Friday, April 18, 2014

Long Live The King!

Now that the ice has receded to the bowels of the lakes and ponds, the sun warms us just a little more each day. Fiddlehead ferns pop up near small gurgling brooks. In the woods, trilliums begin to peek up between the still brown detritus left on the soles of winter’s shoes. Dandelions poke their courageous heads out from under the newly green carpet in the fields. Robins sing their magical melodies, convincing the cold wrapped buds of the maples to open. Majestic pillars of light pour through the canopy of trees turning the woods into a tabernacle of deific proportions. 

The Sacred Wilds
I feel as if I should kneel and pray in this sacred place. A chorus of birdsong blesses me with trills, chirps, peeps and melodic patterns. In the distance one song rings out loudly above the others, one which fires my imagination and instincts of my primordial self; the dawn thunder of the tom turkey still on his roost.

His chest inflated and his waddles fire red, his dewlap dangles over his beak like a ragged flag of glory from fights past. He thrusts forward on his branch and roars at the top of his lungs, shocking the world around him and demanding that they bow and recognize that the King is now awake.
100 yards away I sit at the base of a pine tree, covered in 3-D camouflage. I can smell the forest floor’s musky scent. Pine sap is stuck on my index finger as I check the safety of my shotgun. I shoulder my gun resting the fore end on my knee. I know that soon His Majesty will fly down from his perch and waddle down the path to his strutting zone to begin his daily mating ritual amongst the ladies of his court. My heart beats wildly as I hear him gobbling to his flock. He is walking down the path  toward me. 

A large hen appears and veers off to my left behind a row of
The Waiting Place
forsythias. My heart sinks. “What if he follows her?”

Another hen appears and circles the hummock in front of me, then disappears to my right. She putts curiously, then settles into her contented purring sound, feeding on grubs. I’ve got one bird on my right and one on my left. “This is good” I think to myself. I am surrounded by real hens and all I have to do is convince the King that I am the concubine he has always desired.

I cluck tentatively, then gently purr a sweet satisfied trill, seducing the monarch toward me. He gobbles back vociferously. He is on his way. 

Moments later he appears 70 yards distant, behind a downed pine tree. He struts back and forth displaying his imperial fan for all his subjects to see.

I sit still, the white bead at the end of my barrel on his majestic head, waiting for a closer shot. I can hear my heartbeat in my ears, drumming as if my tympanic membrane is going to shatter. 

He walks around the pine and strolls powerfully toward me. His eyes are burning a hole in my camouflage. I breathe through my nose, slowly, deeply, expanding my diaphragm to center myself.

He is now 25 yards away. I am feeling his breath in unison with my own. His chest expands and mine does the same in perfect time with his. I avert his gaze as he stares at me. He knows I am here and every fiber of my being is intertwined with his. We are one.
After a long prayer of thanks and forgiveness, we walk home together.
Later, at the bridge, as I fish for bullhead, a cold tear of gratitude rolls down my cheek. Spring has arrived.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Mindful Winter Walk

The mind of a true hunter is one of connection. Connection to all the surroundings, even to those unseen by the common senses. To some tribes in Africa, hunters have learned to read the “energy paths” of light similar to auras seen by some people. They follow these bluish-white streams of light to “see” where the animal they are pursuing, have traveled. For the rest of us, we learn to read tracks.

On a bright February day, after a snowstorm, I venture up the southwest side of Pease Mountain, My father-in-law, Brian Hoyt and I start out from his house. We notice the small trails where field mice have burrowed under the snow. We come upon a stand of locusts with their deeply indented bark and sage green moss covering the jagged edges. I ask him if he thinks it is true that moss only grows on the north side of trees. He shrugs and says “That’s what they say, but I think it’s an old wives tale.”

 Further up the hill we meander through some pines, when a partridge explodes from under a pinecone laden tree. The bird takes to the air in a burst of snow, brown wings thundering together, to fly an escape route that not even a jet fighter could navigate. “Partridge!” I shout. (Technically they are called a ruffed grouse, but I like to call them by their colloquial moniker just to tick off the gentry. If you really want to be snobby about it, call them “Bonasa Umbellus” which means “good to roast” or “valued as a game bird.”) Partridge medicine (what this bird represents in Native American ideology) is community, fertility, mobility and invisibility. There is much to learn from Bonasa Umbellus.

