Mud and buzzards

Two sure signs of spring greeted us on this morning’s walk around the farm:

mud and buzzards.

Squck redoux.

Some woodland “mud traps” are so gooey they pull the boot off your foot, inspiring what I call the Squck Dance.

The mud is the product of a wettest-ever autumn, much winter snow accumulation, hard-frozen ground, and the torrents of water that flowed across the farm with the sudden melt-off when sub-freezing days turned warm in mid-March.

Many counties in Iowa and Nebraska are being heavily damaged by floods — the worst natural disaster in Nebraska’s history, their governor is saying — so the minor wash-outs on our hilltop farm are small change in this spring of multi-billion dollar damages to communities and farms.


Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

Turkey Vulture, photo by Michael “Mike” L. Baird, from

The buzzards, turkey vultures, have migrated back to the North Country with the coming of spring, returning from their winter grounds and soaring across the fields and woodlands in search of winter kill carcasses. Soon, one or two pair will be nesting in the steep draw south of our house.

In celebration of these tokens of spring, I am re-posting two archive essays from Dispatches from a Northern Town:



The Vultures of spring

Wishing you a joyful spring in your part of the world.

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Orin’s farm girl

Mary Martha died at thirty-two, three years after
her husband was killed in a tractor roll-over accident,
leaving two children, a girl fourteen and a boy ten,
with the only close-by family able to take them in being
her sister Kate in town and her older brother Orin,
a Czech bachelor farmer over in Holt County with
five sections, less the Reilly place, about 3,100 acres
of row crop, haying, and grazing land, all well fenced,
a barn, equipment shed, cattle feed lot, two grain bins,
and four other rickety buildings in the farm yard west of
the splintery two-bedroom house that Orin stacked hay bales
around in winter to keep the wind from blowing through.

Aunt Kate took in the boy but not the girl who talked back
and was already a handful as everyone in town knew.
Her Uncle Orin took her in although the Circle women
at Our Lady of Seven Dolors Catholic Church told him
she would never be a farm girl and would certain cause
more trouble than she was worth, probably sooner than later.

Orin was a farmer, that was all there was to him.
Day after long day on the tractor pulling the planter in spring,
mower, rake and baler for two cuttings of hay July and August,
combining in November, gambling the snow would hold off.
Plus his hundred head Hereford-Angus cow-calf operation.
Some nights he slept beside the tractor underneath an oily tarp,
dozing off-and-on until daylight enough to start working again.
That was all of him. Neat barn, cluttered house. Farm magazines.
Cigarettes. Radio, no television. No books, no movies, no music.
After planting, after haying, after combining, he drank heavy
a week straight, peppermint schnapps and Hamm’s beer chasers,
sitting at the table in the farm house where he never spent time
any other time because there was no call to waste good time.

She taught herself to play the out-of-tune piano in the kitchen.
Summers, she took him coffee and sandwiches in the field,
thick slices of bologna on rye with mustard and dill pickle.
School year, she packed him a lunch before the bus came.
The Seven Dolors women gossiped there was something more
than blood and charity behind Orin taking her to raise, and when
she went to Lincoln with her Aunt Kate they said “There it is.”
But she was back in four days and there was no truth to any of it.
Father Matthew visited Circle and talked about false witness and.
made them all say twelve Hail Mary’s and twenty Our Father’s.

At sixteen, Orin bought her a school car so he didn’t have to
drive to town to pick her up after volleyball and track practice.
She wrecked one and he bought another, an old Ford Galaxy.
She got in a girl fight and was expelled for a week. She told Orin
she wasn’t going back to that “goddam Catholic prison school!”
and he said “Yes, you are.” She went back and didn’t fight again
but got expelled her senior year for telling Sister Ann Marie that
she could kiss her ass, same as Olin had told her often enough.

Two weeks after graduation she packed her bags and left the farm,
driving the Ford, with $200 Olin gave her to get started in Omaha.
Jobs at Burger King and Pizza Hut paid her way to tech school
and bought her a computer. Douglas County Recorder hired her as
file clerk and she worked up to supervisor. Married a good man.
They had two daughters, neither of them named Mary or Martha.

Orin died of heatstroke, or maybe heart attack, in the record dry
summer of ’76, hauling hay to cattle on pasture one hot afternoon.
He left the farm to the boy, her younger brother, 3,100 acres,
farmstead, buildings, one good tractor, one junk tractor, cattle,
grain, 16 pieces of farm machinery, all of it, lock, stock and barrel.
He put in irrigation, poured concrete, bought equipment, bought cattle.
Lost it all in the ’80s. Moved to town and worked at the lumber yard.

