here are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.
Aldo Leopold

11 February 2005

Darkest Before Dawn Part I

There is little as dark as denial. To be denied is often to experience a darkness deeper than that before dawn. And if it is one's particularly sad misfortune to experience deep denial and deeper disappointment in those deepest dark moments before dawn; then, the darkness of denial is dark, dark indeed.

Such was my misfortune on fine starry October morning, an hour and a half before dawn. I was cheerfully relishing the final farm chores of the morning of my departure, putting the finishing touches on a masterful packing effort which included a canoe, a kennel and all accoutrements, duck decoys, assorted guns and ammunition, reading material and diary, and appropriate kit and clothing to live sportingly well in the north woods of Maine for a week of glorious game bird hunting. Grouse, woodcock, a variety of waterfowl, and various and sundry other small game awaited me in the great north woods, as well as a motley group of mildly academic, endearingly gourmand and erudite epicureans, most of whom are, like myself, "Johnny-come-lately-s" to hunting, which is to say, daddy didn't teach us when we were five years old; rather we became converts later in life, which explains the zealotry in all cases and on all counts. More on that subject shortly.

It should be said that there is nothing particularly wrong with hunting my home ground. I am blessed with the opportunity to temporarily occupy, hopefully for the next fifty years or so, an upstate New York farm in the Finger Lakes region that is a veritable cornucopia of wild game-- the waterfowl are plentiful, and the deer and turkey are seen daily crossing the old fields, inspecting dilapidated fence rows and pastures. Grouse and woodcock coverts are near as well. I love this ground more every day. But it isn't Maine. It isn't lumberjack land and you won't often have a bear or a moose flush you, just when you thought the feathered quarry you were after might take flight. No, Maine is different. The great north woods with their grand pines and elegant birches, the root beer stained creeks and lakes, the haunting call of the loon, and the knowledge that you are in wild country, wilderness, a bigger place, bigger than one's self, one's experience, one's control, is captivating. Plus, there are more acres and more grouse to hunt.

I planned to drive all day and hit Bangor in the late afternoon, refuel and make final supply acquisitions, and then head for the woods. If I made the gate after dark, I would camp just inside the gate and rendezvous with the rest of the group in the morning. If I made the gate before dark, I would pick a reasonable destination further in and camp there for the night. In either case, the point was to get rested and not get lost when I hit the good country. I checked my routes on my New York and Maine DeLorme Atlas and Gazateer maps, went through my final checks on my truck, loaded the dog and started down the gravel driveway to embark on my journey north. It was 5:00 AM. I turned on my turn signal and habitually glanced at the dash to ensure that the blinker was working, and then glanced at the clock. Most times, when I look at the blue LED digits on the dash clock, I am late or almost late for something. Or at a minimum, there is some kind of work, family, farm, or other pressure. On this morning, I looked at the clock and breathed that sigh of abandon, of letting go, of Vacation.

But then I remembered that it wasn't really vacation, but rather vaguely described "away-ness" due to the fact that I had just started a new job. My boss was in France, and I was newly at the helm of the boss's favorite ship, a big high profile project. A twinge of guilt hit me as I pulled out of the driveway. Was I neglecting my duties by taking off for a hunting trip in my first week on the job? I accelerated, passively noticing the lake in front of my eastern pasture. Some deer stood in the ditch, their eyes glowing at me like distant stadium lights. I slowed down, they froze for a moment, nervously flicked tails and ears, and then bolted. I pulled into the drive to the pasture, to the little side road to the marsh, to my duck blind. It was 5:04 AM. The deer were cruising the hedgerow, now, in full flight and heading for the road. Just a matter of luck whether or not one gets smacked crossing there, I thought to myself. They don't know any better, can't really reason about consequences, live in the constant Now, which is good until you get smacked. 5:06 AM. But, we humans, I thought, we can anticipate consequences, like what happens to one's ability to pay a mortgage payment after one loses a job due to a predilection for hunting in Maine during the first week on said job.

At 5:10 AM I was starring at my computer screen in disbelief. The truck was still idling outside, Bob Dylan in the CD player for the drive, dog settling in for a long nap. The boss, hours ahead of me in France, had a list as long as my arm of things that were critical, must get done in the next four days, and required constant communication. Could I rearrange my schedule and handle these items? Just like that. Darkness. Deep, dark, dreaded denial and disappointment. A hole in the universe had yawned open and I, the flannel clad Voyageur heading to the Great White North and Aurora Borealis, was the sole benefactor of the absolute absence of light.

I spent the next few days reacquainting myself with my old friend depression. I alternated between treatments of St. John's Wort and Scotch whiskey. I tried in vain to contact the awaiting hunting party in Maine, to alert them of my misfortune, and to allay their fears that I may have met my end in a moose brothel. But to no avail. I was alone in my sorrow, and the full eclipse of a hunting trip denied was upon me. Darkness.

This was familiar ground, this trip of a lifetime being taken away. When I was a young boy, my father and I planned a week long fishing trip to Wisconsin. I looked at all of the magazines and drooled over the fish being hauled out of these pristine northern waters. In those days, cold water fish were cool. Big walleye and Northern Pike were worth driving for. Now its all Bass and warm water and worms, plastic or otherwise. I'll take a Daredevil and a toothy critter any day. Unfortunately, one afternoon only days before the big trip, I was the daredevil, taking the dare to play some boyish prank on my very girlish sister. It was a huge success in prankish boy terms, which meant my sister went immediately crying to a parental type. I of course admitted nothing, denied everything, and demanded proof, which was served up to me by a none-to-impressed neighbor. Busted. Mom was incensed, and since the prank involved worms, and so did fishing as far as she was concerned, the logical leap to cancellation of The Trip was an easy one. Darkness. I learned well the meaning of consequences, and later, grace and mercy, as my father found a way to plead my case and reduce my sentence to being grounded for 20 weeks so that I could go fishing with him. And we did catch those big up north fish.

But there was to be no silver lining, no merciful stay of sentence, in my dark cloud of denied wilderness this time. I was done for. Maine was out. I tried to salve my wounds with a duck hunt, but it was too warm, and all the ducks went to the guys with the gadgets and gizmos. I tried a grouse hunt in a newly discovered covert but saw few birds and missed all of them. Sunday came, and the first few emails and phone calls began to trickle in- was I ok? Alive? Lost in Maine? What had happened? I pounded out my mea culpa on the keyboard, sealed it with a kiss, and expected to be razzed to no end.

End part one