Monday, May 20, 2013

The Evolution of Consciousness - or How I Learned to Stalk the Wild Asparagus

When I was a young man in high school in Beaver, PA, which in the 1960’s was the heart of the burgeoning steel industry, my mother used to hang our bed sheets out to dry on a line and I would marvel at the small rust colored rings that formed on the crisp white linens. It looked like tie-died “hippy” clothing. In the center of the ring was a tiny iron particle that had attached to the sheet by floating through the heavy air. Its origin was the steel mills spewing particulates and smoke into the air. We all took it for granted that this was “progress” and we should be grateful for the chance to live in such a prosperous country. It never occurred to me what we were doing to the environment. The “environmental movement” was just beginning.

They called it “ecology” and a very small group of eccentric individuals embraced this counter-culture, wearing peace signs and claiming they wanted to “get back to the land.” One of them wrote a book called “Stalking the Wild Asparagus.” 

In our high school, everyone was focused on Friday night’s football game and who had the fastest muscle car. This alternative group of rebels were joining what they called a “movement” that a lot of people feared would topple the status quo. My friends and I sat in the school hallways and made fun of “them”. We joked that Euell Gibbons, the author of “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” was actually a direct descendent of a simian culture and that the concept of “natural food” was foolish. Isn’t all food “natural?” Why eat vegetables that grow in a ditch when you can buy clean, unusually large and well-polished varieties in the supermarket?

Fast forward to the present. The “Environmental Movement” has evolved and been inculcated into the common fabric of our society. Everyone is at least aware of the impacts of pollution, ecosystem degradation, etc. We talk of habitat and clean water. We are aware of our problems, although there are still detractors who feel that the environment vs. the economy debate cannot be resolved. It’s one or the other. Personally, I believe that without a healthy environment, we cannot possibly sustain a healthy economy over time.

Our food is now produced by corporations that splice DNA together to create prettier, larger tomatoes, corn, soybeans, etc. and now we are headed toward the first genetically modified meat, farm-raised salmon that will not even need to be designated as a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO). Remember the sci-fi film back in the 70’s, “Soylent Green”, where the government produced a “super-food” that could replace all the other sources of nutrition? Are we headed toward a government sanctioned corporate-produced food supply?

Because of what I have learned over the years as a hunter and fishermen, I became fascinated with the concept that “pure” food could be healthier than processed food. After all, why did the venison, duck, goose, rabbit, squirrel, moose and bear taste so much better than anything I could buy in a store? I hypothesized that it had to do with the quality of life of the organism. My animals were free to roam the earth, seeking their sustenance from natural sources. Their life, although hard at times, was free and beautiful.
I postulated that perhaps that beauty, that freedom, that universal quality of spirit, was ingrained in their DNA and thus, in their flesh. By ingesting their flesh, with a blessing of gratitude, was I not then also absorbing their spirit?

Taken one step further, if I learned to locate plants that grew naturally in the woods, swamps, steams and ditches, would they not also have spiritual qualities like that of my animals?

I became more curious about this way of thinking and began to study the environments that might support such life. I asked some old-timers who seemed to know how to live well in spite of having few material possessions. It was these elders that taught me about fiddleheads, leeks (also known as “ramps”), dandelion greens, mushrooms, berries and nuts. Then one day, I met a man who showed me pictures of several pounds of my favorite vegetable, asparagus. Randy Bibeau, of Vergennes VT, has mastered the art of locating these wild edibles and he shared his knowledge with me.

I became obsessed with locating the dying stalks, gone to seed in the mid-summer heat, and drove hundreds of miles of back roads with my Northern Cartographic map by my side. Every time I spotted a plant I would mark it on the map with a circle with an “A” in the middle. I collected 20 spots in my first year. Randy had taught me that it is imperative that I search for these plots, although the actual stalks had passed and gone to seed, because the following year, those seeds would sprout quickly when the ground temperature reached the mid-60’s. During hot weather – like what we experienced here in VT during the first week of May, the plant can grow as much as 6” per day. During periods of unusual warmth, I learned to check on my plots daily, many of them yielding 3-6 newly sprouted stalks each day.

Recently I took my wife, Katie and her friend, Kelli Wellings of Addison, on an asparagus stalking drive. We drove down an old dirt road near a farm, where an old fence had once stood and now the barbed wire and aged posts hung drearily close to the ground. I was telling them about how the plant likes a saline habitat and thus, any time roads salt is used in winter, it thrives, when suddenly, I told Katie excitedly, “Slam on the brakes! There it is! There it is!” Katie and Kelli broke out laughing at my enthusiasm. Katie said something along the lines of “My God! You’d think he’d found a pot of gold! I haven’t seen you that excited in a long time!”
I literally jumped out of the truck and called back to Kelli, “Hurry up! C’Mere! C’Mere!” I sprinted across the desolate road and parachuted into the ditch. “Whoo Hooo!” We’ve struck the jackpot!” We picked a dozen spears and then, with a feeling of great accomplishment, crawled back in the truck. Further down the road we hit another patch, even larger than the first. Nice big, thick-stalked spears near an old mailbox of a deserted trailer. I was elated. The girls were fascinated by my unbridled joy at finding such a treasure. And the season had just begun. Asparagus “season” runs well into June in the Champlain Valley. 

