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

28 December 2005

To Ponder on the Way Out The Door...

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

T. Roosevelt

"Citizenship in a Republic," Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910

22 December 2005

Natural Links in a Long Chain of Being

Natural Links in a Long Chain of Being by Victor Hanson

Classics and military history scholar Victor Hanson is a professor emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His family farm includes 40 acres of seedless grapes grown for raisins. Hanson hopes his son, William, will succeed him in tending the farm.

"I believe there is an old answer for every new problem, that wise whispers of the past are with us to assure us that… we are not alone." Morning Edition, December 19, 2005 ·

I believe we are not alone.Even if I am on the other side of the world from the farmhouse I live in, I still dream of the ancient vines out the window, and the shed out back that my grandfather's father built in 1870 with eucalyptus trunks. As long as I can recreate these images, I never quite leave home. I don't think farming in the same place for six generations is a dead weight that keeps you shackled, doing the identical thing year in and year out. Instead, it is a rare link to others before me, who pruned the same vines and painted the same barn that I have. If those in this house survived the Panic of 1893 or the Great Depression, or bathed with cold water and used an outhouse, then surely I know I can weather high gas prices. I believe that all of us need some grounding in our modern world of constant moving, buying, selling, meeting and leaving. Some find constancy in religion. Others lean on friends or community for permanence. But we need some daily signposts that we are not novel, not better, not worse from those who came before us.

For me, this house, this farm, these ancient vines are those roots. Although I came into this world alone and will leave alone, I am not alone.

There are ghosts of dozens of conversations in the hallways, stories I remember about buying new plows that now rust in the barnyard and ruined crops from the same vines that we are now harvesting.

I believe all of us are natural links in a long chain of being, and that I need to know what time of day it is, what season is coming, whether the wind is blowing north or from the east, and if the moon is still full tomorrow night, just as the farmers who came before me did.

The physical world around us constantly changes, but human nature does not. We must struggle in our brief existence to find some transcendent meaning during reoccurring heartbreak and disappointment and so find solace in the knowledge that our ancestors have all gone through this before.

You may find all that all too intrusive, living with the past as present. I find it exhilarating. I believe there is an old answer for every new problem, that wise whispers of the past are with us to assure us that if we just listen and remember, we are not alone; we have been here before.

20 December 2005

Luke's Way -Coda

The last day of deer season for me was a Monday. Luke and Rob left Sunday morning for Kentucky, and I decided Sunday evening to get out for just a few hours on the last day. I was still basking in the afterglow of the memorable squirrel hunt turned deer hunt and feeling relieved and thankful that the weekend was a success for Luke, and for me also. I once again awoke before dawn, but more gladly than in days past, moving in that mode of savoring the last day of something, be it a vacation, a season like summer, or whatever one looks forward to for longer than one can actually enjoy. I was clearly savoring the last day of deer season. Putting on my orange coat, which thankfully was becoming just slightly less jarring in its vividness. Grabbing a handful of slug shells out of the cigar box, picking up the old deer gun. It occurred to me that I might want to “keep my luck” and not switch guns, owing to the recent success of the “magical gun of mystery,” but I scoffed at my hunting mysticism and superstition and reminded myself that this was just a couple of hours on the last day. So I settled on the bolt action WWI relic and headed out the door.

My destination was the O’Connor tree stand, not 50 yards from where the gray doe came to rest Saturday. It is a comfortable stand, easy to get to quickly in the snow, and over the years, incredibly productive, or so I had been told. To date I found it to be excellent for ground squirrel observation.

As I settled in I took my habitual deep breaths and closed my eyes, listening for a few minutes. It was beautifully quiet. Even more snow had fallen in the night. A Great Horned Owl announced the end of his shift, and a gentle breeze made the tree sway slowly. I opened my eyes and there was a bit more daylight. The trees looked like they had been lightly moistened and dipped into confectioners sugar, creating a fantasy quality in the gully where one might expect to be visited by the Sugar Plum Fairy or Old Saint Nick at any moment. I chuckled at this thought, preferring rather a gift of a different sort on this last morning of deer season.

