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

Redlegs



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.

Monday, October 7, 2013

"Old Songs"


Like many young men I started hunting by pursuing squirrel and rabbits in my back yard. I lived in Pennsylvania where the Opening Day of Deer Season was on the first Monday after Thanksgiving. The schools were closed. Most businesses were closed. Everything except essential organizations was closed to celebrate Opening Day.

I was 13 years old when my father, who rarely had time to do so, took me to his hometown of Grampian to meet his childhood cronies. These characters had names like “Crappy Hepburn” and “Uncle Pick” that seemed to define a simpler time in our history. One where young boys would gain status by how well they fought. My father was a scrapper, the 10th child in a dirt poor coal mining family. He swore that he would not allow his children to grow up poor, so he spent virtually every waking moment pursuing business deals and focusing on making money. There was little time for leisure.

So when he asked if I wanted to go deer hunting, even though I wasn’t sure about actually killing one of these beautiful creatures, I enthusiastically replied “Yes!” It was going to be time with my father, the most cherished of moments. Since this didn’t come very often, it carried tremendous emotional weight for me. My senses were awakened in his presence. For the first time in my childhood I was connected to something. I had always been a miserable ball player. My baseball coach put me in right field for 2 innings because it was a regulation to play all the team. Although my hometown was football-obsessed, I was too small and too sensitive to take the teasing and hazing that went along with it. I was kind of a loner. But when my father took me out into the hills of Central Pennsylvania, I came alive.

I wondered at the mountain laurel that grew on the hillsides. I would stare for hours into the trees, examining the bark and watching leaves flutter to the ground to land in a swirling stream of color. The chattering of squirrels and the screaming of blue jays made me feel like I was welcome here. I was safe from towel-snapping linebackers and bullies. I was in a place where I belonged.

Just as the pines swaying in the cold northern breeze, just as the first snowflakes touching the musky earth, just as the snap of a twig in the distance. Just as a dark brown object climbed over a hummock down the steep hillside from me. I belonged, as did the doe now pawing the ground just 40 yards away.

She batted her eyes and looked at me. Our eyes connected and I felt my first wave of compassion and adrenalin course through my adolescent frame. She was in no danger from me. It was rifle season and bucks only. I smiled and said “hello” quietly. She twitched her ears as if to try to understand what I had just said, then she stomped her right foot and began walking away. I felt blessed.

When we got back to camp I said nothing of my encounter.I listened to all the guys tell their stories of what big bucks they had chased that day. They sat smoking cigars and drinking whiskey around a stone fireplace adorned with drying woolens draped over every overhanging obstacle. The smell of wood smoke and fresh liver and onions on the stove mixed with the laughter and camaraderie of these rough cut pillars of manhood.  On the ride to town that night, my father and I listened to a radio station that still played Hank Williams, Gene Autry and Earl Scruggs.

Later, when we moved to Stowe, Vermont my father would introduce me to a new country singer, John Denver. I would watch my grown father with a curious eye as he would actually cry when he sang along with “Take Me Home Country Roads”. It was in Stowe that my father and I got our first buck in 1977, the year I graduated high school. Since those first few episodes in Pennsylvania, I had become addicted to the serenity and connection that I found from being in the woods. It had been five years since we started hunting deer when it happened.

We had built a giant tree stand 30 feet up in a triangle of big-trunked pines. It was a huge space, about five feet in each direction. I had fallen asleep when my father woke me to say “Get ready! Here he comes!” He had heard a distant shot and then brush crashing around us. The buck appeared in the slash to our right. He whispered “Get him!” and I aimed my Winchester 30.30, leveling the front bead on his mighty chest. I do not remember hearing the shot, only seeing the deer drop to his knees. We had done it! My father and I had accomplished something – together!

Over the next 35 years my passion for hunting grew into a full time lifestyle. I fell in love with waterfowling and followed that path into guiding, but every year, out of respect for the memories that molded my spirit, I returned to the woods in search of my connection to the earth and the magnificent whitetail.

It was this same deep abiding love that drove me to the woods this past Saturday. My team of hunters had finished a wildly successful goose calling and hunting strategy seminar at Dead Creek Refuge in Addison for Dead Creek Day. The geese had cooperated as if they were trained. We started calling and about 300 birds lifted off of a farm to the East and flew directly over a crowd of about 30 absolutely stunned seminar attendees. But now it was time to spend some “alone time” in the woods behind my house.
 
As I sat in my treestand, 20 feet above the earth, I listened to the blue jays screaming to one another. A squirrel climbed the tree beside me and peeked around the trunk to stare at me just four feet away. I smiled at him and I could swear I heard his thoughts “Oh. Who are you? Is this your tree? OK…I’ll just go find another one.” He climbed down calmly and skittered across the crunchy forest floor.

