is that transcendence outweighs dullness, and that beauty reinvents herself, after she’s taken a hit. For mortality is always on the road with us, and sometimes he rides our bumper.
Before sunrise this morning, there was a briskness which I breathed deeply. It reminded me of fall. Late fall, to be exact. Maybe even post-Halloween, when temperatures surprise you with their lowness. The kinds of temps which, in Tennessee, one doesn’t expect until December. I worried my flannel-shirt-and-hoodie combo wouldn’t be enough, but I also knew the temperature was going to rise at least twenty degrees, and I was only going to be outside from the garage to the car.
When I rounded the back-left corner of my RAV4, moving to the side where no light from the house reaches, a pale sliver of white—incorporeal-seeming in the pre-dawn black—scurried off soundlessly down the grassy alley formed by ours and our neighbor’s fences. It was as if a fuzzy rectangle of moonlight had freed itself from the ground and broken into a full sprint. I decided it must be a rabbit. We know they’ve birthed at least two litters in the backyard, if nests found while mowing count as evidence. Once on a separate night, I walked out into the backyard and was startled, as something apparently alive shot off in a blur from the shadows behind my boys’ swingset. This, too, had to have been a rabbit.
The odd thing, however, is that despite all evidence these dark encounters were with rabbits, I still felt that little rush of a touch with the unknown, because I couldn’t see them well enough to make a positive identification. On both occasions, all I could sense were fast movements and pale blurs. Perhaps a primordial fear of the supernatural tried to overcome my good sense, but I resisted it by telling myself they were only rabbits. Or perhaps the unseasonably cold temperature had me in a spooky frame of mind, mentally somewhere in the vicinity of Halloween, which is a place I tend to hang out anyway.