top of page
  • Writer's pictureDr. Rob Williams

LIFE BY THE HORNS: What We Can Learn From The Yak (SPRING 2021 Updated TOC)

After two years of steady research, travel, and writing (ten chapters now drafted), LIFE BY THE HORNS is just now coming into focus. As always, your questions, comments and good ideas are welcome: contact AT doctorrobwilliams DOT com. Yak to the Future, we go!

Image courtesy National Geographic.

SUBTITLE: What We Can Learn From The Yak

Table Of Contents (TOC)


Spring 2021

“The most important gift is to reclaim the adaptive nature of our species.”

Tyson Yunkaporta, Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save The World

“The experience of being lost is uniquely human.”

MR O’Connor, Wayfinding: The Science And Mystery of How Humans Navigate The World

Surely, yaks are the answer.

Michel Pessel, Mustang - The Forbidden Kingdom: Exploring A Lost Himalayan Land

We have just recently started to apprehend the incredible richness and otherness of nonhuman being and the impossibility of surviving a man-made world.

Paul Shepard, Where We Belong


Welcome to a unique 21st century moment for we sapiens as a species. Beyond US “Woke" ISM-Driven politics is what the global mainstream environmental movement dubs the “Age of the Anthropocene.” Dig deeper. We Humans are being “herded” via a 4th Industrial Revolution “Great Reset” towards a Transhumanist future, a so-called “Singularity” in which we are being “encouraged” to merge our human minds and bodies with digitally networked machine technology. But there is another Path we may choose for ourselves as a species. Life By The Horns. The Yak Way. Let US consult this "Sexy Beast." What can we learn from the Yak - this hairy, hump’y, horn’y creature - about being more fully Human in this pivotal evolutionary moment for we sapiens?

INTRODUCTION/Yak Shaving: Approaching This “Sexy Beast”

“Yak shaving” defined? Here goes. “What you are doing when you're doing some stupid, fiddly little task that bears no obvious relationship to what you're supposed to be working on, but yet a chain of twelve causal relations then links what you're doing to the original meta-task.” In short, “’yak shaving’ is all that stuff that you need to do to solve some problem.” My problem? How to make sense of this “sexy beast” known as the yak. The solution? Write a book. But first! Import yaks to Vermont (2008), run a yak farm (2008-2013), crowdfund and operate a seasonal grass-fed yak meat food cart (2013-Present), and stage a series of global research trips to see yaks in action and interview yakkers (2008-Present). The introduction concludes with a mysterious midnight encounter during May 2016 with yaks in Nepal’s remote and mountainous Manaslu region, a catalyst for me to begin writing Life By The Horns.

1/To Hack The Yak: Trekking The Trail Of Our Planet’s Most Mysterious Mammal

Can we homo sapiens “hack the yak”? If so, what does the yak have to teach us? And are yaks elusive by evolutionary design? This chapter frames these three central yak-focused questions, and introduces the reader to two pioneering 20th century scientists - Jacob von Uexill and Paul Shepard - whose ground-breaking work help inform this book’s approach to “yak hacking.” The chapter is framed by Mongolia’s Altai petroglyph yak etching discoveries at beginning, and the 21st century delivery of 5G infrastructure via yak back to the top of Mt Everest, the world’s highest peak, at end. We 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene have much to learn from bos grunniens. Let’s “hack the yak!”

2/Go Wild: Taking Stock In Vermont

Yaks “go wild.” Yaks display their evolutionary adaptations in both bodies and behaviors, carrying 8,000 years of evolution for surviving and thriving in our planet’s most inhospitable environments. Yak adaptability becomes a metaphor for human adaptability - what can we learn as sapiens from 8,000 years of yak evolution? To answer this question, this chapter explores my family’s “wild” idea to import the first yaks (“taking stock”) into Vermont, and then introduces the reader to yaks through an “on farm” seasonal descriptive approach that combines an analysis of yak characteristics and behavior with the story of our yak herd in Vermont’s Mad River Valley, using human ecologist Paul Shephard’s “we modern sapiens are still Pleistocene (“go wild”) beings” concept as a bridge connecting grunniens and sapiens. We 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene might learn from yaks’ deep desire to “go wild!”

3/Know Place: Sketching Planet Yak’s Myth’ing Links

Yaks “know place.” They express this through their bos grunniens’ evolutionary and biological adaptations, This chapter takes the reader to the Himalayan Plateau, the yak’s evolutionary birthplace, sketching the yak’s emergence from ancient auroch to bos mutus (the wild yak) to bos grunniens (the domestic “grunting ox”), moving from yaks’ ancient Eurasian origins (China, Tibet, Mongolia, India, and Nepal) to yaks’ more modern expansion into Europe and North America (Canada and the United States). The myth’ing links of yakking cultures present us with yak-rich prehistoric alternatives to linear history – how did our Pleistocene ancestors and their pastoral yakking descendants hunt, gather, forage and deploy themselves across and through “place”? We 21stcentury sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene might learn from yaks’ deep desire to “know place!”

