Beast mode…of donkeys and buffaloes.
If you know me at all, you know I’m a bit eccentric. Okay, okay. Maybe even more than a bit. I’m the guy with a 150-lb. concrete donkey, a mounted buffalo on my wall, a toilet that plays “Surfin’ USA” when the lid is raised, and a working Shakespeare head-tilting bust like the 1960’s Batcave. I actually celebrate my own toymaker/mad scientist oddballity. Especially when it comes to certain animals. Yes, animals. Eccentric. Always have been. And as I look back, the donkey and the buffalo are consistent themes for me since before high school. Both of them fascinate me on a variety of levels. Why? You know, I never really stopped to think much about it. Let’s try to find out. Go down one line. Now. Thanks. Sorry. It was two lines.
My “hard” data for this my mental safari came from two very different but both spiritual sources…the Bible and Native American mythos. I didn’t expect to find much correlation between these fountainheads but I was surprised. I’ll add my own animal allegory and we’ll be done. Deal? Climb into your saddle, pardners. We’re about to hit the trail. This is a long one. Let us begin.
Animals: Biblical perspective.
In 1976, a Christian organization released a series of big, expensive books I coveted called “Character Sketches from the Pages of Scripture, Illustrated in the World of Nature,” Vols. 1-3, published by the fundamentalist evangelical organization, Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts. I only note the particular spiritual flavor of the authors (apparently anonymous) of this series to illustrate the wildly different platforms from which I’ve drawn. In those beefy (I’m almost sorry for the bad cow pun) volumes are descriptions of various animals, highlighting the Christian character trait they’re said to represent.
So we’ve got “Character Sketches” from the land of Christians. What does the actual Bible say? Can donkeys and buffaloes teach me about myself and about God? Hmm. Take a quick look at Romans 1:20 and Job 12:7-10 below.
“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” Romans 1:20
“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” Job 12:7-10.
Pretty clear. My take on these passages is all of God’s creation, including animals, serve as a pathway to understand God’s “eternal power and divine nature.” And this truth is not hidden but can be “clearly seen.” I have seen a heck of a lot of donkeys and buffaloes.
Animals: Native American perspective.
Surprisingly, for me at least, I turned to an interesting book called, “Animal Speak” written by Ted Andrews. It presents the Native American take on what they call “Spirit Animals.” According to this, when certain animals continually cross one’s path, there is meaning. There I learned about the “animal totem” concept. Simply, in Native American culture a totem is a symbol, an emblem (which in the field of Communication represents a word or phrase, like raising your hand at a 90 degree angle to indicate “stop”).
The Native American culture is rich in animal totem meanings. According to Ted Andrews, “Terrestrial animals have always had a strong symbology associated with them.” Some woo-woo here, perhaps, but somewhat captivating. To trap which specific animals have shinnied up my personal totem pole, Andrews suggests I ask myself some very interesting questions.
“Which animals have always fascinated me? Which animals have consistently drawn me? Which have resonated with me? Which animals do I see or have an encounter with most frequently? Which animals am I most interested in now?” The answer is clear for me. Obvious even.
Wow. To quote the sage Yoda (not an animal crossing my path I don’t think), “Unexpected this is.” The Bible and Native American constructs riding in the same wagon train? Huh.
The Native Americans may well overemphasize the study of God’s creation, not unlike most Christian denominations may well overemphasize some beliefs and rituals like baptism, organ music vs. rock bands, assurance of salvation, speaking in tongues, and worship leaders wearing trendy little fedoras up front during a church service. That’s why there are denominations.
Overall, I think the Native Americans give too much meaning to the animals around them. And I think Bible believers may give too little. Just my opinion. I’ll try to whip up a spiritual smoothie from both sets of meanings. Again, it may surprise you to learn these two very different perspectives are surprisingly similar. Both state clearly that animals can teach me important lessons about God and myself.
Yes, I’m redonkulous.
The Urban Dictionary defines “redonkulous” as “significantly more absurd than ridiculous, to an almost impossible degree.” It’s an obvious tossing of the two words, “ridiculous” and “donkey” into the mystical Dairy Queen machine that creates the often-hankered-for chocolate and vanilla twist cone. I confess the word “redonkulous” may well apply to my attempt to create my own little animal almanac here. We’ll see.
