Death Song

A three-mile walk north of a two-lane road through the Nebraska Sandhills transports me to another plant. Or perhaps the planet Earth as it was three hundred years ago. Pausing at the top of a high dune, I can view the sweep of this semi-arid landscape for miles, its ridges of wind-formed hills, its swaying clumps and patches of little bluestem, cordgrass, sideoats grama, wheatgrass, yucca, cheatgrass, wild rose. buffalo brush, and a dozen native species of cacti of which I can name only one: prickly pear.

A mile or so to the northeast in a flatland between two soaring ranges of dunes lies a long narrow lake, groundwater from the Ogallala aquifer that has risen from its subterranean reservoir to pool in a small lake and revive a bordering fringe of cattails and bullrushes. A passing cloud is mirrored in the pond, a reflection distorted by the wind-ruffled chop of the water’s surface.

Far down the valley, a half mile at least, eleven dark-hided buffalo are grazing. A movement catches my eye to the east, downwind of the buffalo, and a Sioux hunting party of eight mounted warriors appears from a dip between two pyramidal dunes. They spy the buffalo, then me, halt their horses, and huddle for a quick rendezvous. I realize that either a buffalo or I, or both will soon become the morning’s conquest and the evening’s campfire story of this band of Dakota Sioux. The time has come for my Death Song.

Reality returns, and the buffalo revert to a loose herd of Angus cows and calves. The Sioux hunting party is entirely imaginary. But the echo of the Death Song keeps bouncing around in my head, discordant notes and free verse chants that refuse to blow away with the ever-present Sandhills wind. The Sioux may have been ephemeral, but not the lingering power of their spiritual presence in this open country.

The Death Song was an honored and sacred Native American ritual practiced by many, if not most, of the tribes of the Great Plains at the height of that horse-warrior culture from the early 18th to the late 19th century. My ignorance of Native American traditions and ceremonies is vast; I know little about the history and practice of the Death Song ritual of the Sioux, or any other tribe. Few credible anthropologists do, judging by the dearth of authoritative literature on the topic.

But then, Native Americans in their wisdom and reverence never intended us to know.

We have only the briefest of historical mentions of the Death Song, a few incidents and storied anecdotes barely mentioned in the narratives of the conquerors superimposed over the accounts of conquered. About 560 tribes survived the ravages of European civilization over the previous six centuries. Hundreds more tribes may have been exterminated, and it is likely that the Death Song may have been widespread among many of them. It is also likely that the sacred ritual continues to this day outside the scope of our civilization’s notice.

The Death Song is antithetical to our concept of passing through the transition from life to death. More accepted is the rant of the poet Dylan Thomas who beseeches us to “…not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” To me, rage is a useless and unworthy emotion to express when confronted with an ending that is so obviously inevitable.

The warriors of the Apache, Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche, Arapahoe, Aracari, Navaho, Pawnee, and more than a dozen other tribes sang or chanted a Death Song at the time of their impending death, or potential death due to combat or other great danger. We know little about the ritual as practiced by tribal women because of our cultural blindness, but the poet Jim Harrison wrote about a seven-year-old Hopi girl who composed and recited her death chant “…in a slightly quivering voice…” as she neared the end of her short life.

A glimpse of the ritual through Western eyes is provided by the paintings of the artists Charles M. Russell (“The Death Song of Lone Wolf”) and Frederick Remington (“His Death Song”), but I find these representations to be trite, cliched, and more than a little demeaning. The most engaging and representative of Native American portraits that depict a man accepting his end-of-life passage is George Catlin’s painting “Ah-Yaw-Ne-Tak-Oar-Ron, a Warrior,” although Caitlin did not state that this was the theme or intent of his painting.

I also find the portraits of Native Americans produced by the Swiss-French artist Karl Bodmer (1809-1893) to be more authentic than the illustrations and paintings of American artists who engaged Native Americans only after the glory of their civilization was past its pinnacle and had begun its rapid decline. Bodmer (formal name Johann Carl Bodmer or Jean-Charles Bodmer) was a printmaker, etcher, lithographer, engraver, draughtsman, painter, and illustrator who toured the American West as the hired artist of German adventurer Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied from 1832 through 1834 on his Missouri River expedition. He is best known in the United States as the artist who created detailed and accurate depictions of Native Americans and Western landscapes during the first half of the19th century

Sadly, one of the few written records of a Native American’s Death Song is from the history of the Dakota War of 1862, a rebellion of four Dakota Sioux tribes in southwest Minnesota that had been coerced to sign treaties ceding their lands for white settlement. After the bloody Dakota Uprising had been put down, 38 Mdewakanton and other tribal leaders were hanged, the largest one-day mass execution in United States history.