4/Live Light: Hide’ing In Plain Sight

Yaks “live light.” Yaks are thousand plus pound ungulates built for ease of movement across the world’s most challenging terrain, and they dislike fences, barns, and borders that present obstacles to their mobility. Other than their hides, yaks take nothing with them on their journeys. A 2017 adventure to the yak-rich country of light-living Mongolian nomads provides the springboard for exploring yak hair made high end fashion and outdoor adventure gear companies (London based and Hong Kong based, and frames how yaks serve as cross-cultural connectors across borders for the Chinese and Mongolian peoples. China contains the vast majority of the world’s yak population, while Mongolia has a long love affair with the yak, from before Genghis Khan to the present. And yet, China and Mongolia approach their historical and cultural relationship to yaks in very different ways. China is one of the oldest “farmer power” civilizations, while Mongolia remains a semi-nomadic culture where yaks roam more freely. We 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene often surround ourselves with Things, but yaks remind us that “living light” brings advantages and opportunities. We 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene might learn from yaks’ deep desire to “live light!”

5/Free Range: Herding US Yakkers In Colorado Country

Yaks “free range.” This chapter introduces the reader to the US yakking community, exploring the creation of two competing US yak trade groups – IYAK and US YAK – and their contentious debate around what makes a yak a “yak.” Travel to Loveland, Colorado and a 2018 gathering of US YAKkers, herded together to share their yak wisdom, meet each other’s bos grunniens, learn the latest in yak husbandry and genetics, and enjoy each other’s company. (NOTE: This chapter serves as the first chapter in a three-chapter US yakking trilogy within the book). We 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene might learn from yaks’ deep desire to “free range!”

6/Get High: Breathing In The Roof Of The World

Yaks “get high.” The yak is built to thrive at altitude, and yaks have worked in close concert with high mountain transhumant communities - nomadic yak pastoralists like the sherpa and the Drokpa - for centuries. This chapter explores the evolving relationship between yaks and human yakkers, beginning with the origins of yak-based transhumant communities on the Tibetan Plateau and concluding with the modern Drokpa nomads and their 21st century challenges ahead. Along the way, we explore hormesis, flow, the Wim Hof Method’s promotion of cold-water immersion and hypoxic breath work, and the recent discovery of the Denisovans’ and the high altitude EPAS1 gene shared by both sherpas and yaks. We 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene might learn from yaks’ deep desire to “get high!”

7/Grow Grassy: Digesting The Meat Of The Matter

Yaks “grow grassy.” Grass-fed yak beef is our planet’s “greenest red beef,” for two reasons: 1) yaks consume less pasture grass per acre than any other bovine, and 2) yak meat is higher in protein and omega 3s, and lower in fat, than any other beef option. This chapter spotlights 21st century debates about global meat consumption, using the author’s Vermont’s YakItToMe! mobile BBQ food wagon as a springboard to explore the global terroir of yak. Rather than rushing into a “post meat” synthetic and chemically-driven Beyond Beef future, we 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene might consider adopting grass-fed yak meat and reincorporating decentralized pastoral beef raising into our 21st century agricultural practices and foodscapes to blunt the negative impacts of the global corporate commercial mono-crop agricultural juggernaut, as well as learning how transhumant cultures incorporate the yak into their decentralized food production systems - “go grassy” and digest the meat of the matter. We 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene might learn from yaks’ deep desire to “grow grassy!”

8/Chill Out: Yak Hoffing In The Swiss Alps

Yaks “chill out.” The tightly-wound Swiss are Europe’s most organized yak herding network, but Swiss yaks push their human yakkers to “chill out” - and the high mountain Alps landscape is ideal for yaks and the yakkers who work with them. This chapter explores Suisse yak hoffing (“farming”) and the challenges and opportunities for 21st century yakking in central Europe. We visit Suisse yakkers across the country, from central Switzerland’s Berne region near Zurich to the southern Alps. Stops along the way include Daniel Miller, the “Godfather of Suisse yakking,” Rosula Blanc, intrepid yak whisperer and long - distance yak trekker, and nine other yak operations who are all members of the Swiss Yak Federation. We 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene might learn from yaks’ deep desire to “chill out!”

