Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Notes from the field

Last week I hunted a small parcel of land with my recurve bow and a wooden arrow. I moved slowly, knowing I've only got a 25-pace range, and I stopped quite a bit and sat, nervously, wondering if I should stay or move on a little more.

I found a good-looking spot next to a pine tree and dragged a couple of downed limbs to me for a makeshift blind. It took about twenty minutes, and just when I’d settled in, after scraping out a place for me to move a bit without crunching and snapping, I noticed first one, then another, then a third and more, very large ants crawling out of the forest duff, interested in this new creature. Was he tasty? Nutritious? Or merely a threat to be wiped out? I left, a bit frustrated that I'd spent a good chunk of the morning effectively playing in the dirt. But I also laughed at the notion of the hunter getting moved by, if not the smallest of creatures, still a tiny forest denizen.

I slowly worked my way down a familiar deer trail, remembering times I'd seen deer here while turkey hunting. They had always come from the East, they had always ratted me out to the turkeys (one doe in particular), and they had always been loud, advertising their presence like everything else out here in the hillside of corn flakes that is the California oak leaf in August.

Mule deer and blacktail stot: they jump on all fours when running from danger, a la' Pepe le Pew. This sound bears a striking resemblance to the kid-in-a-ball-pit antics of a grey squirrel through the fallen leaves when compounded by my over-reliance on my ears (I'm nearsighted). Towhees, too, make a scratching noise that, when first heard through the morning quiet, can sound just like a four-point buck. Needless to say, I get a tad twitchy when things start waking up. Add here the image of me hunched over the trail, following tracks and avoiding twigs, and you can safely throw out the imagined platonic form of some great square-shouldered, straight-backed hunter; I probably look more like an 80 year old with St. Vitus' dance.

Not to say that I'm dangerous, especially to my prey. I'd make a horrible second to the intrepid safari guide, as my first instinct isn't to pull my gun or draw my bow; usually I just make a grandiose head-swivel in the direction of the noise while the rest of my body stays stock-still. I get neck problems sometimes, but I've never drawn on an animal I didn't recognize by sight as legal.

I take that back. I did pull my gun up, once, after finding and following (it was the only way I could go) fresh, big mountain lion tracks for a couple of hours. Something came blowing through the brush straight at me, easily big enough to be a puma. I shouldered my rifle, but it was a doe that blasted through the bushes, about 8 feet away. She wheeled and took off when she saw me, and I never fired, which brings us back to why I wouldn't be good for a back-up gun on safari.

After finding and sitting for a spell in a couple of spots, I poked my way uphill into more open oaks, rimmed by a thick manzanita forest. I scratched out another spot (this time no ants) against an oak and, sheltered from the deer trail, I sat. Too comfortably. I didn't take the time to set up another blind, partly because it was well into daylight now, and partly because there weren't any downed limbs. I crossed my legs (bad), propped my back against the tree, and in a very short period of time, heard the unmistakable sounds of a deer, just over the ridge, and, of course, directly in front of me. I guess he hadn't been shown the perfectly good deer trail he was supposed to walk.

And it was a he. A tall, 3-point rack peeked over the ridge first, followed quickly by the rest of his lithe body. He wasn't a large-bodied buck, but he had a rack bigger than any deer I'd ever shot. Okay, that's cheating, I've only shot a doe in my illustrious hunting career, but still, he was nice. He proceeded to walk broadside to me, at about sixty paces, then a bit closer, and still a little bit closer, until he was inside of fifty. There he turned, and looked down the hill away from me, licked his side, and lay down. There, amidst the corn flakes and firecrackers that cover this forest floor, he slept.

Oh, he moved a bit from time to time, chewed his cud and twitched at some biting bug or bother. And he looked up, seemingly in my direction, a disconcerting number of times. Where he had chosen to lay was a perfect spot, and if I hadn't seen him come up, I'd have never seen him. His antlers looked exactly like lower branches, and his brown fur melted into the background.

Me? I couldn't move a muscle but more than an inch a minute, it felt. I was completely exposed. Over time, my left cheek (and not the one getting sunburned) slowly lost all feeling, then proceeded to complain about it. Occasionally I would shift a bit, especially when the wind would rise and rattle some leaves to cover my noise, but for the most part I remained alternately, and sometimes simultaneously, awed and very pained.

After about an hour and a half of this, I heard, again, sounds of deer approaching, from the same general direction as the buck had earlier arrived. The West, of course. Over the hill, closer to the deer trail, came two does and three bucks, one spike, two forks. There was no way I could stand, not with the three-point, who by now I'd noticed had three on one side and two on the other, right in front of me. So I watched the drama play out. The bucks were pretty dumb, loudly prancing and bouncing around, oblivious to all but one thing: The wary doe. I knew her, as she had ratted me out on many occasions while turkey hunting this hill. She’s large (bigger-bodied than the three-point), light tan with gigantic eyes and bigger ears. All the better to see and hear me, my dear. Deer. She moved across to near the three-by-two, then looked right at me, not through me, but right at me, and began a stilt-legged series of one steps, closer, closer. Closer.

