6 months, half a year, two seasons…. and turkey hunting
6 months, a half a year, two seasons….It has been that long since we lost Chris. I can honestly say that not a day, an hour or a moment has gone by without a memory or a thought of him crossing my mind. The only time when I haven’t thought of Chris is when I’m intently focusing on some other activity and when I’m sleeping (but even then there are my dreams).
Most of the time I deal with my emotions fairly well, I can talk about him without breaking down But even now there are times when tears enter my eyes suddenly and without warning. Months ago I felt as if I was crying constantly until I had no more tears to give. Although my tears are less often, when they do come, they come as an unexpected surprise, hard and heavy, like a summer thunderstorm breaking the silence of a quiet afternoon.
They say with time, grief gets better. Really? If it does I haven’t seen it. The only thing I can say is that have accepted the reality and finality of our loss. I can’t say I feel better. My sense of loss and mourning is the same, if not worse at times.
As spring comes to the Paha Sapa (Black Hills), the grass turns green, the birds sing and the flowers bloom. I hear the spring peepers in the temporary ponds in our canyon. My peas and favas are six inches tall. Signs of rebirth and renewal are everywhere. Yet I have difficult feeling any joy in it.
Chris and I hunted together many times, for elk and for other game. Wild turkey was one of his favorite animals to hunt; as long as I knew him he told me how much he had enjoyed hunting with his dad Bill in Pennsylvania. Although Chris and I talked about hunting wild turkey more than once; life somehow got in the way and we never got around to actually doing it. We talked about the day when my son, Nathaniel, would join us on our adventures. We both eagerly looked forward to that day.
Now that Chris is gone, we’ll never get that chance.
This spring I decided to take Nathan out to hunt turkeys in western South Dakota where we live. I purchased camoflage for Nathan, a few decoys and a blind. I already had some calls but never had the chance to use them in an actual hunt. It’s hard for a ten year old to sit still, or for that matter even a 40-something year old. I thought the blind would be more forgiving than the sharp eyes of wild turkeyWe sat in our blind and spoke softly.
I told stories of hunting with my own dad and later as a young man… of myself hunting alone. Then I told stories about Chris, not only hunting or outdoor stories, but a flood of memories. I do not know and perhaps may never know what the meaning of life is or why we are here…. or even if there should be a “meaning” or a “why” when talking about life.
No knows for sure what happens after we die. All we can do is make the best of it for whatever time we are here.
What I do know is that humans could as easily have been called the “ape that tells stories” as much as Homo sapiens, “the wise one.” Story-telling is part of who we are. Through stories our memories and knowledge are passed on and reach a form of immortality- and that includes memories of our loved ones.
Did that decoy just move?!?
Nathan and I went out several times. Now the patience of a ten-year old is not long. After ten or fifteen minutes, Nathan would ask: “Are we done yet?” I think the purpose of hunting in the woods with your dad is as much, perhaps more, about learning how to be patient and quiet as it is about filling your tag.
We called in several groups of hens but to my surprise, none of these groups had any toms with them. One hen even walked through our decoys non-chalantly as if they were normal but very still turkeys. It was mid morning. I assume she was on her way to her nest to lay an egg.
We saw one tom, a big gobbler. Although he looked up and saw our decoys, he walked off and ignored us completely. Strange.
We see wild turkeys almost every day feeding on the seed spilt from our bird feeders. It was suggested to me that I just go out on our deck and shoot one. Although that would certainly be one way of filling your tag- it would not be ethical or legal.
For those who do not hunt and who do not understand why we hunt, there is absolutely no way to explain, so I will not try.
For me hunting and foraging is about the connection to the land, to nature and to the generations of ancestors who came before us who had to hunt and forage daily to survive. Yes, it is easier to buy food at a store. When eating such food it is very easy to forget that it was once a living thing with senses, needs and desires like all other living things.
Is it more ethical to have someone do the dirty work for you in raising, butchering and processing your food or is it better to face up to the fact that as animals we humans sometimes must kill other things so we may live? For everyone the answer to that question is a personal one. I’d rather face up to the truth than be ignorant of it.
