THE TEXT MESSAGE from my surrogate niece Heather was a flash of light from the heavens, the swell of the Hallelujah Chorus, the burst of a pheasant taking wing. Her son wants to come to the farm for a day of squirrel hunting. His first hunt.
I’m looking forward to serving as stand-in grandfather for the day. There are few pleasures in life that rival the days when a grandfather can share some learning experiences with a grandson, and first hunts are among the best of those experiences.
First hunts promise magical moments for grandchildren and grandparents, the generations that straddle parents. Kids and old coots, we both know about parents – those people who can take the magical flavor out of any feast by doling out too large a serving of practicality. Telling us what to wear, insisting that we apply sunblock and bug repellent before going out in the woods, that sort of thing. Fortunately, this excessive parental oversight works in the favor of the “grands” because it establishes for both of us the truth that we have a common enemy that we must work cooperatively to thwart.
By going on a squirrel hunt together.
A squirrel hunt is an escape from all that parental utilitarian folderol. Sitting in the woods at first light of an autumn morning, far from clocks and calendars and vitamin pills and toothbrushes and cell phones, shivering a bit as frost on bare branches turns to dewdrops that shower down on us, the natural world waking up while we watch it. The simple glory of being in the wild. An escape from the invisible but steel-rigid strictures of civilization for a few hours. Heck, sometimes a squirrel or two gets involved in the adventure.
Admittedly, there is a 180-degree twist between the grandfather’s and the grandson’s objectives for the day. For the elder, the taking of game is way down the priority list of goals. For the younger, it is number one. And two, and three, and four. No predator is more bloodthirsty than a 12-year-old in his first year of hunting.
Coots know this because we went through that phase ourselves. It takes a while to come to the realization that the joy of sport hunting is in the “being there,” savoring the experience. It is not a competitive game that requires scorekeeping and numbers. Sadly, some hunters never learn this truth. I suppose their hunting education was neglected early on, probably because they lacked a teacher, a grandparent, to guide them toward the best rewards of the blood sports.
Mentoring a grandkid’s search for the hunter’s ethic is the most valuable thing we grandparents can provide in the course of a day afield. What we get back, in equal measure, is the satisfaction of opening this outdoor world to a succeeding generation of hunters.
Evermore cantankerous and grumpy, we coots of the Over the Hill Gang lament the decline of the blood sports over the course of our lifetimes. Much of this decrease in participation in hunting is simply demographic: urbanization continues apace, and fewer and fewer children have opportunity to experience outdoor recreation in the rural countryside, the wild. Technology also plays a part, not only because of all the “screens” that provide children with constant color, sound, movement, flash, interaction, and instant gratification, but also because outdoor recreation itself has been invaded by technology (The Hunting Marketplace).
If only we could slow this rush to replace real experiences with virtual experiences, or at least divert the blood sports from the insidious influence of technology. And for a few hours, a morning’s squirrel hunt, we can do that.
“Let me show you something, boy. Make a tight fist, like this. Press your thumb against your lower lip. Now kiss the side of your knuckle. Hear how that sounds like a squirrel’s ‘challenge’ bark? When a squirrel sees you and ducks behind a branch, you make that bark. He can’t resist. He’s got to look over the top to see what that other squirrel is barking at. Then you’re going to shoot him.
“A couple of important lessons there: how to call a squirrel, and how it’s wise, whether you’re a squirrel or a boy, to mind your own damned business when someone starts squalling their lungs out about some fool thing.
“Now let’s talk about how to get a squirrel centered in your rifle scope…”
More stories about life in the North Country are published in collections of essays and novels, all available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page