Monday, April 11, 2005


Part of our story involves portraying the passage of time, as this is a year in the search for the Higgs boson at Fermilab. We've been careful to get shots of the seasons as they progress along the prairie at Fermilab, and what better way to illustrate spring than a new crop of baby buffalo?

For those of you who don't know, Robert Wilson (the physicist who envisioned and designed Fermilab) wanted the facility to embrace nature as much as possible. After all, these physicists are not creating new particles, creating toxic waste or developing murky new substances. They're simply trying to understand how things work. They are intimitely tied with nature, trying to unlock its secrets, and their facility reflects that. The whole place consists of one high-rise and a few low warehouse buildings in the middle of a huge prairie. And, per Dr. Wilson's design, that prairie features natural prairie grasses, lots of wildlife, and a herd of buffalo.

Everyone knows about the buffalo at Fermilab. They're a big tourist draw. Any time a news story, magazine article, documentary, or photo shoot features Fermilab, you can almost guarantee the buffalo will be mentioned, along with some kind of attempt to make the connection between high-energy physics and nature via the buffalo (much as I just did in the preceding paragraph). We're no exception, of course.

Yesterday Monica, Stef and I met Mr. Pleses, the guy in charge of the buffalo herd at Fermilab. He was a few minutes late, so we killed some time by shooting some "spring" footage: birds chirping, buds budding on trees. I spied a security guard adjusting his belt before getting into the car. He was eating an ice cream cone. I wandered over and started asking questions. He said there was all kinds of wildlife at Fermilab: foxes, deer, coyote. Just the other morning he had heard some coyote pups yipping. But the buffalo, of course, were the main draw. He said that the herd had been there since the 60s, and that people from all over had come to see them.

"Contrary to what people say, they're actually bison," he said. He said that every year they sell off the calves.

"For meat?" I asked.

"For whatever. To whoever," he said. Then he told me that the first one had actually been born the day before easter.

"The next day I came in," he said, "and I saw the momma buffalo chasing off two coyote, and there were two more having breakfast. No more baby buffalo."

I asked if he would mind if we asked him a couple of questions on camera. "Not a chance," he said, laughing. "Not a chance."

Finally the actual buffalo herder showed up. He was a youngish guy, probably around 40, and he had hair that was styled perfectly, short in the front and long in the back. He had two or three earrings, a shiny belt buckle, and gator-skin cowboy boots with polished metal toe-tips. He was a little nervous and thought that we were "newspaper people." The presence of the camera seemed to stump him a little, but he was game. We wired him up with the mic and asked him a few questions. We asked if we could go out with him in the huge pen.

"It's a little dangerous," he said. "We should probably go in the truck. You never know how they're going to react. Especially with all the little calves." He said ever since he got charged once by a nervous mother he keeps a ladder in there as a quick escape route.

I got in the cab of the tractor with him, and it was a tight fit since it was a single-seat tractor. I had to huddle in behind him, pressed against the rear glass, and try to shoot from overhead as we bounced along the field. The buffalo looked at us sideways and shuffled out of the way at the very last moment. He drove by the troughs and dumped feed. Then we came back and climbed on board the flat-bed pickup. Stef took the camera again and we got footage as he peered through binoculars, counting the calves and reading the eartags of the mothers. There was one that was about 24 hours old, lying on the grass. It's mother stood over it, licking it.

We drove around and asked him some more questions --- careful to get some shots of the buffalo with the high-rise of Fermilab in the background. We asked him if he had heard the rumor about the buffalo: that they were not really a tourist attraction, not really a gesture to nature on the part of the scientist who envisioned the facility, but in fact served as "canaries in the coalmine." If they all dropped over dead, the rumor said, then the scientists knew it was time to high-tail it out of there. Radiation leak. Another rumor claimed you could see the buffalo glowing at night, they were so charged with radiation. God only knew what those scientists were doing down there. But, no, he hadn't heard those rumors. We thought it was strange --- if anyone had heard them, we thought it would be him.

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