LIFE BY THE HORNS TOC + CHAPTER SUMMARIES
Updated: Mar 30
THE WAY YAK
What We Sapiens Can Learn From This Sexy Beast
The Wild Yak (Bos Mutus) - Hairy, Humpy, and Horny.
We have just recently started to appreciate the modes of consciousness possible and to apprehend the incredible richness and otherness of nonhuman being and the impossibility of surviving a man-made world.
- Paul Shepard, Where We Belong, 2003
Surely, yaks are the answer.
- Michel Pessel, Mustang - The Forbidden Kingdom: Exploring A Lost Himalayan Land, 1967
Table of Contents and General Outline
YAK HACK: A golden yak @ Nepal's Lake Pokhara International Mountaineering Museum.
…In which I set the stage for this book by introducing the fun and provocative phrase “yak shaving,” and how this phrase applies to the process by which I came to write this book about yaks: importing yaks to Vermont (2008), running a yak farm (2008-2013), funding and operating a seasonal grass-fed yak meat food cart (2013-2019), and staging a series of global research trips to see yaks in action and interview yakkers (2008-2019). The introduction highlights a mysterious midnight encounter with yaks in Nepal’s remote and mountainous Manaslu region as a catalyst for me to begin working on this book in earnest.
Ren and Stimpy's "Yak Shaving Day."
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 as a species have to teach us? And are yaks elusive by evolutionary design? A 2017 adventure to the yak-rich country of Mongolia, sketched out in this opening chapter, proved the springboard for framing and exploring these three central questions which comprise this book’s heart. Chapter 1 identifies the meaning of the book’s title and subtitle, lays out these 3 central 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.”
Pleistocene Petroglyphs in the Mongolian Altai - whither the yak's global origins?
2/Go Wild: Taking Stock In Vermont
Yaks “go wild.” They display their evolutionary adaptations in their bodies and behaviors, carrying 8,000 years of evolution in their behavioral DNA to survive and thrive in our planet’s most challenging high-altitude environments. Yak adaptability becomes a metaphor for human adaptability in the Age of the Anthropocene – what can we learn as sapiens from 8,000 years of yak evolution? To answer this question, this chapter describes our “wild” idea to import the first yaks (“taking stock”) into Vermont, and then introduce 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.
Early morning herding: yakking in Vermont's Mad River Valley @ Steadfast Farm.
Describing the YAK, excerpted from Chapter 2 - "Go Wild":
3/Know Place: Mapping Planet Yak’s Myth’ing Links
Yaks “know place.” They express this through bos grunniens’ evolutionary and biological adaptations, and we 21st century sapiens can learn much from the yak about reconnecting with this place-focused geographic sensibility in the Age of the Anthropocene, particularly as global neoliberal economics, our deracinated Digital Era, and “Surveillance Capitalism” all work together to homogenize, flatten, “displace” and HERD our collective human experiences. This chapter takes the reader to the Himalayan Plateau, the yak’s evolutionary birthplace, and sketches the yak’s emergence from ancient auroch to bos mutus (the wild yak) to bos grunniens (the “grunting ox”), spotlighting yaks’ Eurasian origins (China, Tibet, Mongolia, India, and Nepal) to yaks’ more recent expansion into Europe and North America (Canada and the United States). The myth’ing links of yakking cultures presents 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”?
Yakking in Nepal enroute to Mount Manaslu's Larke Pass, the world's 8th highest mountain.
4/Free Range: Loveland Lovefest In Colorado Country
Yaks "free range." The yak is legendary for its ability to travel over long distances in search of grass, water, and adventure. Light, nimble, hearty, and resilient, yaks have evolved and are built for long distance travel, and stories from yakkers around the world marvel at yaks traveling over epic distances in search of grass, water, and perhaps, more adventure. Yaks seldom travel solo, instead preferring to sojourn in small bands together, with every animal in the herd settling into a “free range” community. In my quest for #TheWayYak, I realized I need to embark on some free ranging of my own, leaving the quiet comfort of our Vermont shire to go venture to where the yaks and the yakkers are. Colorado’s Rocky Mountains are the epicenter of North American yakking, with dozens of yak operations within a long half day’s drive of Denver, extending south into New Mexico, east into Nebraska and Kansas, north into Wyoming and Montana, and west over the Rockies towards the Utah border. In this chapter, I chronicle the founding of US YAKS in Loveland, Colorado, and introduce the reader to the intense discussion among North American yakkers about yak genetics - what makes a free ranging yak a "yak"?
Welcome to the Rocky Mountain YAKSPO; October 2018.
