Thursday, March 26, 2015

Obliteration


One warm summer night a long time ago, I slipped into the midnight water of an Oklahoma farm pond near the city where I grew up. I remember, for many reasons, that particular night among the countless similar nights spent chasing fish. I remember it for the peculiar, ghostly quality of the crescent moonlight shimmering on the gin-clear water, and for the solitude, always the solitude. I remember it for the inky velvet sky that seemed so close above me, for the way the water seemed to transform into brilliant sprays of molten silver every time a hooked bass broke the surface. I remember the slap of the beaver's tail, the tympanic chorus of the bullfrogs, the wonder I felt at the countless unseen life-and-death struggles taking place in the space around and below me as I floated on the water's surface.  But most of all, I remember that night for the exquisite rightness of it all, the synchronicity of place and moment, the sense that this was exactly where I was supposed to be and what I supposed to be doing in this place at this time. Nowhere else but here. Nothing else but this. Nothing. Such moments are not sustainable, of course, but their memory is what sustains us.

I caught a number of bass that night, but I specifically remember only one. It was not particularly large, maybe three pounds, but so vividly and deeply marked that after I brought it to the float tube and unhooked it, I held it there on its side in the water before me, marveling at its color, its pulsing, primordial aliveness. It remains, to this day, one of the most beautiful fish I have ever caught. And as I floated there in the warm water, half in my world, half in its, I slowly released that bass from my hands. It hovered there for a second or two, suspended in the celestial waters, its pectoral fins sweeping back and forth, before disappearing into the luminous depths somewhere between the moon and the stars. I have never forgotten the memory of that bass and that moment and that place.

I fished the pond many times after that night. I hunted it, too, watched my first chessie, now long dead, retrieve ducks from its waters. But that moment stayed with me. Eventually, however, I moved away and those experiences turned to memories, which in turn were overlaid with other, newer memories tethered to other, newer places.

But not long ago, and twenty years since the above picture was taken on that pond, I found myself strolling, as they say, down memory lane. Only memory lane was no longer a bucolic and familiar path, but a teeming, bewildering concrete artery four lanes wide and buzzing with people, so many people seething with purpose and impatience and irritation toward the dawdler poking along trying to find old memories buried under the asphalt and intersections and Bermuda grass and sidewalks. Eventually I came to the place I was looking for.

My pond was gone, of course; it had been drained, filled in, leveled, compacted, surveyed, flagged, gridded and erased; both it and the mixed-grass prairie surrounding it scraped clean, smoothed, and then covered with a skin of fresh, glistening progress. Rows of vinyl and brick-clad houses so close together you could literally jump from roof to roof lined streets so new the gleaming asphalt still exuded an oily stench. Beyond the cookie-cutter houses I could see the dozers and graders and other earth-moving equipment scraping away what remained of the half-section that once contained my pond. It was all going under the blade, and when it was finished there would be nothing - absolutely nothing; not a native tree or plum thicket or blade of grass -  to indicate that it had ever been anything other than poorly-planned, cheaply constructed, high-density suburban sprawl. Planned blight. 

Never have I seen the physical place of memory so completely obliterated and transformed into something so different from its original form. A befuddled middle-aged man was now driving, roughly, over the same spot where the kid that man used to be had once floated on water so alive, had once caught a bass that haunted him still. The same spot where that kid had shot mallards and gadwall and wigeon and watched a young dog leap like a brown missile into the water after them and drop their bodies into his outstretched hand. Wonder and amazement and magic are the gods of place, but they are old and feeble gods these days, and powerless against the gods of profit and progress.

Memory is a helluva thing. We carry it within us, but still have the urge to seek out the physical markers and locations of where that memory was created, where it was once not memory, but experience. We seek out these places, with our now so distant from our then, to remind ourselves that yes, that did indeed once happen, and it happened here. But what if that here is now gone? What becomes of that memory? Are all memories ghosts, or just the ones that no longer have anything physical upon which to tether?

I tried to reconcile what I remembered with what I was seeing, but reality had already begun untethering memory from place, corrupting the close association of the two I'd had in my mind all these years. I suspect in another twenty years I'll have as much luck trying to remember the first day of my life as I will trying to remember the details of that night. Nothing is permanent, not even memory. I turned and got the hell out of there as quickly as I could.
   