Yet, I was aware of my inner voice encouraging me to avoid being greedy, especially as Christmas approached. So I rested my mind on the gift I had been given by Luke, by hunting Luke’s way. I replayed the dinner conversation where Luke innocently rescued me from wallowing in self-pity, a perfectly ridiculous waste of emotion, especially during hunting season. Turning my head slightly, I scanned the ridge top where we had stood, looking down at the fleeing doe. Slowly turning my head still further, exaggerating deliberateness, I surveyed the area where she was bedded, where she began her ascent up the far ridge, and where she fell. And then I froze.

Simultaneously I saw motion in the extreme periphery to my right and heard twigs snapping. “Too loud and too cold for the ground squirrels” I thought. The problem was, due to my reminiscent rubber-necking a moment ago, I was now in need of a more than 180 degree adjustment of my field of view. I began the super slow revolution of my head upon its axis of my slightly cramped neck. Gradually, in the periphery of my left eye, one doe appeared, then three, then five then more than I could easily count. They were moving quickly from left to right. I was thinking to myself, “Well now, what an embarrassment of riches…which one shall I concentrate upon?” Just as I was about to raise my gun, the does seemed to hear something behind them, which caused a domino effect of snorting and tail and ear twitching. They began to move further to my right at a trot, looking as if they might slip over the little ridge to the west without offering me much of a shot, especially if I didn’t hurry. And then I saw two more deer coming fast out of some brambles from the left, two that had been lagging behind the larger groups of does apparently.

The lead deer seemed smallish, the second appearing larger, but her head has concealed behind the first. “Ok” I thought “slowly raise the gun, just wait for them to pass into your field of fire, and take the second deer.” I raised the gun, aware of a faint sound of fabric rubbing. I remember hearing a belch-like grunt and thinking “Strange…that second doe just burped” and then feeling like I might have been injected with a few cc’s of straight caffeine intravenously. At about the same moment, all of the moisture previously existing in my throat and mouth was forced as if by a press directly out of the pores in my hands, my heart rate spiked like the NASDAQ at the birth of the phrase “dot com” and, oddly, I was aware of the sound an overloaded transistor makes before exploding, that high pitched note that keeps getting higher. All of this because I was witnessing a natural history miracle; the belching trailing doe raised her head and became a magnificent nine point buck before my very eyes.

The miracle buck was trailing the doe in heat with a purpose, and they were moving quickly. Everything was moving quickly, and paradoxically, ever so slowly. As I watched the buck extend his neck and head to better understand the doe’s tail, it was as if I had been given wildlife footage and was being afforded an opportunity to leisurely observe the film frame by frame. In this frame, hmm, interesting, look at that moss hanging of off those antlers. In the next, oh, I see, they were down in the little bog…look at all of that mucky mud on her and all that pond scum and vegetation on his front legs. In the next frame, well, extraordinary, those antler beams look thick as axe handles from the rear view. And then the film was speeded up, fast forward style as I became aware that I could no longer see the doe and would quickly lose sight of the buck. He was escaping me after passing at twenty yards. For some still unknown reason, I whistled, as if hailing a taxi, and then said “Hey!” The buck pulled up short, and stood stock still for a second or two. I was aware that if I clenched my jaw any harder I would break a molar. He turned his head to the right, eliminating the back of the skull shot I had just set up, but giving me a fair neck shot if I could readjust quickly. I re-targeted none too smoothly, in a fast, overly law enforcement-esque fashion, saw the red dot settle in, and touched the trigger. At the report of the gun, the miracle buck went directly down, and I remember exhaling, or was it inhaling, as if I had nearly drowned but made the surface at the last second. The sound of my gasp startled me more than the report of the gun. The powdered sugar on the small trees where the buck now lay was sliding off of the branches and sprinkling down over the animal’s massive head and antlers.

