Buffalo for a Broken Heart Essay

This essay I wrote for WR 121 during fall term of 2011 at Lane Community College in discussion with the first half of Dan O’Brien’s book Buffalo for a Broken Heart: Restoring Life on a Black Hills Ranch.

Black Hills Connections

            Dan O’Brien shows throughout his book, Buffalo for a Broken Heart, that he thinks that living life by his values and desires will bring him actual, sustained happiness. For twenty years O’Brien struggled as a cattle rancher.  Although he was living his life by his values, he was unhappy.

He struggles as a cattle rancher because his work and his value toward the land are at conflict with one another.  He tries to keep the land healthy, and all the cattle he raises do is destroy it.  The cattle ruin the grass of the plains which all Great Plains wildlife species depend upon (8-9).

He also struggles in cattle ranching because of money problems.  He pays more for land than it is worth and he has to pay to feed the cattle in the winter, because they won’t fend for themselves.

All of his struggles basically come because of the fact: cattle do not belong on the Great Plains.  They were imported and introduced there, not native to the land, and trying to raise and produce them in a place they are not meant for just does not work.

However, once O’Brien commits to buffalo ranching and makes the conversion from cattle to buffalo everything changes.  The buffalo are meant to roam the Great Plains and have evolved to live in harmony with that ecosystem.  After he makes the shift from cattle to buffalo, and he begins to get back what twenty years of relatively unsuccessful cattle ranching had taken from him.

Cattle ranching had taken away his wife, and perhaps from that he lost his ability to love and care for women.  Since divorce, O’Brien kept women at a distance, not really letting them too close, but as he starts to become a happier man this all changes.  He begins to romantically love again and he shows this through his relationship with Jill.  He also becomes a father figure to Jillian, her daughter even though he claims not to have wanted children earlier in the book (79).  Not only is his romantic ability to love renewed, but so is his ability to love and care about other people.

His relationships take on a deeper meaning to him and he becomes friends, rather than acquaintances with some of the people in his life.  His relationship with Digger Dave becomes more meaningful.  Digger becomes not just an employee that is helping him build buffalo fencing, but a friend that he helps get out of debt by overpaying for a machine to dig his post holes with.  He even takes Digger out on his ranch, shows him the baby buffalo, and shares his Cuban cigars with him that same evening (219-226).

This shows how compassionate he is becoming toward other people in his life, something that was definitely missing earlier in his life.

O’Brien also shows this compassion when Stan’s son commits suicide.  He doesn’t really know how to comfort his friend so he calls Jill and they go over together to comfort Stan and his wife (228-231).  This is something that he probably wouldn’t have done earlier in his life.  Later, for the buffalo slaughter he lets Stan kill the first five buffalo because Stan has been depressed since his son’s suicide, and he knows this will cheer him up.

Not only did his relationships with other people grow and blossom, but his relationship with himself did as well.  His spirituality grew more than he probably ever imagined.  He writes about the two forces he believes are always at work.  Those two forces are the life force and the connective force.  The life force is our desire to live, and the connective force is our connectedness to all living things.  O’Brien feels that we have evolved to a point of losing that connective force.  He regained this connectedness through the transformation of his ranch.

O’Brien’s value of this connectedness with plants, animals, people, the land, and the cycle of life and death are very apparent, and his pursuit of living a noble life in respect to all of these is the driving force in his life.

Once O’Brien has his life totally in line with his values he changes as a person.  He loves again.  He has a family again.  He has friends again.  He enjoys his work again.  He has turned that work into a profitable business.  He is no longer stressed over money.  The hair on his head begins to grow back.  He is happy, and that happiness radiates from him like the suns heating rays warming anybody and anything in his life.

Works Cited

O’Brien, Dan. Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2002. Print.


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