Friday, November 16, 2012

On to more important things...

I wouldn't trade this beautiful piece of land for anything, but one of the downsides of having the ancestral homestead be across the border in South Dakota is that I have to apply as a nonresident for the privilege of hunting deer on my own land, competing with everyone else in the country who wants to come to this corner of the state to hunt (there seem to be more every year.)

This year I actually drew a tag, and was thus obligated (yup, absolutely no choice in the matter) to block off an entire week of my schedule in this, the busiest time of my work year. No choice but to come out here to immerse myself in a ritual in which I haven't participated for 30 years. When I put it in writing like that, the only thing that springs to mind is "what was I thinking?" But of course, when one is young, one always thinks that there will be plenty of time for all of that in the future, putting it off one year, and then another, and another... Part of the whole deceptively simple concept of delayed gratification. During the two decades of exile, i.e. education and military service, there was also the small problem of not having the time, the money, or both, to carve out a full week to make the long journey home during a time of uncertain weather and travel conditions, so I will be gentle with myself.

And indeed, with the snowstorm that hit this part of the world over the past weekend, the trip was delayed by a couple of days, and I was tempted to despair, but fought it by getting my last guitar adjusted and set up (Art at Hanson's does a beautiful job of such things), then spending hours on Saturday playing Grieg and Bach on the piano, then bluegrass and Celtic music on guitar, finishing off with learning more on my new mandolin. Ran a lot of necessary errands and got caught up on some sleep as well.

Leaving the Billings abode in the capable hands and watchful eyes of my college-age son, who couldn't get away from school to join me, the beloved and I hit the road Monday morning. There were a few white-knuckle moments on I-94, but for the most part the roads had been cleared, and we pulled up to the house as a red winter sunset was glowing behind the buttes on the western horizon.

Getting the week off to a good start, after dinner I tuned in, courtesy of the wonders of DSL, which have reached even these remote parts, to the first full Boston Celtics game I've been able to watch this year -- a satisfying win over the Chicago Bulls (they don't have Derrick Rose back, but we don't have Avery Bradley, either, so no asterisk by this one.)

Tuesday morning comes early but I am up before dawn, with a bewildered Ginny (see puppy photo of the same, above) not able to understand why the good master is donning outdoor gear and readying a firearm while she is being left behind. From the road in the previous evening's dusk, I had seen a group of whitetails (mule deer are scarce in recent years around here) disappear over a ridge heading for CRP we planted last year on the easternmost part of the ranch, so I had decided my hunt would start there. My brother is still trying to fill his tag up near Hettinger, ND where he lives, so I will be hunting alone today.

As I drive slowly along a high ridge south of the home place, getting ready to head several miles east to get to my destination -- a rocky outcropping near the far northeastern corner of the ranch from which I will be able to glass the fields below -- I catch a fleeting glimpse of a buck and doe on the horizon to the south, heading toward an area where there is another expanse of freshly planted CRP. I change plans midstream and turn that direction, sending an email by my smartphone to the beloved telling her where I am going. There is at best a 50% chance that it will go through given the spotty coverage out here, but I know I will be parking where she will see the truck if she heads east to look for me later in the day should I become incapacitated from a twisted knee, a heart attack, or simple old age.

I pull to a stop before I reach the final rise, and am relieved to turn off NPR news (the only time I listen to National Progressive Radio is when I am driving around in the old farm truck -- no XM radio, and I'm not always in the mood for the local AM stations.)

The sky is still overcast in the morning twilight. The expansive view to the south across the broad South Grand River valley takes my breath away, as it has all my life, and the long range of Ponderosa pine-clad rimrocks called the Slim Buttes (the farthest east unit of Custer National Forest) dimly anchor the southwest horizon.

Those Slim Buttes were always one of the visual constants of my life growing up here, always seeming to beckon me to come further west where there would be more of the same. I of course eventually did, as soon as I could, with me now living in the shadows of different Ponderosa pine-clad rimrocks.

