Friday, October 1, 2010
Fifty Years Ago This Morning
Fifty years ago this morning, October 1, 1960, dawned clear and cool and crisp on my grandparents farm northwest of Rice Lake, Wisconsin. Leaves in the butternut trees across the gully from their barn were turning what Aldo Leopold once referred to as "smoky gold" and the morning air had a distinct feel of the fast approaching (and at the time seemingly endless) Wisconsin winter.
Not only was today the first day of the new month but also the first day of squirrel hunting season in Wisconsin. On October 1 1960 you needed to be 12 years old to be able to obtain and carry a small-game hunting license that allowed you to hunt things like squirrels, rabbits, and ruffed grouse in the state. I was only eight years old and in Mrs Moe's fourth grade class in Cameron Wisconsin, but my rapidly approaching ninth birthday was just 30 days away. Despite this slight difference between what was the legal age to hunt and my actual age, my grandparents gave me a single shot .410 gauge shotgun and set me off through the butternuts in search of my first animal. It was a ritual of passage in my part of the state and certainly a ritual of passage in my extended family. Hunting by myself (and not shooting off some appendage) and successfully bagging my first critter was a sure sign that I was on the path to becoming something. Not sure what it was but I was headed there.
The butternut trees, shown on this Google Earth image with a cyber thumb tack, were then (and remain today) a small patch of trees just to the west (left in this picture) of my grandparents barn.
According to the Weather Channel, sunrise that day was at 7:05 a.m. and about 7:15, just as my grandparents were settling in for the daily morning ritual of milking their cows, Craig the intrepid (and illegal!) squirrel hunter stepped into the woods. I distinctly remember walking across the gully and up the small hill to the northernmost point in the butternuts. There, mimicking the way I had watched my dad and my uncles scour the woods before looking for squirrels I set off in search of my first squirrel.
I made a wide swath across the northernmost part of the butternuts making sure to shuffle my feet in the growing bed of leaves that carpeted the forest floor. I had learned that also as a way to spook a squirrel into running for cover in trees. So far nothing worked and no squirrels appeared.
As I moved south through the butternuts I still remember hearing the sound of the milking machines working away in the barn and caught a glimpse of my grandma checking out the south door of the barn to make sure I hadn't shot myself - yet.
My ramblings across the woods produced nothing until about 7:40 when to the south I caught a glimpse of a gray squirrel as it darted along the floor of the woods headed for the relative security of a butternut tree that had three stumps. I watched excitedly as the squirrel leaped onto the side of the tree and then for some unexplained reason pointed itself down toward the ground instead of up toward relative safety higher in the tree.
Then, as squirrels do so often, instead of running away, this squirrel defiantly stood its ground and started to chatter at me almost exactly as the gray squirrel does in this Youtube video.
As it stood its ground saying all sorts of derogatory things at me in squirrel language I moved forward to what I felt was the right distance and I stopped. As if it was yesterday I remember quickly bringing my shotgun to my arm, getting the butt caught in the extra clothing provided by my adult uncle's tan hunting jacket (I had to be fashion correct on this important day) and then took sight down the barrel of the gun at the squirrel.
What happened next is a bit of a blur. I remember having the bead of the gun sight on the squirrel's head as I pulled back the hammer on the gun's safety. I sat there and watched. Then out of the blue, just as the squirrel made one last defiant pump of its tail, I fired my only shot. The tiny shotgun made a muffled poof sound and instantly the squirrel tumbled from the side of the tree and lay on its back "tits up on the prairie" as I would later say about ducks when I lived in North Dakota.
I remember racing up to the squirrel and taking it in my hands and looking at it from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail. This was my one of the first (unknown to me at the time) indications of a forthcoming life as a biologist who had to check out everything. I also remember that, despite this not being the first squirrel I had ever held before, this one of "mine" seemed so much smaller when I held it than when I would see them darting around in the woods being squirrels.
The sun had just climbed up over the top of the trees on my uncle's nearby farm and the rays of sunlight were shining across the pasture on my grand parents land (where my parents ashes are now spread) and everything was lit up in the butternuts. My grandma had heard the shot and was looking out the barn door again, this time probably worried that I had shot myself. Instead I stood there holding up the squirrel for her to see and for some unexplained reason I yelled and asked what time it was. The clock said 7:45 a.m. Central Time.
The squirrel was the first of what would be hundreds of them I harvested in my youth. From squirrels I graduated to ruffed grouse and a couple of years later (and still too young to legally buy a license) I started hunting white-tailed deer on my uncle's farm. My success rate with them wasn't like squirrels but it makes for another story.
As I grew through my childhood and my adolescence there were two things that became constants in my life. One was baseball and the other was the annual fall ritual of hunting. It was because of hunting that I developed the fierce desire to protect the earth that led to my choosing wildlife biology as a career and spending almost all my life for more than 32 years (including time as a temporary employee of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) trying to protect habitats from the ravages of human population growth. Its something that non-hunters and anti-hunters seem unable to comprehend. "How can you love wildlife and kill it" you're often asked. I'm not sure how. It just is what it is. And it all started with that gray squirrel 50 years ago this morning.
I continued hunting until 1982. Those last years were on the prairie of North Dakota where all of October and into November from 1979 through 1982 were devoted to hunting ducks, geese, sharp-tailed grouse, gray partridge, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, and anything else that was legal. The last day I ever hunted anything was in early November 1982 when a group of us went after ducks and geese on the prairie wetlands west of Jamestown. We took along my big sloppy Chesapeake Bay Retriever named Chester. At the end of the day we stopped at a small wetland near Cleveland and Rich Madsen took a picture of Chester sitting in the wetland vegetation scanning the sky for ducks. It was his last hunt and mine. A few months later a divorce rocked my world. As part of it I had no place to keep Chester and had to take him home to Wisconsin and my parents farm. After Chester was gone my desire to hunt left me and I've never picked up a gun since then.
Still 50 years ago this morning was a different story. I left my grandparents house that morning a neophyte and half an hour later I was a hunter. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me and I relieve that moment every year on this day.