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Trivial Pursuits



...At noon I would usually stop in some forlorn, passed-by spot to eat a lunch that I had packed in a small cooler; forgotten, neglected little parks in forgotten, neglected little towns, or windswept prairie cemeteries full of ghosts and tattered, sun-bleached plastic flowers. Sometimes, if I was in a particularly unpeopled area, I would simply pull over on some little-traveled county road and eat lunch there. But I liked the abandoned public spaces and cemeteries the best, perhaps because the ghosts of dreams and folly were so much closer to the surface, more tangible.

In the cemeteries I would eat in the uncomplaining company of long-dead souls eager to tell their stories, stories written in the dates of their birth, their death, and in the terse inscriptions on their headstones. Death banal and death tragic. Death too soon  and death come at last. Death for the rich and death for the poor. Death for the loved and venerated and death for the alone and long-forgotten. 

Cemeteries are good places for pondering the arc of existence and collective experience. I would walk among the weathered headstones, cracking pistachios and wondering about the lives of the people under my feet while marveling at the screw-turns of history all that old, accumulated time represented.
  
Some of the parks had little creeks running through them, or dying lakes or ponds, so when I found water I would break out the little three-weight I always carried with me in the car. It didn’t matter that I rarely caught anything. The improbability of the act itself, in those places, under that sky, in the presence of so much immense loneliness, was reward enough for me. I would cast in silence in the shimmering heat, high on the opiate of space and solitude and a rod in the hand.

It was on one such day that I sat beside a dead river that once emptied into a dead lake, eating my burrito and pondering the folly of man. There were no fish here to catch, no answers to be found, no balm for the demons. Forces inexorable and mysterious, but obvious and undeniable, had rendered this once- living thing into a dry, thin wisp of memory.

And it occurred to me, sitting there with my rod cased and wondering about the fish that surely once swam in this dry riverbed, that in the face of such systemic change and uncertainty, pleasant trivialities like fishing may be one of the few things we have left. And if that is truly the case, then one must encourage and pursue trivialities when one can, before they’re gone.

 Because in such trivialities - or more specifically, their loss - can be found the bellwethers of larger history; of tragedy and despair and telling of story on a grander, more terrifying scale. Every headstone in a cemetery, every dry riverbed on a prairie, every ruined patch of earth or failed dream tells a single, inconsequential story, a triviality. But taken together, they tell a history, and perhaps even more. Seers, quacks, hucksters and algorithms can’t predict the future. Future, as the old philosopher (sort of) once said, is the province of the dead and the gone and the whisper of wind across the dry bones of water and memory.

So my takeaway from this arid, dusty lunch shared with rattlesnakes and harvester ants was this: Go fishing, whenever you can, wherever you can. Revel in such trivial pursuits, and try to forget, momentarily, the future those trivialities may someday portend.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Greed and Rainbows

Each and every Christmas, my wife, as one of those recurring holiday jokes, buys me the exact same gift: a calendar of the trout of North America. And although meant as a gag, it's actually a pretty neat gift that I enjoy much more than say, a tie. The calendar gives me 12 excellent paintings and a brief history of various trout species, subspecies, or strains, all of which I enjoy reading about, even if I will never be given an opportunity to fish for many of them

So today I finally got around to turning the page over to the current month (yes, I'm a little late), and for my March salmonid edification, I was greeted by a very nice rendition of a new-to-me piscatorial dandy called the Pennask Lake rainbow trout, which as you might deduce, is a strain of rainbow unique to Pennask Lake, which, according to the calendar, is in British Columbia (see, the things you learn...)

At any rate, this Pennask Lake rainbow, while not a particularly large strain of trout, possesses some admirable fighting qualities that once, a long time ago, greatly impressed a visiting sport...

(from the text...)

In 1927, James Drummond Dole, the "Pineapple King" traveled to a remote lake in British Columbia with the promise of hard-fighting rainbow trout for his fly rod. Dole was not disappointed and claimed the lake was "nearest to being the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, of any lake seen or heard of."