Sioux chief Chaska’s song (in English translation) was the same chant of defiance as that of 37 of his tribesmen before their execution in Mankato, Minnesota.

I, Chaska, do sing;
I care not where my body lies,
My soul goes marching on.
I care not where my body lies,
My soul goes marching on.

Would that I will do as well on my final day of life.

If my passing could be honored by the recitation of Stephen Vincent Benét’s poem “The Ballad of William Sycamore,” the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, or the tune “Here Comes the Sun” by George Harrison, I would consider myself to be suitably remembered, but those would be someone else’s choice of memorial tributes, not mine. A Death Song, to have any validity, must be self-composed. If you venture to create one, I recommend you follow the pattern established by Native American tradition.

A Death Song should be brief, uncomplicated, and easy to memorize. It should give voice to what you most value. Find the words or phrases that express your sustaining hope, your abiding truth. Make it personal, simplify it, write it down, and recite it to yourself from time to time.

As with the prayerful wish that one makes on the first star seen on a secluded night, it is best if you do not share your Death Song. It is not a performance; you are the only one who needs to hear it and believe it at the end of your time.

Having gone through a near death experience, I have composed my own. My song may make my passage easier. Or not. At the very least, it will comfort me at the end.


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Prairie grouse extinction

First the bison, now the sharptail grouse and prairie chickens.

Abbey with one of the last sharptail grouse in the McKelvie grassland.

Animal species that have disappeared from the Nebraska Sandhills are legion. I hoped that remnant populations of prairie grouse, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, prairie dogs, badgers, jackrabbits, western meadowlarks, and several dozen other species would hold out during my lifetime, but it was not to be.

Gophers, coyotes, and crows seem to be hanging on to a meager existence in the wild of the McKelvie National Forest (actually a 180,000-acre grassland with a scattering of trees around prairie potholes and waterways), and a flock of wild turkeys paraded each afternoon through our trailer campsite at the Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area, but the animals that made this part of the Great Plains great have disappeared, almost without a trace.

All signs of prairie grouse have vanished. When my bird dog Abbey flash-pointed about 20 minutes into the first day’s hunt, I checked the ground and found a set of grouse tracks and some droppings. I began to pay more attention as I walked the hills, checked likely looking dune-side habitats, and found no other grouse tracks, droppings, dusting area marks, feathers in loafing or roosting spots, or stems of wild roses stripped bare of the red berries known as rose hips. The berries themselves were abundant, even super-abundant for a year of average rainfall. Good grass growth, plenty of water, good food sources (except insects) – all bespeaking excellent habitat for grouse. But no grouse.

The disappearance of both sharptail grouse and prairie chickens was evident three or four years ago when I hunted this country after torrential rains had flooded hundreds of square miles of the Sandhills. Reason enough for poor nesting conditions in the spring. Prior to that Noah’s Ark year, six or seven summers of drought and torrid heat had burned the grasslands, probably reducing bird populations. But prairie grouse numbers have rebounded quickly through hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years of history, and I find it difficult to understand why a decade of weather extremes would have driven them to extinction. I suspect something else is at play. Avian disease? Diminished reproductive capacity? Some aspect of climate change? A subtle alteration of the mega-habitat?

It is not only the grouse that have disappeared. Unbelievably, I did not see a single coyote during three days of bird hunting in the McKelvie and the nearby Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. I did find a few sets of coyote tracks and droppings, and heard snatches of their evening song lamenting the looming end of the natural bounty of Sandhills. In 45 years of hunting the McKelvie, I have never failed to see a herd of pronghorns. During a three-day hunt this year, I did not see a single one. Or a mule deer, whitetail deer, porcupine, skunk, badger, jackrabbit, western meadowlark, or other once familiar species. There were many dickcissels. Abbey was so bored she occasionally pointed one.

Many of the former prairie potholes and marshes had become ponds or even lakes, evidence of the recharged Ogallala Aquifer rising above valley floors, so there were several species of waterfowl, although their numbers were not as high as I expected. Crows, northern harriers, redtail hawks, and turkey vultures were plentiful, but I wondered how they survived with so few animals to prey upon. There were few grasshoppers, which are a primary food source for fledgling grouse. Glaringly evident was the absence of the locusts we call “dinosaur hoppers,” which could make a good meal for some predator. Other insects also appeared scarce, a crumbling foundation under the pyramid of Sandhills wildlife.

