A slow walk toward Christmas

Christmas season snowstorm – final December on our farm.
First hour of the storm: freezing rain and snow weigh down the red cedar tress in our shelter belt.
Karst topography limestone shelf along our driveway provides shelter for raccoon family.
Ugly brush-tangled ravine made beautiful by December snowfall.
North sheep pasture has a different appearance covered with six inches of snow.
Good to return home after a winter wonderland walk, but…
…a couple hours of shoveling snow will be required before breakfast.

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Merde!

A double whammy.

A late November weather front swept in from the southwest today, bringing its rain-sleet-snow announcement that winter has come to the North Country and will hang on like a long-term visitor. That is to be expected, but the second blow of the one-two punch is Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), a malady that medical websites describe as “a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms.” Maybe it is just a common cold, but RSV sounds much more intimidating. A serious disease.

(I had no idea how to say “Syncytial,” so I visited another website that told me the correct pronunciation is sin-SISH-uhl. A fancy medical term for “a lot of sneezing and coughing and snot.”)

The rain-sleet-snow storm is welcome across the upper Midwest because most of us have been locked in a summer-long drought and we desperately need the precipitation. This storm will not bring enough to restore ponds, lakes and rivers to anything like their normal levels, but the not-yet-frozen ground is gratefully sucking down the moisture.

So I feel pangs of selfish guilt for complaining this weather has ruined a day of pheasant hunting for me. If I was as tough and bold as I was forty years ago, I would be out there hunting in spite of the storm. If I was as tough and bold as I was forty years ago, I would be doing all kinds of the crazy stuff that has made me what I am today: old, feeble, incapacitated, achy, slow, dull-witted, with an immune system that can no longer fight off a piddling virus like RSV.

My goal for the day is to drink 10 or 12 cups of tea to flush this ailment out of my body so that in a few days I can resume life as a chasseur with my French spaniel Abbey.

Which brings me to the educational element of this blog post.

Chasseur can be translated from French to English as hunter, but chasseurs à pied is more properly translated as light infantry, an important unit in Napoleonic army formations. (Bear with me here.)

I learned that on this snowy November morning while reading a history of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, and I was shocked to discover that it was NOT (as I had long assumed) the French general Pierre Etienne Cambronne who spoke the most famous words of that world-changing battle. When a final French army assault by Napoleon’s select Imperial Guard was repelled with devastating losses by the musketry volleys of the English 1st Infantry Brigade, the battle was hopelessly lost. The English brigade’s commander major-general Sir Peregrine Maitland allegedly shouted:

“Surrender, brave Frenchmen!”

The commanding general of the Imperial Guard replied:

“La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas!” (The Guard dies, it does not surrender!)

Long known to historians as the words of Cambronne, that alleged reply to Maitland’s plea for surrender was in fact spoken by General Claude-Etienne Michel who commanded the 1st Chasseurs à Pied of the Imperial Guard. True to his word, Michel continued to fight and was killed.

The exchange of shouts between the generals is almost certainly apocryphal. If anything of the sort did occur, the few survivors of the 1st Chasseurs à Pied reported that Michel’s reply was a single word:

“Merde!” (Shit!)

Michel’s “La Garde meurt…” response is of course more gallant and glorious, more honorable in the military code of the early 19th century, but if any word was spoken, I have no doubt the word was “Merde!”

Probably because that’s how I’m feeling today.

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Night sky poems

Shot down in flames
On clear sky winter nights
I touch certain bright stars
with the tip of my index finger,
one eye closed as if sighting a rifle.
Not a single one has ever fallen
to the shot of my ocular bullet but
I have seen many flaming down in pain
to well-aimed shots of other sky shooters
on nights astronomers mistakenly call
meteor showers.

Linear errors
Logicians tell me “Just connect the dots!”
But the dots in life, as in the Universe,
are the hundreds of thousands of stars
visible in the midnight sky domed over
the Sandhills, and there are infinite ways
of connecting them, endless patterns
that can be created by linear alignments,
some random, some cautious, some reckless,
some beyond all sense of balance or symmetry.
Best to connect the dots with looping, curling,
swirling lines of spontaneity and serendipity.
No one has ever lived in a linear Universe.

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Abbey is in there — somewhere

Abbey is in there somewhere. Probably on point. The search begins

Snow, freezing rain, and a 15-degree cold front swept across the North Country this week, a gift from the Dakotas so that we would not feel excluded from the party. I was perfectly willing to stay in the Clubhouse, read, drink hot tea, and nap, but Abbey would have none of that.

