Freezer space

My long time friend, we will call her “Kelly” (to safeguard her identity from family and friends), a former student of mine and a great murder mystery writer (to make her identity obvious to family and friends), called me last week so that we could harangue each other about the slow progress on our respective novel manuscripts. After alternately berating and encouraging one another, we shared some casual catching-up conversation about life, family, work, and late-summer day-to-day tasks.

“So, what are you doing today?” I asked.”

“Rearranging stuff in my chest freezer,” said Kelly

“You put up a lot of produce from your garden this summer?”

“About the same as last year. But I have to make room for a deer in the next couple weeks.”

Now I know for a fact that my friend does not hunt deer. Nor does her husband. Curious.

“You have to make room for a deer?” I asked.

“Yeah. My brother’s ex-wife, her younger brother is getting ready to start the bow season. He gives me a deer every year.”

I needed clarification. “Who gives you a deer?”

“My brother’s ex-wife’s younger brother.”

“His ex-wife? As in divorced wife?”

“Right.”

“How long has your brother been divorced?”

“About 20 years.”

“And her younger brother still gives you a deer every year?”

“Of course.”

It was at this point in the conversation that I felt I had become trapped in an Abbot and Costello “Whos’ on First” comedy routine. Cautiously, I played my role as straight man.

“Okay, now let me try get this straight. You brother divorced this woman 20 years ago.”

“Correct.”

“But they are still on good terms?”

“Oh god, no! She thinks he’s the scum of the earth.”

“But you get along with her okay?”

“No, she’s a total bitch.”

The logic of this conversation began to spin out of control. I paused to take a breath and organize my out-of-focus picture.

“Let’s take a step back so that I can understand this arrangement,” I said.

“What’s to understand?”

“Unravel this for me. This is what I hear you saying: your brother hates his ex-wife, she hates him, you think she’s a total bitch, but her younger brother gives you a deer every year.”

“You got it. What’s the confusion?” asked Kelly.

“It just seems odd that your families are at war, but he continues to give you a deer.”

“No mystery. He and I get along fine.”

“How can that be?”

“Probably because he thinks his sister is a pain in the ass, and I think my brother is a jerk. Plus, he bow hunts on our family’s farm.”

“Finally, this is beginning to make sense to me,” I said.

“You always were a little slow on the uptake, especially about family matters,” said Kelly.

“But I eventually get it,” I said, “I’ve got it figured out. Why he gives you a deer every year.”

“This year there’s going to be a major problem, though,” said Kelly.

“New dynamic in the family feud?” I ventured.

“Boned,” she said. “The meat processor is working six days a week, and he says that any deer I bring in will have to be boned. I’ve never boned a deer.”

“Your brother’s ex-wife’s younger brother won’t bone it for you?”

“That would be pushing it,” said Kelly as if it should be self-evident. “Really pushing it.”

I did not seek any further explanation.

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More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays and three novels, available through Amazon.com at  Jerry Johnson Author Page

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Beyond words

Regan and Rory (Photo by Charlie Sojka)

Some joys are exquisite beyond description.

Our daughter gave birth to a baby girl, Aurora Louise Johnson-Sojka, on September 13. Mother and baby are both doing well. The latest (and probably last) of our six grandchildren, Rory weighed 8 pounds, 5 ounces at birth. I’m thinking: potential to hit with power from both sides of the plate.

In the troubled times of 2020, this is an uplifting and positive and inspiring moment. A miracle of wonder and happiness.

Unfortunately, by the time Rory will be playing softball I will be too old to teach her my secret hitting skills and techniques. Too old to demonstrate them, anyway, without an immediate visit to the chiropractor. Still, I can offer sage advice: if the pitcher fools you with a breaking pitch, do not swing unless you have two strikes; start your swing with a slight “hitch” back onto the heel of your power foot and then rotate forward onto the ball of your foot as you make contact; start your swing on every pitch and then halt if the pitch is out of the strike zone…

Those sorts of things. I can already see her rolling her eyes in annoyance with grandpa’s coaching.

