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.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

To Light Winter's Dark

I have loved the cold my entire life.  Not merely tolerated it, not pushed through it until spring, but reveled in it.  My shelves are disproportionally populated by the books of arctic and antarctic explorers, their amazing feats of human conquest and mind-boggling maunderings into reckless folly equally chronicled.  Winter fiction and nonfiction editions alike expand into chilly ranks on the shelves, their spines consistently stark white and muted gray. I read To build a Fire obsessively as a child.

I've performed In the Bleak Midwinter numerous times (if you know where to look, you can even find an out-of-print album of that title on which I am a performer).  Wandering a bit from the message of the lyrics though, hauntingly beautiful piece as it is, it has never resonated with me.  I've never seen winter as bleak, and I can't get past the title.

The gear and outdoor clothing we don in winter appeals to me without fail.  Dank wool and poly-pro base layers are my armor.  WindStopper fleece and rabbit fur, my crown.  I've been involved in more than one immature internet row concerning the best ice fishing creepers one can strap to one's boots to walk on the ice.  Things got embarrassingly personal during one of these dust-ups because the kit of the northern outdoorsman is a subject near my heart, and I still feel like an ass for my behavior as an interwebs noob in that discussion, these years later.  Most often, I now hold my tongue (and my typing fingers) when discussions of such things arise.

Stomping around in snowshoes, tending to the the manliest of facial landscaping, slipping into the snow camo that makes me feel like a ninja sniper, that tickle of frozen nose hairs that strikes when you step out the door, the way hardwood pops apart under the maul when the mercury nestles comfortably below zero; I find myself enamored of it all.

Even my 'stache jewelry, earned splitting firewood in the cold

There's something in particular about the freight train sound of icy wind, all fury and daggers, barreling down from the north that brings about the basest instincts in me.  I want nothing more than to take it on. The soundtrack in my mind drifts to the dark, foreboding Russian dudes like Prokofiev and Mussorgsky, and I yearn to run out there and roar back in it's face.  Like an athlete bouncing on the sidelines before the match begins, it's all adrenaline and manic pacing.  Sometimes, when I know nobody's around, I do run out there and let fly my fiercest primal scream.  It still snows and blows, but I feel better for having gotten the evil out.

Eventually, all the high adventure and common drudgery out in the frozen winterscape must come to an end, and the other great joy of winter comes to pass.  You get to go inside, to the comfortable glow of home.  Second only to the joys of being out there in it, are the joys of returning to the sanctum.  It is the light to winter's dark, the reassuring respite from winter's cold steel fist. 

I've talked at length here about my long history with heating with firewood.  It's how I grew up, toddling along behind Dad in my footie pajamas with an arm-load of kindling.  Heating with wood is difficult, time consuming, and so very rewarding on those blustery, arctic nights.  Nothing is more reassuring than staring into those glowing coals, and knowing we'll make it to dawn at least once more.

Burning wood has not gone without it's share of trying moments, though, large and small.  Trips to the hospital to get sewn up, that interminable frozen wait for the house to warm some mornings, splinters under fingernails and burn marks in the carpet from flying embers.

We had two wood burning stoves in my childhood home -- a squared and squat cook stove in the kitchen and a cast monstrosity of a parlor stove out in the living room.  Early memories of that house are dim, but I remember that the cats would begin winter mornings on the pad in the kitchen, curled up under the stove itself as it was slowly rekindled to life.  An hour later, that stove burning hot and fast, you'd find them all the way across the room, tucked into the toe-kick under the sink, having migrated slowly across the floor as it warmed.

And the Christmas Morning Disaster of 1981.  We'd gathered in the living room, after the torturous wait I think my parents enjoyed a little too much, to open presents.  Just as my brother and I were getting into the glorious chaos of clawing gaudy paper from gifts, sitting there on the floor between the glow of tree and wood stove, a stupendous crash startled us from our gluttonous glee.  A thump you feel in your chest before you realize what's happening, followed by clouds of dust and debris filling the house.  I don't know which one of us started crying first, but I was scared out of my little mop-headed mind.

After years of warming and cooling above that parlor stove, the ceiling plaster, beginning directly above the stove and radiating out over most over the ceiling, had given way en masse and plunged unceremoniously onto our yuletide celebrations.  Nobody was hurt, and we laugh about it now, but that remains the most startling and memorable Christmas morning of my life.  I got a Speak & Spell which remained unharmed by the murderous intentions of falling plaster, so all was well.

There's stew in winter too.  Lamb, venison, squirrel and rabbit, beef; whatever's on hand.  Browning hunks of protein in a cast iron pan on a weekend afternoon, knowing that they will be joined with, and transformed by, those dense root vegetables, that glossy, redolent... stew juice born of stock and maybe a little wine -- that's magic right there.  Just building a roux gets me going this time of year, before anything else even sees the pan.  The big beefy herbs like rosemary, sage, and thyme get to come out and play more often too. But the captivating power of the spell is greatly diminished once June bugs start doinking off the screens in spring.  To really lose myself in a good stew, I need a few players to be present: snow drifts, buffeting winds, crusty bread, a fire in the wood burner.  Add a deep caramel-y porter, I'll probably unbuckle my belt and reach for seconds.  Keep a safe distance.

And flannel.  Come on.  We know now that cotton is about the worst fabric you can have next to your skin out in the cold.  It almost completely loses any insulation value when it gets wet, and takes forever to dry.  The days of waffle cotton long johns are passed for those of us who spend our free hours afield, and good riddance.  I adhere to the adage "cotton kills" while out there chasing fish and coyotes and dreams, but in the house, flannel rules.  My flannel pants with the fish on them, who can't love those for lounging?  And, fresh from a hot shower, sliding into flannel sheets still warm from the dryer... thank you, Jesus!   

The winter cocoon would not be complete around here in the absence of good reading material.  I'm a prodigious consumer of words, granted great joy through the turning of pages, and yes, the flicking of digital pages across a touch screen.  While I read almost whatever I can lay my paws on all year long, the habit does suffer a bit in warmer months when there's so much more to do outside.  Not so in winter.  The days are already lengthening now, but there will still be plenty of chances to hunker down with a page-turner and keep the fire going.

But first, more firewood needs to be moved into the garage...


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