When I was a smart-mouthed youngster (as opposed to a smart-mouthed elder, I suppose), on a hillside on Uncle Ed’s ranch up the Little Chumstick out of Leavenworth, Washington, The Old Man said something that has never left my mind.
It was the first deer hunt I’d been invited to tag along and observe. I was ten. My father had just taken a nice fat doe – meat much needed by our three-growing-boys family. He was starting to field dress the deer – with which he was demonstrably pleased – when I uttered some inane off-the-cuff comment.
He turned to me and tried to hand me the knife. “Maybe you’d like to do this very important job, Jimmy.” I hastily demurred, suddenly wishing I knew how to keep my mouth shut. “No… Sorry,” was about all I could manage.
The Old Man looked at me with his patented, somehow-all-at-once angry, patient, kind and loving, look and said, “This is sacred meat, son. Any meat taken with respect and prayer and prepared with love and offered as life-giving food is sacred. No different from the plants we grow and take from our gardens and the orchards. Sacred.” As he turned back to the deer, clearly about to demonstrate a process I had best never forget, he said, “Now, we can laugh and have a little fun, but we damn sure hafta treat this beautiful animal as if we were going to feed it to your mother and brothers and our friends.”
Over the years, many foods became sacred in my family, along with certain “sacred and traditional” meals. As son-in-law Chris and I headed to Denver from Rochester, Texas, “sacred food” was bouncing around my mind. We had about 2/3 of the meat from the two wild hogs son James had taken at the very last possible moment of our long-anticipated hog hunt (thus, saving our bacon – and our hunt). We had discussed how those pigs would become sacred meat.
We had ribs and loins and shoulders. We had meat for chops and BBQ and sausage. And we each had at least one hind quarter – one ham. Those hams were fodder for anticipation.
James, once he returned home to Paris, Texas, would take the meat to Detroit Processing, a nearby small-town company, owned for more than two decades by a Mennonite family. The family has an outstanding reputation for game cutting and wrapping, sausage making and ham curing/smoking. James had tried several of their products, and they would prepare the hog meat for him and Candy and family.
Chris had found a cure he intended to use for the ham his family would enjoy for Easter.
I had made arrangements for Eric Burvee (he and wife Shannon are Cascade Mountain Grilling) to play with whatever ham(s) I might somehow bring home from Texas. I’ve enjoyed any meat Eric has cured and smoked, and we thought it might be a kick to see what could be done with a wild hog ham.
Chris and I hit Denver Friday evening and sorted out pig meat. Saturday morning, before I pointed my rig back toward Paradise, Central Washington, daughter Tena prepared the traditional sacred family hunters breakfast: sourdough waffles, game sausage patties, eggs.
We have made the game sausage for many decades. The sourdough starter we treasure is at least 150 years old. I got it from mom and my Dad Ray more than four decades ago, and it now resides with a handful of us “sourdough keepers.” An old Alaska gentleman brought the starter to Seattle “sometime around 1900.” He passed some of the culture on to a young couple there in about 1915, telling them he had no idea how long it had been since an old “sourdough” handed him a crock of it back in his youth. My folks got it in 1960, and passed some on to me in 1965.
This is sacred stuff. Odes and essays have been written to celebrate the wonders of sourdough (including some to my own). Brad Johnson, editor of the south-of-Denver daily rag for which I first wrote this weekly column back in the 1980s, once wrote a remarkable piece, “The Sourdough That Took over Castle Rock.” Impromptu poems written in celebration of my high-country elk-camp sourdough pancakes, while inappropriate for a family paper, were creative, reverent and exuberant. Now and then, in the midst of such a breakfast, there are spontaneous outbursts returning us directly to the timeless joy and nurturing of our parents.
Oh yeah, those hams. James reports his ham steaks are delicious. Tena told me that their Easter dinner was built around the ham Chris cured. How was it? “Awesome!” The wild hog ham Eric Burvee cured here in Paradise? It is exactly as I hoped it would be – perfect.
We are all making plans for how we will deal with the wild hog meat to be collected on our next trip. Given what we have learned from this first hunt, we will have a lot more meat next time. It will all be exactly what we wish to use in sustaining ourselves and our communities – after all, this is sacred food.