9/Be Herd: Wrangling in the Rockies

Yaks “be herd.” This chapter uses the phrase “be herd” in two ways - 1) raising one’s voice to speak within a larger community, and 2) participating in like-minded goal-oriented group behavior - and explores how yaks function both as unique individuals and participating social members of their larger herds. This chapter is the second in our three-part US yak trilogy within the book highlight the ongoing continental debate between IYAK (the International Yak Association) and USYAKS (an IYAK splinter group) about the future of yakking in North America, with a focus on the debate about yak genetics and what these profound disagreements reveal about both yaks and yakkers. We 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene might learn from yaks’ deep desire to “be herd!”

10/Find Frontiers: Chasing Yaks In The Land Of The Midnight Sun

Yaks “find frontiers.” Yaks’ ability to cover epic ground, roaming widely across vast expanses of challenging terrain, is legendary in the stories found in global yakking cultures. We 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene have become accustomed to living sedentary lives, more stationary than kinetic. Exhibit A: humans in Alaska appear to spend much of their time in tiny metal wheeled boxes called RVs with ironic names like “Arctic Fox,” “Sun Seeker,” and “Raptor.” Alaska’s “Last Frontier,” comprised of 375 million acres, offers unparalleled opportunities for yaks and humans to roam. Despite Alaska’s immense size and impressive wilderness tracts, however, the yakking community in Alaska is intimate, contained, and just beginning to network together after initial efforts to import yaks for meat and milk failed nearly a century ago. This chapter focuses on Alaska’s yak community, including visits with David McCoy, charismatic founder of 49th State Brewery which serves legendary half pound grass-fed Alaskan yak burgers (Denali and Anchorage); Anchorage’s Alaska Zoo; the Kaspari yak ranch and Delta Meats (Delta Junction, AK); Sunny Hill Yak Ranch (Willow, AK); and Alaska Yak/Circle F Ranch (Kenny Lake, AK) where the Chugach mountains morph north into the Wrangell-St Elias Range, the US’s largest national park. Here, meet a home-schooled family of twelve who tend to Alaska’s largest yak herd. The chapter ends with a modest proposal, modeled after George Catlin’s 19th century idea of a “wilderness park.” To wit: assemble a small “starter” Alaskan yak herd and release them into the Wrangell wilderness, allowing yaks to find frontiers while we track their behavior over time. We 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene might learn from yaks’ deep desire to “find frontiers!”

11/Wrangle Resilience: Saddling Stress In The Midst Of US COVID Collapse

Yaks “wrangle resilience.” In this chapter the third and final of our US yak trilogy within the book, we travel 6,500 miles to 24 yak farms in 19 states over two weeks during December 2020 to explore how yaks and yakkers are faring in the time of the COVID. Along the way, we talk with yakkers from both US YAK and IYAK about continued attempts to define yak’ness, and the future of the North American yakking community in the time of the Virus. We 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene might learn from yaks’ deep desire to “wrangle resilience!”

12/Stay Spirited: Ruminating On Resistance Among The Remains

Yaks “stay spirited.” Yaks embody a certain swagger – they project a unique yak-like confidence with every fiber of their being. We 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene sometimes seem dispirited - unsure as a species of who we are, where we came from, and where we are going, especially when confronted with the 4th Industrial Revolution’s Transhumanist “Great Reset.” This chapter considers what yaks have to teach us about being spiritually confident as a species even as we acknowledge the impermanence of all things - a “be here now” meditation that explores the lives of yakkers in Tibet, Bhutan, India, and Pakistan’s high mountain Baltistan region. To wit. Chinese occupied Tibet still supports traditional yakking communities and entrepreneurs like Norlha Yak Textiles, while India’s northwest region features a yak-rich traditional culture and a yak research station of international prominence. The yak-rich country of Bhutan’s new “gross national happiness” initiative, meanwhile, highlights a national attempt to reorient the country’s progress indicators away from the material and towards spiritual progress and health, while Pakistan’s Baltistan region boasts a rich yak-focused heritage and eco-tourism opportunities in the Karakorum mountains. We 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene might learn from yaks’ deep desire to “stay spirited!”

CONCLUSION/Yak To The Future, We Go!

The book’s conclusion opens in Nepal’s Langtang Valley, a place completely destroyed by a 2013 post-earthquake mudslide, now rebuilding with help from humans and yaks alike, spotlighting the work of, a US based nonprofit created in the yak rich Mount Manaslu region to bring together adventure travelers with disaster relief projects. The conclusion ends with a visit to Siberia’s Pleistocene Park, where yaks are being “rewilded” for the future. We’ll summarize the challenges and opportunities of this 21st century Civilizational moment for Team Human, concluding with what yaks can teach us 21st century humans. Once you go yak - living life by the horns, following the yak way - you may never go back. Yak to the Future, we go!

248 views0 comments


bottom of page