Reminiscing the Redwing's Cottonwood and a Grand Buffalo Ranch Wedding

It has been a whole year since we began getting the ranch ready for our daughter’s wedding. The reason that this came to mind is that we heard our first redwing blackbird this morning and I remembered that last year, when the tree trimmers came, a redwing sang proudly from the first cottonwood snag I pointed out for trimming. The redwing’s cottonwood was just one of many trees that needed a haircut before the big day - which was in June. I thought that there was plenty of time but Jill and Jilian had a complicated schedule in their minds - an artistic plan that I knew enough not to question.

The deal we made with the tree trimmer was that he would cut out all the dangerous and unsightly dead branches and I would load them up on a trailer and take them to the dump. He came in with two guys and a huge truck with a telescoping aerial bucket. At the end of the day, the entire yard, driveway, and horse corral was filled with downed tree limbs. It took me most of the week to pick up the limbs and rake up the debris.

The next job on my list was to get the greasy machine shop ready for 250 people to enjoy a sit-down reception dinner of roast buffalo with all the trimmings. I announced that such a feat would be impossible but I was ignored.

The last time that shop had been cleaned was the day after it was built. Stashed in the corners were at least twenty-five years of dust, oil, leaves, bird droppings, saw dust, old parts, plastic buckets, nails, balls of twine, jars of unknown liquids, deer antlers, and garden supplies. There was a lot of valuable stuff too: Camping equipment, clay pigeons, plastic pipe, engine parts, coolant, starting fluid, bungee cords, log chains, rolls of barbed wire, fence posts, used lumber, and a couple raccoon traps. Suspended in the rafters were a dozen pieces of cedar siding and some roofing material left over from building the house in the 1980’s. Bats had been living up there since we moved in the early 2000s, but luckily, they had not yet come back for the summer.  There was also important ranching equipment: A welder, an acetylene torch, an anvil, table saw, bench grinder, air compressor, drill press, two big tool chests, a band saw, and hundreds of scattered, but very important, hand tools. I tried pushing everything to the sidewalls but it wasn’t near enough room. In the end, it was all loaded into trailers and hauled to a livestock barn that would be off limits to the wedding guests. We rented a power washer and sprayed it down a couple times before we started any decorating.

I kept trying to tell Jill that our home was a buffalo ranch, not a country club, but I didn’t think I was getting through. She had a vision of just what she wanted but all she could tell me was that it would all come together. She saw a buffalo ranch wedding as a continuation of the circle of life and she repeated what a Lakota friend had told us years before, “The buffalo and people are the same. We emerged from the earth together. We depend on each other.”

Though I didn’t see how that connected to the wedding, I knew what Jill was talking about. On our ranch we take care of the buffalo because they take care of us, and in that sense, it seemed reasonable to consider us as one entity. I also had an understanding of how people who live around buffalo could come to believe that buffalo, and maybe even people, come from under the earth. Hundreds of times I have watched buffalo herds disappear into the folds in the prairie. I have ridden to where I can see the valley where I last saw them only to find that they are gone. Sometimes they reappear right before my eyes. Sometimes they are simply gone.

There is no question that when a daughter marries, it marks a generational rebirth, a changing of the guard, the handing off of a baton. But with bridal showers, wedding invitations, dresses, and menus to consider, a lot of that gets lost. There was also a ranch to run, and though I suddenly had Colton, my son-in-law to help out, it was a busy spring. We all pulled together to ready the place for the wedding but still I was not convinced that the style of the thing matched the landscape and the underlying philosophy of us all.

My spirits rose when I saw where they planned to have the ceremony. They chose the flat top of a finger of land above the Cheyenne River that pointed off toward the south. It was one of the prettiest spots on the ranch, with a view of miles of untrammeled rough country that extended to the Pine Ridge reservation on the south and to Badlands National Park on the east. From up there you could see the huge pasture where the buffalo spent the winter and a corner of the pasture where they would be on the day of the wedding. Two hundred and fifty chairs would be set up on that finger. They planned a buffalo robe for an altar and there would be both a Lakota Holy Man and hip-Christian Minister to officiate.

The day of the wedding was chaotic. We had rented trucks the day before and hauled the chairs and tables. We made another run to the rental store that morning for the table clothes, center pieces, flatware, china, and chandeliers that would hang from the rafters where the bats had previously lived. The caterers were set up both in the house and in an outdoor kitchen under the deck. The bridesmaids and the groomsmen had been out the night before but they showed up and pitched in. The girls were put to making place cards and the boys joined me decorating the machine shop with green cottonwood boughs and strings of sparkling white lights. I was impressed with their energy and strength. They were in their mid-twenties, tall, capable, and clear-eyed – despite the lingering effects of the bachelor party. With Colton as their leader, they were the kind of young people that felt right to have on the ranch.

Jill and I were the last to get dressed. The head usher waited in the buffalo grass behind the guests who sat mesmerized by the view of the Cheyenne River. Jill took his arm and descended the grassy isle and the music began. I stood in the rear with the bridesmaids and Jilian. Her golden hair and brilliant white dress glittered in the sun and she clung to my arm in a way that melted me.

Jill had been strident that this part of the ceremony come off in a certain way. The groomsmen were somewhere off stage but I had seen them earlier. They were dressed in brown western-cut suits that made them look even taller and bolder than they were. The first song was coming to an end and I was afraid that the guests might turn away from the river valley to look at the bridesmaids before the groomsmen were in their places. But suddenly, in the far distance, buffalo appeared and all eyes went to them. They were moving at a slow lope toward the wedding as a guitar and violin started up like a pair of meadowlarks. The buffalo continued to come but suddenly dipped out of sight - back into the earth. The music went bravely on without the buffalo. In their place came those tall, elegant boys. They rose up from below and into the sunlight as if for the first time. The music shifted and the bridesmaids moved to join with those boys.

Finally, I escorted Jilian to Colton’s side. Tears filled my eyes as she stretched up to kiss my cheek and I had to look past her to maintain my composure. My eyes fixed on the near horizon, so no one but me saw the herd of buffalo reappear. They lined up solemnly on a rugged hillside. They were still shaggy with spring shedding and I could see their gentle black eyes and their shiny horns. They had come with a purpose. It was as a kind of a reception line.

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