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Erney 1940–2021

Erney Hersman is dead and the world is now a darker place. The call came in earlier this month, the ringing penetrating my dreams at four o’clock in the morning, and I waited a beat before I picked up the receiver. It was the night nurse at the rest home where Erney had been for over a year. “It was another stroke,” she said. “He passed peacefully”. Erney and I lived together for 50 years—yes, 50 years—and, since that call, I have been thinking about all that has transpired over those five decades.

I met Erney in the fall of 1970, when I was a first-year graduate student at the University of South Dakota and he was working for the South Dakota Highway Department. We were brought together by a meeting of falconers who were advising the Game, Fish, and Parks Department on state regulations for the practice of falconry. I was 22 and he was 34. I’d come from a middle-class family in urban Ohio and had a little education behind me; his father had died when Erney was an infant and he was raised by a single mother in a large, rural family. His education was a high school diploma and he walked with a limp from a construction accident. I would learn later that Erney had refused care on a broken femur, a harbinger of a personality trait that led him to scoff at safety precautions. But I would also learn that he was gentle and kind, with a wealth of practical knowledge about animals, plants, and all living things. I would also learn that I, compared to Erney, was green as the prairie grass. We were something of an odd pair and shared only a love of the outdoors, a love of books, and falcons. But we bonded soon after that meeting in the autumn of 1970. Maybe we recognize that we needed each other.

By the next summer we had obtained a small acreage with a derelict house with broken windows, a jungle for a yard, old wiring, and no indoor plumbing. There was no well on the property, just a leaky cistern under the kitchen with mice floating on couple feet of fetid water. I had no idea how to make the house livable, but Erney did. He commuted 25 miles each way to his job in Yankton, South Dakota—every afternoon bringing water pipes, shingles, lumber, panes of glass, and even a toilet on his motorcycle. Driven by the certainty of a looming winter, we worked on the house in the evenings. He seemed to know just how things had to go together and was amazingly agile with his hands. He did 90 percent of all the work on the house, slow but steady as the days cooled into November. We heated the house with wood in an old potbellied stove. There was no television so we sat in the glow of a bare lightbulb to read. Erney’s reading list included a lot of natural history, African adventure, western Americana, and scientific books on butterflies, cactus, bromeliads, geology, and, of course, birds. He tutored me in the ways of the prairie, showed me how a human should relate to all the wonders of open spaces. More than any other man, he shaped me into the man I have become.

In that same poor light, he made all the leather falconry gear that we needed to outfit the falcons that we kept in that very living room—until the owner of the local shoe shop badgered Erney into taking over his pitiful business. So Erney quit his highway department job and began patching up the boots of farmers and the purses of their wives. But he could never bring himself to charge people enough for the repairs and did much of the work gratis. Of course, the shoe shop went bankrupt so he took a job on the neighboring ranch. Because Erney could do everything that a ranch needed, the rancher rode him like a rented mule. But Erney stuck it out and in the process taught me what to expect when the wind swung to the east, where pheasants made their nests, how to build a strong fence, and when the cranes would migrate overhead.

Finally, I got married and graduated with a master’s degree. My wife and I moved to the Black Hills and left Erney 300 miles behind. But a year later I got a call. Never a careful person, he had lost his right thumb to the power takeoff of a tractor. He had finally gotten enough of working long hours for short pay with no appreciation and he wondered if there was work in the Black Hills. My jobs took me away from home about half the time and there were chores on our little place that often went undone. I told Erney that I had lots of work and a spare bedroom, but no pay.

He showed up a week later in a beat-up Chevy Luv Truck with every single thing he owned in the back. He stayed for the next 45 years—first in a basement bedroom, then in a tiny cabin 75 yards from the house. As he had done with our first house, he did all the things that I didn’t have the skill or the time to do. The falcons were still a big part of our lives and he took care of them when I was on the road, even flying them to keep them in condition.

As he aged, his activities became more domestic. He built himself a greenhouse and taught himself to cultivate all sorts of rare plants. He kept chickens and developed ways to raise Hungarian partridge for release on our ranch. He became an expert on a unique agate found only in our area. And as he taught himself, I picked up some of the knowledge around the edges.