She helped him buy the two-bedroom house, a block south of Main,
he covers with plastic winters to keep the wind from blowing through.
The out-of-tune piano is pushed against a wall in the back bedroom.
She played two songs when she visited with her daughters last fall:
“Auld Lang Syne” and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” E-I-E-I-O!
She laughed until she cried.


More poms, stories, and essays about life in the North Country are published in my books, all available in Kindle and paperback editions at  Jerry Johnson Author Page at, and in paperback edition at Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.

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Saving the world

modis_wonderglobe (2)

Photo courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory

“You cannot save the world!”

One peril of writing essays about the importance of preserving and conserving the wilderness and wild places of the North Country is occasional reproach from more “progress-minded” readers that my views are out of step with the real world.

In some circles I am regarded, apparently, as a naïve world-saver, a nostalgic tree-hugger, an enemy of free enterprise, an ignoramus regarding the “laws” of economics, a militant against agriculture, a socialist, a dupe of “fake science” that warns we are plunging into the Anthropocene epoch of the Earth’s geological evolution, a pessimist in my opinion of human nature, a nay-sayer to the benefits of capitalism, a romantic about the natural world, and a curmudgeon.

I readily accept the curmudgeon tag. Some of the other criticisms are not entirely off the mark, striking the periphery of the target. Nostalgic and romantic and militant, for example.

Most of the other rebukes I tend to ignore as the denigrating characterizations that one tribal group applies to another, those catch-all negative labels that allow us to build straw men of our opponents so that we can set then afire with our own flaming prejudices. One unjust criticism with which I do take issue, however, is the appellation of “world saver.”

Continue reading

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Each time I post on my blog I send a group email message to about 20 friends with the link to my most recent piece. For the “Best breed of bird dog” posting uploaded March 12 ( the group email message included this  disclaimer:

Robert Service, “The Bard of the Yukon,” was once criticized for writing puerile poetry. “I don’t write poetry,” he said. “I write verse.” This isn’t poetry, it’s verse.

One friend replied: “This piece is neither poetry nor verse.  It is doggerel.”

Well, yeah.



Posted in Bird Dogs | Tagged | 1 Comment

Best breed of bird dog



Best breed of bird dog

When all the stars are in full display and the Moon shines down upon
The campfire murmuring down to coals and the Jameson whiskey’s gone,
The double guns are cleaned and oiled and the boots propped up to dry,
And the dogs are sleeping in their crates with many a moan and sigh,
Some drowsy fool is apt to spout, “The best bird dog’s the setter!”
And another will take the bait and say, “Except for five that’s better.”

Six dogs in camp, six different breeds, each one of them tried and true,
And claiming that yours is the best of the pack is a risky thing to do.
This business of choosing best bird dog breed dates back ’most fifty year
For each man seated ’round the fire with cigar stub and can of beer.
We all of us settled on the best breed for us a long, long while ago.
We have cast our lot with that tribe and cult, and branded friend and foe.

Five decades afore, the candidates for “best breed of all” were few;
Pointer, setter, Brittany, shorthair, and the Gordon setter, too.
Labradors received some votes, and springer men were always present,
But pointer handlers scoffed and said “They’re just for duck and pheasant.”
It’s gotten complicated since versatile breeds came through the door:
Vizsla, Munsterlander, Weimaraner, Drahthaar, at least a dozen more.

The conversation’s not too contentious, but it’s quite opinionated
With sketchy facts and much anecdote about breeds we’ve loved and hated.
“A versatile breed’s the only choice,” says the man who hunts with Griffons.
Setter man says, “Yes, good at everything and excellent at nothin’.”
“Hunt with a setter, retrieve your own birds,” the Brittany handler smirks.
“I could force train him to fetch if I wanted, but that’s not his type of work.”

“I admit you’ve got a good workin’ Vizsla, but truth is that I’ve found
It just don’t seem right to be shootin’ quail over a redbone hound.”
“Your pointers can cover some country; it’s fun to watch them, of course,
But to shoot a limit of birds with them, you’d need a GPS and a horse.”
“That wirehair ain’t real steady on point, but you know what French dogs say:
German dogs are true sportsmen; give the bird a chance to get away.”

The other man’s dog either runs too big, or else he’s always at your shoes.
But how far out a pointing dog should hunt is a personal point of view.
We’re either “cattlemen” or “shepherds” in “the range wars” bitter fight:
The cattlemen want their dogs running wide, the shepherds keep ’em tight.
“Pointers and setters get out and find birds, not go for a walk in the park!”
“And they tell you ’bout all the birds they found when they come in after dark.”

