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Where the Buffalo Roam Once Again

October, 2021

Dear Friends,

You could say that buffalo are part of my family tree. That's because my late father-in-law, Bill Sessions, was employed by the state of South Dakota as a veterinarian for more than a decade. One of his jobs was to help oversee the health of Custer State Park’s buffalo herd, which is one of the largest in the world. Bill wasn’t a sentimental man, but he had a deep, hard-earned admiration for buffalo (which are also known as bison, their scientific name).
Bill loved to tell stories about the animals, which look like big, shaggy cattle but are actually capable of incredible speed, agility, and ferocity. One of his favorite stories was about a clueless tourist who was driving through Custer State Park one day in a Volkswagon Beetle. He came up behind a huge bull bison standing in the middle of the road and honked his horn to get him to move. The bison didn't budge, so the man honked again. This time the animal turned his massive head around, came over to the car, and methodically destroyed it with his sharp horns and hooves. Bill said the bull took his time and was quite thorough. The driver, fortunately, escaped unharmed, but he learned a valuable lesson about bison.

Bill was especially fond of working the annual Buffalo Roundup, when the animals are brought into corrals for a vet checkup and sorting. Because the park's grasslands can support only about a thousand bison, each year several hundred are sold at auction. In the weeks before the roundup, herdsmen start gathering them in from the rangeland. (You might well be asking, "How do you herd bison?" The answer: very carefully). Then on the morning of the roundup, in front of more than 20,000 spectators who’ve gotten up at zero-dark-thirty to get there, the cowboys bring them the last mile into the corrals, whooping and hollering as the animals gallop at full speed.

After many years of wanting to attend the roundup, last week I finally got the chance. It was a lot of effort to get there, and a long wait until the herd appeared on the horizon, but my, oh my, was it a sight! As more than a thousand bison thundered by me, their hooves sent up clouds of dust and made the ground shake. The massed power of those magnificent animals is something I'll never forget---and I like to think that my father-in-law Bill was somehow there too, marveling at the sight along with me.
There’s something primal about watching a large number of wild animals on the move. I've felt a similar instinctual response during the sandhill crane migration in Nebraska, when a half-million birds gather along the banks of the Platte River. Maybe you've experienced it too, especially in the fall when flocks of geese fly overheard and starlings gather in murmurations that swoop and sweep across the sky in dazzling patterns. 
The buffalo roundup is organized by humans, of course, but it’s an echo of what once happened naturally. When Europeans first came to North America, more than 50 million bison roamed the interior of the continent in herds up to 20 miles in width and 60 miles in length. For millennia, the species provided physical sustenance and spiritual inspiration for the native peoples of the Great Plains. The Lakota tale of the White Buffalo Calf Woman is one of many sacred stories in which bison play a prominent role. 

By the late 1800s, the buffalo had been hunted nearly to extinction, with just a few hundred animals remaining. Thankfully, grassroots efforts to save the species were launched by a variety of people, from Mary Ann Goodnight who persuaded her rancher husband to rescue a few orphaned buffalo calves for her to raise, to Theodore Roosevelt, who co-founded the American Bison Society. And we owe thanks as well to Custer State Park, which has sent breeding stock to ranches around the continent.

So last week when that herd thundered across the prairie, it wasn’t just the individual animals I was seeing, but an entire species that has come back from the brink of extinction.

Thanks to my father-in-law, I feel a special connection to bison. But I think many of us have a connection to these remarkable creatures, so celebrated in myth and so vital to history, and more broadly to all wild animals. We may live in cities and be thoroughly domesticated in our habits, but when we see wildness, especially in large gatherings of animals, something in our heart leaps. 

I hope you can attend the annual roundup in Custer State Park one day---or visit the park at any time of year to see bison ranging freely (just don't honk your horn at them if they're standing in the road). And this fall, I hope you can have your own experience of the wild, whether it's gazing up at migrating birds, or seeing sea turtles returning to lay eggs in the beaches where they were born, or watching as humpback whales leap and breach in the ocean.

I think autumn is the best time of year to hear these calls of the wild. Be still, be silent, and open your heart. 
All the best--

(The above photo is by my husband, Bob Sessions. You can see more bison photos, as well as many other beautiful images, by following him on Instagram at bob.sessions and/or on Facebook at Bob Sessions.)

Recommended Reading:

Bison: Portrait of an Icon celebrates the iconic American animal with photographs by Audrey Hall and a lyrical essay by Chase Reynolds Ewald.

Bison and People on the North American Great Plains: A Deep Environmental History, which is edited by Geoff Cunfer and Bill Waiser, presents a variety of historical, anthropological, and Native American perspectives on bison. 

In American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon, Steven Rinella combines memoir, history, and biology in telling the story of his fascination with bison.


News About The Soul of the Family Tree:

As regular readers of this newsletter know, I'm the author of the new book The Soul of the Family Tree: Ancestors, Stories, and the Spirits We Inherit. 

On September 28, the audio version was released and is now available through Audible and Amazon (and of course it's also available in print and as an e-book). 

I was pleased to get the chance to visit about my book with one of favorite travel journalists on the Travel with Rick Steves radio show on NPR. Rick is of Norwegian descent, and we had a grand time talking about ancestors, Vikings, and the Web of Wyrd. You can listed to the interview here: The Soul of the Family Tree on NPR's Travel with Rick Steves (my portion of the program begins at 13:25).

I was also on the Family Tree Magazine Podcast with Lisa Louise Cooke: Genealogy and Spirituality.

The Cedar Rapids Gazette ran a review and profile: Lori Erickson finds ancestral spirits. “In this radiant new book, [Erickson] brings a light heart, an old soul and a deep understanding to her subject of how tracing our genealogy can deepen our spiritual lives."

In the Episcopal Journal: Author researches family history

And in Viking Magazine: New Nordic Read Delves into Heritage


Upcoming Events:

The Soul of the Family Tree Book Talks and Signings

October 9, 11 am, Norway House in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Advance registration required.

October 16, 1 pm, Livsreise Norwegian Heritage Center in Stoughton, Wisconsin. Presentation will be via Zoom: register here

October 28, noon-1 pm, Chew on This! Program at The History Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Bring a sack lunch; dessert provided. Admission is $7 for general public and $5 for History Center members.

Also, I'll be leading a Day of the Dead Walk at Harvest Preserve in Iowa City, Iowa, at 4:30 pm on November 1. Join me for a meditative walk in honor of those you love who have died. 

 My Previous Books:

Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper is about places that have helped me come to terms with mortality. 

“This book’s journey to spiritual places near and far is worth taking.” Library Journal (starred review)

Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God is a memoir told through trips to a dozen holy sites around the world.  

“Whether describing mystical visions or the rhythms of everyday life, Erickson turns the spiritual journey into a series of exciting transformations.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

If you've read and enjoyed my books, I hope you'll write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or other online sites. Your review will help other readers discover my work. 


Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She's the author of The Soul of the Family Tree, Near the Exit and Holy Rover. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world. 

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