The buck unofficially “green-scored” darn close to 140, which is big news for me and my neighbors, but probably won’t make the local papers, and surely won’t make the big book. Yet sitting here now, basking in the magic of my family at Christmas and thinking back to the fairy dust sprinkling on the miracle buck’s head, I know the real story. I know that the deer campaign I set out upon on opening day, the “year of the buck” obsession that drove me to measuring the enjoyment of my hunts by the presence or lack of quantitative accomplishments and achievements, wasn’t hunting. I learned that taking a young person out to have an adventure, or sharing the woods and waters with a friend, or that taking “me” and my need for success out of the equation and putting the focus on relationships with companions, with the game, the worthy quarry, and with all that is wild or desires to be, is hunting. I know that the way of hunting, the ways of predator and prey, are paths sometimes hidden from us. And I know that Luke’s way, the young boy’s way of noticing but perhaps not judging, is a good way to avoid becoming lost while on these paths. I know that in hunting, as in life, things don’t always go our way. And that’s okay

08 December 2005

Luke's Way Part 4

My name was called kneeling under that oak tree looking at squirrel sign with Luke and his father. Rob later said my expression was really like I, but nobody else, heard perhaps my wife calling my name or the phone ringing. Luke asked �What?� and I put my finger to my lips. I was suddenly very alert, but still unsure why, or what called me. We kneeled silently together for a moment, and I remember how beautifully quiet it was, and how lovely the faint rustling of the dead oak leaves still on the branches sounded. Luke and Rob were looking at me intently, like I was either going to tell a joke punch line or break some bad news. Instead, I smiled and slowly, deliberately, removed the three bird shot shells from the �magical gun of mystery�, and replaced them with three deer slugs. I wasn�t sure why.

From the squirrel�s vantage point high in the swaying branches of the oak tree, this is what he saw. Directly below him, at the base of his tree on the ridge, were three humans with guns, nothing unusual this time of the year, crouching, looking at his acorn peelings and footprints, pointing here and there. The squirrel barked warnings to them, declaring his rights to privacy and property so that they will leave the place where he has buried a nut or two. Far below the squirrel, down in the ravine, in the blackberry bramble on the far side of the creek, rest three does, their ears twitching, nostrils flaring, puzzling out mixed signals on the wind. They are laying low in the snow where they often seek refuge, riding out the winter weather in the shelter of the gully. The humans with guns often walk past them where they lay quietly. This day they snort nervously, aware of a predator, of impending danger. The sounds and smells are strong, though intermittent. They decide to depart quickly.

Meanwhile, on the ridge the squirrel sees the human with the orange coat rise and motion to the other two to follow him. The little one follows next, followed by the one with no hat. The squirrel turns his gaze again to the deer, now standing up in the snow, twitching their tails and snorting. One is big and gray, one is slightly smaller and more tan, and one is younger and tan colored. Looking back at the humans, the squirrel sees that they are walking towards the edge of the ravine, to a clear spot recently logged. The deer are moving now toward a switchback trail up the far side of the ravine, running. The humans have reached the edge of the ravine. The little one is pointing at the running deer and the one in the orange coat is snapping his gun up to his cheek. Bang! The squirrel drops his nut and dives into his tree home, where he is greeted by the noisy chatter of his tree mates.

I shot three times, the �magical gun of mystery� performing flawlessly for once. I lowered the gun and it registered that I had just seen deer and shot at them. I heard a squirrel chattering. On my left I heard Rob say, �You got �im,� incredulously. �We got a deer!� Luke exclaimed. At first I couldn�t see anything. We were standing side by side by side on the ridge in the fading light as the snow fell. Then I could see a big gray doe laying on the deer trail across the creek about 120 yards down and away. She was still. Two other deer were running up the trail, pausing for a moment looking back, cresting the rim and bounding out of the gorge and out of sight.

I turned my head and looked at Rob and Luke, who were smiling. �I am going to the deer,� I said. �Would you gentleman mind keeping your eye on it from here in case she gets up, or I can�t see her from down there in the thick stuff? I�ll give you a shout to come down when I get to her.� We all agreed to the plan, and as I excitedly and hurriedly slid down on my backside down the snowy ravine (which I must remember to do again as it was quite exhilarating!), I could hear Luke speaking with exuberance to his father. While chambering a few shells in case the deer was not finished, I resolved then to do all I could to help Luke own this hunt.