In exchange, she will have to teach her grandfather the various computer technologies that he is annoyed to learn.

There are dozens of other life skills she’ll need to acquire from grandpa: how to cut your own hair with a pet clipper, how to spit correctly (very useful in softball), how to smoke a cigar and blow a smoke ring, how to blow your nose without a handkerchief, how and when to use the appropriate swear words, how to do self-surgery and stitches on minor injuries. So many others. (See blog post Christmas gifts for my grandchildren.)

But these are minor joys in the course of the grandparenting life. More important will be vacation travels, summer visits to the farm (also spring, autumn, and winter), theater and music performances in school, picnics and campouts, Christmases, Thanksgivings, birthdays, graduations… Expectations of exciting and wonderful times. Not sure I will live long enough to see her begin her medical school residency or earn her Ph.D. in political science, but we’ll see.

Let the adventure begin. I’m ready. I think I’m ready. I hope I’m ready.

Go!

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More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays and three novels, available through Amazon.com at  Jerry Johnson Author Page

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Squirrel dog

A squirrel hunt with a bird-hunting specialist like Abbey is not a bonding experience.

After a three-day rain Abbey and I went squirrel hunting.

In truth, we went into the dripping, soggy woods to scout for deer trails, scraps, and rubs. Although I slung my .22 rifle over my shoulder I had no intention to shoot a squirrel, but Abbey takes this hunting business more seriously when we have a gun.

Squirrel populations are still at a 35-year low in our woodlands (for more about this, read Squirrel Woods post). Their population decline is probably because the trees have grown from saplings to towering heights, spread their leafy canopies, and shaded out much of the understory that is much better squirrel habitat than a mature hardwood forest.

If Abbey had known that squirrels were our quarry for the day, she would have been much less enthusiastic. Unlike her French spaniel aunt Sasha who loved to hunt both fur and feather, Abbey is more of a bird-hunting specialist. Yes, she likes to dash after the chipmunks in our yard, occasionally catches a rabbit to bring me, and will track a wounded deer if I ask her, but her enthusiasm for hunting these critters is several steps down from her passion for hunting pheasants, grouse, or woodcock. Squirrels? Bah!

We did not sight, much less shoot, a “tree rat” as one member of the Over The Hill Gang calls them, but I’m not a good squirrel hunter these days. I can sit still on a log or stump only about 10 minutes, not long enough for a squirrel to get curious and come out of hiding. Abbey is even worse; three or four minutes is her limit.

She did chase a chipmunk up a tree, but that was close as we came to spotting a squirrel.

But we did get out and enjoy a walk in the woods after three rainy days of confinement in The Clubhouse. We scented but did not see an annoyed fox that must have gone to ground in one of the crevices in a limestone outcropping, and we chased a small whitetail buck out of his mid-morning bedding spot beside a fallen tree. Surprisingly for mid-September, the whitetail deer rut has already begun, as evidenced by two clumps of buckthorn that had been battered and shredded by a young buck feeling his oats. We found a large scrape, too, made by a much larger buck judging by his fresh tracks in the mud, and later visited by a doe or a smaller buck.

The stony bed of the dry run on the east side of the farm was our route home. I hoped that would minimize the clots of beggar’s tick, those tiny green burs from hell that cling to Abbey’s long-haired coat on every woodland walk, but no such luck. An hour’s hike through the brush requires at least a 30-minute clean-up with comb, brush, and scissors. She hates the de-burring but endures it.

Climbing onto the sofa in The Clubhouse, she glared at me for a half hour before she curled up and took a nap. “Are you aware,” she said, “the ruffed grouse season has opened in Minnesota? Grouse. Birds. And we wasted a whole morning hunting squirrels? Where the hell are your priorities?”

A squirrel hunt with a bird dog is not a bonding experience.

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More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays and three novels, available through Amazon.com at  Jerry Johnson Author Page

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Isolation

We need other people’s physical presence, in part because much of the assuring information we exchange is through non-verbal communication, and in part because we need physical contact – a handshake, a slap on the back, a hug.

