Buffalo return beyond the range in state project
Feb. 26, 2004
Tom Lindley
Copyright 2004, The Oklahoma Publishing Company

Across the untamed stretches of the Osage, the buffalo scatter in small bands this time of year in search of cool-season grasses.

The cows, which are expecting, generally remain separated from the bulls, which boast a thick mane and an impressive topknot of hair on their foreheads.

Their wanderings occasionally take them to the crest of a hill, where at sunset their distinctive western profiles are outlined in a golden sheen silhouetted against a red sky.

"At times like that, they are truly captivating," said Harvey Payne, a longtime fan of the buffalo and director of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. "It's easy to understand then why they always have been considered a spiritual animal."

Now, the prairie romantics have found an unusual way to share the spirit of the buffalo and stress the importance of conservation without trying to drive a whole herd of incorrigibles to town.

By May, more than 100 life-size fiberglass buffalo will be on display in downtown Oklahoma City and statewide in an attempt by The Nature Conservancy to celebrate civic pride and artistic creativity and to promote the conservation of Oklahoma's natural landscapes and waterways through the sale of corporate and individual sponsorships.

"Some of the region's most talented artists will bring to life these magnificent ambassadors with out message to protect the last great places in Oklahoma," said Jenny Hendrick, project co-chairwoman.

Even so, faux buffalo are not to be confused with the current species, which has roamed the range for more than 5,000 years.

Faux buffalo will get blown over in a high wind. Real buffalo are hardy, robust and rooted to the ground.

Faux buffalo will require sunblock to keep their paint from fading. Real buffalo are oblivious to the elements.

Faux buffalo aim to delight and entertain. For example, the "Wiley Post buffalo" will have a patch over its left eye. One tip of the "van Gogh buffalo's" horn will be missing. The "OG&E buffalo" will wear a hard hat and tool belt.

Another buffalo will wear roller skates, dispelling the notion that you can't roller-skate in a buffalo herd. Real buffalo, conversely, take their job way too seriously.

"The selective grazing habits of bison is what has shaped the prairie over time," Payne said. "They are exclusively grass eaters that don't eat broad-leaf plants, so they have allowed wild flowers to sparkle on the prairie, which has supported the biotic diversity of prairie life."

Indeed, a young state with a big prairie and a storied past can learn a lot about survival from the buffalo.

Distinguished Oklahoma City artist Mike Larsen, who was commissioned by Devon Energy Corp. to paint its buffalo, said the "revitalization of this creature on earth is something we did right."

Cave drawings around the world attest how the buffalo long has been savored for the nourishment of its meat and the warmth of its hide. It also has been shot at for sport and barely saved from extinction. For all the trouble it's been put through, Larsen said it's finally time to salute the buffalo be celebrating its patriotism.

That's why Larsen's buffalo will be painted in a field of blue. Thirteen red and white stripes, following the contours of his body, will comprise the rest of the United States flag. Its two horns will be gold-leafed.

Monday, employees of Devon Energy started showing up at his Paseo studio to add the key ingredient - their handprints, which will be substituted for the flag's 50 stars.

"Putting regular stars on it would have been dull," Larsen said.

Chris Biagi, an environmental health and safety remediation specialist, pressed down long and hard as he put his mark on the buffalo.

"He left a heckuva handprint," said Larsen, whose other subjects also are known for their strong facial features and powerful hands.

Devon employees submitted entries in a contest to name the buffalo. The winning name? "Roughneck."

The animal sat untouched in Larsen's studio for two weeks before the idea to łgo with the flag˛ hit him about 3 o'clock in the morning.

"The concept is the hard part," Larsen said. "Then, it is a matter of enjoying the application."

The flag and the buffalo appear to be a natural coupling for Larsen, a patriotic man who says his clear love for Oklahoma is grounded in the state's "people, the space and the calmness."

"People are not the same everywhere," he said. "People here don't really care what you do for a living. They just like the fact that you work."

Larsen said he learned a lot about the nature of Oklahomans at an early age when he tagged along with his uncle, who was delivering some cattle to the Oklahoma City Stockyards.

"Some cows went down in the trailer and my uncle had to get them up before one was killed," Larsen said. "When he finished, he was covered from head to toe in cow crap."

After unloading the cattle, the pair went to Cattleman's Restaurant for breakfast, which was their custom on sale day. Uncle Floyd, sensitive to how he smelled, went to the back door in hopes of getting to eat in a corner in the kitchen.

But to their shock, the restaurant owner ordered them to the front of the restaurant, where they were seated at a table.

There were empty tables all around them because of the odor, but Larsen got to eat a proper breakfast that day.

"The owner said he wouldn't turn away my uncle because it was people like him who built his restaurant," Larsen said.

Larsen now is among those who have not forgotten that the time has come to put the buffalo first in line on the Oklahoma prairie.