As I feared, it was difficult to see anything in the tall brambles, and slowly I picked my way through the brush. I called to Luke, �Luke, can you still see her? Am I getting close?� Simultaneously, both Rob and Luke answered. Luke said �Yep, you�re almost there,� while Rob said �Keep going, a little to your right.� Then, after a few more steps, I saw the gray fur and white tail. When I got to her, she was quite still and dead. I called for Luke and Rob to come down, and emptied the shells from my gun. I leaned the gun in a low fork of a tree, and knelt down to my downed deer. I felt for her wound and finally found an entrance and exit wound in the neck, where the lead slug had severed her spine. She died almost instantly. No wonder she disappeared from view so quickly, which also better explained my instinctive second two shots at the other bigger deer.

Luke and Rob came up behind me and I could hear Luke saying �Wow, it�s bigger than I thought.� I was feeling her fur, and I invited Luke to check it out. It was then that I felt that �performance pressure� ease away from me, and a feeling of immense gratitude came over me. I realized how fortunate we all were to experience this, in this unique way, together. I became aware of how fortunate I was to be hunting in such a beautiful place that happened to be my back yard. And it occurred to me to impress upon Luke the importance of gratitude versus gloating when we have the good fortune of our hunt including a kill. I looked at Rob, and he communicated without words his deference in this situation, which is a compliment to another, as any father knows. I said �Can I get serious for a minute with Luke?� Rob said �Yes, of course.� So I said to Luke, �Remember how I said in hunting, as in life, things don�t always go our way? Well, today they went your way Luke, and my way too. We killed a deer. Now, we must be thankful for this deer, for this life we have taken. We don�t have to do anything fancy, we should just be quiet for a minute and think about this beautiful deer in this beautiful place and be thankful.� After a few moments as we knelt around this gray doe in the snow, giving thanks how we each saw fit, I heard a squirrel�s chatter from the big oak tree up on the ridge. I looked at Luke. �Kind of a strange squirrel hunt, huh Luke?� He had a shy look, turned his head away. �Yeah� he said, sort of laughing.

I asked Rob to go up to the house and get my butchering equipment and some baling twine from the sheep barn while Luke and I found a small lodge pole. While we waited for Rob�s return, we sat on a log and had target practice with the .22 on an old tree trunk that had gnarls in it that looked like the rings of a target paper with a bull�s eye. Luke showed that he was a pretty good shot. We ran out of rounds for the .22 just as Rob appeared up on the ridge. As he was picking his way down to us in the fading winter afternoon light, Luke said �This is the best hunting trip I have ever been on.�
�Sorry we didn�t get you a squirrel� I said.
�Well, getting a deer is pretty good too� he replied.
�Yes,� I said, �because deer are pretty smart.�
We laughed as we stood to greet Rob, having returned from his mission.

Working quickly, we had the deer field dressed before dark, and we hung it from the lodge pole just like in the Davy Crocket books I read when I was a kid. Rob took the front, I took the rear, and the successful hunting party labored under the load of the heavy doe up the path to the top of the ridge as darkness fell. As we approached the farmhouse, we could see the warm yellow lights of the windows and we could all imagine the cheery fires and food, fun, and family waiting for us inside. My children and wife, as well as Rob�s wife and daughter were waiting at the door for us when we returned, and I couldn�t help thinking I was in a Currier and Ives dream state, or that Norman Rockwell would be sitting with his easel in the yard.

So, despite not having shot a trophy buck, my deer drought ended on a happier than could have been expected note. From what I hear, Luke is still telling his New York deer hunting tale. I never told Rob about how preposterous it was that an instinctual snap shot on a running deer at over one hundred yards down hill in bad light with a dubious gun shooting 2 � shells through a stuck poly choke last set for ducks with two witnesses resulting in an instant kill neck shot was. That it was unbelievably lucky, never repeatable, I mean. Not that it wasn�t meant to be. I have told Rob that the hunt I shared with he and his son was one of the most memorable hunts, if not moments, of my life. I am hoping Luke will be willing to go after squirrels with me on my next trip for Moose in Maine or Elk in the Rockies. I hope that in life, as in hunting, things will continue to go Luke�s way.