Terry Gross: My guest today is Sarah Miller, whose new book, BISON SELFIES, which she wrote about bison selfies, comes out next week—very timely, as this summer there have been five bison attacks, none of them fatal, I might add, in Yellowstone National Park. Sarah, welcome to Fresh Air.
Sarah Miller: Thank you Terry. It’s great to be here.
TG: You know, I have to admit—when I started hearing about this, I was like, how do bisons take selfies? Their legs are so short. And are there bison selfie sticks?
SM: Ha, yeah, I think a lot of people think that.
TG: So, you grew up in New England. Your parents worked in public education and yet you, well, you chose to make a career writing about the sort of perverse delight you experience when people taking pictures of themselves alongside a symbol of the American West, in the American West, are attacked by that symbol, in real life. Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind this, why you decided to take such a different path?
SM: Well, first of all, I want to say that while I’m interested in all bison selfies, the ones that really obsess me are the ones that result in actual injury.
TG: Yes, great clarification. We’ll return to that—but I do want to take a minute to juxtapose the sort of cultural milieu in which you were raised with your current livelihood.
SM: Well, you know our household was full of lively debate, about the importance of education to a democratic society, and the importance of public service. And I grew up extremely idealistic. And so when I finished college, I really wanted to make a difference. When I realized that was impossible, I started to think about myself. What do I actually care about? What makes ME happy? And one day I realized: “I feel really good when someone tries to take a photo of a bison and the bison attacks them.” And that’s when everything started to change.
TG: How did your parents feel about this?
SM: At first they were like “We really hoped you’d be a professor, or at least a Title IX coordinator.” But then they saw me reading accounts of people who tried to take pictures of bison getting attacked by them, and just, you know, really enjoying myself, feeling alive, feeling a part of things, for the first time in my life. And it didn’t hurt that David Brooks wrote that column about me where he talked about how most people in my generation were disaffected and cynical and just sat around in their over mortgaged houses doing bong hits and drinking craft beer and wondering how they were going to manage to send their children to college on two weirdly large and yet somehow fully unhelpful salaries and you know, I mean, not to toot my own horn, but he was like, look at these people just complaining, and look at this amazing woman doing what she loves, and following a dream, and making a living at it, and just basically living this great life anyone could have if they just had the courage to be true to themselves. So yeah, my parents came around, which is nice. My mom actually laughs her ass off every time someone takes a bison selfie which results in a bison attack. My dad kind of sits there, hoping that one day I’ll get serious, and I try to explain to him that there is nothing more serious than my pleasure. But it’s a generational thing. What are you gonna do?
TG: Is there something about the American West that resonates with you?
SM: Other than bison selfie attacks?
TG: Yes, aside from those.
TG: I understand that you recently visited Yellowstone.
SM: I did.
TG: Did you see any bison?
SM: I didn’t see any bison in the park per se. In fact all we saw there were marmots, and when we got back to Reno—I live in the Sierra, not far from there—our cab driver was like “Marmots? They got them down at the golf course.”
TG: That’s hilarious.
SM: At any rate, I did see maybe a hundred or so bison on the way to the park—the road between Jackson and Yellowstone, I believe it’s Highway 89, in Grand Teton National Park? It is such a beautiful road. It’s just a riot of color, shadows of enormous white clouds play off the million shades of green in the mountains and the valley floor, and red Wyoming Paintbrush and Blue Penstemon and those giant Queen Anne’s lace flowers that are not actually Queen Anne’s Lace, huge flowers, straight out of Avatar. There’s so much intense and humbling history there. You can just imagine Teddy Roosevelt riding a horse through this landscape–sadly minus the bison, since bison populations were negligible in Roosevelt’s time—the wheels turning in his mind: “This place is so goddamn gorgeous, let’s keep it pristine and turn the rest of the country into a garbage dump.” So, as I said, that road isn’t part of the park but it is a big place for bison to congregate. And so we stopped a couple times when we saw a herd and looked.
TG: Did you see people trying to get close to them?
SM: Oh, sure. There were a lot of people hanging back, like us. But yeah, everywhere we went we saw a lot of people trying to get close to them, all with cameras.
TG: But nothing happened.
SM: No, nothing.
TG: And did that disappoint you?