But is “redonkulous” really true of a donkey? You know, I already wrote about donkeys…more than once…so I’ll try not to chew my hay and carrots twice. Check out my “Bad Ass” blog post if you’re interested. Still, there is more to tell. I’ll try not to bury you under a pile of donkey dung. Donkeys first entered my mental stable when I was 10 years old. My mother worked at the Rand McNally bookbindery plant in Hammond, Indiana. She always brought me books. Piles of books. I learned to love to read very quickly. One favorite set of books was by author Marguerite Henry. She wrote many fiction books about horses.
And one about a donkey. “Brighty of the Grand Canyon.” Brighty, never fully tamed, was the hero of this story and had many adventures. I loved it. I’m holding a copy of this great children’s book right now. It makes me smile. So does a special Christmas present from my American-Canadian daughter Valerie. Knowing of my interest in donkeys, she actually smuggled a “Kinder Donkey Stuffed Animal with Kinder Egg Candies” across the Canadian border for me (Kinder chocolate stuff, the kind with little toys inside, are illegal in the U.S., whodathunk it).
Birchie and Gribouille, donkeys of peace.
I can’t forget Birchie. That’s what his friends call him. His real name is Bertrand. He is a little stuffed donkey I gave my grandson Jared shortly after he was born six years ago. Birchie has been Jared’s near constant companion almost his entire life. If you look close at Birchie, you’ll see he’s getting ragged. Jared’s mom Torrie has had Birchie on the operating table a number of times. Somehow, this now scruffy little donkey continues to radiate comfort for Jared.
A real donkey served much the same purpose for a man named Andy Merrifield. I highly recommend to you the excellent little nonfiction book, “the wisdom of donkeys; finding tranquility in a chaotic world” by Andy Merrifield (Walker Publishing, 2008). This is an amazing account of how Mr. Merrifield,
weary of the crazy life of the city, wandered across the Haute-Auvergne of southern France, accompanied only by his borrowed donkey, Gribouille. I promise if you read this book, your perspective on the creature we call a donkey will be forever changed. Gribouille is a hero and four-legged guru. Want a copy? Just ask. I’ll send you one.
I’ve encountered donkeys many times through the years. Sometimes in books. Sometimes face to face. Once on a menu. Not kidding. While in the Dominican Republic a few years ago, my grandson Bryce and I headed for the all-inclusive buffet restaurant at the resort. Not bad chow, and always with a theme for the meal. That night, it was Mexican food. The DR attracts tourists from all over the world. The labels on the food choices were translated into several languages. There on the tray was the label, “Little Donkeys of Chicken.” Whaaaat? Of course they were trying to say “chicken burritos” but it was lost in the translation. Bryce and I skipped that hilarious gourmet offering nonetheless. I do love buffalo meat but I’m not eager to wolf down a donkey steak.
Strangely, the donkey is not mentioned anywhere in the “Character Sketches” volumes. Huh. I can’t think of a more biblical animal than a donkey, chosen to be the transportation for the King of Kings, Jesus Christ, in His “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. And then there’s the biblical account of Balaam’s donkey audibly speaking after trying to heed God’s direction and getting beaten harshly for it three times by stinker Balaam. See the book of Numbers 22:26-33 for God’s talking donkey. As George MacDonald said, “Truth is truth, whether it’s spoken by the lips of Jesus or Balaam’s donkey.” I concur.
Pause here. Another talking donkey? I just can’t pass up the hilarious Eddie Murphy-voiced Donkey from the Shrek movies. Who can forget, “I’m makin’ waffles!” My favorite line is, “You know what else everybody likes, parfaits. Have you ever met a person you say, ‘hey, let me get some parfaits.’ They say, ‘hey, no I no like no parfaits.’ Parfaits are delicious!” Indeed. We all like parfaits. Smart donkey.
I struggled with adding this piece right after mentioning the biblical account of Balaam’s donkey. I have a strong respect for the Bible. It stands alone. In the end, I couldn’t resist the obvious segue. And ah, heck with it…there’s one more. Francis the Talking Mule appeared in seven movies in the 50’s. Available as a set from Amazon. You can have in two days with Prime.
In Native American folklore, animals also message us. Not audibly. It’s more about an awareness of the things around us, same as the Bible says. The ass, according to “Animal Speak,” has as his “keynote” the traits of wisdom and humility.
According to Indian beliefs, to one whose path is consistently crossed by donkeys, they symbolize “victorious transformation” in life. Though many times considered negatively, the donkey rises above those labels to higher callings. Yes, he does.
