A collection of random thoughts about various topics, some from the hunting and fishing journals I keep, some from conversations on the internet with friends of like persuasion. Vignettes. The natural world occupies my mind a fair amount of time, as will be apparent.
My owl and I had a short rendezvous, last night, again. I stepped out the back door into a beautiful scene. Nearly full moon brightly backlighting low, broken clouds, which were scudding by at a merry clip. Outlined clearly between me and the moon was a big, bare walnut tree, it's branches crisply silhouetted against that gorgeous sky. Somewhere close at hand, the screech owl was uttering his high-pitched, wavering call, sounding extremely lonely. In a moment, I saw him, silent as the moon, swoop in and land in the walnut. He sat there in plain view and very close, silhouetted against the moon, with that dynamic, beautiful backdrop, for as long as I stayed out. I think he knows me.
Jim asked, "How many of the rest of you fly fishers are also wing shooters?
Ah, yes. Wings and everything. Truth be known, a hunter is what I am. Fishing is, at times, as good as it gets, but hunting has first claim on my soul. I look forward to that first season opening like a kid to Christmas. My entire year revolves around the fall, and I store it up for the rest of the year, as a squirrel stores nuts.
I can honestly say I have more of a need for exposure to the natural world than just a sense of it. Taken in the small, Thoreau was speaking of me when he said "in wildness is the preservation of the world". It has certainly been true for me. The natural world has become such an integral part of my mind that it is now indispensable. I go slowly nuts if I can't submerge myself in it frequently.
Over the last six decades, I've managed to do that in many different ways, in many different places... photography, archery, sailboats, flying, falconry, birding, hunting, fishing, backpacking, spelunking...but nothing has been more successful at putting me in contact than my black powder shooting and living history activities. It consumes me. I've become a man detached from reality, wandering the woods and fields in the costume of a Kentucky settler of 1778, sleeping on the ground with only a blanket, doing things as they were done then, or not at all. I can take game in a deluge, using a flintlock fowler, and it will fire, every time, then cook it on a fire started with flint and steel. Few things have ever made me more proud.
Many people begin to get depressed as fall arrives and winter approaches. Not I. By some stroke of fortune, I learned early to revel in the fall changes, to look forward to the quiet, winter times. The natural cycle unfolds once again, and much beauty is there for the seeing. Not the color, though it is food for the eye, not the smell, though the bouquet is finer than the most cherished wine. The beauty I see is in the natural changes, the reaction of the plants and animals to the new state of things. Death is everywhere. Leaves fall and rot, insects die by the billions, plants are apparently totally destroyed. The beauty, though, lies in the fact that it's all an illusion. Seeds are tucked away, eggs are quietly waiting, trees are just biding time. Even the dead vegetation will give new life to the spring world as it rots away to create new soil and food for gazillions of microscopic organisms, fungi, and such.
Couple the excitement I feel in the fall as I observe the awe inspiring order of the natural world, swinging through the unending cycle, with the pleasure of upland and big game hunting, and you get a small idea why I am far from depressed. Wing shooting, and all the other hunting I do, puts me out where this incredible phenomenon is being played out, and there's no place I'd rather be.
Pheasants taken with an original W. W. Greener 10 ga. percussion double, ca 1840, taste so much better. And, the feathers seem more beautiful than ever, tied into some delicate, deceitful morsel for the trout. Venison loin from a deer killed with a .62 caliber flintlock smoothbore cannot be matched in the finest restaurant, because you experience the taking once again, with each bite. Even the memory of the smell of black powder adds nuances to the dish, and no price can be put on that. Of course it can't...what price a soul?
Errr....yes, Jim, I'm a wing shooter.
It is difficult to put into words a strange sensation I frequently have, that of being a part of the land, the very soil. I've been known to just flop down and spread-eagle, to get as close as possible.
Of all the things I've gained from being addicted to black powder shooting, I value this feeling of being a part of the whole the most. It lures me out into the natural world, up close and personal, and I have never found anything to be better for my mental health.