Well, good bird dogs come in many breeds, and the not-so-good ones, too.
If you want to hunt with the best of the lot, here’s some sound advice for you:
Pick a pup whose sire you’ve seen hunts well, and its dam hunts even better.
That’s step one to a truly great bird dog: retriever, flusher, pointer, setter.
Add days and days of training, and many more days afield hunting birds,
And one day – amazing! A dog that’s become the best beyond words.

Then one night with stars in full display and the Moon shining down upon
The campfire murmuring down to coals and the Jameson whiskey gone,
And your double gun is cleaned and oiled and your boots propped up to dry,
And the dogs are sleeping in their crates with many a moan and sigh,
You can play the role of fool and brag “My French spaniel is the best.”
A couple of friends will agree with you; just ignore that jibes of the rest.


More stories about bird hunting, bird dogs. and life in the North Country are published in my five  collections of essays, all available in Kindle and paperback editions at  Jerry Johnson Author Page at, and in paperback edition at Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.

Posted in Bird Dogs, Bird hunting, Dogs | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Strange birds

rabbit and deer

You know it has been a long, cold, snow-covered North Country winter when…   Each day we fill the bird feeder in the south yard with sunflower seed for the eight or nine species of song birds that flock around the farm house in the winter months, and the squirrels get their share, too, but it is a rare morning when the cottontails and whitetails partake of the feast together, 30 feet from the kitchen windows. This doe was one of six in the yard the morning after the most recent snowstorm. All of them appeared healthy and strong (and pregnant) and in good condition to survive the last weeks of this hard winter.  The rabbits are almost daily visitors. This one seems annoyed by the interloper but doesn’t quite know how to shoo her away.  (Photo by Patti Johnson)






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Old stories never grow old

Photo Album Cover





Old stories
never grow old





Stop me if I’ve told you this one,” he says,
though he knows he has, and knows I never will.
Each telling of the story from sixty years ago
reveals another background image in the faded
photographs filed in the album of my imagination,
exposes more details in the slightly out-of-focus
and fading-to-sepia pictures captured on grainy film,
shot with an old Imperial twin-lens reflex camera,
the burst of light from a blue-white flashbulb
widening eyes, washing out faces, bleaching colors.

One curling photo, crisp in my mind as in wizened hand,
now shows he was wearing a hat, a red wool Stormy Kromer
with the ear flaps tied under his chin and the bill pulled low,
his eyes glinting from the crescent shadow across his face.
The cracked glaze softens as I hear again the story of
his father’s first rifle hunt for deer, statewide season in ’61,
on family land where he’d hunted all his young life until
he went off to war: rabbit, squirrel, pheasant, grouse, quail.
There were no deer in the ’20s or ’30s, whitetails or mulies,
so this deer hunting business was altogether different.

Pictures? Never clicked the shutter in all the excitement.
But a dozen or more fill oft-opened pages of my album
(although they change with each recounting of the tale,
and I have to look at them with a new eye each season).
The hat is different, but the rifle is the same: a .30-06,
Winchester Model 70 Featherweight with iron sights,
a scope is a decade in the past’s future, when eyes dimmed.
He could shoot that rifle, don’t let nobody tell you different,
worked the bolt smooth and fast, four shots in five seconds.
He shot it twice this day, dead on, six-pointer at 200 yards.

In the photo it seems like 100 to me, but I’m looking from
a long ways off, a whole lifetime later, so what do I know?
Throwing the gun to his shoulder as the buck trotted out from
the south side of the shelter belt and paused, one foreleg lifted,
looking at him curiously, never having been hunted before,
and the hunter staring back, never having shot a deer before.
Shooting too fast, off-hand, and in the heat of a buck fever
that he never admitted to, his bullet hit high, broke the spine
above the buck’s shoulders and it went down over a log,
dead as a mackerel, a doornail, yesterday’s newspaper.

Crossing the fence and making the long walk into the field
where the whitetail lay waiting to be a hundred-year trophy
he was slinging the rifle over his shoulder when lo-and-behold
the deer jumped up from behind the log, unhurt and unfazed,
sunlight reflecting bright ivory-gold from all six antler tines,
neck arched in a “You’ll have to shoot better than that!” dare.
And so he did. Taking a finer bead and putting the big bullet
through the buck’s heart and flipping him over the log again.
And that was that, except for the immortal part of the story.
He stepped over the log and looked down and shouted “Damn!”

Did’ya get him?” his hunting buddy hollered from the road.
“Yes! Both of them!”  “What!?”  “I shot a double.”
Sweet Mary and Martha don’t let the game warden come by!
Side-by-side. Twin six-pointers. Bodies steaming in the cold.

Open the album a hundred times; that picture stays the same.



Posted in Deer Hunting, Hunting, Hunting Memories, Hunting Poems | Tagged , , | 1 Comment