Dole, so enamored of these rare, hard-fighting Pennask Lake rainbow trout, did what any self-respecting tycoon would do when faced with something precious and beautiful and unique: he used his wealth and power to take it for himself and keep anyone else from enjoying it. Unless, of course, they had the proper cash and social standing to afford the experience.

The American industrialist and sportsman quickly set about to purchase the majority of the land surrounding the lake and established an exclusive sporting club, the Pennask Lake Fishing and Gaming Company.

Now why does that sound familiar? Why does it seem so, hell, I don't know, prescient, contemporary, even? Like there's something eerily similar playing out across the public lands of the United States right now, with wealthy and powerful interests casting a covetous eye at our public resources, our public lands, our public treasures, our public birthrights, and exclaiming - like the old Pineapple King himself when he first laid eyes on Pennask Lake - that such treasures are "nearest to being the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow." Surely not, right?

Greed and shitassery are the feedback loop that drives the great bulk of human history, its only constant, the shining north star that has guided and goaded eons worth of sorry jackasses across history's ever-shifting dunes. Empires and nations rise and crumble. Movements flare brightly, then fade to black, then flare into something else. Prevailing attitudes wax, wane, evolve, devolve, and shift in the howling winds of vagary, but the one great truth of human existence is there's always going to be some greedy shitass trying to take your rainbow and your pot of gold for himself, even if that rainbow and gold rightfully belong to all of us.

Who knew you could learn so much from a Christmas gag-gift calendar about obscure fish?

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Aromatherapy

I was cleaning out a season's worth of dried vegetation from the pockets of my vest today, the accumulated detritus that always finds its way into the various openings of my vest as I walk the hills. Most of it was sand sage, since that is predominately what I hunt. After a day spent walking through the sandhills, both the dogs and I are sticky with the aroma of sage crushed underfoot.

So I took this dessicated handful that had built up in my vest, crumbled it between my fingers to release what faint aroma still remained, and ran it though Ozzy's fur. Sage and setter. A damn fine scent, so perfectly evocative of place, of time, of memory. And if there are people out there who find it odd or objectionable that a seemingly normal middle-aged man would purposely rub dried weeds over his dog and then sniff him, well, to hell with 'em.  

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Viscosity Of Life


Final weekend of quail season. Not a bad spot to spend it if you're a geographic claustrophobe. Few too many trees for my liking, though...

Not many birds on this piece of ground, if I'm honest, but I had it all to myself, and the dogs could stretch out and run. That's worth something, I suppose. At this point it's not about numbers, anyway. Never is, really.

The dogs found enough to be satisfied. I missed enough to get frustrated and hurl invectives into the unsympathetic sky, hit just enough to keep me going. So it goes, as Vonnegut says. I am finding that time does indeed speed up as you get older, and days and moments such as this seem more finite, more part of a larger whole rather than simply being a moment for the moment's sake. There is an arc to what I am doing, what I am, and I guess I'm beginning to realize my place on that arc.

But it's not a bummer. Far from it. True, some things that once mattered greatly to me no longer interest me at all, and dreams once fervently held have been slowly replaced with a new reality that is neither better nor worse, but simply what is. But that's just life. We are fluid, all of us, from birth to death, and right now my viscosity is still sitting at about a 10W30. I'm still OK, still flowing forward, albeit a little more slowly and in a slightly different path than what I once thought I'd take. And that's something to be grateful for.

And I'm grateful that days like this still matter, still have meaning, even though I do not know what, exactly, that meaning is in the grand scheme of things. But then again I'm beginning to suspect there is no truly understandable or graspable meaning in anything, any experience, any reality, other than what we choose to take from it.

The dogs and I walk the lonely hills because that is still a part of what I am, what I've become to this point. I have not left it behind. My enjoyment and interest in these moments have survived that long distillation process that transforms what we were into what we are, and will of course continue to distill us into what we will be, right up to the moment we hit the bottom of the arc.

So I will continue to chase the dogs and the birds on these long walks; hitting, missing, cursing, thinking, and trying to find vague answers to vague questions I don't have the foggiest idea how to pose in the first place.

Restlessness is a good thing. Can't wait for next year.

 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Bread and Circuses.

 "...films, football, beer, and above all, gambling, filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult."

So sayeth Mr. Orwell, and so quoteth the hypocritical Okie prole.