5/Get High: Ascending 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 for centuries. This chapter explores the evolving relationship between yaks and human yakkers, from the origins of yak-based transhumant communities (now Tibet, Nepal and western China/Mongolia), to the emergence of more globally-connected modern yakking communities across Eurasia: Nepal and Afghanistan. Nepal yakking focuses on the sherpa people, yaks and the mountaineering industry while Afghanistan yakking considers the development of a high mountain transhumant yak tourist economy. We 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene might learn from yaks’ deep desire to “get high,” and the lessons that accompany surviving and thriving at altitude while yakking in the “roof of the world.”
Mount Manaslu's Larke Pass - descent into the ice fields.
6/Grow Grassy: Digesting The Meat Of The Matter
Yaks “grow grassy.” Grass-fed yak beef is the planet’s “greenest red meat,” 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 lessons learned running Vermont’s YakItToMe! mobile BBQ food wagon as a springboard to explore the global taste, terrain, and terroir of yak. 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.
The author in Alaska with 49th State Craft Brewery's legendary 1/2 pound grass-fed yak burger.
Meanwhile, back in Vermont, YakItToMe! mobile BBQ food wagon's signature Buddha burger - 1/4 pound of grass-fed Vermont yak goodness.
YakItToMe! "Once you go yak, you never go back."
Grass-fed Vermont grown yak meat in multiple gustatory iterations - less fat, more protein, and less grass consumed per acre makes yak "the planet's greenest red meat."
7/Chill Out: Suisse Yak Hoffing In The Alps
“Close your eyes and tell me the first word you associate with Switzerland,” asks Diccon Bewes in his international bestseller Swiss Watching: Inside The Land Of Milk And Money. “Chances are you’ll say cheese. Or chocolate. Or mountains. Or banking, cuckoo clocks, skiing, watches, the Red Cross, snow, or Toblerone.” But “yaks”? Oh yes. While adopting yaks only a few decades ago, the Swiss are perhaps the most organized yakkers in Europe. Fastidious, industrious, serious, and hyper -organized, the Swiss are also described as “cautious, friendly, and punctual, and add to this two very Swiss traits,” explains Bewes, who notes “their love of formality and their need for consensus.” The Swiss, he concludes, are “highly unlikely to see themselves as open, spontaneous or disorganized,"which makes the yak perhaps the perfect bovine for Switzerland, a high mountain country in need of a “chill out.” This chapter introduces the reader to legendary Swiss yakkers, including yak pioneer Daniel Wismer, the "godfather of Suisse yakking," and the charismatic Rosula Blanc, who has traversed the Alps for weeks at a time in the company of yaks. This Switzerland chapter finds us with the members of the Swiss Yak Federation, who have networked their fondness for yaks into a national yak-focused agri'prenurial organization.
Suisse yakker Rosula Blanc, who has traversed the Alps with her yaks.
Daniel Wismer, "the Godfather of Suisse Yakking."
8/ Warm Up: Yakking in the Great White North
Yaks “warm up," moving higher into colder climates to develop more resilience. Yaks love the cold, and are completely comfortable in extreme cold and challenging environments. What can yaks’ relative comfort in extreme environmental conditions teach us sapiens about living more resiliently? This chapter looks at Wim “The Iceman” Hof, who some consider the “yak” of the sapiens species. The Wim Hof Method is a set of daily protocols designed to bio-hack our minds and bodies for optimum performance under stress, a process the yak has mastered through 8,000 years of evolution. Bigger picture? The first North American yaks arrived through Canada in the mid 19th century, and now occupy land from coast to coast in the North American borderlands, including Alaska. Canada is the region of yak focus in this chapter.
Yaks Out Back: Maine/Canadian borderlands yakker Chris Deveney homesteading with his yaks.
9/Be Herd: Wrangling in the Rockies
Yaks “be herd.” I use this phrase in two ways: 1) raising one’s voice to speak within a larger community, and 2) participating in like-minded goal-oriented group behavior. This chapter explores how yak function as unique individuals and participating social members of their larger herds. Using the “be herd” metaphor, I return to Colorado for the annual National Western Stock Show to 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 can learn much through applying this “be herd” metaphor to a deeper understanding of possible futures for North American yakking. The setting for this chapter is the annual National Western Stock Show (NWSS), held every January in Denver, Colorado, where IYAK and USYAKS squared off for the first time in 2020.
Yakking to the future at Denver, Colorado's annual January National Western Stock Show.