A fellow camper told me there are lots of grouse on privately owned ranches across northcentral Nebraska. When had he last hunted grouse on private land, I asked? Fifteen or 20 years ago, he told me. Even if his supposition of high prairie grouse numbers on privately owned ranches was true, it seems odd that populations would not have spread to public lands where hunting pressure is light and habitat is good. Token populations of prairie grouse, like token populations of bison, might possibly exist on the groomed habitat of billionaire ranch owners, but that does not mean these gamebirds (or any other of the formerly common denizens the Sandhills) are any longer an indigenous species.

The final morning of a three-day hunt I killed a sharptail grouse. I first saw a trio of them scudding on a southeast wind, and I made my best guess where they might alight a mile downwind on one of the long, rippling rows of dunes. After a half hour walk, one sharptail flushed wild from a ridgetop, and I figured my last chance had passed. Violating all the rules of Sandhills grouse hunting, I trudged up the face of that dune with the wind in my face (you hunt these birds with the breeze at your back, surprising them as you top a ridge where they have been sheltering from Nebraska’s ever-blowing wind). A second grouse flushed ahead of Abbey. I shot and missed. A third flushed, and I knocked it down.

I felt some guilt over having killed one of the last three prairie grouse in the McKelvie, but only for a few moments. I am 72 years of age, I hunted more than 10 hours over the course of three days, and I walked more than 15 miles of remote country according to my odometer. Abbey and I were needled by cactus, yucca, and sandburs. We ran out of water and got leg cramps. In short, I felt that we had earned this bird. It may very well be the final prairie grouse I put in my worn-out hunting vest.

We sat on the ridgetop for several minutes and contemplated this fascinating gamebird, this fascinating country, this fascinating avocation of bird hunting. All of this is fading away, and I will miss it so much.


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Biking with Cumberra

Cumberra and I will keep working on my sense of balance and stability until we get it right. Note: I did NOT collide with this cedar tree. (Photo by Patti Johnson)

Maintain speed.

That is the most important lesson I have learned in my first few days experience riding a recumbent bicycle. To slow down is to wobble, then weave, then wreck.

Fortunately, the wrecks are much less dangerous for body and bike with a recumbent than would be the case if I were riding an upright bicycle. Grip the brake levers, put my feet down, and I am safely anchored to the ground.

Usually. If I wobble-weave-wreck going uphill, I can execute a slow-motion topple onto my right shoulder. Embarrassing, but not painful.

This “maintain speed” axiom is based on the recumbent bicycle’s longer wheelbase, I think: 53 inches, compared to my old upright bike’s 40 inches. But maybe my instability is due to inexperience with the unfamiliar reclining body position: pedals at seat level, feet higher than hips, a more horizontal backward-leaning posture rather than a more vertical forward-leaning posture, more weight to the rear.

With enough riding time I will eventually learn how to sway, tip, lean, steer, counterbalance, and adjust with head, shoulders, hips, and legs to keep myself on the straight and level. I hope. In the meantime, an obvious necessity is a mirror on my handlebar so that I can espy other riders overtaking me on the bike trail. Slowing and looking over my shoulder invariably results in my meandering across the width of the trail, hazardous for other bikers, runners, walkers, electric scooter riders, and the occasional skateboarder.

The new recumbent bicycle has a longer wheelbase and overall length than my old upright bike. Cumberra is less maneuverable than an upright, but my back country trail riding days are over, and a recumbent bike is much more comfortable for lower back, arms, shoulders, and neck.

This instability while riding Cumberra (the nickname I have bestowed on my newest fitness-and-folly machine) has been disconcerting, but to be honest my stability while riding my upright bicycle is sometimes not much better. During a trailside conversation with another recumbent biker in his seventies, he conceded that his sense of balance was not what it had been thirty years ago, especially riding the sharp cures of the switchbacks on the steep downhill run on one of the local bike trails. He said that he still rides his upright occasionally, but he rides his recumbent, a three-wheeler, on the more challenging trails.

Unwilling to admit my diminishing physical abilities in my own seventies, I have opted for a two-wheel recumbent. I may reconsider that decision after my next trip to the emergency room.

