Saturday, September 13, 2008

Wingtips in the Snow

The furnace in the old farmhouse groaned with exertion, trying to keep pace with the plummeting mercury in the front porch thermostat. The day before a fresh coat of snow blanketed the countryside, forcing young boys indoors until the storm passed.

In the days before the cable TV, the internet, IPods and X-Boxes, spending an entire day indoors was pure torture. My grandmother kept me occupied helping with cooking and playing games, reading and coloring, but even grandmothers have their limits. So my teenage uncle and I were “invited” outdoors to take a walk around the countryside and work off some energy.

My uncle was a typical rural teenager of the 60’s. He hunted, fished, and ran a trapline in the winter for his spending money. My father did the same. Outdoor skills were as much a part of life in the country then as having a MySpace page and cell phone is for urban kids today.

As we walked, we took the road that led down to the creek that flowed along the back of the pasture. The water was nearly frozen, with only a few areas still open. Even these would freeze over in the coming days, but for now a small trickle could still be heard. Sundry tracks covered the banks, revealing their secrets to those who could make out their stories.

We were alone in the winter wonderland, and the air was still and quiet. I still love to be in the outdoors after a snow, and just listen to absence of noise. It is something rare and treasured in our modern world of overstimulation.

As we rounded the corner of the farmyard, my uncle stopped suddenly and pointed to the snow at our feet. There he showed me hieroglyphics that recorded a life and death struggle.

“See here, this is a trail a mouse made in the snow. And here…look at these feather marks. This is where an owl caught the mouse. Those marks are from the feathers in his wingtips”

“How do you know he caught the mouse”?

“Because this is where the mouse trail ends”.

I had only seen owls in books and on TV. But here we were, standing at the scene of the abduction. I was very impressed with my uncle who could make out the story. I was just sure he must have been part native American! My youth was filled with TV and movie westerns, so I naturally assumed such tracking prowess had to have been passed down from some unknown Indian neighbor.

I remember this story fondly, because it is but one thread in the tapestry of my outdoor education…a tapestry that remains yet unfinished. But recalling this story makes me wonder…am I placing threads in the tapestries of others?

Statistics tell us that hunting is declining at a rate that if unchecked, our children or grandchildren may never know the mystery of sitting in a duck blind waiting for the first flight, jumping at the cackle of a rooster pheasant, or sitting in a tree stand imagining every branch in the woods to be the tip of the antler of a big buck. Sport fishing faces some similar challenges, though not as immediately urgent.

What can you do to help stem the tide or even reverse the trend? We debate this in my outdoorsman’s club. We talk about the need to get previously unreached people into the ranks of hunting. Women, minorities, youths, etc. Sometimes finding solutions can feel overwhelming.

For me as an individual, I think the answer is a combination of things, but if I had to use a word, it would be investing.

We should invest by supporting organizations that not only protect but promote hunting, fishing, and other outdoor pursuits. Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Coastal Conservation are just a few.

We should invest our own time by continually developing our knowledge and skills. This allows us to become repositories of information to help educate those we come in contact with

We need to invest in the next generation. Volunteer to teach a youngster. It doesn’t have to be a classroom of kids; it can be taking a child in the neighborhood to the skeet range, or down to the creek to catch a few perch on a hopper pattern. Share what you know. You don’t have to make them masters at a sport, just whet their appetite.

Teach how to pitch a tent, how to build a campfire, how to hunt mushrooms, or how to track animals. Learn the names of the plants and trees in your area, and teach them to someone. People are much more respectful of things that have names, and will likely value “weeds” differently if you show them big bluestem grass and why it is important.

It doesn’t have to take a big effort to make a big impact. Just be willing to share a bit of your knowledge, and most of all your enthusiasm for the outdoors.

Tight lines...


Anonymous said...

That is an awesome story my dear. I now have another piece of your past to place in the puzzle of your life. ;) Thanks for sharing....BTW, you have whet my appetite for the great outdoors w/this story!


Mark said...

"Puzzle" is a good way to put it...and just when you thought you knew me, right? LOL