Tuesday, December 31, 2013

And One More Year-End Pic For the Pointy Dogs...

Just so they don't feel left out. Ozzy, locked up solid on a covey of bobs feeding in the broomweed earlier this week. Not shown is Jenny, to the left and backing as pretty as a picture. Well, it would have been pretty as a picture had I had a wider-angle lens to get both of them in frame. Instead of trying to relocate and getting both of them in the pic, I got worried that either the dogs or the birds would break, so I dropped camera, picked up gun, walked in to a picture-perfect covey rise, and even managed to shoot a double, on purpose even, my first of the year. Every now and then even I get lucky and have everything come together to make a special moment. And if that's not nice then I don't know what is, even though it took me about ten minutes to find the camera after I dropped it.

We've got six more weeks of quail season, but that moment will be pretty hard to top, and a good way for the setters to end 2013. Happy New Year's, everyone. Again.

Closing Out the Year, and Perhaps a Career

In a sometimes-vain attempt to avoid the plague of newly-minted Duck Commanders who have infested the places I used to share with no one but my thoughts, Tess and I have taken a different path this season, rejecting our normal spots and times and instead hunting oddball places at oddball times. Middle-of-the-day hunts, evening hunts over stock tanks, tiny creeks, puddles, even: overlooked places at overlooked times. It's a strategy that offers few chances at limits of glory and glamour ducks, but decent chances at limits of solitude, which is what I'm mostly gunning for these days. A duck or two at the end of the day, whether they be a pair of gadwall or a single drake mallard or a wigeon or even a shoveler, is merely a bonus.

A few hours spent over a few decoys, alone but for a dog who's served me well for ten years now, is a pretty damn good way to spend the waning days of 2013, regardless of what we end up with on our strap.

It remains to be seen whether Tess will be able to go another season and pose for another end-of-year picture over a pair of well-earned ducks to send out 2014. We'll just have to play that one by ear. But for now she's still kicking, albeit a little more slowly, and once the ball drops tonight we've still got two good weeks of duck season left before we need to start worrying about the future.

Happy New Year's, everyone.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Mouthful of Feathers E-book Is Out. Hypno-Toad Says Buy...

Apologies for the complete lack of blog activity lately. It's been a hectic past few weeks, and probably will remain so for at least the remainder of 2013, so blog content might be a little scarce in the short-term future. Between familial obligations and a new self-pubbed writing project I've just started working on, I just haven't had much time to either write on my own blog or read and/or comment on anyone else's.

I did, however, want to let everyone know that the much-anticipated and most-excellent Mouthful of Feathers: Upland in the West e-book is now available on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook and Kobo Books. I've read it, and it's good, really good, despite having a piker like myself in the TOC.

I think you'll enjoy it immensely, and it's cheap entertainment to boot. Look at it this way: You can spend $4.99 on a cup of coffee at Starbucks, a useless app for your smartphone that you don't need and will never use, a fifth of "Kentucky Wonder" whiskey (preferred by three out of four professional blood plasma-selling alcoholics), a traditional hook-and-bullet rag or eighty-odd pages of thoughtful, honest, ad-and-agenda-free prose. 

Which of those options vying for your fiver will stick with you the longest, be the best value? Let's review: The coffee is overpriced, tastes like burnt tires, makes you jittery, and you'll just piss it out within the hour, anyway. The app is just going to make it easier for the NSA-corporate-industrial complex to track your movements. The whiskey? Well, if I'm being completely honest the whiskey's not a bad way to spend five bucks, but you'll regret it when you wake up and find that you've gone colorblind. The hook-'n-boolit mag? Not gonna find writing like this there.

But spend five bucks on MOF, and you'll get...well, I can't really tell you what value you'll get out of it, can I? We're all different, of course, and you may not like what I wrote, or what some of the other contributors wrote. You may think it sucks, that it's boring or pretentious or shitty. That is the beauty of subjective taste.