My switch to Cumberra has already proved to have several benefits. After a couple hours of riding, my shoulders, neck and hips do not ache, there is little discomfort in my lower back, my arthritic hands do not throb from continual hard shifting of derailleur gears, and a sensitive part of my anatomy is not in torment. As a friend has said, “Sitting on a bicycle seat is like sitting on a wooden fence post.” True enough, for the standard upright. The seat of a recumbent bicycle is designed for older, less padded butts.

And those were my objectives in acquiring Cumberra. Bicycle rides should be fun, not punishment. If I have to suffer too many aches and pains while exercising for health and fitness, I will not stay with it.  

Recumbent bicycles are much heavier. I try to regard lifting it onto the bike carrier as a part of my daily fitness routine.

Although I am not yet completely infatuated with Cumberra, my intent to continue our relationship has been made evident by my first tinkering with accessories for her. I drilled a hole in the back support of her seat to attach a whip-like pole and flag (the low profile of a recumbent bicycle can make it difficult for other vehicles to see), and today I am designing and building a rear platform/basket for Cumberra to tote my gear on longer rides.

I also inflated her tires to a higher psi because, you know, speed. My new recumbent bike can zoom along paved trails at a considerably higher rate of speed with considerably less effort than my upright bike, maybe because my legs have greater thrust in the horizontal rather than vertical posture. Or maybe because Cumberra is a 21-speed rather than an 18-speed.

The engineers who designed this bike did not add the three gearings because they wanted it to go slower, did they? No, to the contrary, at slower speeds the bike has a tendency to wobble and weave. The faster I go, it seems to me, the more balanced and stable the bike becomes.

This is may prove to be an unwise discovery on my part. I might change my opinion after my next trip to the emergency room. Until then: maintain speed.


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The river as weaver

Sweltering winds are gusting on this cloudy day in late August, trying their best to dissuade me from my walk around the perimeter of our hay field with my French spaniel Abbey. Humid and heavy, the mid-morning air wraps me in a damp wool blanket, and each time the sun emerges from behind the scattered stratocumulus layer of clouds its heat lamp glare reminds me that I foolishly forget to put a hat on my balding head before our hike.

Some August days can be a test for man and dog.

With the heat index soaring up over 100, we both appreciate the shade of a leaning oak tree on the blufftop that borders the west side of the field. We sit beneath the oak while we watch the Trout River wind its way through the broad valley, its waters surprising clear even though we have had rainfalls the previous two days. Upstream, a farmer neighbor has created a riparian filter strip of prairie grasses along both sides of the river which keeps the soil of his row crop fields from washing into the channel. Good man.

Geologists say this wide valley could not possibly have been scoured from its limestone base by the present-day river, even during its most flood-swollen flow. The steep bluffs on each side of the coulee were probably carved by torrential floods of melt water from glacial lakes adjacent to this unglaciated region of the North Country. Winds roaring at 200 miles-per-hour across the face of the glaciers may have given the valley its final form: raw stretches of exposed limestone layers.

I try to imagine the raging flood waters that filled this valley from its western rim to where Abbey and I sit on its eastern ledge. I cannot.

Over the past 150 years, the industrious hand of civilized man has transformed the appearance of this place. Parcels of bottom land along the river have been intensely grazed by cattle and sheep and planted to row crops, and in years of floods the course of the river has often changed, ripping away a field edge here, a plot of pasture there. The steep bluffs lining the riverbed have become even more steep in the 37 years we have lived here, it seems to me, but that perception may have more to do with the erosion of my leg muscles than the erosion of soil and rock.

I should have taken “Before” photographs during our first year on the farm and “After” photographs during this final year. But I didn’t, so now I have to rely on the mental images stored in my memory which allow me to embellish or diminish the valley’s transformation, depending on my mood. Today I’m saying, “It hasn’t changed all that much.”

During my half-hour river watch with binoculars, there are several soggy clumps of flotsam and jetsam carried along in the river’s brisk current. I tend to categorize this debris as “natural” and “unnatural.”

Natural includes the trunks and limbs of dead trees, a drowned and bedraggled raccoon or opossum, clots of mud entangled in the tendrils of brambles that still cling to slim hope of life if they can wash ashore and re-root. One time I spied the tattered remains of a bald eagle – or more likely a turkey vulture. Another sighting, I am convinced, was the exhumed body of the last runty mastodon in the North Country; it may have been a bloated Brown Swiss cow, but the long matted hair convinced me otherwise. Mastodons were forest dwellers in the Driftless Plains region about 10,000 years ago, and it was always my hope that a herd of them would make a comeback with the aid of CRISPR gene-splicing technology, and I would be lucky enough to take one of the over-populated surplus with a bow.