I sling my binoculars (old friends for many years that feel just right) over my neck and my new (to me) .30-06 over my right shoulder. A gun-dealer friend found it for me when I told him I needed a different all-purpose rifle. I had sighted it in on my last trip here, and found it to be a most pleasing firearm to handle. Like musical instruments, guns either just feel right in one's hands or they don't. The .270 I bought when I first moved back to this corner of the world never really did. I grew up shooting my dad's .243 (now in the possession of my brother, who is the real hunter of the family), but had devoured enough Jack O'Connor tales in Outdoor Life growing up that I just knew I wanted a .270 when I "grew up." There may still be a .270 out there that's right for me, but the one I owned never felt right in my hands. Today, I have the spring in my step that only a rifle and scope that feel just right can give. Growing up, deer hunts had always been a one-shot affair for me, and I have a good feeling about today.

Crossing the rise, I see the heads of a couple of does bedded down on the western end of the expanse of thick CRP. I stop and glass them patiently, and one of them looks back at me, unsure if I have spotted her. I angle to the east a little as the light steals up little by little over the horizon to my right. Take a few steps, my feet crunching in the snow. Glass everything around me for a few minutes. Take a few more steps, glass slowly again -- nothing worse than missing something right in front of you. The quiet is beautiful.

Finally, bingo -- on the far eastern edge of the CRP I spot a couple of dark dots. I turn my glasses that direction and see that it is a buck and a doe. Then a second buck comes tentatively from the south toward them. I know I need to take a long hike and come up through the draws and coulees in what we call the south pasture. Changing course, I skirt west around the two bedded does, still glassing them to see if a buck is hidden nearby. They finally bolt toward the east -- it's just the two of them. The air is cold, but the sun is starting to burn off the overcast as I hike briskly along the western edge of the CRP and through the gate into the south pasture where I can disappear down a draw where the distant deer can't see me. I can move quickly now.

When I get far enough that I want to take another look, I crawl to the top of a ridge onto some rocks where I know I will have a view of the part of the CRP field where I had seen the two bucks. I lie there and glass them for about ten minutes, seeing if they are moving. The two bucks never actually lock horns, but the dominant one (neither is particularly large) keeps the other at bay, and is making overtures to the doe, who plays it coy. I could watch this for hours, but I need to keep moving.

I crawl slowly backward until I know I will be out of sight, and hike down the draw. Where it forks, I can see up the draw and spot a couple of does, but no buck. They must be moving. To keep out of sight I will have to hike still further south, cross a low part of the ridgeline into the next draw, and hike back north along it to reach the southern corner of the CRP, which is laid out in a big L shape.

This will be more tricky, since the final rise is a gentle one. I drop to hands and knees to crawl forward, still stopping every few feet to glass 360 degrees around me. Coming across from a neighbor's land comes another buck -- not huge, but bigger than the ones I had been glassing. I wait and watch as he makes his way toward a dugout that is in an otherwise dry creek just over onto our land. There is not going to be any way to stalk him, though -- no cover. I crawl forward on my belly a little further, and as I rise to my elbows to glass again, there is now a small fork-horn buck and a doe right at the edge of the CRP field.

Decision time. I have a clean shot, but I want to see if the larger buck will start making his way over toward us. Instead, the two deer I am watching see him and bolt in his direction. The three of them rapidly disappear across the southeast pasture, and I see them circling north. I will have to get back to my truck and get to another vantage from which to glass fields near the center of the ranch where they have probably headed, and I start my hike back to the truck. My knee is doing OK, but for how long, I wonder?

I am walk in a small, rough corner of native grassland that is enclosed with the CRP fields, glassing as I go, eyeing a group of four does that are roughly in the center of the brushy fields. As I cross a small rocky ridge, I see three deer directly ahead of me -- a doe and two small bucks -- and drop to the ground to look them over with my binoculars.

Too late... they have spotted me, and start moving rapidly up to the top of the high ridge above them. As they cross it, though, I see the back of the last one turning east. Decision time again. I decide to try to intercept them and get a better look, crossing the fence and deliberately walking east on a diagonal, figuring they will wheel around to the south. I begin to cross a swelling rise, and just like that, I am staring at a buck and a doe on the other side of a shallow draw. They can see only my head and shoulders at this point. All of us freeze -- I slowly raise my glasses with my left hand while holding my rifle in my right. Small buck -- a 3-pointer by western count, beautiful little animal, though.