How many times over the past few years (or, for that matter, the 18 years and four months of our Friday moments with this column in the Ellensburg Daily Record) have we tossed around the importance of getting kids – those emissaries we send into a time we will never see – connected with the earth and Mother Nature? Study after study has reminded us of the physical and emotional benefits of those strong connections.
A few weeks ago, I was reminded of the benefits of those connections to adults, too. It takes little digging to find a fair amount of information. Have you seen Gerald G. May’s book, The Wisdom of Wilderness: Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature? Maybe you stumbled across the March 1998 article “Nature as medicine: the healing power of the wilderness,” by D. Cumes, in the bimonthly peer-reviewed medical journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. More likely you saw last summer’s Time Magazine piece, “The Healing Power of Nature,” which reported on the work of Japanese and other researchers on the important health benefits of humans being surrounded by nature. You can support work on these connections, yourself.
Let me introduce you to Erin Cooper – and her story.
“Warm Greetings… I am a veteran who served 3 tours in Iraq and 1 in Afghanistan. I have been blown up a few times and fell 40 feet off a mountain while in Afghanistan. I was in the hospital for 30 days after the fall and sustained a moderate traumatic brain injury (TBI). After I was released, from the hospital, I started hiking to my ability and over time could go out for days of hiking. My memory, perception and concentration were poor at best, but I began to notice my cognition improved with every long distance hike. I improved so much that I was dropped from a medical review board that would have medically retired me from the Army, and I deployed to Iraq again. In 2013, I was honorably discharged from the Army. I started having PTSD-like symptoms, so I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail to see if hiking would help with those symptoms as well; it did. I was a new person afterwards and began college at Washington State University as a neuroscience major. I will graduate this year with a Bachelor’s Degree in Neuroscience.
“I am now at a point where I can use science to understand what physiological changes are happening in the body during long distance hiking that helps to alleviate PTSD and TBI. This summer I am taking a group of combat veterans with me on the Pacific Crest Trail. I would like to collect saliva to monitor hormone levels and how they change along the way. This is a simple, noninvasive technique. The tests, however, are $300 each and I would need one for each person (4 subjects and 4 controls) and one for each type (2 – cortisol and melatonin) of hormone tested. The total cost for just the tests is $3300 for the assays and an as-yet-to-be-determined fee for the analysis. Any amount that you might be able to contribute to this endeavor would be very much appreciated.
“There is still a lot that science and medical personnel do not know about these debilitating disorders; people who served their country honorably are given medications created for people with schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder and severe depression to mask their symptoms. Often times, this makes the disorder worse and mentally unhinges the person to the point of suicide or institutionalization. This study is geared toward understanding how the body regulates itself by being back in nature and exercising for an extended period of time. Hormone regulation is essential to moods, brain function, and protein synthesis; by showing that these levels change as symptoms are alleviated, new therapies may be developed to treat PTSD and TBI specifically.
“Thank you for your time, Erin Cooper”
Erin and the folks who will help her are not looking for some sort of magic cure. Yet, we know that our brains evolved during eons of hiking, walking and gathering. Perhaps this long-distance hiking will get folks back to fundamentals and allow bodies to begin a return to what they have done naturally for countless centuries in natural environments.
If you want to be part of this interesting and important “experiment” with nature, check out Erin’s GoFundMe page and support her work to help our combat vets be as healthy as we all want them to be. The link is: gofundme.com/veterans-walking-for-science
A critical part of rearing kids who will fight for our wild places in generations to come, it seems to me, is making the most of those wild places today. You can be part of something important.
Son-in-law Chris and I have been talking for several years about an early spring trip to Texas to help them deal with what has become a plague in much of the Lone Star State – wild hogs. When Diane and I spent time in Paris, Texas, last fall reconnecting with eldest son James, it became obvious that the time had arrived. I agreed to find us a wild hog hunt.
Homey Wes Clogston, retired commander from Texas Parks & Wildlife, was able to get me background info on Texas hogs, private vs public land rules, and some starting places for my search. I made a couple dozen phone calls, studied maps (given that Chris and I would be driving down from Denver, we wanted to stay in the top half of the state), and sent a number of emails.