Current cosmological theory holds that at the time the universe we know came into being, only three elements existed, hydrogen, helium and a little lithium. Everything else we know was formed as these element were burned in the nuclear fires at the hearts of stars. Everything else is nuclear ashes. Thus, we are all star stuff, as is everything else in this earth and the universe we perceive. I like the thought of that, and remembering it helps me keep a grip on the big picture. In about 5 billion years, the solar system will be swallowed up in the destruction of our star...just another phase in the evolution of the universe. It pleases me to think that I will first be recycled into this earth, and then into another star, at some time far away. I ponder on such things quite a bit when I'm spending time alone, in period dress and carrying my old smoothbore. Ashes to ashes....indeed.
After several sessions, I finished hulling all the walnuts for a big dyeing project. The total was almost 30 gallons, and it should brew up into some great dye. My hands are cramped and stained, my back aches, but it feels good to have that part of the job behind me.
I rather enjoyed the afternoon, sitting out back, working on the walnuts and just watching Mother Nature do her thing. Fall is definitely upon us here. The air was cool, almost crisp, the sky that intense, deep blue of this time of year, the warm sun pleasant as it soaked into me. Color is beginning to develope, the yard is covered with golden walnut leaves, and I kept expecting to smell wood smoke in the air. I saw a Cooper's hawk make a serious effort to catch a squirrel not twenty yards from me. Close, but no cigar. Two red shoulder hawks cruised back and forth in the little valley, sending their shrill cries echoing a great distance, causing a nervous chattering among the squirrels in the trees around.
My thoughts wandered from place to place as I sat working, reaching back to my childhood and beyond, forward to good things to come.
I have many pleasant memories of Grandma's house, walnuts strewn in the track of the dirt drive so the few cars could hull them for her. Walnuts, hickory nuts, persimmons, wild honey in the fall, dandelion and berries in the summer, May apples, poke, watercress and other greens in the spring...they, like the people of the colonial times, knew how to make the most of nature's bounty. It made me feel good to be continuing in even a small way the frugal ways of the past.
As a bonus from my dyeing project, I now have 12-15 gallons of cleaned and washed walnuts drying in preparation for cracking this winter. When the gentle, cool breezes of fall have been blown away by the icy winter wind, it will be very pleasant to sit before the fire and crack them. Walnut fudge seems a fitting reward for the work I've done.
The walnuts are drying, the hulls are soaking, an ample supply of good hardwood is laid in for this winter's fires, and the hunting seasons are upon us. Life is good.
Each season follows, in natural progression. Somehow, for me, the fall season brings feelings of the passage of time more than any other. Possibly because I look forward to it so much, and it serves as my personal way post, clearly marking that passage. As I grow older, the cycle seems to turn more quickly, too quickly. The great circle of life revolves, and we, the participants in that great scheme, are replaced in our turn by the next to come. We each get our short stay in the sun. I don't know of any way I'd rather spend it than just sitting, thinking and hulling walnuts, while the sun warms me to the center of my being.
One of the nice things about growing old is that you reach a point where it doesn't take much to make your day. My morning experience today, though, would serve a much younger person well.
I had to make a quick run to the farm, which I did, arriving about 10:00. I turned in to the quarter-mile gravel drive and was tooling along slowly, just looking things over, for problems, when I caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye. Looking closer, I saw a beautiful Cooper's hawk on the ground on my left, not ten feet from the gravel. I had nearly passed it, already, so I just kept going, lest I force it to bolt, thinking that if it were feeding, it might still be there when I returned in a few minutes. It was. Ten minutes later I eased back along the road much slower and it let me approach to within twenty feet or so and stop the car. I sat there for ten minutes, watching it feed on a field mouse or shrew it had caught. Marvelous, marvelous creature, dressed in its blue-gray formal tailcoat with a waistcoat of horizontal red dashes over a buff background. Eye of the tiger! It eventually flew, revealing its slim yellow legs and feet, long tail and the very characteristic short, stubby wings. Their flight pattern is identifiable as far as you can see them, once you learn it, and it is a no-nonsense, straight and aggressive thing of beauty. Lord love a raptor!
Did an old man's heart good, and set me up remarkably for the whole day.
An interesting point, that, about the appropriate season for wing shooting. I realized long ago that I'm very strongly conditioned in that respect. Years of repetition as a youngster, I suppose. There comes a time each fall when the call of upland shotgunning is far stronger than any fishing urge, for me. Fall is the smell of wood smoke, gun smoke, the fall woods and frying rabbit, the brisk, cool air and the changing colors, hiking the woods and fields hoping to roust out a quail. It is nothing of streams and lakes, flies and fish, dawn mist or exploding bass destroying the reflection of a gorgeous sunset on the edge of the pond...that urge becomes irresistible in the spring. The slow revolving of the sporting seasons is part of my subconscious biological clock...if I feel the adrenalin rush of a covey flush, it must be November.