I was lost in revelry once again. The gentle north wind scattered gold and red maple leaves to the ground. The sun had set and the light started to surrender to the canopy shadows. In the distance I could hear a train whistle. The smell of someone’s distant woodstove wafted through the evening air. As I was breathing in the fragrant autumn scents, I noticed something moving to my left down the hill. It was large and brown. I stood up very slowly and prepared my arrow.

It was a doe. My thoughts flew back to my first deer that I had seen as a teenager in Pennsylvania and I wondered if this time the scene might play out differently. I decided to wait and see what she would do. She continued to walk toward my stand, then crossed to the right and stood broadside to me just 28 yards away. As she put her head down behind a tree, I drew my bow. Something told me that if she presented herself to me as a gift, that this time I should take her.

Crossing from behind the oak tree, she stood still, her flanks in perfect position for a shot. At that moment, the voice inside said “It’s OK” and I released the arrow.

It was pitch dark by the time I shimmied down the tree and found the arrow. It had passed through her and there was no blood trail. I would have to wait until morning and enlist my friends to help find her.

I did not sleep all night and when the alarm clock went off at 5:00am I had finally fallen asleep. There was a knock on my door and I rolled over to see that it was now 7:00 and my friend John Lesher was waiting for me on the front porch. My other pal, Chris Thayer, arrived next and with some very valuable coaching from Chris Peacock of Burlington, Vermont we were able to locate the doe in about 15 minutes.

After an awkward picture where I felt both pride and remorse, we dressed her out and took her to Dattilios Guns & Tackle to check her in.  Upon returning we hoisted her into the tree and skinned and quartered her. It began to drizzle as we were boxing up the venison and I needed a break.

I asked my wife if she wanted to go for a foliage drive. We took the truck up into the mountains, through Lincoln and down through Bristol Notch. The trees seemed to be particularly beautiful this year. We sipped coffee and enjoyed one another’s company like we were on a honeymoon, grateful for all we had in our lives.

On the way home my wife popped in a CD and as the first song began to play, I started to cry. Then I burst out singing with the chorus “Take Me Home Country Roads.”

Friday, August 23, 2013

September Dreams

We’d been working on the farm last month when we noticed the large flock of resident Canada geese using the wheat field to the north. The farmer was visibly perturbed that the birds had imprinted on his field and he knew that later this year he would have a problem when he tilled it under and the winter wheat sprouts began to pop up out of the fertile soil. Two hundred geese can do a lot of damage to a seeded field.

Some local folks, who walked the road every day for exercise, looked upon the birds as harmless and beautiful. To the farmer they were a nuisance, destroying his livelihood and making it more difficult to bring his grains to market, where they would be turned into bread and beer that the walking people enjoyed when they returned home.

To my merry band of Sacred Hunters, the geese were a majestic resource.
Personally, of all the animals on earth, I feel the strongest kinship with the goose. Maybe it’s that some people perceive both of us a nuisance, while others see us as wondrous and communicative beings. I enjoy talking to the geese and have learned more than twenty distinctly different vocalizations.

Some folks may think that hunters are only focused on one thing, killing. This is an oversimplification of a profoundly deep experience.

As dawn begins to fade from its dark blues and purples into the pastel hues of salmon, sage and helio, we listen intently for the waking honks of the flock roosting on the bay. The occasional “Her-Onk” echoes over the brightening gold landscape. We tuck our heads down into the layout blinds, camouflaged in wheat stalks. We are surrounded by full-body decoys with velvet-flocked heads in multiple positions, each displaying a specific posture to an incoming flock.
We wait.

When we finally decide that they may not show up for a while, we decide to pour a cup of french roast coffee with maple syrup out of the shiny thermos with the Ducks Unlimited logo on it. One of my closest hunting partners, J0hn, offers up the ubiquitous cruellers. It’s an annual ritual to watch the sun come up and share laughter, donuts and coffee with my crew. As another hunting partner, Larry, passes the chrome-plated cup to me, we both hear the sound. “Herrrrrp.”

It is too close.

There is a bird in the air and he sees us sitting upright and sharing our breakfast. “Busted!” I proclaim, as he glides over us from behind and pumps his powerful wings, carrying him to the distant horizon.

“Let’s hope he doesn’t go to the bay flock and tell them what he saw!” says another hunting buddy, Chris. We must be more careful. Coffee and donuts are stored beneath the fabric doors of the blind and we slink back down into our camo caves.

Fifteen minutes pass and we start thinking that maybe he did tattle on us. We begin to relax again when our mentee, Zack, spots a flock of a dozen against the trees to the north. They are not calling. “Flag ‘Em!” I whisper. My friend, Chris, begins to wave the goose shaped black, brown and white flag with zestful enthusiasm, flapping the wings as if to imitate a bird landing in the spread. “No calling,” I whisper again. “When they get in close enough, let’s hit ‘em with a feeding murmur and a gentle spit cluck or two, OK?”

The birds turn, a good ½ mile away and begin a beeline for our field. In less than a minute they are a mere 300 yards out, cupping their mighty wings and waffling air through their primaries, dropping altitude. “One more flag sequence, then set it down,” I instruct Chris. He does a quick 3 flaps and sets the flag on the ground.