As we summit the cliffs we begin to see a story played out in the snow. It takes some time to reveal itself. First we see the tracks of a large cat-like being with its belly dragging on the top of the snow. It is crouching and trying to sneak up to the edge of the cliff. Why? We surmise it’s a fisher cat judging by the claws and conical shaped footprint. Then the tracks disappear off the edge of the cliff. We look over the 10’ drop to the next plateau and see where he enters the snow in a deep hole. Is he under the snow even now? Where did he go? 

We climb down around the boulders and discover, at the edge of this little flat spot, another hole with paw prints and the outline of primary feathers form a large wing. They are scratched in the snow in a perfectly symmetrical pattern as if beating against the surface in an attempt to take flight. It is then we discover blood where the feet of a turkey had been. 

“I’ll bet the rest of the story is below this drop-off” I tell Brian.

We climb down the slippery rocks to the next flat spot, and sure enough, there are the remains of a turkey splayed between two sharp rocks, with only its head eaten off.  Fisher cats are notorious for doing this. The carnage reminds me that nature can be as violent as she is beautiful. The fisher cat will have lived through another harsh winter because he was courageous enough to dive off of a cliff, burrow under the snow and still hit his target, coming up to ambush the bird from underneath the wintry forest floor.

Nature has all the drama of an Academy award winning movie, but when you have discovered it for yourself, and borne witness to the mystery, you are not just a viewer but a participant.

On the walk home, we pass a yellow birch with a chaga mushroom growing out of its side. I cut off a chunk of it and put it in my jacket pocket. Chaga or Inonotus obliquus is revered by native healers for its medicinal qualities. Laboratory studies have indicated possible future potential in cancer therapy, as an antioxidant, in immunotherapy, and as an anti-inflammatory. Whether you choose to believe this or not, it makes a wonderful tea.

Back at the house we have quite a story to share with everyone. We brew the chaga and sit down in front of the woodstove to replay the story of our winter walk. At the core of the story-telling I realize that the root of all happiness is wonder. And there is no place to find such wonder as in the winter woods.

Thursday, November 14, 2013


I leave a slight crack open at the top of the bedroom window because I like fresh air when I sleep. Even when it’s cold, it’s nice to snuggle down under the Hudson Bay blanket with the down duvet on top. In December, sometimes the Arctic Clippers cause the curtains to swish wildly against the glass pane. Frequently, this will awaken me even during a deep sleep. I will often roll over, pull the covers up higher and seek warmth against the body of my mate. It’s my legs that feel the cold most. They seem to tingle with the cold, my capillaries expanding to allow for easier blood flow.

I am thinking of human comforts as I sit under the canvas spray curtain of my duckboat, huddled next to the propane heater. I can hear the northwest wind pounding wavelets against my hull as the boat rocks gently to and fro. The sky is just beginning to show reluctant signs of awakening to another brisk morning. The blue-greens give way to salmon and purple streaks highlighted against the cirrus clouds. The sound of whistling wings rises to a crescendo above me.

They’re finally here! Ducks!
December Sunrise

The Arctic blast has locked up most of the swamps and now the only food and open water is in the bay, where the wind blows wild celery into the shoreline, where I sit waiting amidst my bobbing decoys. Silhouetted by the backlight of the sky I can see large flocks of birds seeking shelter and food. They have come in during the night riding the wave of the cold front.

I pour a cup of french roast coffee and munch on a frosted cruller while I wait for the legal shooting hour to begin. I am surrounded by the wild quacking and raspy “mmmphs” of big drake mallards as they survey my spread. My heart beat quickens. I keep my head low, hugging the side of the canvas blind covered in grass.

Shore Ice
I can hear slush ice rubbing on the starboard hull as it builds. This will likely be one of the last days I can access this spot. The season is coming to a close and the big redlegged mallards and black ducks are just getting here. These are the hardiest specimens of their species. They thrive in adversity and pride themselves on outlasting the fair weather hunters of early fall. Their cheeks bulge at the sides, their magnificent iridescent green heads strike bold poses. Their auburn chests are puffed out proudly and their tail feathers have the regal triple curl. Affixed to their necks are clean white bowties. But the most noticeable characteristic of these late migrators is their beet red legs.

Some folks claim it’s because the capillaries of their powerful feet are expanded to allow circulation while swimming among the ice floes. Biologists tend to discount this but offer no good reason for the anomaly.

As the minutes tick by toward legal shooting time, I am preparing for the moment. I load my old autoloader shotgun and the “click” from the shell passing into the chamber sends a dozen birds clawing for altitude from my decoy spread. They’ve heard that sound before, somewhere way up north when the last hunter tried to take them.

At last, my watch alarm signals it is time.

