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 Paul Niesen

    Dan, I have enjoyed reading several of your books and blogs. I am hoping to visit you and your ranch sometime in the future. You and your values are something to be proud of, your legacy will live on through your writings and your wonderful family. Nature and what you have done to help it to survive is something to be proud of, keep the spirit alive. I hope we are both here long enough to meet up once again.

  • Posted on by George Frantz

    Dan… as a man of a certain age, those issues run through my mind at times. My wife and I moved to SD in 1972 to work in the buffalo business and hopefully one day, have a ranch. The dream is past for us, but you and your family are carrying it forward. Blessings on your tribe.
    But as to the future, would you ever consider offering “shares” in the dream? The large number of your readers and customers are certainly interested. A limited IPO might bring in a healthy chunk of revenue and further engage your supporters in carrying on the vision.
    We watched a small bison operation here in MA wither as the owners got old and the kids had no interest in furthering the effort. Your work deserves to be carried on to the seventh generation.

  • Posted on by Chris and Kim

    Well written Dan, as always. When it’s all said and done, our legacy is how we elect to make a difference in the lives of our children. And considering your daughter, son in law and now those priceless grandchildren, you may rest assured that you are doing quite well. Cheers to you, Jill and the entire O’Brien/Jones family! . .

  • Posted on by Dan Page

    Just a wonderful piece of writing. As good and dare I say even better than the buffalo you raise! And I don’t say that lightly, because the buffler is delicious.

  • Posted on by Christine

    Yes, Dan. Oh my yes. Feeling tired and vulnerable — two things that seem to haunt us as we get older. I’m thinking right now that I need a nap. I am not doing as good a job as I thought I would at this aging thing. One foot in front of the other, check. More doctor visits, check. Read more books – that might well be the best advice, cure, strategy of all. Check.

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