Weather permitting, we sit outside by a campfire. The familiarity of the hunting camp venue eases my mind and allows me to believe that there are many kindred spirits in these months of anxiety and worry.

Isolation

By nature I am a recluse, someone who seldom seeks the company of other people. I’m not antisocial, not an introvert, and certainly not shy, I just prefer solitude – most of the time.

These nine months of forced isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, however, have given me reason to doubt my hermit’s attitude about socializing with friends and acquaintances. I enjoy my time alone, but I am unsettled by my separation from others. I struggle to understand this unexpected but unmistakable dichotomy. A curmudgeon like me can contentedly hole up on the farm for days, even weeks. But eight months is an unbearably long time in seclusion.

Reluctant as I am to admit it, we need personal connections – associations and interactions with other people – to remain emotionally and mentally healthy. Denied those relationships for an extended period, we are apt to engage in weird behaviors. Mowing the lawn in the heart of a drought, reorganizing (for the third time) the tools in the workshop, watching too many television programs, carrying on lengthy conversations with our dogs, writing incoherent and rambling blog essays…

We become disoriented and insecure when we are deprived of human contact for weeks and months at a time. For some it may be longer, for others it may be much shorter. It is a neurosis that can eventually erupt in full-blown psychotic episodes. Each day I scan the news and discover that someone, somewhere, has acted out in some irrational and often violent way, behaviors brewed in the pressure cooker of extended seclusion.

Here is my take on this madness-inducing isolation: we need other people to witness our lives, to validate and endorse our lives. We need almost daily reassurance that we are good and capable people doing useful and beneficial things.

A supportive and encouraging telephone call, text message, email, or tweet is simply not enough. We need other people’s physical presence, in part because much of the assuring information we exchange is through non-verbal communication, and in part because we need physical contact – a handshake, a slap on the back, a hug. And all those expressions of empathy and compassion are strictly forbidden (for valid health safety precautions) in this time of potentially deadly pandemic.

By good fortune, the Over The Hill Gang has been meeting once each month, a gathering we call a Coots-Together. Sometimes as few as four, sometimes as many as eight of us Coots are able to gather at one of our homes, each bringing a dish for supper, enjoying a couple of beers, and most of all sharing the camaraderie that keeps us connected and sane. Well, relatively sane.

Weather permitting, we sit outside by a campfire. The familiarity of the hunting camp venue eases my mind, allows me to believe that there are many kindred spirits in these months of anxiety and worry, and serves as a temporary substitute for the handshake, the pat on the back, the hug. Laughter is a powerful antidote to the many calamities of this frightening year, and we share a lot of laughter about the misadventures of our past escapades, hoped-for adventures in the future, and the mad and twisted events we read about and observe going on all around us.

The food is good, too. Probably because most of it is prepared by our equally long-suffering wives.

Then I plunge back into insolation, but with some optimism that it will eventually end and life will resume its usual routines. Until then, writing incoherent and rambling blog essays is a socially acceptable pressure release.

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More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays and three novels, available through Amazon.com at  Jerry Johnson Author Page

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Made by hand

Pointe de flèche – photo from Wikipedia

An enchanting history envelops each thing handmade, an aura that somehow connects us to the person who envisioned and crafted it. A pulse of the artisan’s life and energy is embodied in this handmade piece, and even though the artisan may be long dead and forgotten a ghostly trace of their spirit remains.

I can feel the human connection to this craftsman or craftswoman across the years, sometimes decades and sometimes centuries. To find a flint arrowhead is to soar back into prehistory and sense the intricate workmanship of the person that fashioned and finished it. Some handmade items are more crude, more functional than artistic, the wooden grip attached to a rusty iron hay hook exhumed on our farm for example, but the sense of connection to this hard working farmer, an immigrant from Norway 150 years ago, is no less strong.