But I can tell you what you won't get out of it: You won't get dishonesty. You won't get fraudulence. You won't get slick marketing copy or carefully orchestrated press events disguised as honest adventure. You won't get any "How-to" or "Where To" or even much "Why To" except maybe the kind of  intimate, personal "Why To" that speaks to the individual rather than that all that crappy, contrived, calculated, carefully rehearsed and utterly alike cornpone sentiment spouted by all those camo-swaddled talking head celebrity clones. You won't get one lick of SEO-optimized twaddle. You won't get one Listicle. Not one! You won't get one story pre-approved in some editorial budget meeting in accordance with the results of the latest market survey or focus group trend data. You won't get any "Special XX-Hunting Issue!" complete with advertising tie-ins, sponsored content and glowing reviews for products of value only to those who have been trained from birth to covet the means rather than the end.

Nope, there's none of that.  All there is, and all you're gonna get from this endeavor, is the end result of a few disparate, scattered people with something to say being asked to write a story they think might be worth reading. And that is, literally, the entire extent of MOF's editorial direction: story. Just story. And I think that's pretty damn cool. So go buy the damn thing, already. Purchase a copy now, because it's the right thing to do. Go ahead, buy it. Buy it now. You need to buy it. In fact, it's imperative that you buy it now. I insist you buy it now. Even Hypno-Toad says "Buy It Now" and it's not a good idea to resist Hypno-Toad, not a good idea at all...

Friday, December 6, 2013

Refried Mallard: Irony and Frostbite

I was scrolling back through the ancient blog archives last night, looking for stuff to cull when I came across this blog from January 2010. Truthfully, it's not a particularly good blog, but in looking at the date I realized that it was the last duck hunt I ever made with Lewey, my ultra-goofy, ultra-beloved and ultra-talented young male chessie, who died unexpectedly a few weeks later.

Ironically, the reason Lewey stayed home the last two weeks of the season following this hunt was because I  wanted to give Tess, my aging female, a few more hunts. She was getting old, you see, and who knows how much longer she'd be able to hunt? Well, Tess is still here and kicking, albeit slowly, and all that remains of Lewey are memories and a name scratched into a weathered hunk of gypsum that sits atop a grave on a bluff overlooking a pond.

Funny how things work out.

It's seven degrees outside, with a north wind at 15 gusting to 25. At least that's what the computer told me before I left the house. But the frozen snot on the end of my nose tells me the question of whether it's warmed up any since then is, semantically speaking, moot.

 We're making our way down the riverbank, Lewey and I, crunching through the frozen grass, when it happens. Ranging out thirty or so yards ahead of me he suddenly shifts out of his normal I'm-just-a-happy-go-lucky-goofball lope into "what's this smell" mode. Moments later the covey bursts out of the grass and flies across the river.

I don't shoot, because I'm standing here in a pair of waders, with a decoy bag over one shoulder, camera and gear bag over the other, and a trio of three-inch #2s in the 870.

And the reason I'm standing here in waders, holding a decoy bag and a shotgun full of steel is because several days earlier I had been standing along this same riverbank in brush pants and a vest, holding a 20 gauge full of #8s, and all I saw were ducks. Piles of them, all up and down the river.

Today, however, all I find is quail. Lewey flushes another small covey huddled along the ribbon of cottonwoods, eastern redcedars, tamarisks and sandsage that flank the river. I find no ducks, anywhere. All I find is an inch of ice covering the river and silence. I've long since dumped the decoy bag and resigned myself to sneaking along the ice, hoping there might be a mallard or two we can jump.

Finally, when Lewey flushes the third covey, I can stand it no longer. Screw it. Full choke and duck loads be damned. I pick out a bird, shoot and - predictably -  pulverize a completely innocent bystanding tamarisk branch.

The quail flies on. And predictably, my shot flushes a group of mallards loafing on the ice just around the next bend. Unpredictably, they decide to fly right over my head as they make their escape. Survival-wise, this is generally a pretty sound tactic when I'm shooting. This time, however, I manage to knock down a drake. Thinking double, I rush the third shot and hit only atmosphere.