10/Border Less: Trekking Eurasia’s Great Wall
Yaks “border less.” Yaks dislike fences, barns, and borders that present obstacles to their mobility. This chapter looks at how yaks serve as cross-cultural connectors across borders for the Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian peoples, contrasting the yak through the eyes of Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian cultures. China/Tibet and Mongolia are the two most central “yak hubs” in Eurasia. China/Tibet alone contains the vast majority of the world’s yak population, while Mongolia has a long love affair with the yak, from Genghis Khan to the present. And yet, China/Tibet and Mongolia approach their historical and cultural relationship to yaks in very different ways – China is one of the oldest “farmer power” civilizations, and has recently absorbed yak-rich Tibet into its geopolitical orbit, while Mongolia remains a semi-nomadic culture where yaks roam more freely. Yaks, of course, care little about borders, walls, and national boundaries. We 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene often embrace walls and borders, but yaks remind us that transcending borders brings advantages and opportunities, as well.
Chasing yaks and yurts in Mongolia's semi-Gobi region west of Ulaanbaatar.
11/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 among yakking cultures. We 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene have become accustomed to living sedentary lives, more stationary than kinetic. Alaska’s “Last Frontier,” comprised of 375 million acres, offers unparalleled opportunities for yaks 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 efforts to import yaks for meat and milk failed nearly a century ago. Chapter 9 focuses on Alaska’s emerging yak community, with visits with David McCoy, charismatic founder of 49th State Brewery which serves legendary 1/2 pound grass-fed Alaskan yak burgers, the 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 in the Wrangell-St Elias Range, the largest national park in the US, and when combined with three other international parks, the largest single protected wilderness area in the world. I end with a modest proposal, modeled after George Catlin’s idea of a “wilderness park” – assemble a small “starter” Alaskan yak herd and release them into the Wrangell wilderness – create a truly “free range” yak community and track their behavior over time in hopes that sapiens might learn more about “rewilding” yaks in the Age of the Anthropocene.
Alaska's failed experiment in "Galloyakking" - early 20th century.
Heath Fithian and 3 of his 9 homeschooled kids with daughter Ani - meet the family that singlehandedly manages Alaska's largest yak herd @ Alaska Yak ranch.
49th State Craft Brewery co-founder David McCoy - master brewer and chef, and integral to building out Alaska's statewide yak supply chain and introducing adventurous eaters to the terroir of Alaskan yak.
12/Live Light: Hide’ing In Plain Sight
Yaks “live light.” Yaks are 1,000-pound ungulates built for ease of movement across the world’s most challenging terrain. When yaks travel, they take nothing with them on their journey. We 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene tend to accumulate stuff – and yaks remind us to shed said stuff and travel light. This chapter focuses on yakkers who live light, beginning with Maine’s Chris Devaney, who has homesteaded with yaks off the grid for decades. Devaney lives simply and is a wealth of information about yaks. The yak-rich country of Bhutan’s recent “gross national happiness” initiative, meanwhile, is a national attempt to reorient an entire economy’s progress indicators away from material and toward spiritual progress and health, and we’ll visit with Bhutanese transhumant yak communities in this chapter. Finally, we’ll travel with entrepreneurial businesses who are working with Tibetan Plateau transhumant yakking communities to source yak fiber and convert it into high-end yak products – sweaters, scarves, and outdoor/technical gear - for the global marketplace, featuring the cross-cultural entrepreneurs running US Sherpa (Nepal-Vermont), Kora (Colorado), Khunu (England), and Norlha (Tibet).
US Sherpa sources yak fiber from Nepal's greater Khumbu region below Mount Everest and sells yak textiles in stores across North America.
Michael at Mountain Kora sources yak hair from the Tibetan plateau to design high end outdoor technical gear.
Julian at Khunu sources yak fiber from Mongolia to create beautiful high-end yak clothing.
13/Stay Spirited: Ruminating Among The Remains
Yaks “stay spirited.” Yaks embody a certain swagger – they project a unique yak-like confidence with every fiber of their being. In the midst of the Sixth Great Extinction, we 21st century sapiens living in the Age of the Anthropocene sometimes seem unsure as a species of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. Our final chapter considers what yaks have to teach us about being confident as a species even as we acknowledge the impermanence of all things– consider this chapter a “be here now” meditation that draws on the lives of Eurasian yak communities compared with North American yakkers currently incorporating yaks into their own operations, featuring yak interviews/adventures in the Rockies, Canada, and the American Midwest, and ending with a visit to the "Pleistocene Park" in northern Russia.
Yak sassy swagger - hairy, humpy, horny, and independent!
CONCLUSION/Yak To The Future
…In which I conclude this book by connecting “the yak way” back to the many challenges we sapiens face in the Age of Anthropocene, and conclude my ruminations on what yaks as “sexy beasts” have to teach us 21st century humans. Once you go yak – living life by the horns - you may never go back. Find "the Way Yak." Or, as I like to say - "Yak to the Future, we go!
"Once you go yak, you never go back. Yak to the future, we go!"