Decision time again. There is the old question hunters ask themselves: "if it ends up that this is the only clean shot I get all week, will I regret not taking it?" Young bucks make better eating than old bucks, and I've never been a trophy fiend. Ginny will be glad if I make short work of the deer season and take her out after pheasants and partridge every day for the rest of the week, and she needs the field work. My knee is still good, but for how long? It is a clean shot of less than 100 yards -- I detest long-distance sniping. On the other hand, when will I draw a tag again? Should I spend the week patiently hunting a trophy? On the other hand I've spent a lot of time roaming across the ranch this summer and fall, and haven't seen a single trophy buck all year -- not this year (of course.)

All of this flies through my mind in perhaps 3-5 seconds as I lower the glasses slowly and raise the rifle gently, wrapping my left arm in the sling for extra stability -- one of those maneuvers that kinesthetic memory brings back unconsciously. Perhaps he will bolt and make the decision for me.

It is an off-hand shot, whereas I usually prefer a supine shot, or at least a braced kneeling or sitting position. But my hands are surprisingly unmoving and steady. The crosshairs settle on his front shoulder in case he bolts forward just as I pull the trigger. Slow breath out... gentle squeeze of the right hand. I hear the boom of the rifle as though I were hearing it faintly in a dream-state, and I almost feel the impacting thud of the bullet as it strikes the deer more than I hear it. He drops instantly and doesn't move. The doe flees to the south. A clean stalk, one clean shot, the hunt over by 8 AM. The overcast haze has returned without my noticing it.

Some things you don't forget. I sign the tag, cut out the date, and attach it to the back lower leg. I move his head uphill and pull out my Buck knife. I handle him gently and respectfully, just like I remember my dad doing -- not just with deer, but with any animal I ever saw him handle, living or dead. I had already slit his throat and windpipe quickly and let him bleed out -- he hasn't reacted to my approach, but I've heard about guys getting nasty surprises when they start to open the belly cavity only to be rewarded by a merely stunned and very much alive deer kicking them in the shoulders when stimulated by the pain of the incision. Besides, I want to be absolutely sure he is dead before I do what I have to do.

I open his hindquarters and place a foot on each leg. I slit open the belly and the steam rises into the air. I think of Han Solo in "The Empire Strikes back" killing the tauntaun and warming Luke Skywalker in its warm belly while he sets up a bivouac to try to survive the freezing night that is falling on the planet Hoth. But only for a split second, and then I'm back, very much on this planet, very much here. I may be in a time long, long ago, though.

I work quickly, and all of the internal attachments fall away beneath the sharp blade of my knife. Rule one -- work deliberately and don't cut yourself. Belly contents, lungs, heart... I reach up high to sever the trachea, and end by cutting around the rectum, freeing it up so I can pull it out from above. A better hunter than I would save the heart, liver, and kidneys to eat, but I leave them as a gift for the coyotes, who will enjoy them more than I would.

Time now for the couple miles back to the truck. I walk back up the ridge across the corner of the southeast pasture where my hunt ended. I reach the north edge of the CRP, and there are now at least a dozen deer that have gathered in its center. They move away from me and are too distant to see well with the naked eye, but somehow seem to know that I am no longer a danger. I have left my rifle and binoculars at the kill site, so I can't look closely at them. Just as well -- I don't see anything that looks like a monster buck among them, but I'd really rather not know at this point.

I reach the truck, drink some water, turn over the engine and turn off NPR. I want to be completely alone and in silence at this point.

I have to drive through the large central pasture. It has the highest hills and ridges on the place, and I pass the 9-foot tall cairn (or "stone-Johnny") that has stood there for more than a century now, ever since an open-range sheep-herder built it back in the day. I have to circle around to get to the southeast pasture, and finally reach the site. I am able to back down into the draw and up toward the deer. I put on the emergency brake, drop the tailgate. Now for the hard part -- I've never loaded a deer into a truck by myself before. Will I need to go get the beloved for some assistance? No. I lift his head and shoulders onto the tailgate and pin it into place with my right arms, then reach down with my left hand to grab the hind hooves and do an explosive leglift (just like doing a deadlift with barbells), and the deer is in the back.

I'm back in the yard of the home place by 9:30, washing the blood out of the bed of the truck and rinsing some blood and stray hairs from the body cavity while the beloved looks on with interest (very new for her.)