I can feel the rough workmanship of the farmer, understand his rush to finish the handle to “good enough” so that he could get back to work haying on a scorching July afternoon. And I can sense the care taken by the Paleoindian articifer as he carefully chipped and flaked this stone arrowhead and lashed it to the shaft that would fly true to its target. I know a small moment of their lives, I can feel them doing these tasks, practicing their skills – whether roughhewn or delicate – as I rub these pieces between my thumb and fingers.

I can hear their voices: “This is my work, this is my life, this is my time on Earth, this is me.” That is what these things made by hand say.

Discoveries of other handmade things on our farm– a leather strap of horse harness, knives made from broken wagon springs, barn door hinge pins hammered from railroad spikes, a chert hand axe, shards of crockery, a child’s shoe, a wagon wheel spoke – set my mind spinning with questions about this tract of North Country land, how it looked during each of the successive eras of transition from woodland to prairie to woodland, and how it supported the lives of clans and families for thousands of years. They tell stories of mysteries that I can speculate about but cannot truly know.

This pen was turned and assembled by Jim Eckblad. It is made from the wood of Winged Burning Bush, an ornamental plant native to Asia; its leaves turn a brilliant red in autumn.

Handmade things are not only from the historical and prehistorical times of this place, they are also graces from the here and now. A newly crafted wooden box, a leather sheath for a folding knife, a drop-point hunting knife and its sheath, a braided leather dog lead, a beautifully turned wooden ballpoint pen, even my crudest tool – a 14-inch wooden rod to measure the longest length of firewood I can cut that will fit into my woodstove – all of these are functional, utilitarian, and graceful. In my eyes, they are graceful because they are practical and functional.

There are so few things made by hand in the era of machine manufacture, this half century of molded and stamped metal and extruded plastic. Are these machine-produced pieces stronger, more durable, efficient, ergonomic, convenient? I am told that they are.

But they are not alive. They do not have an aura or spirit. They do not possess the sense of grace of a thing handmade.

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More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays and three novels, available through Amazon.com at  Jerry Johnson Author Page

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Trailcam scouting

The last week of August is too early. The corn and soybean fields of neighboring farms are not yet a wildlife cornucopia, lush with filled-out ears and pods packed with beans. No hard frost has yet arrived to kill the mosquitoes and buffalo gnats. The onset of the whitetail does’ estrus – the rut that maddens the bucks – is probably six weeks away.

Scouting for patterns of deer movement, even passively scouting with trail cameras, will not reveal what the daily habits of the deer will be in another eight or nine weeks when autumn has taken hold of the North Country. The only reason I scout is my restlessness. I am eager, almost frantic, for the bow season to begin.

Siting the cameras alongside the logging roads and most-used deer trails is the least of my obsessions. I’ve already set up two ground blinds and moved one ladder stand, and I will no doubt move them again when the trailcams show that deer are walking through those openings in the woods only after nightfall.

No matter. Sometimes the photos of our farm’s resident wildlife are worth all this misdirected effort. A big doe being pestered by her twin fawns, a hen turkey and her seven poults blundering through the brush like a first-graders lost in the library, the huge face of a flicker staring eye-to-lens at the camera, squirrels playing tag, a coyote hunting on a foggy night. The camera will wait with infinite patience for the creatures of the wild to reveal themselves. I am able to sit still for only an hour at most, and so I miss the secrets of their undisturbed lives.

I never would have seen the eight-point buck with antlers in velvet, at his ease on an early morning stroll along the lane I mowed in June to drive the pickup to a red elm I had cut for firewood. I had never seen him before, or do not think I had. He could be one of the six-pointers I watched last year, now in his fourth or fifth season and coming into his full majesty.

This buck was not the biggest-antlered and certainly not the biggest-bodied deer I have seen during our 35 years on the farm. But his manner, carriage, penache, confidence, his noblesse oblige attitude toward lesser creatures make his unexpected cameo appearance the great performance of this August.

Maybe I will see him up-close and personal in October.

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Stone deaf

I wear hearing aids, the type that has tiny microphones that amplify sounds. These help, but do not restore your hearing.

Most of all I miss the birds singing in the early morning.

