We took a hike a couple weeks ago before the rain. The chukar hills were bone dry, like mid-October. The only green things we saw were a few buttercups and some tiny wild currant leaves fooled by the warm, sunny weather. I tried imagining what a bird feels when it can’t get enough to eat.
Then rain came. Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, and everything turned green overnight. I imagined chukar sighing with relief and filling their crops with succulent blades of cheatgrass.
It feels good to care about this land for other creatures’ sakes. I suppose it lessens the selfishness I feel in the fall removing some of those creatures from their land. But really I just want there to be lots of birds to shoot. They need food. Food needs rain. What does rain need?
After hiking more miles and vertical feet than ever, the season ended too soon for us. January in this part of Idaho brought us less than ideal hunting conditions. We didn’t get out as much as we wanted to. We suffered through seemingly incessant weeks of thick fog, freezing temps, and post-holing crusty snow. It would warm up and thaw out for a day or so only to bring mud so deep that driving through it would only result in making the local paper about the lost hunters who never came back home again. The cold and flu season also ended up taking its toll. About the only productive thing besides a cough was more time to get our new home brewing system set-up.
Looking back, we had four months of great hunting. Angus hunted superbly, verifying repeatedly that he’s in his prime. We saw many miles of new terrain, and spent good times with friends and family. Here are some of our favorite hunting and some non-hunting memories of the 2014-2015 season. Enjoy.
“And she never slit a fish without thinking she hated the need to use it that way. Hating the need almost made it seem all right. Besides, it was a kind of a little murder, gutting a fish, so when she did it she thought back over her life, and there was something to that. The knife was a potent thing.” — Marilynne Robinson, Lila
Reading the end of Robinson’s latest novel tonight, I got this little gem of an explanation of the paradox with which hunting occupies me. Sorry to beat a dead horse, but that’s how it is. You feel something, think about it, try to get past or through or around it, outrun it, pretend you’ve forgotten about it, and then on a glistening, sparkly day with no wind at all you’ve done it again: gotten blindsided by the little murder you committed.
It’s not like you didn’t mean to do the things leading up to it. It’s not like it wasn’t premeditated. It’s not like you were actually surprised, because you’ve done it, on purpose, for years. It’s not like you accidentally put all your crap in the pickup, loaded the dog, remembered to bring extra shells and a snack, and found yourself, oh my gosh, on some terrible road in some of the bleakest, most beautiful country far from much else. No. You meant to do it. Sometimes you’ll do it and forget to notice and then days or even weeks later you’ll catch yourself getting caught by it, the realization of what you fully realized and intended, “needed” to do at the time you did it.
Part of it’s the dog’s need. But not really. That’s kind of a lie you tell yourself so that it’s maybe not so bad a thing to contemplate. When Angus returns with a living bird whose eyes contact mine as I take the hand-off I know what I need to do, don’t like it, and do it anyway because it needs to be done. “Hating the need almost made it seem all right.” Then, I remember the one bent dried up cheatgrass stalk whose head is buried in snow making an upside down “V” and casting a shadow that the heel of my left boot landed exactly in the center of on my hurried way toward pointing Angus.
Suffocation’s my knife for these birds, so there you go. Taking a life, even if it’s just a wee bird’s, gets me thinking back on stuff, and I’m never sure what that’ll be. There’s “something to that.” I’m always almost all right with it.
Santa brought us a new video camera but with all the snow and cold temps we had to wait for a little burn-off. We went out yesterday to try it out and see if we could find any birds. It was fun. For us.
The recent cold snap and snow resurrects some ethical questions about when you should stay home instead of hunt. It seems to me that regardless of whether Angus and I can brave the cold, there should be a “mercy rule” for hunting upland birds when it gets below a certain temperature or wind chill, or when snow and ice vastly reduce the available cover. “Fair chase” should apply since it doesn’t seem fair, and doesn’t seem like hunting, when you can just scan for small patches of burn-off and find birds with higher-than-normal frequency. Which is what we did yesterday. Granted, we slogged through lots of snow to get to those places, so maybe that factors into fair chase. I don’t know. What do y’all think? Do you have a set rule for yourself on when you won’t hunt?
It’s not at all “just” for the birds. It’s not “just” for any one thing.
It’s for Angus, whose rapturous pursuit of birds expresses the epitome of equivocal desire: his instincts draw him toward birds, but he knows I’m also interested and – because he checks on where I am, even when he’s birdy – wants to involve me in his game.
It’s for Leslie, who does not hunt and does not kill but is drawn by her awe of Angus’ abilities (athletic, olfactory, instinctual) and her love of connecting with landscapes unavailable any other way, despite her abhorrence of watching birds getting murdered.
It’s for the getting-lostness of it, for the forgettingness of it, and what I get from that mental negative space in spectacularly positive physical space.
It’s for putting meat in the freezer.
It’s for what’s possible.
It’s for dealing with unmet expectations.
It’s for beauty.
It’s for practicing grace in an imperfect world.
And it’s for a lot of other stuff, good, bad, and unknown. It keeps us all going.
We wish you peace, luck, and joy, and not just for 2015.
Last week while searching for a recipe, I found an old crinkled recipe clipped years ago from a magazine. The original recipe, courtesy of Al Roker, uses chicken coated with a pecan-cornmeal crust and then oven-fried. Recently, we’ve thought about the strangeness of chukar hunting. Al Roker and chukar in the same sentence, now that’s strange, unless he’s an upland bird hunter. We made his recipe last night for the first time using chukar and it ended up delicious. It’s now one of our favorite chukar recipes.
Oven-Fried Chukar with Pecan-Cornmeal Crust
6 chukar breast cutlets 2 eggs 1/4 cup milk 1/2 cup finely chopped pecans 1/3 cup cornmeal 1/3 cup all-purpose flour 1 tsp. salt 1tsp. onion powder 1 tsp. cayenne pepper 1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper 2 tbsp. butter, cut into small pieces
Position a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 425F. Using heavy duty aluminum foil, line a 9 by 13-inch baking dish with sides at least 1 inch high. Spray the foil with non-stick cooking oil. Rinse the chukar under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels.
In a shallow bowl, whisk together the eggs and milk. In another shallow bowl, stir together the pecans, cornmeal, flour, salt, onion powder, cayenne and pepper.
Dip the chukar pieces into the egg mixture, and then dredge them in the pecan-cornmeal mixture. Place the chukar in the prepared baking dish.
Dot the chukar with the butter and bake about 10-15 minutes. Turn the breast over and bake another 10 minutes until golden brown.
Chukar breasts are small so be careful not to overcook. Adjust baking time as needed. Just as in fried chicken, oven-baked chukar can be served hot, at room temperature, or cold. We like to serve ours hot with brussels sprouts and creamy garlic mashed potatoes.