They are now 150 yards out and my heart is pounding through my chest. I can feel it in my ears, thumping with excitement.

“Feeding murmur and gentle clucks” I command the troops. As if we were sitting at the Old Brick Store, conversing with the locals, the birds begin to talk back to us. “Her-her-onk  Er-er-er-er” they reply. Black patent leather feet drop from their bodies, like aircraft dropping their landing gear.

“Get ready gentlemen!” I call out.

As the giant geese begin to back pedal at the foot of the decoy spread, I say to myself “Great Spirit, please help us to shoot straight.”

I call out loud “Take ‘Em!” and the valley erupts in the percussive rhythm of hunting history. We are here to participate in the cycle of life.

6 birds are down. We rush out of our blinds to pick them up as the remainder of the flock lights out for the lake, sounding the alarm. We watch them fly over the horizon and drop down toward the bay.

Before they disappear over the hill Larry calls out “More geese! 3 o’clock!” We scurry back to the blinds and jump in. The birds are to the East this time, in the rising sun, and hard to distinguish just above the tree line. “Don’t bother flagging” I say. “They’ve already caught our motion. They’re talking a lot. Let’s give it back to them.”

We all begin a symphony of clucks, moans, hail calls and murmurs. It sounds like Grand Central at rush hour. They are pumping their massive wings and aiming right at us.  When they are 200 yards out they begin to break off to the south. We pick up the tempo and volume of the calling to a callback cadence. I feel like my cheeks are going to pop as I blow my call from deep within using my diaphragm as I was taught by my opera training mentor (that’s a whole ‘nother story).

Before they reach the foot of the small mountain to the south, they turn decisively. Are they going away or toward us? It’s hard to tell.

After a few seconds it is apparent that they are getting larger not smaller. “Stand up and flag the heck outta ‘em, Chris!” I say. He crawls out of his blind as my friend, Larry, leans hard on his call and hammers out a screaming callback series. “OK. Now get down and let ‘em come in!” The flock of 20 birds circles us twice, checking out every detail of our spread. They are talking the whole time, questioning our sincerity. We call back at them in a cacophony of clucks, moans and murmurs. After the second pass, the lead bird circles north and drops his feet. He is committed. The rest of the flock follow suit.

Suddenly they swing right and look like they’re going to leave, but wait, no….they are simply approaching from the starboard. They will swing in front of us from right to left. Larry says “That’s my favorite shot.” They begin to cup and glide right into the sweet spot. Larry says “Whenever you’re ready to call it Bradley” as if to chide me that I may be waiting too long. But I am waiting for the flock to pass far enough in front of us that the far left shooter will still have a shot. Then, in a split second, I realize that I must call the shot NOW!

“Take ‘Em” I shout. 

Bodies spring into action from beneath the wheat sheathed blinds. Guns pop up into the sky
and ring out their deep resonant booms.
I pick out a bird at the tail end of the flock and drop him soundly to the ground then turn to pick up a bird that has already landed and is jumping up off the ground, in an attempt to secure his escape. I do not even hear the gun fire. But he drops.

This time 7 birds are down. We gather them among cheers and whoops and we hear Chris say “Did you see that? Larry shot a triple!” Zack says “Carleton shot a double. I shot one and John shot one. That means that you, Chris, missed!” I chime in. “I think that Chris and I were shooting at the same bird.” Zack insists “No, I think he missed!” Everyone looks at Chris and the silence is deafening. Chris states proudly “I think I shot all those birds with just 3 shots!” We all laugh.

Our rule is no matter who shoots, we all share, as long as no one shoots another man’s limit. And none of it will go to waste.

Within an hour we have harvested 18 birds among the 5 of us and we all agree that “that is enough.” This will take us a long time to clean the birds. We use all the parts. I make a goose liver pate’ out of the livers – sort of a poor man’s foie’ gras – and a chunky country pate with the hearts and gizzards. We smoke the breasts and make smoked andouille-style sausage out of the leg meat.  The coyotes think that what we leave them is skimpy and unfair.
As we are picking up, one lone goose comes gliding in, as if he is choosing to join his peers in the transformation. I rush back to my blind and grab my gun. As he passes over the blinds, I take him cleanly with one shot and he drops to the ground with a thud.
I walk up to him with respect and admiration.

For a brief moment I am deeply connected to the spirit of this magnificent creature, our lives inextricably linked to one another. To live we must take the life of other beings, sentient or otherwise. “Even the trees and leaves have spirits. For when one Indian takes of the Earth, he does so with remorse and the knowledge that he must do so to sustain his people.”

As I approach him I see he has an aluminum band on his leg, designating that he has met mankind at least once before. I kneel down and put my hand on his chest. He is expiring. As I look into his eyes I say “Thank you brother.” As his spirit passes into mine, I pray.