His cabin had electricity but he heated it with a wood stove. By then there was a television because his vision was growing too fuzzy for reading - though he could still see a falcon moving through the clouds at five thousand feet. But he sat in the poor light that he refused to improve and he tied thousands of tiny fishing flies to sell at the local fly shop. He rigged up a falcon perch and tamed the falcons with constant attention. Our falcons of that era, and the dogs that laid at his feet, were well versed in Gunsmoke, Big Time Wrestling, Andy Griffith, and the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association Finals.

Then came the first stroke. He was found on the floor of the machine shop, conscious but terribly disoriented. There was some time in the hospital and a short stint in a rehab program. At our growing ranch, we were switching from raising cattle to raising buffalo and Erney wanted to help. I needed his intuitive understanding of animals but knew that things would not be the same. He still took care of the falcons in the off-season but Erney was no longer able to do much physical work. Being cooped up did not agree with him and he deteriorated until one morning I found him on the concrete floor of the falcon house. He had had his second stoke and lay on the floor, blinking his eyes. This time we called the sheriff and they came with an ambulance and took him away. For two years he bounced between the hospital and a couple of care facilities. But he never came back to the ranch.

One of the last times I saw him was through his nursing home window when he was recovering from Covid-19. The home had had an outbreak. He was suffering and wasn’t able to talk. I wouldn’t have been able to hear him anyway, so we stared at each other through the glass. The only flicker of the old Erney I saw was when he glanced at something over my left shoulder. When I turned to see what had caught his attention there was movement. It was a red-tailed hawk sitting in a tree a few hundred feet behind me. It was looking past me into the darkened sick room.

Covid-19 didn’t get Erney, but a final stroke did. Now, his ashes sit on the desk, watching lovingly over me. At the end of June, the few of us who knew Erney will take him out to the agate beds he knew so well. His ashes will nestle down among those ancient rocks and remain there forever.

 

Erney Hersman's Celebration of Life - Sunday, June 27, 2021

Erney's family and his ranch family gathered to celebrate his life.

They shared stories, went through old photos and then drove to his favorite agate bed on the ranch.

Here, his ashes were spread out – a beautiful place to rest and be free.

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40 comments

  • First it was EQUINOX – a chance discovery on a shelf of natural history in a bookstore where I once worked. I loved it! And not just the falcons and dogs, but also the people in Dan’s life. And of course, Dan’l himself. I had to learn more, so RITES OF AUTUMN, which actually came before Equinox. No matter it filled in many details, golden details. Then I had to wait a while because I rarely read fiction. But my waiting was rewarded many times over with Buffalo for the Broken Heart. Erney really came to the foreground here. And lastly Wild Idea.

    I’ve listed all these books for a reason. Each was a testimony to Erney along with all of the rest of the characters, and birds, and dogs. In fact, I have a feeling that Erney sort of did what Kris’ Jake did. He had been with you for the whole journey, and, when it seemed that you (Daniel) had gotten all settled and grown up and happy, he knew it was time for him and his soul to leave you to it. Kris had found you; you had found Jill – worlds within worlds.

    We mourn for those who are dead and gone from this earthly plane. But where they’ve gone is as the saying goes a “much better place”. I like to think that at that place souls like Erney are seen as tremendous success stories. That Earth is one big classroom and we each come here for the lessons we need. And if we learn those lessons well, then that’s a life. And death is only end to that classroom. Others await us.

    But let’s celebrate how incredibly Good Erney was. You must have pretty good karma too Dan’l to have been given such a friend to help you get to where you needed to go. And now, well here you are! And over there, Erney is.

    Breck Breckenridge
  • Been saying, “going to Dan and Erney’s”, for over 25 years and it just comes out naturally. It makes me take pause every time it comes out now and my mind instantly goes through all of the time I’ve spent with Erney over the years from the first time Lynne brought me out to the ranch. I learned a lot from Erney and felt pretty damn proud if Erney gave his approval of the jesses and anklets I made for my hawk. I admired his simplicity but attention to detail in his craftsmanship and the ways of nature.

    I loved our conversations and the way his eyes would light up when I brought him a rock to look at or a feather to quiz him on the species which he never got wrong by the way, even in the end when he couldn’t make the words come out, I knew that he knew exactly what bird it came from. I loved his belly laugh and the fact that my youngest said that he didn’t like the way Erney smelled, which made ME laugh really damn hard! Hell,…I even loved that in some strange way.
    Thanks for sharing your story Dan and thanks for sharing the old photos!

