Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Connection Alone is Success

Glory and Wonder

As I sit in my treestand, 20 feet above the ground in a mature maple, I am in awe of the beauty around me. The light filters through the gold and red canopy above me spilling onto the musky forest floor. It feels like I am in a cathedral. I am sitting here practicing being still and mindful only of my surroundings, but I am overcome with gratitude and wonder.

I begin to think ancient thoughts. Thoughts about how mankind has connected to nature and how in the beginning man learned everything he needed to know from animals. He learned to make calls imitating birds, and studied the movements and patterns of four leggeds. He learned to hunt by watching larger carnivorous animals. And ultimately, he learned that he needed them to survive.

This need translated to a closer connection. In order to eat, he had to understand the animals or plants that he could use to nurture himself, and often times learned from experience which organisms could make him sick or kill him, either with tooth and fang, or simply through his stomach.
I hypothesize that primitive man was in some way “grateful” for his successful hunt, although he probably didn’t sit around and pray about it. He just felt it. Food is good. I need food to survive. Therefore I need animals and plants so they become important to me. I rely on them.

As I am pondering these possibilities I drift into my own analysis of why I hunt now, when it would be so much easier to go to the grocery store and purchase the vegetables and meat I need. But do I feel any connection to this food? Am I grateful for it? I may be grateful that I have enough money for the purchase, but am I grateful for the animal or plant? Have I studied its habitat and patterns? Do I honor and respect its life?

Why Do I Hunt?
When I hunt, I feel love. Love for the woods. Love for the breeze. Love for the sunset and the trees. Love for the sound of the geese flying high overhead. Love for the animal I am seeking.

I am filled with an appreciation of all that surrounds me and for who I am as a part of it. I am both insignificant and valuable at the same time. My value is no greater than and no lesser than the animals, the plants and the sun that warms my face. I am at one with my universe. It is then that the universe rewards me with what I need.

A doe steps into the open space beneath my stand. She looks over her shoulder with a maternal glance. Following her is a smallish fawn, no doubt delivered late in the spring. The fawn follows its mother directly under my tree. I watch in utter amazement as they work their way past my ladder. I am invisible.

They sense no threat from me and thus their sixth sense accepts my presence as something natural. 

They wander off behind my stand and I say a prayer of thanks to the Great Spirit for their visit.

At the edge of the field that abuts the woods, a gray squirrel squeals loudly at something I cannot see. 

A twig snaps. My heart races.

I practice breathing like I had never done it before. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. Conscious of every breath. Through the tangles that envelop the ditch leading to the field, I catch a glimpse of motion.

Brown motion. 

Then suddenly a stomp and a loud blowing sound. The wind has switched direction and this animal, this deer, smells something that is unfamiliar in these woods. Behind an old oak, I see a head lift and the sun glints off of a set of gorgeous antlers.

Another stomp and blow. The buck is looking right at my tree. He is out of range for my bow. 

He lifts his head up into the pillar of light and scans up the tree until our eyes are locked on one another.

I wait. Measured breathing, Not blinking. We are joined in a primitive moment.

I can see his chest expanding and contracting with mine.

Suddenly, his tail swishes form side to side. He turns his head to the West and begins to slowly walk away from me toward the field.

The sun sets and the birds get quiet. I sit down in my seat and take a deep breath. I say out loud “Thank you Great Spirit for my brother’s visit.” I have received a gift of beauty and wonder this evening that will remain as a memory for the rest of my life. 

And I am grateful.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Summer's End - Fall's Beginning

Harvest Moon
For many waterfowlers that first brisk Northern breeze that sweeps the pungent fragrance of the lake depths through the valley, means it is time to prepare for resident Canada goose season. While the public basks in the last few days of summer and revels in the glory of Labor Day weekend, goose hunters are preparing for Opening Day. 

Field bags are packed; decoys are set out in out fields, their deceptive motion swaying with the slightest wisp of air. Layout blinds are prepared by picking wheat and clover off the ground and stuffing it into the stubble straps of the nylon blinds, which sit on the dewy ground. It takes more than an hour and a half to properly grass the blinds and crawl into the coffin-shaped boxes.

Dawn of Fall
As the first rays of sunlight melt over the mountains, the sky lights up in salmon and helio, outlined by soothing sage. There is not a cloud in the sky and the sweet smelling northwest wind bodes well for our crew of anxious fowlers. 

We are sharing our traditional cup of coffee and donuts when it happens. Far out on the bay, the echo careens off of the rocky beach. Her-onk! The breakfast flock is awakening.

First call
We return the call with a simple cluck and leave the rest to the imagination. Sometimes the best call is the one that leaves curiosity in the mind of the conversationalist. We wait.

Soon, another muffled, yet intriguing honk comes from the bay. We answer back with a curt hail call. 