Turns out there are hundreds of opportunities to hunt hogs – after all, there are a million and a half trouble-making feral hogs in Texas. Since they are non-game animals, there are almost no rules about when or how to hunt them – or how many you can take. One does need a license, and our five-day nonresident special hunt permit ran us less than fifty bucks.
I found innumerable hunt opportunities. Hunt hogs on one ranch for a couple days and get another hunt for free within a couple years. There were lodging, food and hunt packages and any number of two or three-day hog hunts where we would be on our own for food and lodging in some nearby town. Almost no matter how we cut it, the costs would add up about the same. Major differences were in the methods of hunting. Most everyone started with first and last light hunting from stands overseeing favored, or baited, food plots. Then, given that these are highly nocturnal animals, some had nighttime hunts under lights. Others had mid-day dune buggy drives or dog hunts or spot and stalk hunts. A helicopter hunt was optional. The standard among the hunts seemed to be three “meat” hogs (to 150 pounds) or a mix of a big boar and meat pigs.
I narrowed it down, and we discussed three possible hunts. I made another couple calls, trying to get a sense of the likelihood of actually getting three hogs apiece during our hunt. The standard answer was “You just have to choose which pigs you want.” Through a Colorado booking agent, I arranged a hunt on a ranch near Rochester, north of Abilene.
I got a four-page contract from the folks handling the booking (one disclaimer after another). This was a new one for me, and I figured I’d best take another look at the web page for the guy owning the outfit with which we would hunt. There was plenty of info about deer, turkey, quail and big-time waterfowl hunts, and the hog hunt page had pictures of nighttime hunts, day hunts, and dog hunts. When I called him for more details, the owner reminded me that we could get three hogs apiece and should pick the ones we wanted. Fine. We started arranging our meeting places and seriously planning a hog hunt.
Two Sundays ago, I pointed my rig toward Denver. A couple days later, Tuesday, Chris and I were headed south to Rochester. James would drive west from Paris and we would convene at the hunting lodge that evening. Even with torrential rain and wind most of the way, Chris and I arrived early evening – just in time for tornado warnings and a hailstorm. We met guide Jared, learned the morning plan, and turned in. A bit before James arrived at 10, we listened to a tornado roaring past a quarter-mile away – flashing me back to my tornado chasing days in the ‘70s at the University of Kansas.
By first light the next morning, the weather had settled, the country was wet and muddy, and we were in our blinds waiting for hogs at spots with plenty of fresh sign of overnight digging and rooting. That evening, we did it again. Chris saw two small pigs and had a shot from his blind, but the pig scurried onto neighboring ground and we found no sign of it.
The second morning at dark-thirty we were again in our blinds – and no pigs. By mid-morning, it was obvious that our only hunting would be from first and last light blinds. Despite the web page suggestions, there was apparently no availability of other ways of finding hogs. Right after lunch, we headed to another property and a new set of ‘til-dark blinds.
That evening, our last, James was finally in a spot with moving pigs. By sunset he had a boar and a sow – both meat hogs in the 140 pound range – and two empty ’06 cases. We would have a little meat, after all.
During our 70+ man-hours of blind occupation, we saw deer, turkeys, coyotes, bobcats, quail, roadrunners and sundry other critters. Chris and James saw a combined handful of hogs, but I never saw a pig. Jared, with good humor and optimism, did his very best with our one-trick pony hunt. Somewhere in there, we came to the conclusion that the owner of the operation didn’t really take hog hunts very seriously; it seemed to us that his business was waterfowl, deer and turkeys. We found out later that three hunters in daylight blinds could expect to take a total of a pig or two a day – not really a “choose which hogs you want” hunt.
This was on me; even after booking hunting and fishing trips across North America, Europe and South Africa over decades, I just somehow missed asking the right questions – or the right follow up questions – in the right way.
We had three goals: spend some quality armed time together; have a great adventure; and get a pile of wild hog meat. Two out of three ain’t bad, I guess. Overall, I called it a successful trip.
