• aspen

Number 8, and What It Means To Be A Man

This piece won first place in the 2016 Central Oregon Writers Guild Adult Autumn Contest in the nonfiction category.

He's barely noticeable in the picture, but if you look closely at the very center of the herd, you can see him: the herd bull. He’s looking straight at the camera, the only bison doing so. He’s usually in the middle somewhere. He’s rarely at the edge and hardly ever in the front. I call him simply, “Number 8” because of the tag that hangs like an earring from his right ear. But I also like the name because eight is a number of spiritual significance. And for me, he is an amazing being.

Not long ago, I came home to my tipi one night after dark and found the whole herd gathered around the fence that surrounds it. Although rare, the sight was not something I was too concerned about. No moon illuminated the sky; only stars lit my way. Since in most cases I choose not to carry a flashlight I was close, maybe 25 yards away, before I realized that several boards had been torn off the fence posts. I slowed my walk around the herd. Something was amiss. At about ten yards away, I saw something. Number Eight stood front and center, looking at me. They were all looking at me, but Number Eight was staring at me, a solid ton of WTF. And the whole herd stood behind him, falling away like a great phalanx.

The herd and I had developed, I thought, a good relationship. I call to them every day. In the communication that can pass between animal and man, I felt the herd and this great bull trusted me to an extent. But now I wasn’t feeling that trust bond. Definitely not.

Speaking softly, I eased behind what was left of the enclosure. A palpable tension arose that I swear was not only coming from me. This was the tension I used to feel before I got into a fight as a young man. But believe me, I had no doubt about who would win this one. Those fence boards had once been screwed into place with four three-inch nails apiece. Now on the ground, they now seemed as much a warning as any pre-brawl come-on.

And then I saw it. The bison hide.

I had secured the hide from Alan, owner of Pine Mt. Buffalo Ranch, to gift to a dear friend of mine who, in turn, would gift it to our Sun Dance community for much-needed drum and effigy leather. I had thought nothing of laying it on the ground just inside the fence. But my choice of leaving it there, I soon learned, was the cause of my present predicament.

The American bison is a spiritual animal. He was and is at the center of the Lakota spirituality and that of other Native American tribes I know less about. Bison represent to some of these tribes the North, the way of wisdom and suffering. They stand in the great storms and weather them with stoic grace. They serve one another, taking turns plowing through chest-deep snow drifts. The red pipe that makes up the sacred portable altar with which we pray represents the blood of the people, but in many teachings it is said to represent the blood of the bison. Later, I learned that the bison and the great African elephant are particularly sensitive around their dead. It became clear to me this was the case as I saw moisture from noses and tongues all along the remaining board next to the hide. They had been putting their heads through the slats in the fence and, after smelling the hide, had become alarmed, so much so they had torn off boards in their retreat. A bison head and neck can weigh 300 pounds.

Fence? What fence?

That night I immediately moved the hide to the back of my tipi “enclosure,” which suddenly felt a lot less like one. They followed. I spoke softly to them. I smudged the area where the hide had been with sage and sweetgrass and sang to them. I rubbed shampoo on the board that remained on the fence to mask the scent, but I wasn’t fooling anybody. Eventually, they meandered away. Number 8 was the last to go.

This bull, to me, epitomizes the masculine role. I’ve noticed that he does not call attention to himself. He does not do the bison equivalent of calling for another beer from the 'fridge while he watches the big game. His full-time job is to be the herd bull, which means he is subdued until the time for action arises that is in alignment with that calling. He is a watcher. He facilitates the ability of the individuals in the herd to obtain what they need, namely food, rest and water. He doesn’t direct them because he doesn’t have to. They have their own personalities, jobs and talents. He simply allows. He doesn’t gain his strength from the adulation of others but from something far deeper, something unrelated to his size. He is a protector, but you don’t know that until it’s time for him to act. That night was one of those times, and he filled his responsibility perfectly. Every bison in that herd knew it was his job to stare me down.

This he did.

Number 8 and I are repairing our relationship. I can walk through the field without the herd relocating if I lower my eyes, keep my distance and don’t stare at them as I am wont to do. It’s working out fine. But in this field, two of us are masculine, yet only one of us epitomizes a consistently healthy masculinity.

I’ll let you decide which is which.

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