On the ride home, I thought of my friend, Michael Hurley from Beaver, and how we used to make fun of old Euell, when all of a sudden I realized – Oh My God! I have become that person whom I used to satirize. Was I regressing physiologically to a simian or was I evolving into someone that found his spirit nurtured by a nature I had not understood?

That evening we dined on roasted asparagus and Lake Champlain poached salmon with sautéed wild leeks that I had harvested that morning. The sheets on the bed were clean and crisp with no iron deposits.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Long Live The King!

I had been watching the old tom for a couple of weeks. I was taking notes in my journal as to what time he awakened each day, where he roosted, what fields he favored during rainy days and which hens commanded his attention from the fly-down to the time they sauntered off to nest in the late morning warmth. He had worn his wingtips down to the heavy-vaned quills from strutting in defiance and aggression, showing the young upstart jakes that there would be no mistake who sat on the throne and ruled this pastoral kingdom.

During the late morning he wandered across the brook where the little wooden bridge arched over the gently gurgling waters below. Dandelions covered the greening field like a bright yellow quilt. In the distance, the Adirondacks glistened in pale blue, almost blending into the cerulean sky with wisps of wedding white clouds hanging above them. With the girls attending to their domestic instincts and dusting their bronze bodies in the light brown bowls of earth, his Majesty would strut amongst the fiddleheads and ramps up and down the streambed.

Late in the afternoon he would meander through the main field and cross into the sprouting soybeans to gather his harem for the night’s feeding session at the edge of the small meadow. Gnats and small insects would hatch off of the twigs of the budding shrubbery, grubs could be scraped up in the cooling earth and the occasional left over acorn might yield its sweet tannin- flavored meat to the flock. They would stroll about, chatting amongst themselves, gently purring and clucking tones of contentment.

About 7:45 the flock would head into the hardwood and conifer woods, scraping the forest floor as they went and picking up the opportunistic earthworm along the way. At the base of the roosting area, they would putt-putt to one another, choosing their trees with a flapping of their decisive, powerful flapping wings. I could hear the wing beats from 100 yards away, as I sat on a fallen log covered with cool moss. Every once in awhile I would catch a glimpse of wings, lifting the big birds up into the dusky horizon to light on a thick branch.

As the heavens turned a dark green and purple, the old tom would start to gobble to let his mates know which tree he had chosen for the evening. I sat quietly, choosing not to employ my owl call and just listen to the birds call to one another using soft tree yelps, which would be punctuated every 5 minutes by a boisterous deep-throated gobble. Then the woods fell silent.

It was dark. The three quarter moon had just begun to crest the Green Mountains to the East. I stood up and quietly walked out of the woods, placing each footfall carefully so as not to snap any twigs. I stuck to the logging road that wended by the old sugar shack. The walk home seemed short, my heart doubling the pace of my steps. I could feel it beating in my chest with the anticipation of the next morning.

This particular year I had not been able to manipulate my schedule to accommodate Opening Day and had to settle for the first weekend. My concern was that any one of a number of other hunters may have already played this bird, but he seemed unflustered and relaxed. My hopes were high as I lay in bed watching the reflection of the LED light on the alarm clock glowing an oddly calming green on the ceiling. As I began to drift off to sleep, a flock of geese flew over the house in the subdued moonlight, headed for the pond out back.

The fluorescent light of the clock read 3:58 when I opened my eyes. The alarm would go off in 2 minutes. No need to wake the wife with the local country radio station wailing the teen angst of some young girl who is “never ever ever getting back together” with some spurned adolescent boy. Maybe if it was Waylon Jennings or Johnny Cash, I might consider lying in bed and actually listening to some classic old tune, but I know better these days. The radio stations no longer play the kind of music that soothes old souls. So I turned it off before the inevitable.

I rolled off of the firm mattress and directly into my turkey camo laid out neatly at the foot of my bed on the red couch under the window. The curtain was being vacuumed out through the top of the window by a South wind circling around the house. It would be a warm day. I could feel it in my bones.

Walking down the dirt road, my boots were scuffing the gravel when I realized that it was dead silent and that I was not conscious of creating more noise than I liked. I began setting my feet down with more mindfulness. My plan was to walk the road to the culvert and short-cut through the woods to a slight rise where the birds funneled through the low point to the fence with the broken posts where the barbed wire was torn, creating an opening to the soybean field.

As I crossed through the fence opening and into the woods, I had that sixth sense that I was being watched. I felt my nerves go on edge. Was it a coyote? A roosted hen that had changed its course into another tree during the night? Something felt uneasy. I tip-toed through the moonlit trilliums and carefully placed each step, feeling for branches or twigs through my rubber soles. I stopped to listen for a moment next to an old oak.