She moped. She whined. She cried. She tugged at the cuffs of my pants. “Okay, fine!” I scolded. “But this will be a miserable day of hunting, and you get all the blame.”

I called a bird-hunting friend to help me enjoy the pleasant weather. “Perfect day to hunt roosters,” I said. “They will be hunkered down tight under the snow,”

He said “No!” I asked to speak to his dog. The dog said “Oh hell yes!” A bird hunter is wise to stay in the good graces of his dog. If you disrespect a bird dog’s opinions, it has ways of getting even.

We spent a couple hours battling 15 mile-per-hour winds, which our faces and hands told us was the wind chill equivalent of zero degrees Fahrenheit. The pheasants surely must have retreated from the cornfields into the heavy, protective cover of CRP ground, we reasoned. But we found none. Slogging through native grass stands with a coating of ice and snow was another challenge for old legs.

No pheasants. None. Not even a trace of scent, the dogs insisted. We took a shortcut across the center of a hilly quarter-section of CRP and discovered — lo and behold — a scraggly wildlife food plot of stunted corn and weeds. Mostly weeds.

There we did indeed find pheasants. Lots of pheasants. A dogs-gone-crazy-with-scent cluster of pheasants. Abbey was in that tangle somewhere — but where? I found her on point. One rooster exploded out of the snow under her nose. Two, three four five, six. I lost count. Many, many pheasants.

We shot at four and knocked them down. Abbey had to root the wounded birds out of the matted tangle of grass and weeds and snow and ice where they had burrowed to escape. They did not succeed. I once read that a bird dog has at least 4,000 times as many olfactory sensors in its long and expansive nasal cavity as does a human. I believe it. Without Abbey’s nose, we would not have found a single one of those pheasants. Aided by her nose, we found them all.

Abbey hates this photo ritual.

One was still a difficult retrieve. Flush out and chase. Burrow under and search. Another chase. Finally, I threw myself on top of the rooster and grabbed its tail. There was much squawking, beating of wings, kicking of sharp spurs, shouting, and feathers-flying wrestling.

“That was hilarious!” Abbey laughed as she sat beside my prostrate body. “Hand me the bird before you get up. If you CAN get up.”

“Here’s your bird!” I snapped. “And of course I can get up! Probably. Now, help me look for my gun.”

I got even. Back home, I made Abbey pose with the dead pheasants. She hates this ritual.

“Are you glad I made you go hunting?” she asked.

“Ask me again this evening. After I take a couple doses of Tylenol.”

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To understand a man…

“To understand a man you have to know what was happening in the world when he was twenty.” That saying is attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), the most famous military and political leader in the history of France.

In point of fact, the quotation was taken from the text of an address by George Malcolm Young (1882-1959), an obscure English historian. But whether its perceptive insight was first spoken in the early 19th century or the mid-20th century, that statement is an astute observation of the profound influence that world events during a person’s early adult years can have on perceptions, instinctive reactions, emotional responses, reasoning aptitude, outlook, and character.

Psychologists may contend that our behavior patterns and values are established in the first five or six years of our lives, but we are shaped even more by our experiences from about age eighteen through twenty-one when we have reached that mature stage of mental development which allows us to utilize greater cognitive abilities of logic, evaluation, comparison, calculation, judgement, and sensibility. If you want to know why a person thinks and acts as they do, you must know what their world was like when they were twenty years old.

Gloria Steinem (photo from britannica.com)

When I was twenty, when my Baby Boomer generation was twenty, America and the greater world little resembled the America and world that today’s twenty-year-olds are experiencing. Social, cultural, and political values were vastly different; not necessarily better, but different. The 1964-73 decade was a riot in a madhouse: the Cold War, Mutual Assured Destruction, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, political assassinations, the Freedom Rides, China’s Cultural Revolution, peace-love-drugs-sex-rock’n’roll, Black Power, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights, the Kent State shootings, the birth control pill, the War on Poverty, White Flight, George Wallace, Gloria Steinem, miniskirts, bellbottoms, the Detroit Riots, the Tet Offensive and Hue, marijuana and LSD, food stamps, The Beatles, the personal computer, My Lai, the American Indian Movement, Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Attica, the OPEC Oil Crisis, tax cuts for the rich, the Designated Hitter Rule.

