Sunday, February 17, 2013

Into the Deep

Earlier this week I was invited to attend a lecture concerning the stewardship and preservation of local geological features with an eye toward public history.  It had been quite a while since I sat in a classroom and watched a PowerPoint, but I was interested in the subject matter and happy to have been asked to attend.  The presenter, a family friend, was deeply knowledgeable and committed to his subject matter, and I came away from the lecture not only with a deeper understanding of my geologic surroundings, but thoughts of the web of connections we outdoorsmen and women can take part in when we see fit.

While none of us, professional guide to occasional weekend warrior, can truly take part in the entire twirling kaleidoscope of interconnectedness that surrounds us while we pass our free hours afield, some of us do try.  Others do not, and that's fine too.  To each their own and all that.

Take, for example, "Don the Deer Hunter."  Don is a guy I just now made up, but he seems like a pretty amiable chap.  He's a good dad and husband.  He hoards his vacation days to hang out in a tree stand with a bow or rifle, and hunt big bucks.  Beginning sometime around Memorial Day each year, he sits entranced by deer hunting articles and TV shows.  The post counts of Rackstabber169 (Don's internet alter-ego) soar on and, his chosen whitetail internet forums.  His truck is a rolling billboard for makers of specialized hunting gear and equipment.

He hunts quite a few days in the fall, a dedicated man this Don, and does very well for himself.  The walls of his den are adorned with many trophies, testaments to the majesty of nature in antler form, and to Don's commitment to his chosen passion.  He scouts year-round and dreams of the rut at night.  Don is a highly skilled specialist, and quite content being just that.

Don, by the way, cannot recognize a single constellation outside the Big Dipper or any dangerous or edible plants. He starts his fires with lighter fluid, gas, or not at all.  His knots are of the Swiss navy variety.  He has some experience identifying the flora a whitetail browses on throughout the year, but only because that is vital information to his specialization.  He has no idea how the lake he can see in the distance from his favorite tree stand got there, how old it is, or what's in it.  These questions may not even have occurred to ol' Donny, face painted and bow hanging on the $30 "proprietary" (the maker painted it camo) extreme, lightweight space-age screw hook in the tree next to him.

Even though he makes a dumb joke every time he hears the term "climax forest," and has never heard of forest succession as a concept, I hold no ill will toward our good fellow, Don.  He is, without a doubt, a more accomplished whitetail hunter than I am or will ever be.  His entire life's purpose outside of work and family is to put a drop-tine on the wall.  He is a specialist.  A deer hunter, not a woodsman.  That is a point of distinction, not a point of contention or derision.  There is a difference, and that is all.  Spatting over how we choose to spend our time in the woods is ridiculous and uncalled for.

I know a few of these Dons in the deer hunting world, and a few more in the realm of fly fishing.  They are completely comfortable narrowing their focus down to one species or technique or body of water.  In the testosterone-fueled check this shit out! world of today's internet fly fishing, to be recognized as one of the the tribe, one has to specialize.  To fish 300 days a year behind designer shades, throw perfectly tight loops out to 100 feet at all times, and have designed at least three fly patterns with names not fit for repetition in mixed company.  Or have a pink reel and cleavage erupting from an implausibly strained Columbia fishing shirt.  And sadly, that seems to be the entire point a lot of the time -- to get noticed.

I will never be recognized at the fore of most tribes because I'm not an extreme specialist.  I am decidedly not an expert in any single outdoor endeavor other than falling asleep in blinds.  Whether through lack of commitment or the simple urge to learn the next thing (maybe they're the same), I have become a happy generalist.  I would like to sit down with Donny, however, and pick his brain on the subject of whitetail hunting for a while.

Perhaps it's because I am not a joiner by nature.  If you've been reading here long enough, you know by now that I take joy from harvesting my protein well, cooking it with some modicum of respect and care, and sharing it with family and friends when I can.  But all the organic locavore, glossy farm-to-table onanism going on lately makes my skin crawl sometimes.  Not that the terms or concepts bug me.  Quite the opposite happens to be true.  I'd simply like to shoot a couple rabbits and make my gnocchi, or pickle a passel of ramps for my gimlets, without having to attend a club meeting to pat each other's backs over it afterward, thank you.