I spot a flock of 20 birds to my south, swinging over the bay, fighting the wind. I take a deep breath and bear down on my diaphragm to blow a powerful hail call. They turn. The flock is now winging their way toward me with abandon. I utter a feeding chuckle and a lonely hen “quack” inviting them down.

They turn over the frozen swamp and set their wings in cupped formation. They wiffle from side to side, spilling air from their mighty pinions. Red legs drop down from their flanks and as they hang over the spread ready to light, I rise and do what humanity has done for generations.

In the moment I am living, breathing and feeling all my senses heightened by the connection.

It is the end of the season and the redlegs are in.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"Naturally Rich"

Many of the problems in my life have been the cause of a poor relationship to money.  When I was young I did not learn the value of working hard for commensurate remuneration (I never had to “earn” anything.) All I had to do was beg or be stubborn and I would get what I wanted.

Let me say that this set me up for a significant struggle. When I got in trouble financially I believed that someone would come along and “bail me out.” I don’t fault my father for this. He was the 10th child of a very poor coal mining family in Pennsylvania. All he wanted was to give his children everything he could not afford. He was very successful in his early business career and the family was perceived by many to be “rich.” I based my entire self worth on what my family could afford to lavish on me. This was to become one of my greatest challenges in life.

In my teens I began to hunt and the first thing I learned was that it didn’t matter how much money my family had, nature treated everyone equally under the same conditions.

I was 30 years old before the lesson hunted me down and presented itself in a way that I could no longer ignore. As they say, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

My father, through his magnanimously naïve nature had made several poor business decisions and managed to lose all the income he had created. He could no longer support the delusions of grandeur that I had created.

This was to become the starting point for my sacred path. Hunting, fishing and foraging were to become my teachers. To quote Red Cloud, a late 19th century Sioux Chief, “…I am poor and naked, but I am the chief of the nation. We do not want riches but we do want to train our children right. Riches would do us no good. We could not take them with us to the other world. We do not want riches. We want peace and love.” This struck me one day as I stood weeping for my condition. What was it that I wanted? What did I need to feel like I was worthwhile?

My answer came to me as I hunted.

I thought I was hunting for deer, squirrels, turkey or rabbits, but what I was unconsciously seeking was my need to feel as though I had value in the world. Since I had equated “value” with monetary measures, I did not find what I was looking for externally. I tried guiding for  waterfowl for a little more than a decade and it seemed that taking money for providing clients with a chance to shoot a limit of ducks or geese seemed to diminish the value of what I was striving to exchange. It almost seemed that the birds became a commodity that had an assigned value that could be purchased with currency. It felt demeaning after a while.

But during that time I also discovered that what I was searching for all along was the “meaning” behind what I enjoyed so much. It was the beauty of a wood drakes’ herringbone patterned flank feathers, the iridescence of a redlegged drake’s crown, the inimitable cupping of wings of a lone Canada goose dropping in from the heavens after a long migratory journey. I wanted to share the love of his lonely her-onk in the moonlight. I felt drawn to communicate the exquisite aromas of wood smoke, decaying nuts, and the majestic display of a tom turkey strutting for attention in the early morning light of the spring woods. I found myself speaking of the impending arrival of fiddleheads, ramps and wild asparagus as the earth warmed up to 63 degrees in the spring. I languished over the taste of fresh brook trout with nothing but some lemon and butter in a pan over an open fire.
More than anything I had known before, I wanted to share my love and my experiences with others.

As I became aware of what I wanted, I began to realize that my values were shifting. Away from material possessions and a consumptive lifestyle. I wanted to, at least, partially support myself and my wife with food that I had grown, foraged or harvested.

As my values shifted, so did my self-image. Over time I began to feel wealthy. Rich, even.
I was filling my freezer with nutritious food. I was growing my own vegetables and finding my own mushrooms. I was eating pure, natural, local food. My household grew to include chickens to provide us with eggs. I didn’t even eat eggs before I had chickens, now an omelet starts off my day three mornings a week. When we have guests over for dinner, it is a production. I cook venison backstraps in a plum pepper sauce and we celebrate our feast with a good bottle of merlot.

All of this has lead me to the conclusion that despite my lack of monetary income, I have learned that true riches, which I believe is better described as “wealth”, comes not from how new my truck is, nor what cell phone I use, but the abundance of natural elements in my life and how conscious I am of all that is available to me. With this, my definition of wealth has changed and my self-image is now based on how much love and gratitude I have in my life.

So the next time you are feeling poor or are not sure how you define value in your life, I would propose that you pick up your gun, your fishing rod or a basket and walk into the woods. Nature provides us with all the riches we need.