Many other sounds are lost to me since my hearing faded and was gradually lost over the past 15 or 20 years: almost all music, the evening cries of coyotes as they set out on the hunt, the crunch of dried leaves on the woodland floor as a deer approaches my tree stand, the flow of fast water over boulders in a stream, the ripping-canvas whoosh of wind through mallards’ wings as a flock lands on the pond, the whistle and flutter of a rising woodcock, the sweep of the wind through prairie grass, the rustle of cool afternoon breezes through trees in full leaf, the shrill of a soaring red tail hawk, and the voices of my grandchildren and most women that fall outside my audible range.

On the upside, there are several unheard noises that could be regarded as a blessing: worrisome squeals and clatters and ticks from my old pickup truck, whistling teakettles, alarm beepers on microwave ovens and clocks, most on-screen dialogue and background music, dripping water faucets, the squeak of the stairs in our old farm house, and strangers’ disparaging remarks muttered behind my back about my lack of fashion sense and proper grooming. And, of course, political advertisements.

But in general, hearing loss is bad. Terrible.

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Hitting 300

Death steals everything except our stories.
  — Jim Harrison, poet, novelist, screenplay, and short story writer, from his collection of poems titled In Search of Small Gods.

Hitting 300

The number took me by surprise: three hundred. That is the current count of blog essays, stories, poems, and photo essays I have posted since I launched Dispatches from a Northern Town less than seven years ago.

Although I was wary of this blogging business, I took a chance. From the outset my goal was to create blog posts that were thoughtful and introspective, my personal observations about a complicated and often confusing world, and as befits dispatches about a writer’s journey through life they reveal a wide range of moods: humorous, melancholy, serious, fanciful, maudlin, cheerful, pessimistic, optimistic…  My intent was to express these reflections in stories and essays of about 1,000 words, probably because that is the limit of my own attention span when reading an online essay.

A good portion of these blog posts recount time spent in the outdoors. A small number of these offer advice on the “how to” skills of hunting, fishing, camping, hiking and other recreations, but many more focus on the “why” and “wherefore” of my passions for the experiences that fill the heart and mind and soul with joy and wonder. And, unfortunately but realistically, a good share express my despair that our time spent in the wild and the wilderness is nearing an end in this Anthropocene era.

A few of the Dispatches from a Northern Town essays are topical, political, and social commentary. Almost one-fourth of the posts are stories, essays, and poems about dogs – which is appropriate because bird dogs have been central to my life for more than 50 years, and they have taught me much of what I know. Another fourth are about my hunting companions that I call The Over the Hill Gang. They taught me the rest of it.

Over the previous seven years I have compiled these blog posts in six published collections of essays, short stories, and poems: Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, Coot Stews, A Limit of Coot, North Country Tales, and A View from the North Country. A seventh collection is due to be published in October: Coot Dogs. I have also written and published three novels: Hunting Birds, Ivory and Gold, and The Executioner’s Face.

A friend and fellow writer, Keith Lesmeister, author of the short story collection We Could’ve Been Happy Here, has called me the most prolific writer he has ever known. This is an intentional exaggeration. My word production does not match that of my 13-year career as a newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist when I wrote nearly a thousand editorials, opinion pieces, and sports columns, plus uncounted news articles and reports.

Still, being retired and not pressured by press deadlines, I was taken aback to see that my blog posts had reached 300. Maybe this merits some kind of celebration. A hand-rolled cigar and a good mug of brewpub ale should be in order. On the other hand, it should be a private, subdued observance. My most-viewed blog post has been Lefever Nitro Special, an essay that I regarded as rather mundane, while one of my least viewed has been Christmas gifts for my grandchildren, which I thought was one of my best. So I’m not taking my literary talents too seriously.

But then I never claimed to be anything more than a journalist.

Anyway, for better or worse I’ve reached the 300 mark. The odds that I will produce 400 are, as they say, about the same as a lace valentine in the fires of hell.

Cheers. I’ll let you know the date in October when the next collection of essays is published. Then we can hoist a mug at the start of bird season and really celebrate.