James is now researching outfits with multi-trick hog-hunting ponies. I guess we like the meat we did get so much, we’re going back.
[Photos: James & boar (above) and James & sow (right) by Jared Ritter]
An old friend hopped into my yard on Wednesday last week. I was headed out to pick up some items for last Saturday night’s Chukar Run, but paused for a moment to consider the substantial amount of fruit tree, shrub and cane pruning staring back at me. Suddenly, literally feet from my shoes, was my long-anticipated friend, American Robin Turdus migratorius – bringer of spring.
No doubt, you’ve noticed robins, also. It was seeming a bit late, but that could be a result of the winter-that-nearly-refused-to-die with which we were blessed. Of course, a few of the birds (males generally) stayed through winter, but the folks at Annenburg Media’s “Journey North” site report the first migratory robins in the reach from the Lower Yakima Valley to Paradise just in the last few weeks. Those birds were returning from wintering grounds in Guatemala and Central America.
The male’s job is to choose a territory, then defend it as others arrive. Thus, he must be here early. If nasty weather eliminates his food supply for a few days, he can easily survive until the weather reopens. The female, on the other hand, need not hurry as there is nothing much for her to do until there is a dependable food supply and sufficient mud for creating the nest which may be weakened by a hard frost. Then too, if she suffers much hunger, it can limit her body’s ability to make strong viable eggs. So, she will stay on wintering grounds until conditions are most likely to be favorable in summer breeding territories.
At any rate, I was delighted to say hello to the robin boy staking out turf in my yard last week, and wished him well. I anticipate hearing his three or four note song, once his turf is claimed. A twenty- or thirty-minute rendition of his “cheery-up, cheery-me, cheery-up, cheery-me” song of daylight and spring warmth will make me want to dig worms and hand them over.
A California colleague once told me he was sure he’d heard a “robin’s song” in Great Britain. That bird, he was told, was a European blackbird (as in “baked into a pie…”). Turns out that blackbird is also a thrush and of the genus Turdus, like our robin. Our American robin got its name, apparently, because it reminded homesick migrants of England’s “Robin redbreast.” (That little European red-breasted robin (Erithacus rubecula) is a small, roughly sparrow-sized, bird. It was once classified as a member of the family Turdidae, but is now considered to be an old world flycatcher.).
American robins are generalists, like us. They eat a variety of stuff and occupy breeding territories in most any habitat in the West below timberline (except marshes). On our lawns after insects and worms (found by sight, by the way) and in our trees after other edibles, robins seem pretty tame, but in more remote alpine and wilderness areas they can be extremely wary.
You probably know that only a few generations ago, robins were widely hunted for food in the US. More recently, populations were in trouble because of DDT spraying. Earthworms digested sprayed leaves and the poisons ended up in the robins. Many thousands died outright, and reproduction failed for others because DDT concentrated in bird ovaries, causing shell thinning of eggs. Once DDT was no longer used, the birds quickly recovered.
Robin courtship often reminds me of what I see on campus; groups of males pursue a desirable female until she takes a shine to one of them. Once chosen, the male will strut around her with his tail spread, throat inflated and wings shaking.
When vows are properly sealed, the female will begin building a soft‑lined nest of mud and grass in the lucky male’s territory. This we will watch over the next few weeks, as such nests are constructed (generally fairly low) in crotches of deciduous trees or on buildings. Both adults will belligerently defend the nest.
The female may lay half a dozen inch‑long turquoise blue eggs. She will do most of the incubating, but chicks will be fed by both parents and will grow quickly. They will leave the nest looking much like adults, with thickly spotted breasts of orange, white and brown.
Once the first brood fledges, the pair may build another nest, with the hen laying more eggs. If the fledged young are not independent enough, the male will care for them while the female incubates the second clutch of eggs. Rearing baby robins is a big job; a brood of three young may eat 95 or 100 meals a day. Sometimes, robins have help. Several observations have been made of house finches helping adult robins bring food to young. The finches have also been seen sitting nearby and singing while the insatiable youngsters were being fed.