My heart jumped into my ears when the owl went off right above me. “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you awwwwl?” Then a thunderous gobble echoed through the night air. My heart moved back into my chest and decided to try to push its way out though my ribcage. I broke into a cold sweat and began gasping shallow breaths. “Calm down” I told myself. “Now you know where he is and all you have to do is wait.”
I leaned my vest and gun against the old oak and gently removed the hen and jake decoy from the backpack. I unfolded them and carried the decoys and their plastic stakes,carefully pacing off 20 yards to my left, toward the swale in the ditch. I strategized that he might not cross the ditch but would pass on the opposite side following his normal routine exit to the field. It would leave me with a shot of about 30-35 yards, for which I had patterned my 12 gauge using some 3 ½” #5 ‘s Then I returned to my tree and saddled up against the indentation in the trunk.

I cut a few small twigs with budding leaves out of the musty soil and speared them into the ground in front of me, creating a ring of natural cover. My 3-D leafy-flage suit blended in beautifully. I had loaded my gun back at the house and walked all the way in being ever conscious of the safety as I wound my way through the whip-infested woods edge.

I sat at the base of the old tree and listened to the prelude to a spring symphony. 

 Every 5 minutes or so, the percussive deep-throated bass of the lead singer would pierce the crisp morning air, ripe with hope.

Soon, I began to hear fly-down cackles and the beat of mighty wings in their descent to the earth below. I counted 6 fly-downs that I could hear. Then an even louder beating of wings and a solitary gobble from 100 yards away. Then silence. His Majesty was being attended to by his harem of hens. The Boss hen clucked loudly to him to follow her directly to the small green meadow.

I clucked and putted gently at first, and then realizing that I was competing with a half-dozen of the real birds, I picked up the tempo and veracity of my clucks. He answered, affirming his dominance with a powerful scream.

At this point I knew I had his attention, but the game was far from over. Was it just a courtesy gobble? Or did I sound more seductive than the real-life ladies around him? I clucked loudly again, with a powerful cut at the tail end of the monologue. Again, he answered. I had confirmed that he knew of my whereabouts and my intentions. Now, the real tricky part of the conversation; saying nothing. At all. For what could be a long time. He had stopped gobbling for about 15 minutes and my heart began to sink.

Had he left his strutting zone to follow his Boss Hen into the meadow? I began to think about my next strategy when a voice from my past, the ghosts of Chris and Curt McCuin, whispered in my head “When they stop talking, they may be coming in. Sit tight and wait.” So wait I did.

Constantly scanning the holes between the trees, the shrubbery and the deadfalls, I began to feel as if I was being watched.  Again.

Suddenly a piercing gobble came from right in front of me, not more than 60 yards away.

Then I saw it. Just the top of the fan. It was full and he was strutting behind a downed cedar tree. He must have snuck in using the cedar to obscure my vision the whole way.

I putted gently. He gobbled back.

But he did not move closer.

I clucked and cut. He gobbled back.

But he did not move closer

I purred with a gentle cut. He gobbled back. We were having a conversation about who should go to whom.

He did not move from his strutting zone behind the cedar.

This went on for the better part of ½ hour, when finally I saw him angling away from behind the tree and heading back to his harem.

What should I do?

Dare I try that no-call mouth gobble that I have used to entertain people at parties? The one where I just scream “Owl doodoodooodoodle?”

It was then I realized I had nothing to lose.

I breathed in deeply and tensed the muscles around my diaphragm in my chest, using my intercostals to add pressure. Then I let loose, praying that the sound emanating from my mouth would sound anything like a jake challenging this brute to breed the hen I was pretending to be.

At the moment he heard the scream, he spun around like someone had punched him in the back of the head and screamed back.

Then he began to run, full speed. Around the cedar and right in to the decoys, which he had not seen from behind the tree. He looked at the jake decoy with incredulity and stuck out his chest, reared back on his legs and prepared to terminate the young upstart. He held his head high and prepared to pounce.

It was then that my finger eased the trigger back and the deep barreled gun spoke. Eloquently, powerfully and permanently.

I rushed to his side and sat with him as he expired, praying as I always do.

“Great Spirit, hear me for I am small and weak. I need your strength and wisdom. Let me walk in beauty and make my eyes behold the red and purple sunset. Make my hands respect the things that you have made. Make my ears sharp to hear your voice. Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people. Let me learn the lessons in every leaf and rock. I seek strength, not be greater than my brother, but to fight my greatest enemy, myself. Make me always ready to come to you, with clean hands and straight eyes, so when life fades as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame. Take this, my brother, back into the Great Star Nation and know that I am grateful for his sacrifice. Great Spirit bless this, the soul of my brother, the turkey.”

In the distance my prayer was answered by another gobble from out in the meadow. There will be a new King this day. Long Live the King!