SM: Oh no. You see, Terry, my interest isn’t in the attacks themselves, at least not in the visual spectacle of the attacks. I don’t want to actually see or imagine a human body forced into the air like—here’s the best analogy I can think of—did you ever play Gnip Gnop when you were a kid? With the pink and green plastic balls? You hit that black thing, and it’s like one side of a lever, and the ball is on the other side of it, and the ball is catapulted up into the air? When I think about people being attacked by bisons while taking pictures of bison I imagine it being like Gnip Gnop. Because beyond that, Terry, you’re just talking theater. And I really hate theater.
TG: But I mean, and you know, forgive me for being blunt here, but human beings and pink and green plastic balls, well, they’re not exactly the same thing. I mean, listen to this account of a bison attack, told by a ranger, who I’m gathering spoke to the victim: “They heard the bison’s footsteps moving toward them and started to run, but the bison caught the mother on the right side, lifted her up and tossed her with its head,” Wow. OK. I stand corrected. That really does sound like Gnip Gnop.
SM: Doesn’t it? But it sanitizes it in a way, at least for me. My point is that I’m not into spectacle. What interests me are the details that come out of these encounters. A 43-year-old mother from Mississippi and her six-year-old daughter. A 16-year-old girl from Taiwan. A 62-year-old man from Australia. I mean, take a minute to listen to that sentence, you just read, Terry, “They heard the bison’s footsteps moving toward them, and started to run.” And I apologize to anyone who thinks I’m just enjoying this, because that’s not all of it, but you can hear the whole story of America in that story, and I love that. But yes, I get it. At the end of the day, five people have been injured by bison in Yellowstone this year and three of them were injured while or after taking bison selfies. And I won’t say their names here, out of respect, but I will tell you that I researched these people thoroughly, their lives, their interests, their reasons for visiting the park, and I really looked for some common thread. But when it came down to it, the only thing that was clear about all of their experiences, was that a bison looked at them and was like “Fuck this person.”
SM: And I mean, what I think is so interesting is how to us, these people have hometowns, nationalities, identities. But the bison is like, “That shape over there needs to change its location.”
TG: Right, that is interesting. So, I’d like to linger on this point for a moment, doing so, of course, realizing it’s very difficult to put yourself inside the mind of a bison, but since that’s what we’re talking about here I’d love for you, for us, to give it a try. Anyway, do you think this bison, who’ve we’ve established or semi-established, anyway, who is sitting there thinking “This shape needs to change location,” do you think that bision takes the next step in its mind, to, I don’t know, “I am going to be the agent of that location change?” I guess what I’m asking is, how conscious are these bison of what they’re doing?
SM: My guess, Terry, is not very. Bison aren’t very smart. At least that’s what one park ranger told me. She said if a bison sees you, you can hide behind a tree, even a small one, and the bison will be like “I think there used to be something over there but perhaps I was mistaken.” But I want to be clear: Just because I’m an expert on situations where people get attacked by bisons because they’re taking selfies with them doesn’t mean I know shit about bison.
TG: Well, I think you’re being a little hard on yourself. Now that you’re done with the book, what have you moved on to? New projects, related to bison selfies or not?
SM: I’m interested in exploring what happens when the selfie becomes deeply personalized, and when the technology improves. So I’m collaborating with Bjork to make a hologram of Teddy Roosevelt singing the Pink Floyd song “Wish You Were Here” to a bison.
Terry: Amazing. Is the bison a hologram as well?
SM: Oh no, Bjork’s playing the bison. She’s very natural.
TG: Sarah Miller, thank you so much for taking to us today. I want to end by reading a passage from your book. It’s the first paragraph of a chapter called “For the love of God, please don’t zoom in,” which was one of my favorites. Here it is:
“When we take a bison selfie we are making an appeal to America. We’re asking it to be part of our story. We’re asking it to make us look good, to make us look brave, to make us look like we’re having fun, and to look like people who value life and other beings. But we appeal to this institution we call America having so little idea what this institution is actually like, what it wants, what it eats, what it shits out. Everything we know about it has to do with how it reflects on us. And so when it runs at us, we are surprised. As we lose contact with the very ground underneath us we gasp in pain and amazement, “What was that?” forgetting that moments before, we were staring right at it.”
The book is BISON SELFIES, Sarah, thanks again for coming on the show.
SM: Thank you Terry. It was a pleasure.
Sarah Miller writes for theawl.com, newyorker.com, time.com, thecut.com and others. She is not actually writing a book about bison selfies. Find her @sarahlovescali.
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