The unnatural river-born junk is mostly farm equipment and supplies, battered wagon boxes, sprayer tanks, rotten tractor and truck tires, discarded hoses and wiring, lots of seed bags, tangles of barbed wire fencing and waterlogged wooden posts – that sort of thing. Rarely, I may catch a glimpse of a partly submerged car fender, a bent-up tree stand or ground blind, tarps, gas cans, doors with broken windows – artifacts of an industrial-consumer civilization that some curious anthropologist may unearth in five or six thousand years and wonder, “What the hell is this thing?”

Maybe that will be a trace of my time here. “Look! An ancient carbon arrow shaft that must have been used by a hunter from some long-forgotten civilization.” More likely, the relics of my passing-through will be one of the many pliers I have lost while fixing fences.

Time. It seems to pass swiftly, like the hurried flow of this river. But the character of a homeplace, like the character of a man, is something that develops slowly, glacially, with the patience of a weaver at her loom steadily bringing the pattern and the colorful image into being. There are uncountable fascinating places in this world, but I have learned it is best to cherish one of these, to meld with it and forego this futile chase of realms I cannot truly know or understand.

A hot and humid August day is something I understand. This sort of late summer day is a part of our longtime homeplace, and my character. Uncomfortable and grumpy as it may be.


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Crazy Urban Coot

Eventually this moment had to come, this decision had to be made, this new direction in life had to be taken. For 37 years we have loved living on our farm, caring for this land, grooming a small island of life in a toxic sea of industrial agriculture, healing its wounds, regenerating its landscape, shaping it to become a refuge for wild things. But the span of a human lifetime is brief, and we are nearing the end of our time on this place.

We are selling our farm in the North Country, fortunately to people who have the same values and land ethic that we do, and we will be moving to a city in the course of the next year. Our chapter in the story of this 150-year-old parcel of farmland is coming to a close. Compared to the 12 or 13 millennia that prehistoric peoples have lived in this stunningly beautiful limestone bluff and river valley land, the small Driftless Plains area of the North Country that was bypassed by the four great glaciations (Nebraskan, Kansan, Illinoisian, and Wisconsin), our time here has been only a blink of an eye. But in human terms, it has been an investment of half our lives. We will miss this place so much.

Like the athlete (or writer) who sees his skills diminishing, I know it is better to leave the game one year too early than one year too late. It is a blessing and a grace to know when one is past his peak and has taken his first steps on that inevitable downward path. My ability to take care of this land is slipping away, and this place deserves better than that. On the upside (although it is a chore that does not truly contribute to our conservation and preservation efforts), I will not miss snow-blowing a quarter-mile of steep driveway when winter storms come howling, nor will I wax nostalgic about cutting up “widow-maker” trees that have been toppled by high winds onto pasture fences.

We are looking forward to new adventures that we will discover in a town environment. Hopefully, the transition will not be too awkward an experience. The house we are having built is bordered by open land to the north and west that will calm us with countryside vistas each morning, and the mid-sized city to which we are moving has lots of green spaces, parks, and hiking and biking trails.

Yes, I will be forced to evolve from the rural Crazy Old Coot persona I have cultivated over the previous 30-plus years, but maybe I can reform my character to become a Crazy Urban Coot. A stocking cap, mirror-lensed sunglasses, and a walking stick would be a good start. So would bib overalls.

This move will also be a dividing line that separates my outdoor adventures in the wild from my more tame activities in domesticated surroundings. Although, since I know so little about urban environments, some of my new activities could be more wild than I predict. At the very least, I will have to adjust to the concept of a No Smoking area when I light a cigar.

My blog essays, stories, and poems will almost certainly reflect this change. I doubt that neighbors will approve of my sighting-in a newly scoped .22 rifle in the alleyway south of our new house, or taking some practice shots with my crossbow, so hiking and biking and observing the curious wildlife species at the local tavern may replace my former pastimes. I have already begun writing the manuscript for my next novel. The plot and characters could wander off in unexpected directions before long.