To my great dismay, I do occasionally feel a petty, initial tinge of jealousy in the face of those we deem to be expert-specialists in the fields I wander through.  The lauded oracles of fly fishing, foraging, and convincing animals to tip over for the pan.  The rock stars.  It's completely ridiculous and unfounded.  When I first came upon MeatEater and Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, to name but a couple, my initial, admittedly shallow and embarrassing reaction to them was an over-critical, sotto voce muttering... who are these knuckleheads doing what I love?  Only better.  Of course, almost immediately I began to enjoy and appreciate their blogs and books, my knee-jerk (emphasis on jerk) immaturity not withstanding.  Their efforts, in part, have not only improved my foraging and hunting, but have also paved the way for hundreds, maybe thousands, of outdoor blogger-types like yours truly.  I will never again be without reading material as long as my phone is charged.

Not that I'm writing in a vacuum here.  Truthfully, I get a charge out of watching my readership here grow, there's no denying that.  And I understand that products have to be sold, money has to be made, and that there apparently exists a glut of Dubstep music out there, written entirely for the the purpose of being lain under fly fishing videos on YouTube.  I'm just asking: What happened to going fishing without a GoPro duct taped to your every appendage, then having a beer by headlamp on the tailgate and heading home?

While still a dirt-covered youngster, I was exposed to, and the recipient of great gifts from, a comprehensive outdoor education program in elementary school.  Dad and Brian, and most of my aunts and uncles were also lead through this science curriculum, sometimes, in one of those quaint circle-of-life small town circumstances, by the same teachers I had.  In "OE," as we called it, every science class of a 5th-grader's school year was dedicated to learning about the outside world.  We learned our birds, fish, wild flowers, rocks, and mammals.  We gave stuttering presentations on environmental concerns and mumbled tours of the school's arboretum with our new-found knowledge to parents, family, and local dignitaries.  But more than that, we were introduced to the bigger concepts.  Evolution and adaptations, patterns, the cycles of water and carbon, the ice age that shaped our surroundings... even isostatic rebound, come to think of it, though they didn't call it that to us back then.  All that, combined with a bushcraft enthusiast father, led to my tremendous head start in not only knowledge of flora and fauna, but thinking of the entire works as one big system, and I am forever grateful for that.

"Practice while you're warm and dry, so you can do it when you ain't" ~Dad

Years later, I was introduced to the concept of "deep mapping" in a eureka moment when I stumbled across a copy of William Least Heat-Moon's PrairyErth at the Frugal Muse bookstore in Madison.  His massively immersive tome is a deep look into the geological, natural, and human history of a single county in Kansas.  From the folklore to the history and formation of the soil itself, it's all in there.  The author spent six years obsessively familiarizing himself with every nook and cranny of the place, and I'm not the only reader to have deemed his work a masterpiece.

This concept of deep mapping -- the act of collecting multiple qualitative and quantitative data as it relates to a place in order to create a near-complete spatial picture and narrative -- struck a heavy chord with me as it relates to my outdoor pursuits.  That a person could become immersed in the seemingly unconnected minutia of a place to build a more complete picture of the whole... when applied to tromping around outside with a gun or gunny sack, that thought still gets me going.

Back to what brought us here, that geology presentation earlier this week.

The unique geology of Wisconsin alone is a subject worthy of study and admiration, even to a simple layman carrying a pheasant gun and a bruised-up apple in his vest.  We have a treasure trove of accessible and easily researched areas and formations here, and just because we choose to spend our time chasing turkeys and mushrooms in and on them, that does not preclude some of us from wanting to learn more about them, geologists though we'll never be.  The Kettle Moraine, smushed up between two lobes of an ancient glacier that bears our state's name, on which I have passed nearly my entire life; the far-reaching Niagara Escarpment, the Baraboo Hills and Devil's Lake, the verdant Driftless area with untold miles of burbling trout water, the staggeringly beautiful Dells -- all of them appeal to me, not only as they relate to my weekends shooting behind woodcock and jumping the hookset on topwater bass, but as individual parts of the larger whole.