Lewey tiptoes onto the ice. Halfway across it gives way with a loud crack and Lewey plunges into the icy water below. All six inches of it. Gotta love prairie rivers. He jumps out of the icy water, grabs the duck and gives that area a wide berth coming back.  As he gingerly crosses the ice and drops the duck in my hand I realize this is by far the best quail hunting day he's ever had...


Thursday, December 5, 2013

Plains, Desert, Perception

The writer and academic Dan Flores (who, interestingly, also used to do some hook-n-bullet, mostly bullet, freelancing back in the 1970s before apparently realizing what a creative wasteland it truly was) has long been one of my favorite environmental historians, not coincidentally because he tends to focus much of his considerable scholarly insight on the plains and the near southwest, a region generally devoid of advocates amongst the Greenie Weenie Save the Forest set. His books Horizontal Yellow, Caprock Canyonlands, and The Natural West are all uniformly excellent and required reading for anyone interested in the cultural and environmental history of the region. He's published a number of book, and even co-wrote an excellent little book on one of my favorite birds, the Mississippi Kite.

Anyway, recently I was re-reading his excellent essay from The Natural West entitled "A Long Love Affair With an Uncommon Country: Environmental History and the Future of the Great Plains", but reading it concurrently with some essays from Ed Abbey's classic Beyond the Wall: Essays from the Outside.  The juxtaposition of opportunity is striking. Abbey, as a lover of the largely public desert southwest, is free to amble over large chunks of threatened, yes, but still largely intact public land while ruminating and raging as only he could. It is not hyperbole, therefore, to say that that particular nexus of opportunity and voice gave rise to a national environmental awareness and appreciation for the desert southwest that continues to this day. Lucky for John Ford country, eh?

But not so much for us lowly plains dwellers. While Abbey's evocative words spawned generations of adoring acolytes whose devotion transformed our perception of the southwest, us flatlanders remain stuck with cows, crops, tractors, big hats, the Dust Bowl (and no, fellow Okies, it's not John Steinbeck's fault. Give it a freakin' rest), smaltzy pap like fucking Oklahoma! and other various and sundry false mythos that continue to make people both here at home and across the nation simply not give a shit about the region, on any level, really, but especially on an environmental level.

Why? Well, it all boils down to ownership. Specifically, a lack of it; an almost complete absence of public lands over which to traipse,discover, love, and then rhapsodize poetic and angry. It's damn hard to kickstart a national environmental movement and make people care for a region that is, at best, about three percent public lands. Flores recognizes this, and part of his essay explores the cultural and political reasons for why there are no large national parks or significant public lands in the great plains region, especially the southern plains.

"If the Great Plains as a whole remain pathetically underprotected ecologically, the central and southern plains are almost entirely so. Citizens of places like Texas and Kansas (and Oklahoma) are today among the most divorced of all Americans from any kind of connection with regional nature. With midheight grassland ecology represented by existing parks on the northern plains, however, the pressing need in the future is for large preserves in the shortgrass high plains and the tallgrass prairies."

Sadly, that is all too true. The Nature Conservancy's Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is an exception, but if you are interested in seeing a true, unsullied, native, short or mixed-grass prairie biome on the southern plains, good luck. Maybe a leprechaun or a billionaire absentee landowner can show you where to look. I personally know equal numbers of both.

Which makes me wonder: would more people appreciate the plains today, and perhaps see the region as something more than just a giant agro-industrial wasteland, if more of the region had remained public and therefore given people more of a vested reason to fight for it? It's certainly not strictly an issue of mere aesthetics, because if you can just get past the feedlots and the packing plants and the center-pivots and the grubbed-out, worn-down, plowed-to-hell industrial-scale aglands, you will find breathtaking, heartbreaking scenes of  raw beauty out there on the plains, areas so staggeringly powerful in their sweep and grandeur that were someone to see them for the first time, they might very well have exactly the same kind of transformative moment that Abbey did upon his first view of the desert southwest.