Eh, whaddya gonna do? Empire is a hard thing to hang on to, and as the crumbling remains of its once-proud institutions slowly circle the drain, the production values of distraction must go ever-higher to compensate. So I guess you might as well enjoy it. After all, it was a helluva game...




Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Back From the Land of the Dead

Metaphorically speaking, on more than one level...

What can I say? Sometimes you just don't have anything, well, pressing to say. Sometimes you step back for a while. Take a break. Evaluate. Mull. Ponder. Ask yourself  if perhaps it's time to quit one thing and move on to some new thing. Everyone does it, of course. Some come back to the old thing. Some go on to a new thing, leaving the old thing a silent, forgotten ghost town, or a collection of dead links.

I don't know how many blogs I've followed over the years, blogs that are now long gone, their creators - utterly unknown to me save what they've chosen to share - simply disappearing, moving on. Ephemera.

Not quite there yet. Not quite.

I don't know why not, really. Hell, no one blogs any more. Too slow. Too antiquated. Too quaint. Too 2001. Everyone tweets, or YouTubes, or Facebooks, or Instagrams, or Vines, or whatever. I don't do any of those other things, so I guess I'll keep doing this for a while.

Speaking of the land of the dead, unavoidable business took me to Las Vegas last week. The first time I experienced Vegas against my will (and that is how I will always experience Vegas, against my will) I invoked Sartre. Hell is other people, indeed.  That was several years ago.

And now here I am, back again. Every day I walk around in the bowels of a giant building teeming with thousands of other people who - inexplicably to me - have actually chosen to be here, indeed paid good money to be here, all of them rapturously flowing along the aisles like frenzied swarms of krill: We must see STUFF! We must buy STUFF! Look at all this STUFF! Gotta have me some STUFF!

I am not immune from the allure of STUFF! No one is. And if you are, or think you are, the sheer power of all that concentrated STUFF! in one place will hit you over the head, mercilessly pummeling you into submission, until battered, beaten, and broken, you, too, will come to covet STUFF! It is our way. Most of the STUFF! I am forced to covet has keen blades, or gorgeous wood melded into engraved metal. We all have our vices. Mine, thankfully, are mostly unobtainable. Poverty doth have its rewards.   

 At night I take the taxi back to my hotel, that undulating, light-bedazzled, glass-skinned coffin. On the drive I strike up conversations with the cabbies. All are from somewhere else: Armenia. Russia. Nigeria. Texas. Iowa. California. Vegas is a city of people from somewhere else. One cabbie tells me that it's useless trying to get to know your neighbors, because they will all be gone soon, anyway. Next year, he is moving.

I get out of the cab, walk into the hotel and through the casino filled with desperate, haunted souls. I ride the elevator up to my room, fall into a chair in front of the big bay window, crack open a beer, and watch the evening sun slowly fade away on the mountains stretched out beyond this temporary, doomed artifice. I wonder about those mountains and the desert beyond; if they have desert quail, if they have hidden places few people visit or know of, if anyone in this crowded, transient place ever longs to escape there, as I do, or if those mountains and deserts are merely a static backdrop for the overwhelming hustle of this wholly synthetic place. 

Surrounded by two million people and all the glitz and folly a person could want, and I am dreaming of lonely, ruined places. It's just what I do. Because I'm a weirdo and a misanthropic, anti-social bastard. No one's perfect.

I drink a few more beers, watch the epileptic lights of the city for a while, and read a bit. What am I reading? Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing. Apropos. Then I go to bed. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, so we're told. But I don't think anything stays here for long. I know I'm sure as hell not.

When the plane takes off I can see the sprawling fairytale land in all its smog-hazed glory; the verdant green of the golf courses, the resorts, the casinos, the housing developments, the pulsing, arterial roads. A bit beyond that I can see the desert, the bathtub ring around Lake Mead, and impending reality.   
   

  

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Mallard Has Not Flown South...

It's just been a hectic and very, very, very busy four weeks or so, with barely enough time to catch my breath, much less sit down and write anything. New gigs and new responsibilities have kept me hoppin'. I've managed to get out for zero duck hunts, one quail hunt in a blowing snowstorm (two coveys, with one nice point, one bust, and one bird killed), the most miserable muzzleloader season in recent memory, and a first week of deer gun season that has so far proven to be nothing more than a series of well-armed birdwatching sessions.