An aside. This anticipated change in my literary subjects and style is the reason I suggest that readers of my outdoor sports essays and stories should buy my two most recent books:
Coot Dogs – An Anthology of Dog Stories by a Crazy Old Coot
Coot Shoots – A Crazy Old Coot’s Anthology of Hunting and Shooting Essays and Stories

These books might be called “The Best of Coot” collections. Arguably, readers who buy those two anthologies could forego acquiring the previous seven: Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, Coot Stews, A Limit of Coot, North Country Tales, A View from the North Country, and A Slow Walk through the North Country. You would, however, miss the enjoyment of reading my three novels: Hunting Birds, Ivory and Gold, and The Executioner’s Face.

All my currently published books are available at Amazon’s Jerry Johnson Author Page. My request is that you purchase all 12 of the books I have written because my transition to the urban coot life could be more expensive than anticipated. For example, I may have to buy an electrically powered lawn mower and also border my yard with an “invisible fence” to limit Abbey’s wanderings.

As the fall and winter months progress, my intent is to keep readers informed about our move. At present, the story is monotonously mundane. Do we want slider windows or double-hung windows installed in the new house? That sort of thing.

This October, I will have one more season to perch in a tree stand awaiting opportunity to harvest a whitetail doe for the coming year’s supply of venison. That will be a good final inning, a chance to look out over the river valleys that border our farm and lock those images in the vault of my memory. Hopefully, I will avoid most of the calamities of previous years’ bow hunts and end the game with a walk-off RBI.

That reminds me: I should be able to buy season tickets for the Northwoods League baseball team that plays in our new hometown. Maybe there will be a Smoking Section for those Old Coots who remember the days when the scent of cigars and Grain Belt beer wafted through the grandstand on a summer evening.



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Crystals and gargoyles

Our memories are dreams, crystals mounted in sets of elegantly crafted
gold and silver that we take from velvet-lined folds in our minds,
always warm and shining in our hands, bright treasures that we touch
to our lips, our nose, our eyes, our ears, our heart to swell our senses,
prizes that we fondle while we delicately recraft the swirls of the
precious metals that hold them in place. We clean and polish them,
carefully replace them in their niches, each a little brighter and more
beautiful than before, unfading, patiently awaiting the next showing.

Or else our memories are rough-cut stone sculptures of gargoyles,
glued to misshapen driftwood jutting shards of shattered glass,
garbage dumped into a splintered plywood box. We pull them out
and hold them at arm’s length: fevered, putrid, dripping blood and pus
and vomit. We strike them with a peened hammer or a hatchet,
trying to chip away their monstrous mien, only to create monsters
more horrid. Their stench clings to us as they clatter back into the
dark box, vile, ugly, unaltered, patiently awaiting the next showing.

We pity and revile the alcoholic, the drug addict, the homeless,
the mentally ill. Maybe they are better dreamers. More vivid dreams.
Dreams that do not end with waking. Dreams of crystal smashed
by dreams of rough-cut stone. Treasures devoured by monsters.
Patiently waiting, always there, in the darkest folds of our minds.

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Taking heart: A return from my hiatus

Eight and one-half years. After eight and one-half years I felt it was the right time to take hiatus from writing essays, short stories, and poems to post on my Dispatches from a Northern Town blog site.

The writing break stretched on and on. One month, two, three, four… My thoughts were cloudy. Maybe this was not a temporary pause. Maybe this was the end of something.

The energy level in my mental battery was dropping. The well of creativity and imagination was running dry. Physical strength and stamina were fading away. I was depressed by the madness that has seized nations and cultures, hastening civilization to the brink of disaster. Over the course of the next year, we plan to move off the farm and build a new home in the city. Late life’s changes. Always hard.

One July day, in what might have been my inadvertent attempt to write finis to this tangle of distresses, I had a heart attack.

(Henceforth, this essay is written in the “stream of consciousness” style, a story telling technique that worked well for James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Jack Kerouac, but may not for a writer trained as a journalist: me.)

Odd thoughts when at life’s potential ending. Please let no one call me a ‘journalist’ at my memorial service. I was a newspaperman – a reporter and columnist. Not one of those despicable fast-and-free-with-the facts pseudo ‘journalists’ who came blathering onto the stage when broadcast news and the internet drove out the real news reporters.

Myocardial infarction, coronary thrombosis, cardiac arrest, coronary artery blockage. Medical terms for the heart attacks that end the lives of most of my male relatives. Collapsing on a sunny and pleasant summer day while chain-sawing trees and tree limbs blown down by a violent wind storm that had swept through our North Country town the night before. Helping friends. A good final chapter. Except for the painful part, it was a nice morning to die. Regrets: there were several things left undone, that I was responsible for, that I should have completed before my exit.