It was extremely windy here, yesterday, steady from the south at 25 mph with gusts to 35 mph, occasionally 50 mph. So, I was very surprised and pleased to see a big redtail out playing. When the wind is like that, there's a zone of "slope soaring" lift created right over my house. It's strong, perpetual, and fixed in position, so that one can fly in it with no power. Sailplanes do it, and it's one of the most exciting kinds of flying.
I first heard the hawk, far to the south, screeching, and had trouble locating her. Then, here she came, spiraling in tight circles, climbing without a wingbeat, letting herself be carried along with the wind at high speed until the perfect position was found, and she stopped. Stopped. As in dead still. Hanging there at an altitude of about 1000 feet, neither gaining or losing height, not moving an inch over the ground. I could see the constant adjustments of tail and wing that did that for her, setting up a situation in which the lift she was getting exactly balanced the speed at which she was falling to the earth. Still screeching her repeated 'kreeeah, kreeeah, kreeeah', she then began to play in the wind, moving across the wind and back again several hundred yards each time, never moving forward or back. With her wings half-cocked, she formed the exact same arrowhead shape as the Stealth fighter, and for the same reasons. She played there for a long time, suspended in the stream of air. Occasionally, she pulled her wings in a tad tighter to her body to create less lift, so that she fell a fair distance, but at the same time moved forward into the wind, and then readjusted and let herself be carried higher, but backward, and assumed her station again. All the while the calling continued. After about twenty minutes of this, she started moving forward again, occasionally making a tight circle but steadily moving straight into the teeth of the gale, totally in control, unconscious of the marvelous thing she was doing, just being a redtail on a windy day. She disappeared behind the trees, still going steadily straight upwind, and her cries slowly faded away.
I'm tempted to think of her as just out for a glorious roller-coaster ride on a blustery February day, playing in the wind for the sheer joy of it, having a good time and screeching her pleasure to the world. That's what I would do. Mytho-poetic nonsense. It was probably a male, staking his claim to the territory and calling any interested females to come up for a little mid-air hanky-panky. Coitus blusterous.
Much to my chagrin and consternation, I may have to become a religious convert in my old age. I just looked out my back door and saw a strange watercraft, huge (many cubits), wooden, battered, gray and mouldy, seemingly ancient. The thing smelled like a zoo, and the sound of many exotic animals filled the air. As this occurred in the middle of a severe thunderstorm, extremely heavy rain and wind buffeted it about, at times blurring the very sight of it. In a momentary respite from the deluge, I seemed to see through the mist a naked woman with a snake draped over her comely shoulders and half an apple (a Macintosh, I believe) in her lovely hand, standing on the poop deck. As if guided by some divine power, this huge maritime apparition made its way along the little stream that crosses my back yard, and out of sight around the bend.
At the time, the little stream was several times its normal size, roaring like Niagara, tossing huge boulders around like so many pebbles, scouring its banks and for some distance beyond clean of all vegetation. This was due to the fact that we have had 11.5 inches of rain in 24 hours, and the rain continues. Rivers were running across my steeply sloped yard, and I despaired for my grass. The driveway was the bed of a cataract, and the sound of rain hitting the fiberglass roof like that of a stampeding herd of a million buffalo, shaking the very earth.
Thank God I had just read Paine's "The Age of Reason" yet once again, and was able to see that this was not in fact a religious manifestation of any kind, but was simply Mother Nature fooling around with my soggy mind.
This is all absolutely true, so help me God. Well, I was kidding just a little about the boat. It may not have been quite that big.
I'll probably never figure out why I didn't start hunting turkeys sooner. I was always aware of the sport, always thought it would be great, but I somehow just never got around to it. There are so many elements of it which I find appealing, it puzzles me why that is so.
