Friday, June 26, 2009

Ulm Pishkun

Joan and I have just had the most fabulous visit to Glacier National Park in Montana. For those of you who haven't been, it is a marvel...a kind of real-life paradise that needs to be experienced fully to be believed. Mountain goats, longhorn sheep, bison, elk, moose, even the occasional bear (which we encountered, luckily, while in the car), plus the most incredible scenery, including mile-deep sapphire blue glacial lakes with ice cold water while the air temperature all around was in the 90s, and snow-capped mountains, even in July-it was all just incredible and absolutely worth the journey. (Glacier is in the northwest corner of Montana, where Alberta, British Columbia, Montana and Idaho meet.)

But what I wanted to tell you about was a side-trip we made on the way to Glacier to a Montana state park called Ulm Pishkun. The "Ulm" part harks back to the original European settlers, who were Germans from the city of Ulm. The "pishkun" part is the Blackfoot Indian word for "buffalo jump"...and that is what I want to tell you about. In early times, before the native peoples of the plains learned to hunt on horseback (and way before they had access to firearms), the way buffalo were slaughtered for meat and for their hides was, in its own way, the ultimate in simplicity. A young boy, especially trained for the job, would be dressed up in buffalo skins and outfitted with little buffalo horns. He would then lure the buffalo grazing in the grassland atop the mesa by imitating a buffalo calf in pain or in distress. The adult animals would heed his cry and come running. He would run too (ideally faster than they did) and, by jumping aside at the very last moment, he would lead some or all of the herd off the edge of the mesa, over the cliff, where these beasts would go hurtling through the air to a decisive crash landing. Those few that survived the fall would then be so injured that they could easily be slaughtered, but most did not. After the carcasses were skinned for their hides and the meat salted and stored for future use, a great festive meal was held to celebrate a successful day of food procurement. It is not known exactly when this practice died out, but it is believed that the use of buffalo jumps in this way continued in some parts of the west until the nineteenth century. (The specific jump at Ulm Pishkun was not used that late and appears to have been abandoned at least a century earlier.)

It's quite an image. These buffalos are huge animals-Joan and I also stopped by the United States Bison Range just north of Missoula and some of the mature animals we saw were the size of small trucks-and the thought of them flying through the air to their deaths is something I can't quite get out of my mind. The moral of the story, of course, is that "look before you leap” supposes you can stop yourself in time...and it isn't such useful advice to buffalos in the middle of a herd charging at full speed towards the edge of a mesa. We ourselves are often in that same situation: we tell ourselves that we will just go along with the crowd, just do whatever everybody else appears to be doing...and that we will just stop if we feel ourselves losing control or wandering into a potentially dangerous situation. It sounds like a reasonable attitude...only it isn't quite as easy to stop in a crowd as it feels as though it ought to be. As we begin the final seven weeks that lead into the New Year-heralded in shul by the reading of seven special haftarah readings designed specifically to encourage and to console-perhaps this could be a good place to start considering our lives, and to start evaluating ourselves. It's a long process, but it needn't be a painful one.

And to do it well does require a certain amount of sang-froid to do well. Still, you have to start somewhere, and my experience at Ulm Pishkun has prompted me to choose where I myself will begin, and where some of you too might choose to start the process of self-evaluation that leads into the High Holiday season: by asking myself whether how exactly it is that I can be so sure that I will be able to separate from the herd when I am running as fast as I can and then, suddenly-and wholly unexpectedly-the edge of the mesa is just a few inches ahead. (July 25, 2007)

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