The lessons my generation learned in that ’60-’70s decade were harshly and starkly clear. We learned to distrust authority figures, question irrational regulations, disobey nonsense rules, reject materialistic values, revolt and demonstrate against social injustices. We came to realize that America has “the best government money can buy,” and comprehend that the ultimate goal of the international corporation is creating billionaire plutocrats. We learned that racism is the greatest evil that has been perpetrated upon the people of the United States, historically, socially, and politically.

Former President Bill Clinton said in 2004, “If you look back on the Sixties and think there was more good than bad, you’re probably a Democrat. If you think there was more harm than good, you’re probably a Republican.” My take is much simpler: If you came to adulthood in the decade from 1964-73, you’re probably a bitter cynic.

My generation’s bitter cynicism will be resolved “one funeral at a time,” as one of my aging cohorts has often said. Until the last of our bulge in the population passes, it is unlikely there will be the slightest change in our admittedly biased and jaundiced perceptions, instinctive reactions, emotional responses, reasoning, outlook, and character. To know us (if knowing us has any purpose in today’s world) you would have to know what was happening in the world when we were twenty.

The late 1960s and early 1970s era was an acrimonious and discordant time, and although we gained much during that decade of cultural and social madness, we also lost much that we once valued. The greatest loss may have been our childhood belief that things will work out okay. We do not truly believe that anymore. We’ll leave that naïve hope to later generations.

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Rooster pheasant’s death attributed to leucism

A white-headed rooster pheasant!

That was the thought that flashed through my brain when the bird took wing ahead of the “point-track-and-creep, point-track-and-creep” stalking work of my French spaniel Abbey through thick native grasses and marsh grass groundcover of a public hunting area about 50 miles from our farm. I do not truly remember the shot, but there was a “bang!” and the bird tumbled.

My second flash of thought was “Oh, no! I’ve shot a hen!” Fortunately, the disguised male of the phasianus colchicus species was not a hen, but it was the strangest coloration of any rooster I have held in my hand in more than 60 years of pheasant hunting.

The hard-hit bird was stone dead at its crash site. Abbey found it and retrieved it without hesitation, motivated by Scout, Dale’s Brittany, who was eager to show his stuff by making the retrieve himself.

At my feet, they engaged in a brief tug-o-war to establish right of possession. Scout, ever the gentleman, conceded to Abbey, not always a lady, when she warned him with a throaty growl that somehow made it past her feather-stuffed mouth.

Abbey handed me this most peculiar rooster, and I opened the gun and investigated a birddog-mussed but not badly mutilated cockbird. From the white ring around its neck, that characteristic mark for which the ring-necked pheasant is named, to the crown of its feathery topknot the head of this rooster was almost entirely white.

The next feature that grabbed my attention was its legs. Instead of the sturdy dark gray, hard, scaly appendages that account for the run-like-the-devil sprinting speed of all other pheasants, the legs of this bird were bright yellow, soft, pliable, and obviously weak. No wonder he had regarded a burst into fight as his only chance for escape.

Dale and I looked over the patches of white body feathers, the almost pure white underside of the wings, and the pair of white-slashed tail feathers. Of course I wanted to blame the bird’s genetic mutations on the millions of gallons of agricultural chemicals we dump onto the soil of our Midwest farms, without any proof that was the actual cause.

Turns out this genetic aberration is not so rare as we first thought.

Back home, my beautiful blonde wife, who is much more skilled than I at conducting online research, found an article on the Pheasant Forever website, accompanied by a few photos that displayed a rooster with almost exactly the same white-patch color patterns as the one I had shot that morning.

Both pheasants had most of the usual characteristics of a ring-necked rooster, but the splotches of white on the head, back, wings, and tail were caused by a genetic condition called leucism (pronounced LUKE-ism). “Leukos” is the Greek word for white. The PF article provided more explanation:

http://www.pheasantsforever.org/BlogLanding/Blogs/Pheasants-Forever/Pheasant-Genetics-Leucism-and-Gynandromorphism.aspx

The degree of leucism varies with a bird’s genetic makeup. The reduction of color in the bird’s plumage is due to an inadequate deposition of pigments (melanin) only in the bird’s feathers. Skin and eye tone remain their normal pigment and color.

Leucism is distinctly different than albinism – birds that feature a total lack of melanin, appear to be pure white or opaque, and exhibit pink eyes and skin. (Yes, you heard that correctly, pink skin.) Although leucism is rare, hunters are much more likely to harvest a rooster displaying traits of leucism, rather than an albino rooster.

