American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon

American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon

In 2005, Steven Rinella won a lottery permit to hunt for a wild buffalo, or American bison, in the Alaskan wilderness. Despite the odds, Rinella managed to kill a buffalo on a snow-covered mountainside and then raft the meat back to civilization while being trailed by grizzly bears and suffering from hypothermia. Throughout these adventures, Rinella found himself contemplating his own place among the 14,000 years’ worth of buffalo hunters in North America, as well as the buffalo’s place in the American experience. At the time of the Revolutionary War, North America was home to approximately 40 million buffalo, the largest herd of big mammals on the planet, but by the mid-1890s, only a few hundred remained. Now that the buffalo is on the verge of a dramatic ecological recovery across the West, Americans are faced with the challenge of how, and if, we can dare to share our land with a beast that is the embodiment of the American wilderness.

American Buffalo is a narrative tale of Rinella’s hunt. But beyond that, it is the story of the many ways in which the buffalo has shaped our national identity. Rinella takes us across the continent in search of the buffalo’s past, present, and future: to the Bering Land Bridge, where scientists search for buffalo bones amid artifacts of the New World’s earliest human inhabitants; to buffalo jumps where Native Americans once ran buffalo over cliffs by the thousands; to the Detroit Carbon works, a “bone charcoal” plant that made fortunes in the late 1800s by turning millions of tons of buffalo bones into bone meal, black dye, and fine china; and even to an abattoir turned fashion mecca in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, where a depressed buffalo named Black Diamond met his fate after serving as the model for the American nickel.

Rinella is the perfect guide for a book that combines outdoor adventure with a quirky blend of facts and observations about history, biology, and the natural world. Both a captivating narrative and a book of environmental and historical significance, American Buffalo tells us as much about ourselves as Americans as it does about the creature who perhaps best of all embodies the American ethos.

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Reviews

"GRADE: A-. The lottery that Rinella won in 2005 wasn't an ordinary one: He didn't score money, or a car, but the right to hunt buffalo in the Alaskan wilderness. As he drags a carcass across the frozen terrain, dodging wolves and grizzlies who smell the fresh meat, Rinella places his journey in context with buffalo hunters of the last 14,000 years. The history lesson – never dull – is studded with bizarre buffalo facts. (Did you know that burning buffalo dung smells a little like cinnamon and cloves? Or that there was an actual model for the buffalo-head nickel?) The story of our country, Rinella shows, is inextricably intertwined with the story of this animal." - Entertainment Weekly

"[AMERICAN BUFFALO] is one part Hemingway sparseness, and one part anthropological history of buffalo hunting over the past few thousand years. Rinella's mission, which ends with him successfully tracking, killing, skinning, and eating a wild buffalo, is a survival story reminiscent of Into the Wild, minus the tragic ending (well, the buffalo might disagree). Peppered with side treks to Oxford DNA research labs and archaeological digs, the book is a wildly entertaining journey of self-discovery, as well as an adventurous and educational tribute to a great American animal that still lives in the wild, however barely." - Men's Journal

"This is the most promising debut by a nature writer in years. Wittily deadpan, lean and muscular in his prose and splendidly attuned to oddities, Rinella has composed a hymn to a complicated, long-standing human-animal relationship without an ounce of sentimentality and only a little fat. Whatever your take on the politics of shooting and eating animals, Rinella's complex weave of guilt and pride, of understand and qualified embrace of historical necessity, make this book an education not in just what we put in our mouths but in why and how people like and unlike us have done so – a lesson for the head, the heart and the stomach." -San Francisco Chronicle

"Engaging…brings home the satisfactions of one man's self-reliance in an age when little we do alone so directly supports our survival. Too, it's a journey into the snowy north, where the beauty and bounty of a faraway land come powerfully alive." —Seattle Times

"Rinella one-ups his previous book, The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine (we're talking pigeons, sparrows, raccoons, etc.), by going after the massive and mythical buffalo. When a book opens with a paean to the wonderful smell of burning buffalo dung — "At times I've dipped my face into the smoke and picked up the odors of cinnamon and cloves, dried straw and pumpkins" — you know it's going to be a dirty read. But there's really no other way to talk about hunting, and Rinella's tale of tracking buffalo in Alaska is alluringly visceral in its description. His multi-chapter description of killing, skinning and chopping up a buffalo cow is alternately stomach-turning and riveting. It's easy to understand the allure of hunting, of respecting and living off the land, under Rinella's unsentimental tutelage." —Time