Granted, this Indian message from the donkey is perhaps broader than what I glean from the Bible. Yet there are more than 150 Bible passages that speak of this simple, lowly creature. Clearly from both sources of insight, the donkey is a symbol of responsibility, strength, and humility. Unlike buffaloes, donkeys can be and are often are domesticated. True beasts of burden.
Unfortunately, the donkey is often laughed at and thought to represent stupidity. Glance at the old English word, “assishness” which means an “asinine quality; stupidity.” Then unpack “asinine” and you get “very stupid; silly; resembling an ass.” Just not true. I know what it feels like to be told and/or treated like I was stupid in years past. Hearing “stupid” just like my brother the donkey might just be a badge of honor. In a quiet moment, I know the truth. Neither the donkey nor I am stupid. Far from it.
There’s a great donkey summary in the book, “Eros and Magic in the Renaissance” by Ioan P. Couliano. What I find interesting with this non-biblical passage is it straddles both realms of animal meaning, giving us what I think is the true nature of the donkey.
“I wish to explain the mysterious worth and excellence of the donkey. In the eyes of Hebrew scholars the donkey is the symbol of strength and courage. He has all the qualities essential to a disciple of truth; he is satisfied with little and endures hunger and blows. Simple-minded, he does not know the difference between a head of lettuce and thistle; he loves peace, he carries burdens. A donkey saved Marius when he was pursued by Sylla. The philosopher Apuleius would never have vouchsafed the mysteries of Isis had he not been transformed into a donkey. The donkey was useful in the triumph of Christ; the donkey was able to perceive the angel as Balaam had not done. The donkey’s jaw supplied Samson with a victorious weapon. No animal had ever the honor to rise from the dead except the donkey, the donkey alone, to whom St. Germanus gave back life; and that suffices to prove that after this life the donkey will have his share of immortality.” Ioan P. Couliano.
Strength, courage, wisdom, humility. You bet I want to be like a donkey. They regularly cross my path, and I am drawn to understand them, laugh at them, and learn from them. I can relate to the donkey. I love the Native American symbol for the donkey, “victorious transformation.” Bring it.
Yes, I’m buffaloed.
I know. I know. The word is actually “bison.” What we so often call a buffalo isn’t a buffalo at all but a bison (I was educated by my 11-year old grandson and junior zoologist Brayden about this subject; zoologists are much hipper than I imagined). When the French first came to North America, they saw these giant beasts, the largest of North American land animals, all over the place. Having never before encountered a formidable critter measuring up to seven feet tall at the pinnacle of his hump and weighing up to 3,000 lbs., the French named them “les boeuf.” The closest they could come to the bison was their oxen and the water buffalo found in Africa and Asia. “Boeuf” got Americanized to “buffe,” “buffelo,” and finally “buffalo.” Now if I didn’t tell you I knew all that, you wouldn’t know I knew it. No matter. I’m going with “buffalo.” The words are interchangeable.
Buffaloes were the sustainers of the plains Native American tribes. They used just about every part of the animal from the meat and hides to the horns and hooves. As more and more settlers showed up, the buffalo population dropped from some 60 million, yes, 60 million, to just a handful, very near extinction in just about 20 years (1865 to 1884). Yes, more buffaloes than people in the U.S. in the early 1800’s. Many factors contributed to their demise. Contrary to popular belief, Buffalo Bill was not among them. Granted he hunted buffaloes and led expeditions to do the same, but he actually was a concerned conservationist before it was cool to be a concerned conservationist.
Yes, there were rich white men who rode trains westward and wantonly shot buffaloes from the windows at will. Yes, the “settling of the new world” took away the huge grazing needs of the mighty herds. But ultimately, it looks like the buffaloes were their own worst enemy. Their sheer numbers made it difficult to find continuous food sources, leading to massive slaughter by Indians and settlers alike.
Interestingly, we find the buffalo showing up in the Bible book of Job, chapter 39. In this ancient passage from an ancient book, we again see confirmed the wild nature of the buffalo. Having personally observed several herds of bison over the last several years, it’s clear these animals represent pure power under control. They seem quiet and peaceful; yet possess such great strength and a free spirit that demands respect.
“Will the wild buffalo condescend to serve you, volunteer to spend the night in your barn? Can you imagine hitching your plow to a buffalo and getting him to till your fields? He’s hugely strong, yes, but could you trust him, would you dare turn the job over to him? You wouldn’t for a minute depend on him, would you, to do what you said when you said it?” Job 39:9-12.
