I've Been Feeling Mortal


In the past two years, I have spent more than my fair share of time at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The clinic is a fine hospital with hundreds of fine, young doctors and thankfully I’m all right, it’s just that hospitals in general make me feel sadly mortal.

dan o'brien playing with grandkids

It’s not like I think I’m about to die. In fact, dying is hard for me to imagine. But, there is a creeping sense of fragility. It usually only comes over me when I’m about to do something stupid, like looking into a strange horse's eye and trying to read its soul before I jump on. Life has suddenly gotten less physical. I don’t lift heavy objects anymore. Walking is still a great pleasure to me but now, before I set off, I notice and consider the distance and change of elevation like never before. That contraction of the physical is probably all normal and good, and I can bear it. What bothers me most, is a new focus and feeling of helplessness with regard to purpose. It is a kind of exhaustion that makes me reconsider the future as if I have lost some power to mold it. I have always been a dreamer, but now I feel myself planning more, weighing the options, noticing the flaws in the dream.

My new-found mortality is not simply the sudden realization of fear and risk. The risks of my life have always scared the hell out of me, but I usually went ahead because I felt strong and the dream was so much more powerful than the fear. But of course, dreams are personal things and the weight of them falls on the dreamer’s shoulders. It isn’t fair to expect others to step into the harness of another’s dream. I’m lucky to have a daughter and a son-in-law in the wings to take over this buffalo ranch and the meat business. They too have a belief in good food and the restoration of the Great Plains, but one can never be sure. Maybe the sense of my mortality is not so much the realization that I will one day die, but that, when the inevitable happens, there may not be anyone to step in and tend the dream.

Anyone who cares to think, can stand on the deck of this ranch house and look over the Cheyenne River and know that the temporal relationship between the Great Plains and a man/woman is severely out to scale. Time simply acts on one differently in those two concepts. For a man to affect any sort of restoration (or new realization) about our relationship to the environment is way bigger than any single human life – if it is possible at all. A guy hates to think of his life’s work sliding backward after he’s gone. It is really only ideas that have a chance of bridging gaps between generations. If an idea can be established then the next generation gets to start at a different place than the last generation. It might be two steps forward and one step back, but it seems to be the way it works. So, the real question is not so much one of the mortality of a single man/woman as it is one of the immortality of ideas.

There are modern ways to counter-act this negative effect of time. There are organizations that carry on the dreams of men/women. There are legal creatures like, conservation easements and corporations that can extend the influence of us all. But, knowledge of these things is not something that I have picked up over the years. Of course, old dogs can learn new tricks... but there is that exhaustion to consider.

This month, I have been unplugging the telephone and reading old books. I re-read Don Quixote and it struck me hard that the hero dies only when he realizes that his dreams are not possible. It makes me think that this old dog had better be studying up on some of those new tricks.


  • Posted on by Bruce Ludwig

    I hear you on the frustrations over having to take a second look before stepping on that strange horse or tackling tasks that we used to take on without a second thought. Enjoy your photos and observations and often wonder if those setters that let you live with them are descendants of Missy. Been needing to make a road trip up to visit my daughter in Rapid and would stop by for a visit if you are taking a break from you busy schedule.

  • Posted on by Bill Schulz

    Hi Dan. I am a quarter century old, 75 years old, or 76 years old in two months—-depending on the perspective. Only One I know who died and rose from the dead and even He tried to avoid death (or at the very least the death He was to face.) Dying/death was not part of the Original Plan but we (sinned) disobeyed/ questioned the Creator. It’s all there this old story in Genesis. Give it another read; I did.
    For now I am gonna grow
    Another day older
    As I do
    I will take a few moments of time to reread Eminent Domain
    Really good short stories from a really good storyteller
    So good even or especially so after all these years.
    We recently moved to our home on 12 acres ion Neck Yoke Road. Stop by sometime for a cold one we need your advice on how to properly care for the property. Meanwhile remember that as long as there is a sunrise for every sunset in your life, (Or the other way round. I get those two mixed up), you’re good to go.

  • Posted on by Charlotte Terracciano

    I was just scanning various posts on the Facebook site this morning and discovered Dan’s writings and kept reading on to also read other comments by a number of others. It never ceases to amaze me at how things just pop-up on Facebook, however, four years my new husband & I were visiting South Dakota in mid September and I seem to recall purchasing some bison jersey somewhere in our travels there. So perhaps thru offering my email address, a connection was made. I am now 68 yrs. of age and reflecting on my own mortality. Love Dan’s honesty and that he has shared his thoughts so genuinely. I have an affinity for the buffalo (the spirit of the buffalo) and buffalo is good eating. I plan to place an order soon and want to read Dan’s writings soon, as well. God Bless him for his work to preserve the buffaloes and his conservation efforts.

  • Posted on by Dwane Bell

    Thank you for your thought provoking words!!! I’ll be 73 in a few days. About 50 years ago, I heard something on the radio that has stayed with me ever since and has had a great impact on my life. It was the deep, guttural voice of Earl Nightingale, as I was driving home from work, expounding to the world his unique and always positive outlook on life. He commented that a lot of us die at a certain (expected) age because we make our plans to do so. We program ourselves to wind down and die at the “expected” age. My project list will carry me into the next two decades and beyond – not to mention my bucket list. One of Earl’s quotes was “Whatever we plant in our subconscious mind and nourish with repetition and emotion will one day become a reality.” Make plans for your 110th birthday, you just might make it.

  • Posted on by Nancy Mann

    Alta Vista Farm…fantastic memories of Bison in our back yard….what a sight….what a life.

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