A too-late realization. My mental and physical powers were not diminishing because I was growing old. They were declining because my heart could not supply my brain and body with sufficient blood circulation. Sing out: “There’s a joke here somewhere, and it’s on me.” *

Good fortune. I fell four city blocks from the local medical clinic’s emergency room ambulance service and about two hours from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The local ambulance service has excellent emergency medical technicians. Mayo has dozens of highly skilled cardiac specialists. My chances of survival were quite high, not that I was eager to place a bet on the odds, however favorable.

Comfortingly, I discovered during my ambulance transfers to the local ER and then to Mayo that I had no fear of death. I did have a fleeting fear of dying because departing this mortal coil via heart attack is quite painful. And messy for those you leave behind.

Once admitted to Mayo-Saint Marys hospital, the film (drama or comedy?) proceeded at a head-spinning pace: EKG, blood tests, check of vital functions, diagnosis, medications, recommended procedures, explanations of projected outcomes, suggestions for follow-up examinations and treatments. Too fast for me to comprehend, but the character I was called upon to play was not a major role. There was little for me to do.

I have a morbid dread of dying in a hospital bed with a dozen tubes and wires attached to my body. More than once I thought: “Maybe it would have been better to have died beneath the open sky with work clothes and boots on.” But doctors and nurses assured me that I was not going to die. I soon acquiesced to the full array of tubes, wires, ports, needles and electrodes – and had much of my body hair shaved. A compliant patient trundled into the smooth functioning machinery of modern medicine. This must be how astronauts feel when they turn over all the necessary functions and decisions to mission control: a best choice, but one that creates a sense of emotional and mental weightlessness. “Major Tom to Ground Control – Far above the world/ Planet Earth is blue/ And there’s nothing I can do.” **

One day after my collapse a stent was surgically inserted in the circumflex artery of my heart. This was done with an angioplasty procedure. A catheter inserted into my wrist snaked its way through arteries in my arm and chest into my heart. Once there, dyes and fluoroscopes and ultrasound sensors perform some rituals of medical magic to discover arterial blockages, widen them by inflating a tiny balloon attached to the catheter, and insert a wire mesh coil – the stent – that prevents the blockage from reclosing.

“You’ll be sedated and you’ll have a local anesthetic that numbs your wrist, but you can watch the procedure on the screen over the operating table,” the pre-op nurse told me. No. No, thank you. I want to be sedated to the maximum permissible level. I have no desire to watch a personalized NOVA television program about angioplasties. Especially if something goes wrong. I willfully drifted away, and all I remember about the procedure is that the nurse administering and monitoring the sedation had beautiful deep blue eyes.

Two days after the stent was implanted came a reawakening. I had been cloistered in a small, airless room within my body, and now the windows had been opened to a fresh northwest breeze. I walked out the door. No more breathlessness, cramping in my chest, dizziness, blurred vision, headache, onset of weariness, muddled mind, or aching arms and shoulders. The summer grass of the hilltop hayfield was incredibly green. An eagle soaring along the river valley was sharply in focus.

Eos has not shone her light of grace upon me, nor was I rejuvenated in springtime as was Persephone, but a new season of life is beginning. Looking back, I had become resigned to my inexorable fate, reconciled to my fast-approaching doom, insentiently accepting the infirmities that were chipping away my body and mind. Today, looking out across a new landscape, I realized I had things to do, places to go, people to see.

I am quite ready for a new adventure.

*From the song ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ written and performed by Bruce Springsteen (b. 1949)
**From the song ‘Space Oddity,’ written and performed by David Bowie (1947-2016)


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Latest book

My latest book, Coot Shoots – A Crazy Old Coot’s Anthology of Hunting and Shooting Stories and Essays, was published June 1.

Coot Shoots – latest of the six books in the “Old Coot” series.

Available in paperback and kindle editions at:

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Hotwires, insulators, and sheep

Connect the yellow dots: extension insulators on steel fenceposts that will support a hotwire 20 inches above ground level. Will this fencing prevent sheep from escaping the Ewe Pasture? I will find out. As you can see, Abbey is unimpressed.

Strange weather the past few days. The skies wouldn’t quite rain, and won’t quite stop raining. There are weeks when you concede that working in the mud is the only option.

