Seventy miles off the west coast of south Florida is a tiny cluster of islands called the Dry Tortugas - dry because there is no fresh water on the islands and Tortugas because it was once a good place for mariners to gather sea turtles (tortugas) for food. Though I have never set foot on them, the islands have always fascinated me because they are renowned as a place to watch migrating birds, and because there is a huge brick fort on the main island that has a special connection to the Great Plains. The relationship between this confined, watery world and the arid expanses of the Great Plains are counter intuitive except that the ancient fort that was used as a prison during the time when United States’ most dangerous criminals were thought to be the Indians of the Great Plains.
It was a time when imprisonment was considered only a punishment, and I suppose the authorities of that era believed that imprisonment on the Dry Tortugas was the perfect punishment for people whose main crime was their dignity and their love of movement. Surrounding prisoners who had spent their entire lives moving between small sources of pure, fresh water with nearly infinite, undrinkable salt water was as cruel an irony as naming the fort after Thomas Jefferson.
Fort Jefferson is the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere. The Dry Tortugas’ history in human habitation began in 1825 with a lighthouse intended to help guide U.S. commerce in the Gulf of Mexico. The fort was begun in1846 and much of the construction was done by slave labor - another irony, since the fort remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War. It was decommissioned as a prison in 1874, became a National monument in 1935, and a National Park in 1992.
Since I learned of the tiny archipelago of ten uninhabited islands and one that is covered with a huge nineteenth century fort, I have wanted to go there. I thought that this Christmas, when Jill and I spent nearly two weeks in South Florida, that I would get my chance. I wanted to stand on the edge of the island, on the narrow beach outside Fort Jefferson and look out across the bright, blue, coral reef that fades to black, deep water and try to feel what those Great Plains Natives felt. I imagine whole families standing beside the ocean, scanning the sky for a Wanblee coming to carry their spirits back to the plains. But, if you are not an eagle, it is a difficult place to get to and I had to settle for reading about it as I sat in the mainland sun. I found it odd, that in all the official Park literature I found, there is no reference to Native American prisoners. Such revisionist history is never justified, but in this case the excluded acts are so reprehensible that I understood the impulse to leave it out of literature intended for people fresh from visiting Disneyland.
But I wanted to see it and I was disappointed that I did not get my chance. Instead, I stayed on the mainland and read and slept for most of a week. It was supposed to be the first real vacation that Jill and I had ever taken - no meetings, no book readings, no calling on customers. We slept right through Christmas and New Year’s Eve. We ate enough seafood to satisfy a battalion of porpoises. I got through Team of Rivals
and a biography of Ulysses Grant. But, toward the end of our stay, I got restless and called a friend in South Dakota to see what was happening on the Great Plains. I asked about the weather and how the buffalo were getting along. He assured me that both were fine and then he told me that, because of the drought, another of our friends had just sent several semi loads of buffalo, “Down there someplace.”
“No," I said. “Not down here, I’m in Florida.”
“Yea,” he said. I heard him typing into his computer. “Yea, right here.” He gave me the name of a town that I recognized. “Some guy starting a sustainable, grassfed, organic, local, high omega 3, low sodium buffalo business.”
“Oh, yea.” We had a laugh and went on to talk about the Fiscal Cliff negotiations and Notre Dame’s chances against Alabama.
He was the only person from home that I had talked to in over a week and it felt kind of good. I say, kind of good, because hearing that buffalo were actually being shipped out of South Dakota to Florida, gnawed on me. I got out a map and found the town he had mentioned. It was only an hour’s drive, but I didn’t have an address and I really wanted the vacation to continue and play itself out as we had planned. For a day, I tried sitting at the pool and starting a new book. I bought Les Miserable’s
on my Kindle. Bad choice. After an hour of reading I was in the car heading into the agricultural land of central Florida.
Miles and miles and miles of citrus. Large clearings in the trees with tall brown grass that looked like nothing I had ever seen. Thin, floppy-eared cattle by the hundreds. Intensive agriculture like I had only seen in the commodity land of Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio. There were wading birds and turkey vultures in the air at all times. I stopped at a roadside stand and bought some boiled peanuts from an old black man who looked at me and laughed when I asked if there were any buffalo around. “No, sir. No buffaloes.”
That was a bit of a relief and I cruised along the country road as I do in South Dakota - slowly, watching, trying to figure out how the land works. Had I been speeding down the road like everyone else, I would have missed them.
They appeared on the horizon a mile and half off the road and I tried to convince myself that they were just more cattle. But I knew they were buffalo and I turned the car around and pulled into a set of buildings to ask. By chance, I drove right into a fencing crew taking an afternoon break. One look at their pickup and trailer and I knew they were building buffalo fence.
They were just a bunch of southern talking cowboys and I fell right in with them when I said that I was in the buffalo business too. I told them that I thought they might have some buffalo from near my ranch in South Dakota.
“South Dakota?” It was an old guy in a stained cowboy hat. “Hell, yes. We got buffalo from all over.”
“’Bout sixteen hundred of ‘em,” a younger man said.
“No foolin’?” I said. “That’s a lot of buffalo. You guys are regular buffalo boys.”
“Hell, no,” another man said. “We don’t know shit about buffalo.”
“Don’t want to,” another man grumbled.
They all laughed and the oldest man held up his hand. “We’re learnin’. The boss is the buffalo man.” He pointed to small building. “He’s over there in the office.”
I sat with the cowboys for another few minutes and answered a few of their questions about handling buffalo. “Bulls meaner than the cows?” “When do they calve?” “What about using horses ‘round ‘em?”
Finally I wondered over to the office and found an earnest young man who seemed happy to see me. “Don’t get many other buffalo producers come by here.”
“I don’t ‘spose.”
He was from New England and this was his first venture into agriculture. He knew little about buffalo, but had been to a series of grazing schools and was very excited about it all. We toured his ranch and we found the South Dakota buffalo in a big paddock where he had put them to acclimate to the ranch before he turned them out with the main herd. To my surprise, they looked good. Of course, they had only been there for a couple weeks so any negative affect from the imported South American grass or the unique parasites of the tropics probably hadn’t had time to show. There was one particularly magnificent cow buffalo that stared at me as if she remembered me from some wind-swept South Dakota prairie. I took an extra few seconds to look into her stoic, black eyes. As I watched, a pure white cattle-egret lumbered through the air to land on her back. Had one of my Lakota friends seen this they would have wondered if the bird had come for her soul. But if the egret bothered her, she did not let on.
The South Florida buffalo ranch was a big and amazing piece of ground and we only had time to look at part of it. There did not seem to be a conservation piece to this operation - the native species were long gone. I tried to figure how many tens of millions of dollars had already been invested in this exotic buffalo ranch. I knew the cost of the buffalo and the cost of the tall woven wire fences, but I didn’t know anything about the land. Its value was a mystery to me but I knew that it could only be paid for if the spirit of the buffalo was traded for the liquidity of a commodity.
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