    Charlie Brumbaugh
  • As always your words are moving! I have fond memories of Erney from my visits to the ranch, may he rest in peace!
    Ox
    Kitty

    Kitty
  • Such a loving tribute to such a caring man. Our deep sympathies for your loss. His particles are forever entangled there at your ranch.

    Peggy Detmers
  • Lois Lukens met Erney many years before I , Bruce did. Lois first met Erney as she and Richard Childs, attended Dan’s wedding. Lois and I, (Bruce) went to CRR (2018) where I met Erney. Erney was truly an Ethereal Spirit, tuned into a level of consciousness not many folks ever attain. I envy Erney’ passion for the Simplicity of Life. To see Erney’s Spirit return unto the realm it came from, and the dry bones/dust return unto Mother Earth …. is a Spiritual moment for me. The Red Tail Hawk is my Spirit guide, as it appears it was also Erney’s. Tears stain my cheeks in writing this .

    Truly Erney …. You are free to soar with the Red Tail Hawks … and with the Spirits of your many falcons!

    Bruce Tuxhorn Lois Lukens
  • Dan, your tribute is deeply moving. Few of us ever get friendships that profound.
    Erney may not have had a lot of degrees but he was one of the most intelligent people I have ever known, about so many subjects. He was wise and funny and to this day I have a mental list of Erney quotes I use in many situations. I will always remember his kindness and generosity.

    Joe Maierhauser
  • I am sorry to learn of Erney’s passing, yet am grateful for the chance to have known him through the story of your friendship which – by the way – is a testament to recognizing great value in a living being that many overlook or dismiss. To me, your love for Erney parallels and reflects your love for Buffalo.
    They are so much the same.
    Bravo to you for seeing with the eyes, but mostly seeing with your heart.
    My thoughts and prayers are yours.

    Debbie Rizzoli
  • Dan, you have my sympathy in Erney’s crossing over to the other side. I feel I know him from reading all your writings. I’ve loved your books since a Friend told me YEARS ago she’d found a library book she thought I’d like…In the Center of the Nation. She was right! Take good care of yourself & your Loved ones. God Bless you with Peace & Comfort. Sincerely, Laurie

    Laurie LaCroix from Yankton
  • I heard about his passing a few weeks ago, but the number I had for you wasn’t working, Dan. I can only offer the empty words of condolence for the very real loss you have suffered in the loss of your friend and family member. We are all poorer for the loss of such an iconic piece of the real West.

    John Halverson
  • fellowship, brotherhood, friendship, are of everlasting joy we share together, though too quickly removed from our sight when seen not from the eyes of Spirit.

    we walk not the road alone.

    Blake O'Quinn
  • I discovered Wild Idea Buffalo first after reading your books about bison ranching. I fell in love with your writing and felt like I knew the people most important to you in the books. I was scheduled to visit your ranch in the summer of 2019 but there was a death in the family then and to be honest since then I have been fretting about Erney. So thank you, for sharing this and letting those of us who felt we knew him from your books be a part of celebrating his life. I am crying—from sadness and from how beautifully this was written.

    Laura Tabacca
  • How sad to read Erney’s final chapter, after getting to know him in “Buffalo For the Broken Heart.” Sad,. but altogether fitting and lovely. You two did right by each other for all these years and you gave him a fine sendoff.

    I have always liked the following:

    Under the wide and starry sky Dig the grave and let me lie Glad did I live and gladly die And I laid me down with a will This be the verse you grave for me: ’Here he is where he longed to be Home is the sailor, home from the sea And the hunter home from the hill. Robert Louis Stevenson
    Jean Thompson
  • Tears in my eyes and the wish for more people to have someone like that in their life. What a beautiful spirit and soul that guy seems to have.

    Stephanie
  • Having long ago read “Buffalo for the Broken Heart” it is easy to understand how you were influenced by Erney. I sense your followers and readers comprehend Erney’s contributions to where Wild Idea is today. He know doubt helped mend that “broken heart.”

    David Fleming
  • Hi Dan – This is a beautiful tribute to a life long friend, and is beautifully done. Thank you so much for sharing your long journey of friendship with Erney. I know you will miss him dearly, but he is in the arms of God now in a happy place.

    I put you and Erney and all your dear ones in the arms of God.
    Love, Don

    Don Meyer

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