"Eloquent, smart and obsessive…The closest most of us will ever get to the once-thriving buffalo is eating a bison burger. But by the end of his AMERICAN BUFFALO, outdoorsman Rinella doesn't just eat buffalo, he butchers one. Back in 2005, Rinella won a lottery that allowed him to hunt members of a herd living in the Alaskan wilderness. His journey pits him against the elements [and] Rinella is a learned, wry voice in the wilderness." -Time Out New York

"AMERICAN BUFFALO is a sleep-with-your-safety-off narrative of Rinella's quest to shoot a wild bison in Alaska – and a testament to the writer's passion for his subject." -Outside

"A fascinating piece of outdoor writing and a gonzo meditation on the history of the mighty beast in our national life. Rinella's passion for his subject, intelligence and moments of craziness bring to mind another wild American spirit: the early, effective Hunter S. Thompson. Rinella won a rare permit in 2005 to hunt an Alaskan buffalo in the wild. His successful pursuit of the beast is the frame of the book but he decorates the story with enjoyable digressions on the real bison behind the Buffalo nickel, the burning properties of buffalo chips, and the likely passage of buffalo ancestors across the Bering land bridge."-Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

"In 2005, Rinella became one of 24 people allowed to hunt wild bison that year and was one of only four to register a kill. The wry result is part hunting memoir, part trivia-soaked history of the buffalo – as if pulled straight from the brainpans of Steve Irwin and Ken Jennings." -Details

"A rich, engrossing, well-written book, and total brain candy for fact addicts. Rinella brings outdoorsman savvy and keen research to his twin projects of educating readers about a nearly mythic mammal and hunting one down himself along Alaska's Chetaslina River." -Bloomberg News

"Brims with historical tidbits…the breadth of Rinella's knowledge is impressive, and his exhaustive research helps give context to his hunt in Alaska. Rinella's encyclopedic collection of facts regarding buffalo serves as only a part of his narrative. As one of only 24 applicants to receive a hunting permit for the Copper River buffalo herd in 2005, Rinella describes hunting for the animal in the icy wilds of rural Alaska. From tracking prints in the snow to slaughtering his prey, Rinella doesn't spare any detail of the hunt." -Rocky Mountain News

"Laced with pungent details…[an] immensely readable book." -Los Angeles Times

"The buffalo has always been a symbol of the old American frontier. But the great virtue of Steven Rinella's AMERICAN BUFFALO is that mythic resonance against hard ecological realities brought on by the animal's resurgent population. The book reads like an old-fashioned adventure story." -Very Short List

“This is some of the best writing on our great national beast since George Catlin—and that was in 1841. A real triumph.”
-Bill McKibben, author of The Bill McKibben Reader

“This is a big-game hunting story like no other: Steven Rinella is in search of an animal, quite literally. But also historically, existentially, and maybe even spiritually. Follow him on this curious armed quest-and, like him, you will quickly find yourself immersed in the fate of our mightiest and most talismanic beast.” -Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder

“American Buffalo is a boldly original and ultimately refreshing book. It is also fearsome and occasionally frightening, and one wonders if the author is quite mad. There are insights into nature and American history here that will be totally unfamiliar to the reader.” -Jim Harrison, author of Returning to Earth

“American Buffalo is a flat-out fascinating biography of one of the most cherished and elusive figures in our national mythology. It will make you see America with fresh eyes.” -Benjamin Wallace, author of The Billionaire’s Vinegar

“Here is one of those rare books that make you feel larger, smarter, and entirely exhilarated for having read them. American Buffalo is an achievement through and through.” -Deirdre McNamer, author of Red Rover

“Moving and downright funny . . . Rinella easily renders an enormous amount of historical and scientific information into a thoroughly en-gaging narrative.” -Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Here is a wonderful young writer that everyone should know about. Steven Rinella is exciting, adventurous, technically gifted, honest, funny—a great new voice in American nonfiction.” -Ian Frazier, author of Great Plains