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.

The Ending of a Year

There is a subtle shift in the air. In the breeze. It’s cooler, somehow. I know that when I look at the thermometer in a few minutes, it will read around 68 degrees, just as it has nearly every morning this summer, except for those few weeks after the June storm when nearly everyone in Virginia lost power. Those days, the temperature rarely fell below 80, regardless of the fact that we are in the mountains and by the New River. No, today, I think, is it – the beginning of the end of the year. I lie quietly beside my wife as dawn just breaks, a little later than last week. I’m canning the last of our tomatoes, the vines of which, despite my care and pleading, have simply stopped producing. My cucumbers have died, carrots wilted and the greens are dead. The apple trees are loaded, producing their fall products. I believe my corn, beaten down by the storms and eaten by greedy deer, will produce once more, but it will be a small crop.

I am not the only one that feels this change, this precursor to our seasonal variations, the small warning of things to come. Without turning my head, I watch a big fox squirrel stuff a cavity left open by a branch torn away from a big white oak tree full of acorns. He fluffs his tail, as he does every morning, but he does not cough out his customary bark. Instead, almost worriedly, he flees back down the huge trunk to collect more of this summer’s bounty, the almost foot deep piles of acorn mast that was prematurely shaken off by the wind and storms.

My Dog, Axl, is a big square-headed Labrador Retriever. I always notice a shift in his behavior this time of year, for, you see, it is time to go hunting. His Sire, Ramblin Man, was one of the most famous working Labrador’s ever. Many times over a world champion, he was a tireless hunter. He was featured on the cover of the publication “Hunting Labrador” as well as in numerous other enthusiast based magazines. Axl’s dame, a beautiful Labrador named Cary, was nearly as famous, and a better hunter than his sire. I have no doubt that their instincts and bloodlines run through Axl as deeply as my ancestors do through me. It is during this time of year that I feel a bit sorry for him, as I watch him listlessly pace through the house and smell deeply of the air at any open window or on the porch. It is this time of year that he is most belligerent that I throw the ball and when he stomps his front feet at the appearance of a firearm. He knows what he is built for – it is a shame that I do not follow his needs.

I have pledged to learn to hunt, and I have no doubt that I will hunt this year, trailing the elusive game bird through the spent fields of corn with my father-in-law and whisper quietly to my brother and dad as we pursue the so-called elusive white-tail deer. But I will do so out of a desire to feed my family, not from the thrill of the chase or the exhilaration of the kill. I will feel a deep sorrow for the animal whose life I have taken, and respect what they have given us – sustenance for yet another year. The pig who has been happily raised will give its life for us, all such that someone else can live.

So, it is no small wonder that I feel a bit remorseful this time of year. To me, this is the ending of yet another year, not the symbolic last calendar day of the year. This time of stacking wood, canning everything, a time of simmering stews, endless jars of chicken stock, a time of butchering – a time of carefully taking life so that life may be sustained.

Each year at this time I look back on the life that I have lived and I wonder – was it enough? This year has been full of change, on a fundamental level. I am going to be a father and my wife a mother, for the first time. I will meet Nolan closer to the end of the calendar year than now, but I am preparing for him. For the first time, it is with sheer love that I put up firewood, can endless jars of tomatoes and store the best food items I can get my hands on.

A young man visited the other day to purchase a bar table from a time well past when Laura and I were a bit more irresponsible than we are today. We walked into the pantry to retrieve it. His eyes became huge. He asked, in a thick European accent, “Are you guys’ hoarders?” I just grinned at him. Nope, I thought. I’m just country – and a Dad.

One of the most common requests that I get are about canning – I can tell you this: Water bath canning is just about the easiest thing that you can do. Out of the risk of someone not following the directions correctly, I’ll hold off on direct instructions, but one of the best books on canning is “Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.” It’s a great way to get started and it’s available on Amazon for less than $15! Trust me, you’ll love yourself in February when you open a jar of freshly canned, ripe peaches!

Bambi Redefined

As a nod to St. Patricks Day and to my brother James for being an excellent source of venison, I prepared the equivalent of flank steak from a one-year old whitetail deer who had fattened himself quite nicely on acorn mast last year. James is a careful butcher and the meat was prettier than anything you could ever get in a grocery store and even rivaled those cuts that we used to get from our butcher. We had no worries about free-range, grass-fed or organic labels as this guy grew up near James’ house! My only challenge is that Laura doesn’t care for venison! Her only real experience with the meat are those deer that her co-workers drag in proudly in the back of their trucks for everyone to gather around and admire as they bake in the early fall temparatures, sending out the unpleasent aroma of blood and death. I have to agree with her – a gut-shot deer draped over the tailgate of a truck is not an appetizing sight for anyone – even the hunters that pull the trigger. I think that is why most venison harvested locally ends up as jerky or stew meat at best.

James is a different kind of hunter. While he won’t pass on a trophy buck by any means, his most common targets are those that he has carefully staked out during the off season, observed feeding and targeted for harvest. He takes great pride in his butchering abilities and carefully harvests the majority of the deer, wrapping, freezing, drying and canning the meat.

St. Patricks Day has traditionally meant little to me from a cultural standpoint. Our heritage is mostly Scottish and Native American, and the area I grew up in simply didn’t observe the day. But this year I felt the need to at least acknowledge that the holiday exists. I prepared the venison corned beef style by soaking it in a brine of salt, sugar and water for a few days. (Recipe courtesy of http://georgiapellegrini.com/2011/03/06/recipes/corned-venison/.)  On Sunday, I let it sit until room temperature, slow cooked it for a couple of hours and finished it off over high heat on my charcoal grill. Delicious. We paired it with Irish Soda bread and roasted carrots. Laura destroyed it and yes, the leftovers made most excellent sandwiches. I do like St. Patricks day. I do. But I will not drink green beer. No thank you. Pass me a Guiness, please.