I told myself - after holding out last season for one particular buck that had dissimilar interests to mine concerning his future - that this year was all about the freezer. Headgear would not enter into the 2014 equation. So far this season, however, real, live deer hadn't entered the equation, either. So this morning, when I managed to slip away by myself for a short solo hunt before Thanksgiving dinner, I had low expectations. But it was a beautiful morning, with this year's bumper crop of quail whistling all around me and flights of ducks flying overhead. And really, what more can you ask for than that?

OK, OK, so if I'm honest, an actual deer would have been nice, too.

So when he came trotting over the ridge and into the draw, I first became confused, because it had seemingly been years since I had seen one of these creatures in the flesh. After checking my Audubon field guide to North American mammals, just to make sure he was indeed a whitetail deer and therefore legal game, I then had to consult my rifle's instruction manual, because I had forgotten how it worked.

Now fully up to speed on both what, exactly, I was observing, and how, exactly, to shoot it*, I did just that. He dropped in his tracks, and after the echo of the shot died, I sat there in my blind for a few minutes before walking down to him, just thinking, as I usually do after I kill a deer. I believe the animals you kill deserve that much. It doesn't have to be some hokey, New Age thank-you ceremony, or some philosophical self-flagellation, or a weepy, hand-wringing bout of self-doubt and sorrow. Just a little honest reflection, that's all. And maybe a little thanks, which I suppose is appropriate today. He won't turn any heads at a check station, nor will he score well (or at all) against that ludicrous artificial construct by which we measure the alleged worth of the animals we kill, but I think he's a pretty damn perfect Thanksgiving gift, anyway.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Hope you had a good one.




 * Yes, that rifle is the same Winchester model 70 6.5x55 I set up for my son to use. Nope, I didn't steal it from him. He didn't want to go hunting today, so I used it instead of the CZ 6.5x55 I normally use. And as an aside, the 140-grain, 6.5mm Nosler Accubond is a helluva bullet.        




Thursday, October 30, 2014

Refried Mallard: A Series of Lovely Paintings

Quail season is nigh, and although I need to fill a couple muzzleloader deer tags before then to put some meat in our woefully empty freezer, I'd be lying if I said that birds and dogs are not occupying my thoughts these days. So a quote from the late, great Gene Hill, one of my favorites, from an old blog post a few years back...



I felt strange and somewhat rude as I walked in behind the point and honor - I was a man walking into what was so much like a famous painting that I almost had to laugh. But, if you're lucky, that's what a lot of quail hunting is - a series of lovely paintings that we walk into and out of all day long."

                                                                           Gene Hill, from My Respects to Mr. Bob...

...Which is the second story in the book you see above, a mint, limited-edition, slipcased copy of Lamar Underwood's "The Bobwhite Quail Book." This particular edition was published in 1981 by the Amwell Press to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Grand National Quail Hunt in Enid, Oklahoma.

I found it while perusing a thrift store recently. I paid a dollar for it. Sometimes even I get lucky.

This particular copy is number 61 of 500 and signed by Underwood and several other grand poobahs of the Grand National, one of those celebrity-driven, self-aggrandizing events that, quite frankly, I've never much cared for (probably because I have never been neither well-heeled nor important enough to ever be a part of it...)

But the book itself is wonderful. Lamar Underwood was the longtime editor of Sports Afield and a die-hard bird hunter. And "The Bobwhite Quail Book", first published in 1980, is one of the best collections of quail hunting sporting literature ever put together. I think it's still in print today, but early editions are pretty damn rare.

And it's also something of an artifact in that it represents something that is -  for the most part -  long gone. You couldn't publish a new book like this today because A: no one would buy it because it has words, thoughful words, and everyone knows thoughtful words are so, like, 20th century, and B: it's a collection of bird-hunting stories drawn mainly from the pages of Field & Stream, Sports Afield and Outdoor Life, back when such stories made up a good chunk of their feature wells. Have you noticed how many bird-hunting and gundog stories are being published in those magazines these days? That would be a mighty slim book...