Did I mention you aren't allowed to shoot does? At eight yards her nose finally caught scent of me (not hard to do, regrettably), and she snorted, stomped, and the end. Her herd shot over that hill right quick, though she stuck around for a bit. The three-by-two, he stood up, and stepped closer to me, too. Quickly inside twenty-five paces. I tried to draw the way I was sitting, but no way. He stayed. I rose, and started to draw, and he stotted over behind the manzanita, snorted, and stopped. I followed, slowly, my blood complaining as it rushed back into my legs, my heart pounding and my arms shaking from the adrenaline. But as I came closer, he left. Down a gully and up, and over into the manzanita forest, and gone.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Notes from the field

Though I did not get a deer today, I did have an enjoyable time, and like almost every other time I've ever gone out in the field, I had some interesting moments.

The first deer sighted this morning, although it was on private property, was a gigantic four-point buck, laying in an old apple orchard. In fact, I thought at first he was a broken apple tree trunk, but after passing him, I realized that those branches seemed a bit too symmetrical. I backed up , and sure enough, he was a great, big buck.

I hunted a small patch of little-known public land where I've seen pileated woodpeckers, deer, turkeys, quail, mountain lion tracks (again today), and many, many tree squirrels. Today I added a new animal to that list, as I came upon a grey fox resting in a gulley. He was real long, especially with his fluffy tail, and very pretty.

Getting the chance to get out and experience a particular place and all therein is an amazing and wonderful deal. Over time, in the same place, you get to really feel a part, and also may see things that few can notice.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Dr. Krasny's fine show

Perchance you were able to listen to Dr. Michael Krasny's radio show "Forum" a couple of weeks back, say, August 5th? No? Well, in the 10 o'clock hour the show covered "the future of hunting" for an hour, with guests from Ca. Fish & Game, the Orion Institute, and Born Free. Guess which guests were pro-hunting, and which were against. Well, after some incessant telephone calling, I was able to get in and say about a half a cent (my two cents, as you know, tend to be long-winded). I did get a follow-up question from Dr. Krasny, who I respect and admire, but I don't think it was his best question: He refers to a middle-school short story and subsequent Ice-T thriller. You can hear the radio show here; I'm at the very end, the last four minutes or so.

Well, the program was purported to be about the "ecology and ethics of hunting", in light of the opening of deer season the following Saturday. They didn't get the date for opening day of "deer season in California" exactly right, as it was just opening day of the A-zone rifle season, archery having opened a month earlier. Unfortunately, they didn't get to the ethics of hunting, either. This is where I was frustrated, and my call in was an attempt to bring a little bit of the ethical conversation back.

The two gentlemen who defended hunting, with Fish & Game and the Orion Institute, focused almost exclusively on two important contributions of hunting to conservation: 1) the creation of the conservation movement by hunters like Roosevelt, and 2) the continuing contribution of the lion's share of conservation dollars and volunteer time to habitat restoration and protection. The lawyer for Born Free, and to a bit of an extent, Dr. Krasny, focused on the personal act of killing something, and of human's effectively trespassing on wild land. At one point, the Born Free rep. says that wild animals should be left in the wild, and that people shouldn't be bothering them.

Needless to say, most of the time the folks just talked past each other. Animal rights folks called in and said that hunters were probably exhibiting psychological disorders, and that people should be leaving animals alone (I've got a blog on that here), and pro-hunting folks called in and said that hunters are the backbone of conservationism, and either they or the ones they know are very respectful of their game. Anti-hunters couldn't come up with an alternative to hunting as a revenue stream for real conservation measures, and pro-hunters shied away from the personal experience that includes killing something.

My call was to bring up the personal ethical implications of hunting vs. vegetarianism, and when I was asked by Dr. Krasny if I'd ever thought what it would be like to be the animal, I responded that everybody dies, and that the act of killing and taking responsibility for one's food and the sacrifices that requires can make a person more human. I'd hoped the whole show would look clearly at the ethics of hunting, at the nature of death and life and food and sacrifice, in addition to conservation and heritage and a true, real, and contemporary understanding of wildlife and the wild. I was disappointed, because everybody just went back to their safe corners, instead of really stepping out. But, I'm glad this topic was broached in a broader venue, I learned one sad statistic from it, that fewer than 1% of Californians hunt, and I re-learned an appreciation for Mr. Posewitz of the Orion Institute. He's a good guy.

Hunting this weekend

Well, I'm off for the wilds of the Sierra Nevada foothills, bowhunting after the elusive mule deer. As my Dad said, "it's no worse than growing corn."