The “Character Sketches” suggests the biblical perspective and/or lesson to learn from the buffalo is to recognize its formidable wild nature and look for dangers others overlook. Though large and powerful, the bison are easily startled, and once startled, they will blindly follow their leader right off a cliff if that is the path the leader chooses. The “buffalo jump” off a cliff edge was a key strategy for the Indians hunting the buffalo. My dominant lesson here is the wild, off-the-script nature of the buffalo. Strong and free, the buffalo has all the power needed to move as she chooses. I long for that in myself. I’ve written about being off the script before too. Thanks, buffalo.
What does the buffalo say according to Native American lore? To the Indians, the buffalo’s innate message is abundance, an easy lesson to see from its sheer size and its former ubiquity in our land. The buffalo’s huge shoulder hump is said to be symbolic of stored forces…a reserve available if needed. Yet the buffalo is wild and prone to unpredictability and therefore can be dangerous. Huh. A lot to learn from a ton of shaggy fur on four legs. But all in all, a message not that different from a simple study of the beast done as directed by the Scriptures.
Unlike oxen and water buffaloes, our buffalo can’t be tamed. No plow pulling or cart dragging for the North American buffalo. Just strength, resilience, and an unshackled spirit. These are things I want to be said of me.
Buffalo: “Believe It or Not.”
I get to work pretty early. And my desk is right by a window that offers a “scenic” panorama. Most mornings, I barely gaze out to take in the glory before me. Yep. Everyday, I can see an earthen berm a few yards outside my window, and just beyond that, there is that marvel of human engineering, the Illinois Tri-State Tollway-Racetrack-Proving Grounds. Vehicles whiz up northbound I-294 with speedy 80-mph freedom. Unless it’s rush hour. Then I can walk faster.
As I said, I only accidentally look out at the highway each morning. Just not that interesting. But on a particular day several months ago, after I had strapped into my desk chair to take on the day, I lifted my gaze.
There, across the Tri-State, directly in my line of vision, was a buffalo. I’d never even noticed that particular billboard before but there it was, right in front of me. With the headline, “Beast Mode 365 Days a Year” the ad wanted me to come to Wyoming. But before my eyes was a nearly 14-ft. high, almost 42-ft. wide, buffalo. I surrendered. It was then I decided to give this animal thing some thought.
Like the donkey, my own connection with the buffalo began early in my life. You might say it’s silly, and silly it may be. Yet it is most definitely consistent. In a major high school art assignment to create any sculpture from a wide variety of materials, I chose to bring a buffalo into existence, complete with pink shag carpet hide. I wasn’t in touch with much serious meaning then, but the buffalo often crossed my path, piquing my interest. I remembering seeing power, though in the early 70’s, the buffalo were still endangered.
For me, resilience is a deeply compelling attribute of this strong animal. The buffalo is a veritable débrouillard of the animal world, refusing to succumb. The buffalo thrive today. It was near extinction. It thrives today. I too, was near extinction. I thrive today. Seeing a buffalo reminds me of that. In recent years, I began to pay more attention as I had opportunity to observe these animals first hand. At the zoo first, then in actual herds. By the way, if you’d like to experience an actual wild buffalo herd, I recommend a visit to the Wild Winds Buffalo Preserve in Fremont, Indiana (6975 N Ray Rd., Fremont, IN 46737, 260-495-0137). There you’ll find some 200 head of wild buffalo and an open-top truck tour that slowly maneuvers right among the herd led by a Native American guide. Truly awesome.
That’s a relatively normal buffalo experience. Ready for a bizarre sighting? Two summers ago, I was at Great America Theme Park near Chicago with some of my kids and grandkids. We were all far too ready for action to ride the carousel, so we got in line for one of the many roller coasters that offer the chance to go upside down. Who wouldn’t want to do that? I like it, I really like it. So we all lined up to get scared silly. We stood, and then in unison did a theme park’s take on slothful line dancing, slowly shuffling forward. Now at some of the more popular attractions with long lines, Great America attempts to entertain folks by strategically placing video screens offering cartoons and music videos. Here was one. But I wasn’t watching the video. Instead, I was pondering my own sanity for paying to get in this place to escape my evidently boring life and be artificially thrilled. Got to be some “ism” and accompanying meds for this one. Anyway.
All of a sudden, my daughter Valerie said, “Look, Dad!” There on the screen was an unbelievable music video. Before me was a man singing about a new life with a girl…common enough, until the girl comes into view. She was dancing in the distance wearing a buffalo head until they run toward each other, then the scene shows her face and the singer is wearing the buffalo head. Yes, an actual buffalo head. At Great America in a roller coaster line. Wow. I’d never heard of the artist or the song, “A New Life” by Jim James. Added a new take on “Buffalo Gal,” I think. A new life, indeed.