So those of us enchanted with such things must seek our literary solace in the past and in what stories we can find among our online kindred. But reading through the book last night, that passage from Gene Hill's story struck me as a perfect description of what it is we seek in this obsession with gundogs: those moments of utter perfection and ethereal beauty that flash-burn themselves into our consciousness and leave softly ghosting images that stay with us long after the moment - and the dogs themselves - are gone. 


And a picture of my old pointer, D.P., sweetest, most gentle dog I ever owned. A little bit Elhew, a little bit Fiddler, and all bird dog. She made some lovely paintings for me in her day.


 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Chad's Intergenerational American Male Incompetency Gradient


A couple knives built by my father, who is not a knifemaker but a consummate tinkerer, one of that generation who truly could (and still can) build, repair, or do just about anything with their hands, a generational trait that is, in most areas save perhaps advanced smart phone operation, sadly falling out of favor these days. In fact, some time ago, while trying to gauge exactly how much more capable in all manly things my father is than I, I actually formulated a theorem to that effect, called "Chad's Intergenerational American Male Incompetency Gradient," which states,  "Each succeeding generation of American male is, on average, 25 percent less competent in the manly arts than its immediate predecessor."

Then I realized that, if I'm being honest, I am much more than 25 percent less competent than my father, so I had to revise the gradient to reflect the rapidly accelerating rate of incompetence that began with my generation, and which, judging by the kids I see these days, has now reached Warp Speed.

But I digress. The knives: The one in the foreground was, in a former life, a blade made by the German firm Klaas. My father simply fitted the blade to his own shed antler crown handle, complete with handmade bolsters, spacers, and pommel. The finished product is, hands-down, the most comfortable and attractive handle of all the knives I own. I have large hands and it fits them like a glove. The knife itself does not see much use, not only because it's pretty, but because I simply don't use large blades that much. Neither does my dad, to be honest. He just got bored one day in his shop and made it for the hell of it. But is sure does look pretty sitting on top of my bookcase on a piece of walnut burl in front of a skull-mount buck I shot a couple years back.

The other knife was, in its former life, an old planer blade that my dad shaped into a very thin, very plain, but beautiful recurved trailing-point design, again with an antler crown handle and homemade bolsters and pins. I don't know what kind of tool steel that old planer blade was made of (01, maybe?), but like most tool steels actually used in tools, it's extremely hard, probably extremely brittle, takes an absolutely wicked edge (he convexed it) and holds that edge like a miser holds a nickel. Too thin and brittle for general use, but I do actually use this one to help cut up deer.

These are the first two attempts at knifebuilding my father ever tried. Like most men of his age and generation and social class (working) my dad is always making or fabricating or building something. I, on the other hand, have trouble opening a box of cereal. Oh, I can usually figure out how to do most things, but like the cereal box I sometimes make a damn mess doing it.

Could I do anything like this myself? Probably not. Because I am, according to Chad's Intergenerational American Male Incompetency Gradient, approximately 50 percent less competent than my father, a man who once, on a trip to Seattle, refused to enter the Space Needle. Why? Because my dad, a retired pipefitter and lifelong welder, had been inspecting the base of the Space Needle as we waited in line to enter, which is always a bad sign. Inspection complete, he then declared, "I'm not going up in that thing."

"Why, dad?" I asked wearily, knowing full well that my perfectionist father had probably found some alleged deficiency somewhere. I was, of course, used to it, because finding deficiencies, in both things and people, occurs quite frequently with my father.

"Because those are some of the shittiest welds I've ever seen," he replied, pointing out a weld that didn't pass muster. "Just look at that. Who'd the hell they get to build this thing, the local vo-tech class?" Eventually he was persuaded to - reluctantly - enter the Space Needle, but not without griping, endlessly, about the shameful decline of the American work ethic. You know, typical father stuff.

Luckily for him, since he lives in Montana and I live in Oklahoma, my father doesn't often get the opportunity to see his oldest son's sometimes, uhh...questionable  handyman handiwork. But one of these days, just for fun, I'm going to get him in my truck, get out on the highway, and as the speedometer creeps up to about 75 or so, I'll say, "Dad, you're gonna be proud of me! I just changed the brakes in this truck all by myself! I learned how to do it on YouTube!"