I am attributing the cause of death for this rooster to leucism. At least three times this season, my futile shot at a wildly flushing pheasant has been too late and too far behind. Fixated on the prominent white head of this rooster, I swung the barrels of the old Lefever double gun far enough ahead of his flight path to intersect with the shot pattern. Death by leucism. And a one-ounce charge of No. 5 copper plated shot.

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Wild, wild (opening) weekend

Michael bags the final rooster.

Opening weekend of pheasant season was wild in northwest Iowa. Of the hundred-some ringnecks we put to wing Saturday and Sunday, all but two were wild, wild flushers. The two that held to Abbey’s points were, of course, hens.

We attributed this first-day-of-season wildness to coyote predation. Whenever in doubt, blame the coyotes. We saw only one coyote in two days of hunting, but that’s our story and we’re stickin’ with it.

Our hunt was on ground that is a pheasant paradise. A quarter section of high hills, vertical terraces, steep sided waterways, deep roadside ditches, and the occasional rut that sent me sprawling. The ground cover includes thick plantings of native grasses, switchgrass, brome, bluegrass, marsh grass, about two dozen species of native forbs, clover, and various invasive weeds. Three food plots of sunflowers and soybeans keep the birds well fed, and they are protected from weather and predation by stands of scattered trees and brush, and in wet years a few thickets of sedge.

After a long search, Abbey found a rooster I had knocked down with less-than-stellar shooting.

This was not a wet year.

This was a dry year. A year of exceptional drought. I thought these months of drought might wipe out pheasant populations. That was not the case. There were lots of birds.

The weather was hot and dry both days, windy the first day. Scenting conditions were not good. Abbey had to work slowly, but that was good for both of us. At our age, both bird hunter and dog are wise to work slowly on hot days.

Maybe it was the heat that made the roosters so wild. Maybe it was the wind. Maybe it was our pace. Whatever the cause, we were fortunate when a rooster flushed closer than 30 or 40 yards.

I do not often shoot at pheasants that flush at that range. I can’t be confident of hitting them, and I hate to see that puff of feathers when a bird is wounded but manages to fly away and cannot be found.

Thanks to Abbey, we found two of our crips. But our less-than- stellar shooting lost us two others. We finished the hunt with five roosters in the cooler.

Not bad for a wild, wild weekend.

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The whole ball game

Front row, left to right – Brian Buzby, Larry Kerschner, Gene Ruoff, Dan Frick;
Back row – Jerry Johnson, Mike Carr, Mike Parrett, Dick Lyday, Bill Backburn.
Photo taken at Grove City High School Class of 1967 Reunion in October 2022.

Nine of us hang onto the memories. In that fleeting span of years of our youth, it was the whole ballgame. Quite literally, it was the whole ballgame. Growing up in a small Ohio town in the 1950s and ’60s, baseball was everything. Then one day, it abruptly ended. Most of us never played another game of organized baseball after our 18th year. But for the previous 10 years, the game was our all-consuming passion. We were Little League All-Stars, Babe Ruth League All-Stars, high school conference champions… Teammates. Our 15 minutes of fame. Then we were scattered by the winds of life. We do not hold too tightly to nostalgic and maudlin memories; honestly, we moved on to more important accomplishments and achievements. But separately. This was the decade we were all bound together with common purpose, shared values. Although we are now in our 70s, we can remember when baseball was joy and sadness, triumph and defeat, pride and fulfillment, friendship and camaraderie. The game was our singular bond, and 50-plus years later, when the sparks of memories flash, we still treasure it. I am so glad, so very glad, that I shared those days of baseball with you guys.

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Autumn woodlands

If the purpose of religion is renewal of the spirit and healing of the soul, then my place of worship is an autumn woodland the morning after October’s first hard frost.

And nobody can hear me sing. That’s another plus.

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Portent of rural Midwest’s future?

Portent of the rural Midwest’s future? This scaffolding was erected to perform repair and maintenance on the clocktower and dome of the local county courthouse. Recently, the turkey vultures found it to be a comfortable roosting place. Forty of them. Sometimes more. This could be symbolic and leaves me with an uneasy feeling that some unpleasantness is looming over the rural Midwest. Are world and national affairs soon to provide a human feast for these buzzards? Each fall, the Midwest’s breeding population of turkey vultures migrates to southern states, Mexico, and Central America. Maybe this courthouse flock of birds is gathering only for their annual migration. Maybe.

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