Top o' the world, Ma!  On 1.7 billion-year-old Baraboo Quartzite at Devil's Lake. Photo cred: Spanky

I meet these things under my boots and as vistas before me.  They've helped to mold who I am because I exist in the biome they support.  And that's just the flashy geology I, a member of the lay general public, am acquainted with through books read in anticipation of hunting, foraging and fishing trips.

At the opposite end of the same great spectrum from our single-minded specialist buddy Don, I am a generalist outdoorsman.  Duck misser and faller-downer.  Occasional practitioner of coercing fire from rocks and sticks and getting lost just to get un-lost.  And a deep mapper of my small part of the world.

Here's to us, we curious life-long students of the outdoors.  We experts of nothing, we who fish and hunt, navigate with map and compass, forage and paddle.  We who start matchless fires in the snow for practice, who stop to read historical markers on the shoulder of the road and consult the tattered copy of Roadside Geology of Wisconsin stashed behind the truck seat; all with a pittance of expertise and an abundance of awe and enthusiasm.


  1. This is what we used to do before cell phones, texts, and the internet. Take part in and learn about the world around us. Ever wonder, "Why is this rock here, where has it been and where did it come from?" Thanks for bringing us back to earth for a few minutes.

  2. Another fantastic read ... From here on out, that isn't even going to have to be mentioned! A bit of guilt fell over me as I read this one. I am the one that just can't leave home without camera gear. I don't really see those moment's as a "Look at me or look what we" captured even, but more of an ideal way for my great,great, great grand kids to be able to look back on and hopefully say "WOW ... this was our kin!" Seeing how rapidly things have changed in our world in just the last 20-30 years, it's hard to imagine what things will look like in another 30 years. I think of it as a way to document history through technology. As many pictures and videos that I have on hard drive in just under the last 10 years, it's hard to imagine where the next 10 years will be stored.

    Keep up the great work Lucas ><{{{{{{*}>

  3. Thanks, Greg. One of the future posts sloshing around in my brain is even more centered on the use of technology in the outdoors, both beneficial and detrimental. This post was inspired not only by that geology lecture, but by the act of reading a blog entry about wood stoves on my Kindle Fire... while sitting next to my wood stove. There's a balance in there somewhere.

    Hey, Kevin. I'm a photo junkie too, though with a no level of expertise even approaching yours. I completely understand your wanting to document your endeavors for the future -- I do run this little blog after all, partly for the same reasons. I just hope we can step back from the viewfinder or lcd screen once in a while, and remember to take in the entirety of where we are and what we're doing. maybe even learn something. As always, thanks for reading and thanks for the killer shares on facetube.

    1. Thankfully enough, and as hard as it is to imagine, I have many days in the field that are spent without using the gear I take with me. So I guess there is a balance. I am thankful for the many other uses I have for the GoPro. I just got my first one before ice up last fall, but I have rigged it to the bottom of a duck decoy. I think it will play a vital roll my first couple trips down this little trout stream in my back yard that I have yet to explore. Seeing how deep those under cuts are, and where things lay under the surface will only take the next fishing experience down that stream to the next level. I mentioned this same thing to a friend of mine, and he called it cheating. ... However, a quick glance at his boat or snowmobile equipped with sonar and underwater cameras forces me to call "Bull $#!7" I don't think sonar has a practical use in water less than 3 feet deep, so looking under those banks with the GoPro I feel will be my way of "Deep Mapping" for the next trip. I can't wait to sit on a river bank or wade through the hazel brush in search of king birds and doodles with you! I don't consider myself a master of the woods or water either. I have been both a fishing & hunting guide, but in reality, navigator is a more fitting term. I seem to have been born with a gyro compass built in. It's a sort of sixth sense if you will. I too love pushing myself to be as I say "Temporarily disoriented" rather than lost. ;)


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