That gets the ball rolling! Now we are in an aggressive dialogue about how wonderfully tasty the wheat is this morning. Within minutes we can hear the entire flock begin to debate about when to leave the roost. Juvenile voices say “now!” while the more guttural adult tones profess “patience.” It’s like listening to a family on Christmas morning.
All Set

Twenty minutes pass. We are all silent in the field, when one of our band of brothers calls out “Two from behind! Right over the trees! And Silent!” “Get down!” I counter. Blind doors snap shut and we all disappear in stalks of wheat and sheaths of clover.  

These are the scouts.

We let them circle the spread and do not call or move. They examine us closely, then slide gently back out over the water and land in the center of the bay, clucking to the flock of 300 birds.

The question comes up every year. Should we have shot when they were hanging over the decoys? My answer has always been “no.” Let them take the news to the flock that the field is full of geese and there do not appear to be any predators.

Ten long minutes pass. Our hearts are beating wildly, hoping that we made the right choice. And then it begins.

We hear the wing beats flapping against the water as the family pods begin to peel off of the flock. 

Within moments, the sky is alive with honking, as powerful wing pinions flail at the air. They are arriving in flocks of 10 – 20 birds at a time. 

The first flock to lower altitude swings from right to left across the spread then turns away to the South. 

A single bird back pedals and drops his dark black boots to land in the decoys. “Let ‘em land!” I whisper. When the second flock sees the single bird on the ground, he calls to them.

First Bird
They cup their mighty wings in an arc, the shape of which is emblazoned in waterfowlers’ memories for generations. 

As they glide in to finish their landing, feet outstretched, necks craning, I wish that I could freeze this moment in time and somehow convey to all those who do not hunt what a magnificent spectacle we get to witness.

Some call the Canada goose a nuisance because it fouls their lawns and golf courses. I prefer to think of them as majestic brethren seeking a connection to us.

Smile of Success

Monday, June 23, 2014

Summer Camp

July. The days are warm and full of activity. Gardens are beginning to show fruit and the black caps are growing juicy on the vine. The days are full of flowers and lying in the hammock between the two old trees. The chickens run happily around the yard chasing butterflies and scratching for worms in the dry dirt. The mountains seem to fade into a shimmering purple haze of heat. Streams are gurgling merrily along. Insects store their energy during the heat of the day and emerge in the cool evening. Rainbow trout rise lazily to the hatch beneath the riffles of the dams, breathing in the life-affirming oxygen. For humans, the heat begins to drive us to the shade of the woods. It’s going to be a long hot summer and the mountains are calling me. My wife, Katie, my sister, Callie from CT, and I pack a picnic lunch and load the truck with bottles of water and snacks. As so many Vermonters do, we are heading for
Nothing Fancy
the respite of camp. The nice thing about camps is that it really doesn’t matter whether your camp is a spacious monument on a stone wall overlooking the lake or if it’s something simple tucked off in the woods away from the maddening crowds. It’s a getaway. It’s a place where the mundane rules of everyday etiquette relax a bit. It’s okay to not make your bed. It’s okay to wake up a little later and eat a hearty breakfast at 10:00. The days are unrushed. Our little camp is humble – heck some people might think it’s a paragon of poverty – but to us and the people we invite, it’s a slice of heaven.

As the truck pitches from side to side going up the old logging road we sing along to the radio and it feels like we are in a time machine going backwards to a simpler period in human life.
The Old Defiant Stove
We pull up to the deck and check the water system, which is extracted from the bubbling brook. It fills an old bathtub with ice cold mountain spring water. Once hooked up, the same wonderful aqueous substance flows directly into the kitchen sink.Two large recliners and a fold down couch surround the old Defiant woodstove with a touch of rust on the surface.

After a cool drink of water, our friends begin to arrive. One by one, big wheeled trucks roll up into the parking area. Coolers of food and beverages are unloaded and bottles are placed in the bathtub where they will remain slightly above freezing.

After everyone unpacks, we collectively decide to hike to the top of Crow Hill for a view of the valley. The ascent is steep and full of loose rocks. Arriving at the top we are literally clinging to small pines to pull ourselves up to the next level. The short pines are thick and the ground is covered in spongy moss, its musky fragrance blending with the aromatic balsam and permeating the air around us. We are sweat soaked and our knees are shaking. Another 100 yards to the rock outcropping.

Sacred Beauty
We follow a deer trail right to the spot. Suddenly, the trees part and we are standing on a large shelf of rock, looking down on the Champlain Valley that seems to wave like a mirage in the heat. Beyond, we can see the lake shimmering in the mid day sun. The Adirondacks seem to reach up into the azure sky, blending in bluish-purple with the distant horizon. As far as the eye can see, there is beauty.

Sacred beauty that cannot be touched by development.  For this, we
can all give thanks. For this is solace for a world gone mad with busyness. As we stand on the precipice, time seems to stand still and we are all united in our mindfulness that this ground is sacred.

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.