Books I’ve Known and Loved (2)

She looks happy, right?
She looks happy, right?

Just because you’re nice doesn’t mean you’re going to be popular. This is what General Ben Grierson must have said to console himself. A hero of the Civil War, Grierson commanded the Buffalo Soldiers out West against Victorio and his Apache warriors after the war, but do you think that would have gotten him some respect and a few honors? No.

His wife Alice was pretty pissed about it and said so in letters. She said a lot in letters that might make a Victorian pretend to blush. At one point she left poor Ben to spend time in Chicago admitting after he begged her to come back to him that she knew they would have sex again (which she greatly enjoyed), and didn’t want to have any more children (I think they had 7 at that point). She felt contraception was a sin against God, loved her husband, but was afraid with her depressive tendencies that she’d end like her mother did–a used up mental case.

General Ben was such a decent guy and openly affectionate, devoted and supportive when Alice spoke about women’s rights and the stuff she’d read in The Revolution (I must admit, though I’d hate to be judged by my private letters and emails, that I found Alice’s constant complaining a bit annoying–I don’t think Ben deserved that. He just wanted her by his side. Sigh).

Ben was no  slouch in the warrior department, but . . . and this is my opinion–one shared by General Sherman at the time–he was a bit too lenient with the Indians who used his kindness to screw him over (we don’t like to admit that being a doormat you get walked on but it’s true). He had kind words for his black soldiers though most people thought black recruits were less capable of the mental tasks of military life at the time, but again he may have in his easy-going way not pushed them quite hard enough–so says one of my characters in The House on Tenafly Road.

Anyway there’s much to think about–sex, war, mental health, relationships, Indians, military politics in these two companion volumes. You get the historian’s version and then the wife’s version and that’s fun.

Real life people--flaws and all.
Real life people–flaws and all.

Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 95 – The American Bison

While I disagree with some of the premises in this post, you know I LOVE the buffs. Of course I had to comment and share the beautiful pictures and the thought-provoking video.

Mungai and the Goa Constrictor

American bison - close up in the snow

“When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground”
Crow chief Plenty Coups

It is difficult to say anything about the historic slaughter of the bison that has not already been said.  But, for the few who are unfamiliar with the unparalleled bloodshed of the late nineteenth century, it is safe to say those responsible succeeded in killing two birds with one stone, as was their intention, massively depleting the numbers of free-roaming bison, and defeating the entire Plains Indian Nation in the west of America at the same time.

American bison herd from Nat GeographicThese magnificent beasts were reduced in number from an estimated thirty million or more to just over one thousand, and the Plains Indians were brought to their knees.  Never in history has such appalling devastation been caused to any other species of animal or had such a lasting effect on native peoples.

In both, the aggressors…

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Buffalo Dancing With Wolves–Human Ones of Every Stripe

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Cute little buffalo on a string. Yep, that’s pretty much where the early NYC based American Bison Society wanted them. Environmental historians say that the near extinction of the buffalo acted as impetus for the environmental movement in America, so that’s sort of good, right? Easterners, women especially, organized anti- animal cruelty leagues, but men organized for the buffalo–a symbol of wild masculinity–a masculinity that the comfortable Easterners viewed as diminishing in their circles. Westerners wanted the bison saved as a market animal to be bred with cattle. Even John Muir the naturalist considered it folly to mourn the loss of the wild buffalo herds.

You never know what you may get at a garage sale and this book was a real find though it’s left me a bit depressed.

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So here’s a few more things to ponder:

While always traders with more sedentary tribes, once the plains nomads began trading in buffalo hides it was impossible to prevent the accumulation of wealth and the competition for prestige from becoming an all out slaughter of the very thing most depended upon by the Indians. (Indians also helped wipe out the beaver populations for the same greed-based reasons, but they were not dependent on the beaver for food).

Darwinism played a cruel part in all of the slaughter. Euro-Americans bought the idea of survival of the fittest. They felt that it was inevitable that the buffalo would go extinct since the animal practically let itself be killed–it wasn’t fit to live. They believed that it was obvious that domesticated animals were more fit–as were white Americans when compared to the Indian.

Humanitarianism aroused for the slave before the Civil War began, in some liberal Eastern circles, to extend to the Indians. While we think as moderns that assimilation is tantamount to extinction this was not the thought of the late 1800’s. Assimilation offered Indians a way of becoming “fit” in the Darwinian sense. This way of looking at life also led to the eventual ideas and practices of eugenics.

In a sense the Biblical notion that every individual has worth and that a Christian should love his fellow man was corrupted and warped into a scientific approach to “helping” by tinkering or coercing populations to conform to a “superior” model. It’s why it’s not so shocking nowadays to question why a couple would decide to keep a baby with Down’s Syndrome.

I never knew what the buffalo skins were used for when sent East. I assumed wrongly that it was all wanton destruction for no reason. It turns out the hides were much in demand as belts used in industrial machinery–the tanning operations of the Adirondacks bought the skins on the cheap and proceeded to devastate the tannin rich trees of the East while polluting the rivers and making a good short term profit.

So do we all become Luddites who hate modernity? Do we wish that people of all colors and creeds weren’t so greedy? Do we eat salads and make our own clothes out of dog hair or, better yet, hemp? I like my leather boots.

Finally, for novel writing purposes I stumbled upon a profession I didn’t know existed. Thankful’s twin sister runs off with her husband to homestead, but ends up making money for survival on the bleak plains doing what so many poor whites and Indians did–collecting huge piles of bones scattered in macabre scenes all over the vast, sad land. The bones road East on the railroads to fertilizer companies making tons of money at the expense of the slaughter.

The notion the Europeans brought violence and greed into a pristine Utopia is false. Old skeletons of ancient people in the Americas give evidence of a tough life filled with violence and warfare. All people choose  love, hate, greed, promiscuity, generosity and faith. All are corrupted. If I were to leave it there or venture into a human engineering program of improvement I think in the end there would be no hope. People can help others but I don’t think they can improve them.

I have to believe that only God can bring about peace between the lion and the lamb, the wolf and the buffalo–and of course, humanity.

Good News! White People Were Not Responsible For The Near Extinction Of The Buffalo

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Contrary to popular belief it wasn’t just the greedy European Americans who led the bison to near extinction. As much as ecological romantics would like to have us believe that before the white man came the Indians and all of God’s creation lived in peaceful harmony, the evidence does not back up the claim. The Plains Indians and the volatile environment of the Plains itself most likely played a far larger role in decimating the great herds of the 1800’s than previously thought.

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Here’s some points to consider:

Archeological kill sites show that long before the white man came there were periods of time where bison kills were absent suggesting catastrophic declines due to disease, predators or climate change.

The environment is not static, that is, it is constantly changing. Large mammals roamed the earth and when they went extinct they left room for animals like the bison to take their range land and thrive.

The Indians, who in the not so distant past took to riding horses and hunting bison, often slaughtered large herds by sending them over cliffs and wasting much of the carcasses.

Also, by keeping large herds of horses that competed with the bison for the same limited grassland resources the Indians strained  both species.

Estimates of bison herd sizes of the 1800’s were faulty since the herds gathered into enormous groups only during the summer rut. Counts were estimated in the summer leading many to believe there were huge herds everywhere, but that probably was not the case.

While white men played their part especially in the trade of buffalo robes, etc, the Indians also engaged in trade, slaughter and poor land management.

Whites, Indians and bison were victims of the harsh, unpredictable realities of nature.

Indians had a unique culture before they became nomadic bison hunters and kept it despite the loss of their hunting grounds.

Eastern groups of Euro-Americans organized the efforts to save the species and succeeded.

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My own little bison guarding my books.