Heritage, Time and Squirrels

I slid slightly forward, carefully pulling the bolt back on my single-action .22 rifle that my great-great grandfather had owned. My first dog, a big mastiff cross breed of some sort carefully crawled behind me through the stands of laurel and oak. Beneath the laurel, we were mostly invisible. Buck, the dog, had learned the nuances of stalking from a previous life, one that had occupied him for years before he became my dog, no doubt from running lost across the Appalachian coal fields until he found a family with a little boy, and through some dim memory in his doggy brain, bonded to them with the dedication and commitment that only a dog can. No matter where he came from, he was my dog and I was his human. I still can’t speak of his death, that terrible morning, without tearing up.

But this isn’t about that, exactly, although it does make an excellent human side note. I had to walk away from the computer for a few minutes after writing that, and I didn’t even intend to go there. Instead, this is about a seven or eight year old boy in the forests of his childhood, those haunts that only a child can know so well. As a kid, I ran wild in the mountains of our home. I knew when and where the trillions would come up every spring. I knew where the best crawfish were. I knew where the orange spotted salamanders would be every June – I also knew where the squirrels were.

For whatever reason, as I have previously established, I am not a hunter. Can I kill? Yes. I’m the first one in my family to put a wounded animal out of misery. If faced with the horrible choice of survival based on the sacrifice of another mammal, I am the first to pull the trigger. As my mother so recently heard my brothers discussing, I never miss. But I would prefer to allow someone else to do this for me, provided that it is done in a humane and gentle manner – as gentle as so violent a task will allow. Unfortunately, that is becoming less and less of a luxury in our society – and those of us who demand to know where our food sources come from are being required to pay more and more for that knowledge.

All of this was unknown to me that early morning, just at dawn, hiding beneath the laurel with Buck. I was just simply a little kid with a gun. My grandmother, who was as dear to me as anyone in my life, loved squirrels. LOVED THEM. She would lovingly swoon over a fresh squirrel, and could skin and clean one as quickly as a magician performing a disappearing act. She was a true Appalachian woman – as ambivalent with a food item as any one of our ancestors could have been. Chickens could be named, cherished, cared for and then harvested with no more thought than someone making canned soup today. She had no illusions of food sources. She grew up in the Great Depression, a remnant that hid during the Trail of Tears and that left a long-standing impact on her world view of not just food, but politicians and coal barons alike. Deeply suspicious of the outside world, she, along with the rest of my grandparents, influenced my early development in a very profound way.

Sunlight found its way through the fog as the wind shifted from night to the dawn, swinging in the sweet smell of the stream and the laurel blossoms, along with my Mom’s day lilies. I was mostly deaf at this time in my life due to recurring severe inner ear infections, but I had coped without anyone really knowing the extent to which I had lost my hearing. Buck sneaked behind me as I carefully moved forward, intent on my target, a big fox squirrel that was just waking up from his roost in the forks of a long dead wormy chestnut tree. My little rifle was equipped with open sights, but it shot unbelievably straight. My Dad would toll out bullets to me on these trips, then count to confer that I had one squirrel per bullet. It was imperative that I did not miss.

This morning, while enjoying my tea and watching the fog lift off the mountains, I heard the barking of one, and then another, then another squirrel and I was reminded of that moment in the mountains of my childhood. The simple nothingness of hunting the one thing that never really bothered my conscience. I was later embarrassed by my heritage as a young adult, but I now cherish it with all my heart. I feel a strange urge to vanish into the forest with my dog in tow, but I am no longer that silent child with a .22 rifle and six bullets. I am a different creature now.

I picked my way through the laurel leaves, emulating the Cherokee kids from the reservation. They never raised their toes, sliding through the leaves as silently as a cloud knifes over a mountain. Buck doggy crawls behind me. I view the big squirrels head through the open sights of my little rifle. He yawns. I close my left eye and exhale slowly. The gun jumps in my hands.

My grandmother Audrey is thrilled beyond belief. We have braised fried squirrel for dinner the next day and squirrel brains with scrambled eggs and government cheese the next morning.

So it is, with some rumblings in my stomach, that I watch the squirrels play this morning. They are safe, so far. Laura is repelled by the thoughts of eating squirrel. But, I remind her, it was not that long ago that she was equally repelled by the notion of eating rabbit.

I rarely endorse cookbooks, particularly since I don’t get paid for it, but one of my favorites is “Hunt, Gather, Cook” by Hank Shaw. More of a story than a cookbook, he nevertheless has many recipes for game animals, including squirrel and it is a great read. I highly recommend adding it to your collection.

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