In keeping with the wishes of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association’s Science Education Committee, I include the following. The American robin’s scientific name is Turdus migratorius. It may reach ten inches in length, and makes its living off grubs, insects (and their larvae), earthworms and fruit.
Track migrations of robins and many other birds on the Annenburg Media site. You can also find pictures, hear songs and learn cool new things at www.learner.org/jnorth/.
Robin gives me hope for spring, for summer and for a good gardening year. I love that song.
I’ve been waiting. After a winter like this one (It IS gone, right?), it seemed inevitable.
“So,” young I-Wanna-Take-My-Girlfriend-On-A-Hike Homey asked, “where would be a nice hike without snakes and bugs and with things that are fun to see and good scenery? And maybe there might be deer or elk horns there?”
“Well, it is not that simple,” I cautioned him. “Spring is underway down along the Columbia and out into the Basin. Hike up that anticlinal limb of basalt layers north of Gingko State Park headquarters – up over the west side of the river. Hanford Reach National Monument has great early spring trekking, with dry trails and no snow, even in the dunes above White Bluffs. Snakes and bugs are not out much yet, so that will work out, but you need to take some information with you, so that you can point out the flowers and unique plants you’ll be wandering through; so you can have an intelligent conversation with her out there all alone in the shrub-steppe. You may find some deer or elk ANTLERS, but we’ll get to that in a moment.”
I sat young Homey down and explained that, to make the most of his time afield with his distaff companion, he needed to understand the country and its plants. After all, here we are nearing flowering time in our semi-arid shrub-steppe Paradise, and our wet winter and spring could create a blooming explosion all around us. After they’ve grown and stored up food and water from winter, after blooming and making seeds for future generations, they’ll still have to survive another hot and dry Northwest summer.
The unique plants of our shrub-steppe have adaptations to make sure their life force continues.
Look closely at sage, with its small, gray leaves and shaggy, furrowed bark. Notice other plants with shaggy, loose-hanging bark, providing dead air spaces for insulation. See how some little shrubs and perennials have tiny white or silvery “hairs” which reflect sunlight, and also hold a dead air space for insulation. How many “bulbs” will he see flowering? Check out the wild onions, garlic, and wild iris. Then consider all the flowering “root” plants; camas, bitterroot, balsamroot and lomatium, in several varieties, storing enough calories in their fleshy roots to carry themselves through years of drought. Ours are so plentiful they have sustained Native civilizations for millennia. Take a book, maybe the Audubon Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest.
It may be a bit early, but start looking for lupines and arrow leaf balsamroot, wild onion, yarrow, sagebrush buttercup, fern-leaved desert parsley, narrow-leaved desert parsley, camas, big-head clover and several of the low phloxes, penstemons, salvia sage, sagebrush violet phlox and the beautiful desert yellow daisy.
Now, then… Horns? (Well, he did ask.) Horns grow every year and are never shed. They are made of keratin, much like hooves and fingernails. Sheep grow horns. Antlers are bone, grown by the Cervidae – the deer family. They grow, mature and shed on an annual cycle apparently related to length of daylight and testosterone levels.
Antlers grow as blood‑engorged tissue, protected by velvet – a hairy skin. They may grow three or four inches daily (if we grew bone like that, a broken leg would heal completely in days). In late summer, the velvet is rubbed off for the mating season.
When testosterone levels hit a minimum, the antlers are dropped, or cast. Here in our country, cast off will continue over the next few weeks. Those bulls or bucks which did most of the breeding – and therefore used up the most testosterone – will drop their antlers first. Cells at the antler bases will granulate and antlers will drop away at the pedicel. It is probably pretty painless, but likely a bit disorienting.
In Washington, any naturally cast antler you find is yours to keep. Joe Watt and Robinson Canyon feeding areas will be closed until May First, but much other public ground is open to walking and looking.
“Now, go,” I said to young Homey. “Stumble across an antler and kneel among the flowers of our shrub-steppe countryside. Photograph them, and sit with the amazing plants that produced them. Examine the leaves and the bark, and the site. Think about the adaptations that made the flowers possible. Let yourself be amazed. Together, perhaps, you and your fair maiden might rediscover the joy of your first flower.”