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 Pamela

    This caused me to reflect and cry. I too am looking at my life changing and the loss of many functions along with a new vulnerability. Just finishing 5 weeks of Acute Bronchitis. never had anything like this before. it just won’t go away.
    I too have a lifework and want to deliver it and continue to evolve it.
    Thank you for yours, the buffalo have been literally a lifesaver for me.
    Sending love and warm regards,

  • Posted on by JoAnne Zawitoski Fernandez

    Dan: My husband and I met you briefly a few weeks ago, just before we were privileged to get a tour of your ranch from Jill. We are long time customers and fans. We understand the feelings you are experiencing—we all get to the point in life when we realize that all the places we have wanted to go or all the things we have wanted to do can’t be accomplished in our lifetime. We hope our children will carry our ideas and dreams forward into the next generation, but the truth is that they often have dreams of their own that are more important to them. People who want to leave a legacy, and who have the means to do it, often set up a non-profit foundation as an adjunct to a money-making business. Paul Newman did this with his food business and it might be a model for you. See Paul’s Book, “Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good.” Nothing lasts forever except love, but we are more powerful than we realize. Like the ripples from a stone skipped upon a pond, the good we do in this life spreads exponentially outwards and does change the world in ways both big and small. Keep spreading the good word and keep making those ripples on life’s pond. Wishing you and your family all the best.

  • Posted on by Vernon Cross

    Comin’ up my wife’s and my 5th wedding anniversary. Time to establish a new five year plan. I will develop malleable goals with her towards realizing our next five year plan come to fruition. This first five was spot on for "gettin’ ‘er done.’ The questions are how many five year plans do we have left and how likely are the dreams we harbor appearing to seem within our lives’ reach? So far, so good. I feel your energy. It boggles to think we will have a Bison International Parkway someday for my descendants to visit.

  • Posted on by Blake O'Quinn

    while quietly observing the hush of dawn, listening to her wakening sounds, I become aware of my own inner peace while being still. and it is this simple connection that undergirds every moment of time, an offering, a gift of life that reveals peace as endless as eternity. my faith in this peace within upholds me as I carry it through the day, gladly giving to others and myself this gift along the way. it is a self-sustaining perspective of simplicity.

  • Posted on by cjoy

    All things great and small are in Gods hand, ask Him am I a good steward of the land. We are all here for a season and even though the body may become frail and energy levels change. Have you considered spending time in one of the oldest books in this world- Gods word. If you can do less than what your used to you can always pray because when we are gone from this world our prayers go on. Blessings

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