Or are the plains simply too spare and ugly for most? Their charms too subtle, their warts too obvious, their attributes simply too much an aquired taste for most? Is there no voice powerful or riveting enough to make people care? I don't think that's it, either It's not like there aren't regional advocates, artists and writers out there trying to drum up some love for the region, many of them extremely talented and compelling.Again, it all goes back to communal space, or lack thereof. I won't go down the rabbit hole of discussing the Poppers' mostly misunderstood, wildly mischaracterized, and wholly dead Buffalo Commons concept, but the fact remains that more people would care about the region if more people had sense of ownership enough to care about the region. 

Of course, it's a moot point, really, a purely academic question, because so little of it now belongs to us to ever find out the answer to the question. All we have, and all we will ever have - at least until the next great man-induced natural catyclism scours us once again from the landscape - are tiny little islands scattered here and there upon a vast and rapidly disappearing sea that appears destined to remain unexplored, unknown and unloved. There will be no Shortgrass Ed to save us, no mass spiritual awakenings or pilgrimages of self-discovery into the dark, mysterious heart of the plains to follow in his righteous path, because, well, you'd get your ass shot for trespassing. And being a hippie.  

So I guess all us prairie rats and itinerant bird hunters and other lovers of silence and isolation will just have to make do with those small, scattered islands of communal property, hang on to them, and try our damndest to protect them as best we can. That, at least, is still be a winnable battle, if an increasingly difficult one. Even without a guru to follow or a place to follow him to. Purpose is where you find it, no matter how big or small, and on the plains we're forced to find it in ever-shrinking areas.  

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Quail Hunting With Voltaire Across the Dust Bowl of the Sahara While Squealing Like a Pig...

 ...Is, unfortunately, not the title of my forthcoming book. But if it were, I'd damn sure read it. Wouldn't you?

Actually, it's just a summation of a few finds from my most recent thriftshop book score, which include (but not limited to) a brand-new copy Timothy Egan's incomparably good "The Worst Hard Time" an old copy of Tom Huggler's classic "Quail Hunting in America", an anthology of my very favorite rapier-witted, gloriously freethinking and unmercilessly brilliant old French fart Voltaire, a hardback copy of William Langewiesche's "Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert" and a tragically! tragically! dustjacket-less first-printing, first-edition of  "Deliverance" by, of course, that most complex, contradictory poet-hellraiser Mr. James Dickey.

Total cost for these books, plus a sackful of others? Four bucks. Suck on that, Amazon and Barnes & Noble...

Egan's book is required reading for anyone interested in Dust Bowl and plains history, ranking right up there with historian Donald Worster's work. Huggler's book on quail hunting, while dated now (is there an updated edition?), remains by default the standard text on chasing the king of birds. I already had a copy, but this one's in better condition. For fifty cents, why not, right?

I'm both elated that I found a first edition of Dickey's first novel, and bummed that it didn't have the dust jacket. Oh, well. Even with dust jacket, it wasn't worth too much, anyway, and this nekkid copy will go on my first-edition shelf just fine. Dickey was certainly an interesting guy (I've got a copy of Henry Hart's massive Dickey biography, I just haven't read it yet) and perhaps no other author has had to endure to such a degree as Dickey the movie version of his work (and specifically, one scene) so utterly overshadowing and negatively co-opting the original. Talk about total pop culture distillation. To virtually everyone, "Deliverance" IS "squeal like a pig." Nothing more, which is a shame. It's a damn good book.

I've already started reading William Langewiesche's "Sahara Unveiled" (an old book, published back in '96 when he was still a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly) because Langewiesche is just a brilliant observer and writer.

There are a lot of big-name longform magazine writers out there who get fawned over by adoring fanboys, myopic New York editors and the ridiculously self-congratulatory journalism awards industry, and far be it from me - as a lowly reader - to criticize, but I just don't get what's so special about a lot of them. Derivative, formulaic and interchangeable are a few words that come to mind. I know there are editors out there who would emphatically disagree, but I'm of the opinion that if you gave any reasonably competent writer the budget and time necessary to produce a deeply-reported, ten or fifteen thousand-word magazine feature, they'd give you a reasonably competent final product. That does not mean they are the second coming of Gay Talese or George Plimpton. It's craft, people, not voodoo.