Any bloodied clothing (gloves, bibs, gaiters) goes into the washing machine and I set it running. I clean my knife at the utility sink, unload the rifle (including the single expended shell that is still in the chamber), and after cleaning myself up, I sit down to devour the freshly baked cornbread that the beloved has just removed from the oven. My knee is starting to hurt, and I knew that my split-second decision to pull the trigger was the right one. It really was a beautiful hunt, the way I like to do it -- all on foot; spot, stalk, trying to think like a deer, all very quiet until there is that single sure shot that ends the killing part of the hunt.

After a little rest, a drive to the meat-packing plant in town to process the game and to pick up a few supplies. In the evening, I build a stout fire in the wood-burning stove as the beloved and I sit and read in the living room. Later, I pull out my guitar and play until I am content. We step outside before bed to look at the stars, and Orion is brilliant in the east, Cassiopeia is brilliant at the zenith, and the bright wanderer of the sky tonight is Jupiter.

Wednesday now belongs to Ginny, a day which is winding to a close as I finish writing this. We hunted a different large CRP field today -- very thick and wild, filled with pheasants that were even wilder, usually exploding into the air long before we could make an approach. I didn't get out until afternoon, so the scent was harder for Ginny to lock onto, but she got several beautiful points. The best ones were, of course, on hens, and Ginny looked at me, wondering why I wasn't shooting -- game laws are not part of their natural instinct. Still, there was a rooster breast for me to saute at dinner, and we had had a glorious day in the field, seeing birds everywhere, even if most were out of range. We've had a couple of short hunts this fall, but nothing like today, where she had a veritable feast of bird-scent for her birdy nose. Ginny is sleeping the happiest sleep she has had in months, having spent a long afternoon doing what she was born to do. Every time I do something (vocationally or avocationally) that I feel I was born to do, I have a tendency to think of her. And every time the weather turns crisp in the fall, she knows it is her time -- looking at me nearly every day with a cocked head that says, "don't you know what time of year it is, dear master?" It grieves me that there are some who own these fine animals (she is a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon) and don't hunt with them. It's like owning a Border Collie in a city where it can never see a sheep. Just wrong.

To make the perfect end to the day, after dinner I watched the Celtics win a close one over the Jazz while the beloved read her novel and periodically looked up to comment on a good play (she has become a Celtics convert, sound in judgement as she is.) It was a good day, filled with things of the highest importance, and when, as Ginny and I drove to the place where we planned to hunt, I heard The One speaking unctuously on NPR about the need to raise taxes and about how it was perfectly natural that he knew nothing of a months-long investigation by his FBI of the head of his CIA until the day after his re-election, I felt no anger, no despair, no anxiety.

Acceptance is the nicest phase of grief. Or maybe being immersed in important things simply allowed me to transcend for a time the grief I have felt at the recent rude reminder that the America I knew is gone for good. For this moment at least, I am back in the Old America of my childhood, aided by being in the home of my childhood, the house my grandfather built more than a century ago and in which my father was born. I am a mile from the one-room country school in which I was educated for 8 years, and where -- for the first 4 years anyway -- we bowed our heads to pray before eating the lunches our mothers had packed.

I look up at the bookshelves above me to see the great classics on one shelf, a set of the writings of the ancient Fathers of the Church on another, a 1950's era encyclopedia on another, a large part of my extensive collection of books on gardening, ranching, farming, and assorted agricultural topics on yet another. Across the room is a large bookshelf with a full collection of National Geographic magazines dating uninterruptedly back to 1960 and sporadically back to the 1930s. Most family members randomly explore their pages on nearly every visit -- it's a tradition.

Time first, though, to read a few more pages in Victor Davis Hanson's The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization -- a book I have been reading at on nearly every visit here for the last half-dozen years. I've almost completed it, but almost don't want to, since it has become a familiar friend. Unfortunately, the ending of the story is not a happy one, since the agrarian ideal of the yeoman farmer eventually disappeared in ancient Greece, just as it is disappearing here. The plant that grew from the roots was a good one, though -- a western civilization that is our heritage. On days like today, I believe that the agrarian roots of our own American civilization will somehow survive and give life of some sort to our country for many years to come, even after the way of life of those who built it is destroyed, and indeed despised by its new masters.

In short, on days like today, I have hope. And that's a good place to stop.

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