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More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays and three novels, available through Amazon.com at  Jerry Johnson Author Page

 

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Catch-pen battleground

A bucolic scene: a dozen Suffolk lambs grazing the hillside beside their mother ewes, their gentle bleats and baas a sort of pastoral music, their leaps and head-butts so much exuberant frolicking on a rustic playground, their sleepy huddles in the shade of the trees at midday a soporific for my worried mind and weary body. Peaceful, tranquil, serene, soothing.

Until you try to catch one of the little demons.

Summer’s end was nearing, and the time had come for the lambs to leave the pasture, the wether lambs to be fattened for market and the ewe lambs to be sold for breeding stock. Round them up, herd them into a catch pen, and load them into a livestock hauler. Frisky little balls of wool with perky ears and open, guileless faces – how difficult could that be?

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Best birthday present ever

Autumn of 1987. A stressful time of my life. Work issues. We have all been there. I was in desperate need of something to lift my spirits.

Lunch hour, as I was walking to the weight training room on campus for my daily workout, my beautiful blonde wife met me at the entrance to the Field House, a complete surprise, and presented me with my best-ever, and most-needed, birthday present.

A Bear Whitetail Hunter compound bow.

The gift was much more than the bow; it was a message that life would go on, and things would get better. And she was absolutely right: life did go on, and things got much better.

Hunting got better that fall, too. For years I had hunted with a Bear Kodiak 50-pound recurve bow. I had no reason, or desire, to switch to a compound bow, and I felt a little smug and arrogant that I was a “traditional” bow hunter.

In July, while working on our 135-year-old farmhouse, which was in need of much repair, I hoisted a sheet of three-quarter-inch plywood and tore the rotator cuff in my right shoulder. I declined a suggested surgery, and I’m glad I did, but the physical rehabilitation was one of the most lengthy and painful I have experienced (and there have been several others).

Determined that I would bow hunt again in the fall, I did not miss a day of rehab workouts. But progress was slow. And it soon became apparent that at age 38 my shoulder would not completely heal. There would be some loss of flexibility, strength, and range of motion.

With effort I could draw the 50-pound recurve, but I could not hold it steady at full draw. My days of traditional bow hunting were clearly at an end, and I began looking at a compound bow in the sporting goods section of the local hardware store.

When my prospects of continued steady employment looked cloudy in September, the thought of purchasing a compound went way down on my priority list. I didn’t even hunt that fall.

The Whitetail Hunter cost (as I remember) $88. Still a lot of money when we were struggling to eke out a household budget with three children, vehicles in need of repair, mortgage payment, groceries, and utilities.

Took me most of the next summer to learn how to shoot that Whitetail Hunter bow. The concept of a “let-off” in bowstring draw weight was completely foreign to me, and I had to change my technique from “draw, point, and immediate release” to draw, hold, steady, aim, and release.” It seems to me the let-off was only about 40 percent – it is 75-80 percent in the compound bows on the market today – and the draw weight was 65 pounds, which I adjusted down to 55 pounds to accommodate my injured shoulder. Still, 33 pounds of string tension when I held the tips of my fingers to the corner of my jaw – my arrow release point – made all the difference.

I was back in the game.

In October of ’88 I took a six-point buck, and in and November of ’89 a small-basket eight-pointer. If I had regrets about leaving my Bear Kodiak recurve bow hanging on the wall, I cannot remember them. A couple years later I (foolishly) sold the Kodiak.

That Bear Whitetail Hunter served me well for several years, but of course I succumbed to the siren song of a “better” compound bow: shorter, more let-off, faster arrow speed, less noisy, lighter. I shoot a few arrows at paper targets with the Whitetail Hunter every fall, and I vow I will take it hunting after I take the first deer of the season, but of course I never do.

I will never, ever sell it, regardless of how much value it acquires as an “antique.” This old bow has a special place in a hidden chamber of my heart, a place that holds an enduring security: when times are dark, life will go on, and things will get better.

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More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays, available through Amazon.com at  Jerry Johnson Author Page

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