But Langewiesche? There's a touch of the voodoo to his writing, that intangible observational and descriptive quality to how he translates what he observes into what we read that separates truly great writers from the merely competent yeoman pikers of the world. I'm about fifty pages into "Sahara Unveiled" and so far it's fantastic. Total cost? Yep, fiddy cents, the seemingly universal thriftshop hardback book price.

One of these days, damn it, I'm going to stumble across the find of a lifetime (Poe's Tamerlane? Salinger's Rye?) and I'm quite sure that whatever priceless literary gem it turns out to be, it will have a big Day-Glo orange fifty-cent price tag sticker permanently attached to it.     

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

If the Definition of Insanity...

truly is - as that criminally over-used and almost certainly apocryphally-attributed-to-Einstein old saw goes - doing the same thing over and over and over again and somehow expecting a different result, then I must be batshit crazy. It's the eleventh day of my state's deer gun season, and I keep going out, day after day, and expecting to see something worth shooting.

And by something worth shooting, I don't mean a nice buck. I mean something, anything, other than the few small yearling bucks, does and fawns that seem to be the only ungulate lifeforms to occupy my little slice of the prairie this year.

I knew it was going to be tough this season. My deer-hunting spot is marginal in the best of years. No crops, not much mast, no feeders, no food plots. Just a series of rugged, cedar-choked canyons and draws that give a distinct topographical advantage to the few deer that move through the area. Some years, when there's an acorn crop, it'll be enough to draw off a few deer from the surrounding forest of corn feeders, tower blinds and MegaBuck food plots, and hold them in a non-transitory pattern.

But this year there was no acorn crop. That, combined that with a drought-induced drop in overall deer numbers the past two years, a loss of about 40 acres of movement and bedding cover due to some much-needed cedar removal (good for my quail, not so good for my deer. Quail, however, always trump deer...) and an increase in alternative food sources elsewhere, has pretty much dried up deer sightings, much less deer shootings, on ye olde in-law's homestead.

Every morning I park the truck atop the same windswept knoll, finish my coffee, then trudge into the darkness of the canyon below, alone and silent. Every evening, I trudge out of the darkness; alone, silent, and empty-handed.

But I've been treated to some beautiful sunrises and even more beautiful sunsets. I've watched prairie falcons and Cooper's hawks and harriers and innumerable ducks and geese winging overhead. I've watched a covey of bobs - who knows how many generations extant of the ones hunted by my wife's grandfather and great-grandfather on this same piece of ground - slowly make its way up the draw below me. Only nine. There will be no hunting of these quail this season. I spent the whole of Black Friday as it should be; in total silence, uttering not a word, hearing not another human voice, desiring not a thing beyond that which I had before me (gotta be honest, though; A fat, broadside doe would have been nice...). I sat one day freezing, with two inches of snow and sleet covering me, then sat in that same spot three days later in shirt sleeves and 70 degrees, watching honey bees drone in the air. And yes, I've watched deer, a few, anyway. None, I tell myself, are quite old or fat enough yet for my freezer. Or maybe I just enjoy pissing away time with my ass on the good earth beneath me and the winter sun on my face, being a part of this world rather than the one I must eventually return to. And maybe I just don't want to shatter that illusion with the sound of a rifle shot just yet. There are, after all, days left to worry about things like filling a freezer. So I sit, and watch, and think, and wonder. Many things come, many things go, and many things reveal themselves to those willing to look. Sit long enough, sit silently enough, and I'll be damned if you can't actually see the land itself breathe, live, be. And that's pretty damn cool. And rewarding, even if you can't eat it.

So overall, I guess it could be worse, eh? I could be one of those imbeciles who think deer season is all about shooting deer...