One of the things I always enjoyed to the fullest was game calling, right from the first time I tried it. I remember being near Floyd's Fork off Shelbyville road when the boys were very young, and seeing it work for the first time. I had been talking to Jerry about it, and he loaned me a cottontail rabbit call. I forgot about it, but found it in my pocket that day. I blew it just to amuse the boys, lying on my back in a broom sedge field, with the boys running around shouting, playing and making a lot of noise. Damned if a red fox didn't come running right up to us, within twenty yards, in the middle of a bright, sunny day. Of course, I had to try it for real, then, and I spent many years doing it, hunting fox with a bow. In addition to the many foxes, I called in owls, raccoons and a redtail hawk, over the years.
I knew I would like calling turkeys, but it was somehow intimidating. There was always the techno-freak aspect to turkey hunting as it is done by most people, with all the latest camo and gear, magnum guns with shoulder-breaking loads, etc. It wasn't until 1993 that I tried it, one day's hunting with Tandy. It was fun, but I never got back to it until 1998. In June of 1997 I bought my Jackie Brown flintlock smoothbore and decided to try killing all legal species in one year with it, including turkey. Hunted my ass off in the spring of 1998 and didn't get a bird, but I learned a great deal and got terminally hooked on turkey hunting. Now, if I could hunt only one species, it would be turkeys, no question.
As it has evolved for me, there are other important elements which go toward making it the best of the blood sports. Nothing pleases me more than to hunt anything with a flintlock, especially the smoothbore. Of all the guns I have ever owned, that type pleases me most. Basic, ancient technology, challenging... well, it just suits me. In addition, hunting in period costume, with nothing between me and the ground but some soft moccasins, is the very best. I really feel at home doing that. It satisfies every need I have concerning hunting, makes me feel like a real woodsman and hunter. When the quarry is turkeys, and I can go after them in period costume using a flintlock fowler, there just isn't anything missing from the equation.
The overnight temperatures both Friday and Saturday were 30 degrees, the daytime 60-65, clear blue sky, light wind. The woods are at peak color, and although my farm doesn't have many maples, gums and such, to contribute splashes of red, there were a lot of beautiful yellow/gold trees, everywhere. The ground was carpeted with these fallen nuggets, and walking through them was a delight. Everywhere I turned my gaze, a new delight presented. The rock stream bed, the rolling slopes, the million little cul de sacs, each prettier than the one before. Cedar groves with needle carpets, open fields of emerald green, clumps of hickory ablaze with a subdued gold. Sensuous, like looking at a beautiful, nude woman, asleep and at peace, each enticing curve leading the eye to one even more alluring.
I spent each morning and evening sitting at the base of trees, just watching it happen. The mornings were cold, with frost everywhere. As the light built, the colors became visible, the frost disappeared in the streaks of sunlight, leaving fascinating patterns. A beam of sunlight striking me felt deliciously warmer. The evenings were equally enchanting, watching the light fade, listening to the last sounds as the creatures snugged down for another night.
The wind is really howling today, gusting to 35 mph, and it's cold, wind chill of 10F. The trees are never still, twisting and turning like creatures in agony. Leaves dance a mad ballet across the yard, then back again, bringing to mind a refrain from the Christmas poem..."As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky". Fighting the wind, a pair of red breasted nuthatches return to the feeder again and again. There is a faint smell of wood smoke in the air, bringing the realization that summer is over, winter nearly arrived. The low, moaning sound of the wind in the trees provides background accompaniment to the sweet Spanish guitar of Ottmar Liebert coming from the stereo.
Sitting here at my computer, snug and warm, I'm looking at a picture of a dear friend, up to his butt in the South Holston. He's obviously walking like a pig on ice, the only way to stay upright on the totally slick, green bowling balls under his feet. Been there, done that. A flood of memories washes over me, the sound of the water, the smell of the clean air, the chill in my feet, the satisfaction of a very pleasant day's fishing for trout on a beautiful piece of water, with good friends.
It dawns on me that I have a lot of those great memories, all collected in one short summer and fall, all as a direct result of my having stumbled upon a phenomenon called FF@, the fly fishing mailing list. My first summer of trout fishing has been a very interesting one.
I've attended three conclaves and five get-togethers with people on the list, meeting about fifteen members and twenty of their friends and families in the process. Trout fishing took me to Rock Creek and the Cumberland River in Kentucky, the South Holston River (twice), Norton Creek and the Caney Fork River in Tennessee. In spite of my inexperience, I managed to catch trout in all these waters, some in large numbers, some just large. I caught them on dry flies, wet flies, nymphs, midges, streamers and terrestrials. I learned the essence of nymphing (On the bottom, Dummy!) and dry fly fishing (It's the drag, Stupid!), fished with and without strike indicators, fished brawling, dangerous, tailwaters and tiny, technical mountain streams. I outsmarted a few fish because of good decisions I made, but was outsmarted many times more because I generally didn't have a clue.