I actually have a great deal of respect for vegans. They “walk their talk”- unlike the person who criticizes me for choosing to either raise or hunt for some of my food, and then bites into a store-bought hamburger (that actually happened to me once). I could not be a complete vegan myself, though I do believe that as a rule we in the western world eat too much of the wrong kinds of meat too often. In the grand scheme of the universe isn’t even the life of a carrot as important to itself as our own lives are any of us?
Although Nathan and I went out several times, we didn’t have much success. This weekend is the last weekend of turkey hunting season. I was working on a review article I’m writing when Jeanne made an off-hand comment about hearing some turkeys gobbling outside.
“What?!” I said.
“Turkeys gobbling, outside, didn’t you hear them?” Then a turkey gobbled.
I sprung out of my chair, told Nathan to come with me and rushed to get my shot gun and shells. Sure enough there were a few gobblers out by our vineyard. Unfortunately they saw Nathan and I before we saw them. We decided to go back inside. I got my turkey call and then attempted to stalk around as close as I could get to them.
I crouched by a tree and clucked a few times. The gobblers looked up and then gobbled back. They were much too far to shoot.
I thought to myself, “Now how am I going to stalk close enough to get a shot without them seeing me?”
In the midst of that thought, another gobbler, behind another tree on the edge of the cliff perhaps ten yards away let out a gobble. I almost jumped out of my pants. Instinctively, I moved back, down and pulled up my gun.
As he came out into the open and gobbled again- I saw the bright red head, beard and spurs….My mind’s voice said “Shoot!” I squeeeezed the trigger aiming at the head and neck….
Nathan was further behind me. After my shot he came up closer. Just as he was doing that, another gobbler came up from behind the first one and started running.
For a moment, I was surprised- then I immediately realized I had a second tag to fill. I chambered another round.
The turkey went running behind a juniper for a second- then he came out the other side. A red head and a beard. A gobbler. I put him in my sights, led slightly and then squeeeeze …
Two turkeys in 5 seconds… 5 seconds that felt like 5 minutes. My heart pounded from the adrenalin.
For a moment, I was distracted from my sadness. I lived in the moment. I wish Chris had been here to share this with us and if he were not, at least he were able to later hear the story that Nathan and I had to tell.
I collected up the two birds, cut their necks and hung them upside down for a few minutes so the blood could drain. Beautiful birds. We have more than our share of turkeys so I shouldn’t feel bad about controlling the population. Still it’s sad to see them dead. I told Nathan it’s OK to feel sad about killing such a beautiful thing- it’s normal- I feel that way after a successful hunt and even more so when butchering an animal I have raised myself.
As I processed the birds, I showed Nathan how to separate the skin from the muscle and how to avoid puncturing the intestines. I showed him the trachea and esophagus- he guessed correctly which was which and why. I cut open a bone and showed how hollow it was. Nathan knew why birds had bones such as this…. so they were light and could fly. We opened the crop and discovered the turkey were eating seeds, wild geranium sprouts and dandelion buds. I found the gizzard, spleen, kidneys, testes, heart and lungs- and showed each of them to Nathan.
Some might call it morbose to show a ten year old the insides of a bird I had just shot. However, I must confess that my own early fascination for how the body works began while going through the gut pile of sheep and cattle we had butchered and having my own dad explain to me what each of the organs were. It inspired an intense curiousity that later became the catalyst for the profession I chose.
Nathan and turkeys
As I worked I told Nathan how essential it is for us to be respectful. Always respectful.
The turkeys have given themselves to us so we may live. We must have this respect whether it is an animal that we hunted or raised- or which someone else raised for us. We must not discriminate, we must respect the plants too, really all living things. We show our respect by being humble and grateful, by never wasting and by never killing anything without reason.
Our respect should not be limited to only higher animals and birds- but should be for all living things- including plants and insects.
"In the process of completely exhausting myself, I connect with an inner part of me ordinarily veiled by the everyday distractions of life. During that short time spent on a trail in the mountains, my life is reduced to its simplest terms. Most ultrarunners are people who find goodness and joy in difficult times, who see beyond the misery to the beauty of nature, and who truly realize the elemental and important aspects of life. Going for a run always clears my head... but running 100 miles distills my soul."
Keith Knipling - RUNNING THROUGH THE WALL