Huh. I am often imaginative, but even I have to say that one was out there. I watched all of the video to get the title and artist. Up for it? Here’s the Youtube link. Be patient! It takes about a minute to really get moving. While I’m open to discussing the meaning of the buffalo head in this unique creative expression, the lyrics, too, powerfully connected with me. That song (and the video) is now among my favorites. Yet the sheer randomosity of me seeing this obscure video in an upside-down roller coaster line on a hot summer day at a theme park is a little baffling.
Then last November, I found myself in Sedona, Arizona with Patty. We were browsing at a roadside store selling kitschy yard art, pseudo Indian artifacts, and bizarre wall hangings. I was just standing there appreciating the November heat and checking out the oddities when I noticed a pickup truck with a long, paneled trailer pulling into the parking lot. Not a big deal. We continued perusing the merchandise until I sensed something unusual was happening. I saw a man unloading two mounted buffalo heads from the paneled trailer onto a little cart. My jaw dropped when the man pulling the cart left it right beside me. Unbelievable. When I stopped scratching my head, I walked over to look inside the paneled trailer. At least one more buffalo head stared back at me. Only me. Only me.
Elvis the Buffalo.
Now unless I needed to hunt to survive, I would never kill a buffalo or any animal. Never merely for sport or trophy. I might for sustenance. Yet I do have a buffalo head mount on my wall. An inconsistency some may suggest, but I think not. I saved my buffalo. Yes, he had been killed by who knows whom and mounted many years before he crossed my path. When I did come across him, he was stuffed in a garbage bag under a laundry room sink with cracked horns and a split nose. What had been a majestic animal was now very near the garbage heap. With a nod toward the resilience I so respected in the buffalo, I took mine to a noted taxidermist at Old World Taxidermy in Palatine, Illinois. George repaired my buffalo, now named Elvis, with artistic skill and genuine care. On my wall he went. The buffalo, not George.
You know, I just love it when I get you wondering whether I’m just making stuff up like some rabid raconteur. Yet I do celebrate April Fool’s Day all month long. Not this time. It’s all truth. Really.
I often think about the qualities I see in the buffalo. Such humility, appearing peaceful and even docile yet with incredible power in reserve. They exude a gentle strength and demonstrate amazing dynamism. I can learn from my friend the buffalo by being aware of my own strength to face difficulty, pausing a moment to assess a present danger, and consciously formulating a plan. This is a lesson I take away from the buffalo. Yes, I greatly admire his strength and vivacity, but most of all, I want to emulate the buffalo’s unfettered, wild, free nature.
Today, Elvis the Buffalo serves to remind me to be strong, humble, and resilient. He also speaks restoration to me, because I know what he was and what he has now become. In that sense, I hope I saved Elvis from doom and gave him a noble purpose. The same thing has happened for me, by the way. I too have been saved from doom and given a noble purpose in a new life. I want to be like the buffalo. Thank you, thank you very much.
Beast Mode 365 Days A Year.
So now you know. There is at least some reason behind my animalistic quirkiness. Yes, I’m riding into the sunset aboard a donkey headed to see a buffalo herd. The donkey and the buffalo. Two animals that seem to regularly draw my interest and cross my path. Eccentric? Yes. But I want to learn from any source. Just like the biblical Balaam whose donkey spoke to set him straight, I’m seeking the lessons God has for me in these two unique creatures. And I’m thoroughly enjoying it.
No, I haven’t carved my own donkey-buffalo totem pole. And I don’t usually linger around donkeys at petting zoos, hoping for an audible word from God (I do pay attention, just in case). Understand I don’t worship these animals. I can accept that from Bible, Native American, and my own perspectives, animals have meaning. While I don’t intend to wander off into woo-woo land, the donkey and the buffalo do represent some very important character traits I want to emulate.
Though I’m often left to meander around in a very small corral like many donkeys these days, I do love peace and seek to be humble. And I have always carried burdens. I also yearn to be wild, free and resilient like the buffalo. I have a lot to learn from these two creatures. Both are strong. Both present lessons of humility. One can be domesticated, the other cannot. Both prefer the wide open spaces. So do I.
Yep, the donkey and the buffalo trotted in and stayed in my psyche. When I see one, as I often do, I smile, nod, and take personal inventory. One day, I hope to own a real donkey. For true. My own beast mode.