One special fish deserves mention, not because of it's size, but because it was a sort of final exam. October 27, on the South Holston. A fourteen inch brown in smooth, crystal-clear water one foot deep, eighty feet straight downstream, unapproachable. The first trout I ever saw rising in a rhythmic way, every minute or so, regular as a clock. Since I was fishing my little #3 weight that day, it was well out of range. Whatever was to be done had to be done right from where I stood. Crouching low, I made a sort of hermaphrodite parachute-wiggle cast, dropping the fly, a small black Elk Hair Caddis, gently to the water forty feet straight above it, with a lot of line in big "S" curves on the water. Shaking the rod side-to-side and feeding line like crazy, being very careful not to move the fly or leader, I drifted the fly straight down to it...and it took! A fat, beautiful brown in early spawning colors, a spirited fighter. When I released it I thought to myself "I are, by God, a trout fisherman", and it felt good. That was my only fish that day. It was enough.
All of this is strange activity indeed for a dyed-in-the-wool still water bass fisherman. It's a different world, for certain, but I was happy to find that many of the skills and much of the savvy acquired in several decades of stalking the pugnacious bucketmouth was useful in making the transition to stream fishing for the wiley trout. Coupled with all the world class information and advice gleaned from the list, it payed off handsomely for me this summer.
I saw three does up close and personal on Saturday morning. They came through the woods with their mincing little gait, catching me standing completely in the open as I still hunted along. I froze, and they moved in a semicircle around me, not more than fifty yards away. Only once did they notice me, and spent five minutes bobbing their heads, flaring their ears and swishing their tails, staring intently at me all the while. Soon, they decided I was a stump, and moved leisurely on their way. That same evening a nice six- point buck and a button buck crossed a fence sixty yards from me, never knowing I was there. The next evening a young fawn traipsed through the woods to a brush pile not twenty-five yard from me and bedded down for forty-five minutes.
During the weekend, I saw a great blue heron, eighteen wood ducks, more than forty Canada geese, two redtail hawks, a Cooper's hawk, eight huge fox squirrels and nine grays, innumerable robins, crows, bluejays and other tweety-birds. Chipmunks constantly serenaded me with their chipping. A gray squirrel looked me in the eye from five feet away.
The Canadas were really impressive. About thirty minutes before sunset, I heard them coming from far away, a raucous bunch. They flew low over my head, two "V" formations of about twenty each, talking very loudly and constantly. They were quite obviously discussing where to spend the night, and considerable disagreement was plain to hear. Everyone had something to say, all at the same time. I suspect someone had forgotten to call ahead for reservations.
The farm never looked more beautiful, and, as I walked and hunted over it, I spent some time thinking about why it delights me so. I concluded that it is a result of my being so glad to be able to protect even a tiny patch of the earth for a short time. I had a strong feeling of the transitory nature of land "ownership", and felt good about the way the land has been treated under my stewardship for the last sixteen years. In return, the land has given me far more than I've given it. My inner self feeds on it like a starving man, and it never fails to provide exactly what I need most at the moment.
Thank you, Grandfather Coyote.
Take heart, spring is over the horizon. I know, because today I've seen two pair of red shoulder hawks wheeling about each other high in the sky, doing mock battle and screeching in their characteristic way. They will engage in that spectacular courtship dance for two or three weeks, to settle on the price, then get serious about nest building. They are very early breeders, and their aerial display is one of the first signs that winter isn't perpetual.
It has been a raptorial day, for certain. I also saw our semi-resident redtail cruise down our little valley on silent wings, never a flap, never a peep, lusting after the squirrels, because winter is short commons for the hawks. Every little creature freezes in mid-motion and waits with bated breath to see if it is the target this time, then goes blithely about its feeding, because that's the natural order of the world they live and die in. Simple, direct, marvelous. All must die that all may live.
If you can tolerate more, try page two
. Copyright © B. E. Spencer 2001-2002 All rights reserved.