The task was erecting a hotwire to front the four-strand barbed wire fencing that encloses the four-acre hillside tract we call the Ewe Pasture. Can a hotwire 20 inches above ground level keep escape-artist sheep confined? This summer, I will find out.

Degree of difficulty:
1) installing the plastic insulators and hotwire on the posts – easy, Olympic fencing rating 1.5;
2) mowing the weeds and brome along the fence line’s north side – moderate, Olympic fencing rating 2.0;
3) clearing brush along the fence line’s wooded east and south sides – difficult, Olympic fencing rating 4.8.
4) keeping my birddog Abbey out of the tangles of beggars tick and gooseberry – impossible, Olympic fencing rating 95.7.

Preparing for springtime fencing jobs becomes easier each year. I toss all the fencing supplies and tools into the box of the pickup and venture forth. Yesterday, I only had to return to the shed twice to get something I forgot. That’s a new record.

Fencing tools: fence post driver, shovel, various screw drivers and pliers, wire cutter, brush lopper, bow saw, machete, 20-inch wooden measuring stick, leather gloves and a three-pound hammer. Almost inevitably, there will be an unforeseen use for the hammer. I decided not to take the chainsaw on this drizzly day. Consequently, a thick-trunked buckthorn tree is still standing, but on the other hand so am I.

Fencing supplies: three steel posts (turns out, I needed four), a couple dozen T-post fence clips, three quarter-mile spools of 17-gauge electric fence wire, 150 plastic insulators for steel posts and 25 insulators for wooden posts, two gate connectors, and about 10yards of tangled and rusty old barbed wire. Plus a spare hammer.

The supplies were manufactured in Magill, Oklahoma, Lititz, Pennsylvania, and Chicago, Illinois. Some hunting is necessary to find and purchase stuff not made in China or elsewhere outside the United States, but it can be done.

At the end of the two-day job, I had become proficient at attaching five-inch extension insulators to steel posts and nailing easy-to-break plastic insulators to wooden posts and trees. That’s how it always is with me; I learn the best techniques about an hour before the job is finished. But at some chores I have modest skills; driving steel posts, clipping wire onto them, and mending barbed wire – hey, I got those jobs down pat.

About 3:30 it began to seriously rain. Didn’t quite complete the project. Came home muddy, scratched, and tired with brambles in my beard. Shaved off the beard, then had to clean up Abbey.

Two more days of rain are forecast. The sheep will have to wait a while before they move into their new home. And start escaping.


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April Fools snowfall

April Fools!

The weather gods waited until late on the night of April 1 to play an April Fools prank. We awoke to discover a two to three-inch snowfall across the North Country.

Was this because I removed the snowblower head from the DR power unit and replaced it with the bushhog head? Probably. The weather gods love to punish my hubris by administering a good whack to my head with the nemesis cudgel.

But the last laugh will be mine. Yesterday, using the bushhog for the first time this spring, I got a good start on fencing work. I mowed a “warning track” around the inside of the fence that surrounds the four-acre tract that we call the South Hillside Pasture, recently renamed the Ewe Pasture in honor of its most recent denizens.

I probably caused this April snowstorm by removing the snowblower head from the DR power unit.

The ewes became skilled escape artists last summer, so I mowed the strip along the fence in preparation for erecting a hotwire that will be mounted on insulators on the steel posts that hold the five strands of barbed bordering the perimeter of the pasture. Hopefully, this will be a better solution than the portable electric fencing we previously used with little success. Every few days, the deer knocked down a stretch of the portable fence, inviting the ewes to wander off in search of greener grasses in the hayfield.

Not that I am overly optimistic, but my expectation is that a hotwire running about 20 inches above the ground will touch the nose of any curious sheep, jolt it with a shock, and convince it to stay within the field of play. More likely, I will jolt myself a half dozen times this summer while trying to herd seep back into the Ewe Pasture.

You are no doubt asking, “Why the hammer?” Almost every farm chore I do requires the hammer, sooner or later.

The deer will not squirm through between the strands of barbed wire and break the hotwire, right? They will leap over the fence. Right? Well, hope springs eternal in the human breast.

I will update readers on this sheep-fencing solution sometime in June.

But on this April 2 Saturday, I am taking a snow day off from manual labor. I should be cleaning out the Hilltop Garden in preparation for tilling, but snowfall is forecast until noon, and that is reason enough to be lazy and profligate. Reading a book and perchance smoking a cigar. That is ambition enough on this April Fools prank of a day.


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