I hunt with a recurve bow made by AIM/Samick. You may see the brand at the Olympics, but only if you spend 30 minutes delving into the bowels of the NBC website. If you do, check them out, because it is one of the most dramatic competitions you will see.

Anyway, my bow isn't of the caliber of the olympic ones, but it has given me the chance to take a deer for the first time in my life, two years ago. I switched to a recurve, and became a better hunter, because I slowed waaaay down, and listened more, and tried to hide myself much, much more. As I've said, I've since taken my first deer, and I've also seen the largest buck of my life, a moving, powerful experience that I'm sure to write about in the future.

I generally hunt with wooden arrows, cut-on-contact broadheads, and no sights. I hunt with a 25 pace shot restriction. For those of you who are interested in hunting, but have a problem with firearms, I recommend two things: 1) Go out shooting, with guns, with a person who has experience and also is nice enough to treat your unease with respect (I'll go, just ask); 2) go to a good archery shop (Jerry's Archery in Stockton and Wilderness Archery in Rocklin are two great ones) and ask to shoot a 30 lb. draw recurve or longbow at their range. Stay away from compound bows at first, unless you want to spend near to a grand and enjoy really techy gadgets. You can't hunt with a 30 lb. draw, but it will give you a good idea of the feel for a bow. If you like it, then shoot it for a few weeks, to build your back muscles (don't pull with your arms, but by squeezing your shoulder blades together), and then get a 45-55 lb. draw recurve or longbow. Shoot a few to get a feel for the one you like.

You can always ask questions here, or give comments on the nature of hunting and bowhunting.

On omnivory

If you are looking for a great, mindless Summer thriller to read before heading into Fall, don't pick up "The Omnivore's Dilemma". It's got mysteries, and gruesome killings, and racy scenes all right, but probably not in the sense you'd hope for a Summer book. However, I took it upon myself to read it, because it tackles the ethical implications of humans in relation to the environment in probably its most profound realm: what we eat.

Spending about a third of the book in industrial ag., organic ag., and hunting/gathering, Michael Pollan delves deeply into Americans' relationship with food, coming to many interesting and compelling conclusions about why and how we eat, and pointing a direction for eating better while maintaining a journalist's distance vis a vis moralizing, for the most part. In laying out his descriptions of current mainstream agricultural enterprises, he doesn't rely upon controversial chemical analyses to condemn them, but he does provide as bulletproof a condemnation as I've seen. He uses (gasp!) economics, and is so effective at explaining it that this book should be required reading in every economics class.
And I used to teach the stuff.

American (and world) agriculture is a vastly complicated, horribly designed system, with too many incentives for genetic hoarding, market manipulation, and artificial scarcity. Add to this mix political boundaries, and fully one fifth of the world goes hungry each night, though we grow enough for everybody. Pollan's book outlines just how we've settled into this industrialization of our food supply, including one of our most hideous creations, the industrial slaughterhouse. He focuses on the manipulation of corn as an industrial commodity rather than a food commodity, and how the largest ag. corporations have gotten past the "problem of the fixed stomach", that while people only eat a certain amount of calories per day and our population only increases about 1% per year, corporations typically need to show 5-8% annual growth in profits in order to stay in the market. Wanna know how it happens? Read the book.

But he spends equal portions of the book discussing organic agriculture, and the manipulation of this term as it applies to what he calls, "big organic". He compares this with locally grown foods such as one might find at farmers' markets or roadside stands, and spends a week at the Platonic version of this ideal, Polyface Farm. This place, owned by a conservative Christian, Bob Jones University graduate, "Mother Earth" magazine reader, shows a beautiful way to farm, working chickens, pigs, cattle, grass, and forest in an amazing orchestration. The farmer also constantly touches on a concept I have often considered in the ethical implications of places like slaughterhouses, and in my defense of hunting: The ability of an animal to get to be that animal. He talks about the pigness of a pig.

Last, Mr. Pollan tries hard to be a hunter/gatherer, and does a great job of it, in my opinion. He did get a bunch of help, including the ability to hunt for pigs on private property in Sonoma County (about which I am jealous), and hunting wild fungus, but the camaraderie, the relationship, the apprenticeship are equally important aspects of hunting. He toys with the philosophy behind vegetarianism, ultimately labeling animal rights a, "parochial, and urban..." ideology because of his getting to actually experience animals, and in killing them for his food. "It (animal rights) could only thrive in a world where people have lost contact with the natural world...", surely a stinging rebuke to people who consider themselves saviours of animalkind. Mr. Pollan seems to fall squarely into the land of people who abhor animal cruelty, and feel that killing and eating animals has helped them to more clearly comprehend the world's realities.

This is a wonderful book, well-organized and eye-opening. Michael Pollan delivers a fascinating expose' into what we put into our bodies every day, and how we interact with nature, every day.

If you've read it, or haven't and have questions, please comment!