It’s Sunday morning; Col and Rose are circled around a pile of legos. They could stay here all day, or at least until their fingers have begun the evolutionary adaptation of sprouting their own small colorful plastic bricks.
But it’s October and things are happening outside that we just can’t miss. The sun—already tightening its daily route—is offering generous, limited beams. The land is leaning towards fall, and each day a new leafy canopy goes up in yellow flames. The very smell of autumn, that ripe fruitiness of decay, beckons, and I am magnetized to the scene of it all.
The drive to the high country is long and breathtaking: aspen groves sparking up the mountains like living luminarias. In the backseat, Col reads a New York Times Magazine article about the new “Talking Barbie,” reminding me that children are not static and fixed points on the map of “reading” or “not reading;” the past 473 days that Col read only airplane trade magazines and TinTin comic books apparently do not predict the future.
We try to keep the day’s main plan, the actual fact of hiking, underplayed. Spending unstructured time walking around this wild world is one of the greatest gifts I can give my children. And yet, they become belligerent amnesiacs when the word “hike” is uttered, patently forgetting that they come alive under the influence of wind, trees, rock and soil.
Like so many things in parenting, and in life, all we can do is commit ourselves to what feels beneficial and possible, trusting that our actions will bring about positive results at…well, some later, undisclosed date. Sometimes the committing is a daily, teeth-gritting endeavor of tremendous faith and patience. When I remind Col that telling his sister and her doll-playing friend, “I’d like to be included,” will always work to his advantage better than, “your game is boring and stupid,” my greatest hope is that these words will someday become his own. And I will offer these gentle reminders faithfully until they do.
We arrive at our familiar spot and the kids rocket out of the car. By the time Dan and I shoulder packs, the kids are inhabiting mud puddles and brushy hillsides as if they’ve been waiting decades to get back to this precise spot.
We follow a creek, spot small trout darting under shady banks, investigate abandoned beaver lodges, sample sun-swollen rose hips, guzzle secret stashes of rainwater from the hollow stems of horsetail grass, and share one fat chocolate macaroon under the golden October sun.
In a braille-style nature immersion, the kids touch every seedy grass and rake their hands through leathery fallen leaves. At one point, Rose announces, “I need to lie down right there,” and falls into a meadow of wind-flattened grasses thick as horse manes.
It’s not until our hike is over that I realize the kids didn’t complain once. Not before, during or after. And the arrow of our hiking success tank shifts from empty to full, for today at least. Every (freaking) day holds opportunity to live our values, to do the next beneficial and possible thing, to take another small, firm step on the road of our personal ethics. Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.”
I take these words to heart. Without them, I’d likely be drunk, or in a sugar coma of numbed out bliss while the kids descend deeper into the lego pile. Parenting will always be more a practice of strewing seeds than one of quick results. (And this is why Dan and I conduct full, post-bedtime celebrations when Col approaches homeschooling sitting up in a chair – rather than under the table; or when Rose tells me later, “I’m glad you suggested I wait 2 weeks before buying that plastic fill-in-the-blank.”) I can commit to the daily effort of tossing seeds into the fertile ground of our family, which on an October Sunday will always mean coming to the woods to witness the season’s change.
- I shot a bull elk through the lungs.
- Then, I cried, feeling as if we duped him with our human cunning and high-tech tools.
- Field dressing was like tantric animal positioning: right hind leg raised up over my back; left shoulder propped against my hip. His hooves smelled like osha leaves.
- The Bob Dylan lyrics, after we took from you everything we could steal, drifted through my mind repeatedly. We took his 4 legs, hide, liver, heart, ribs, backstraps, tenderloins, brain, antlers and two teeth.
- For the next four days, we walked. We walked the same 5-hour roundtrip everyday: camp to kill-site, and back to camp. In: light and loose. Out: packs groaning with the gravity of meat on our backs. The simple, joyous work of a single-focused, anciently human task—no modern tools required—cleared space in my mind for feelings to swirl in and out: grief, gratitude, satisfaction, curiosity, awe.
- For five days, I didn’t worry, strategize, or brainstorm about the children. Parts of my brain that had been hyper-extended for 10 1/2 years simply relaxed.
- An animal dying in the woods is big news: flies are first on the scene, a buzzing symphony of purposeful activity. Grey jays nip meat and fat right from under your knife. Ravens swarm, claiming the carcass for their tribe (once humans have cleared out). A golden eagle is spotted leaving the scene. A black bear shows up, curious.
- An animal dying in the woods is not big news: the next morning, a herd of elk is gathered not far from the kill, bulls bugling like beasts from the underworld, cows shuttling calves across the talus. Business as usual.
- Everyday there were prayers, chants, blessings of gratitude and rituals, all reminders of our human place in this wild world: as both intruders and belonging deeply.
- On our last day, packing up camp, I felt the sense of an ending, leaving such a rarefied human experience and heading back into my modern life of multi-pronged demands. I also felt the sense of a beginning, of a new understanding of a direct relationship and responsibility between meat eater and animal.
I’ve been contracted to write the follow-up hunting story to this one, for the winter issue of Edible Southwest Colorado Magazine, so I can’t get too detailed here. I have so much more to share! And, I promise I will, you’ll just have to wait until December.
We’ve been in a supreme bottleneck for the past few days, preparing for Dan and me to leave for four nights. I probably didn’t need to make homemade granola, raw cookie balls and pecan pie filling (my answer to the suspect foods Dan brings hunting, cough*Gu shots*cough). Perhaps we could have gotten by without the acre of greens I steamed and chopped to add to camp dinners. Maybe I shouldn’t have scheduled Col’s orthodontic insertion for two days before we leave (he’s now eating, primarily, ice cream), or gone on a small sewing binge for Rose’s doll.
The logistics to leave for five days are staggering. An 8 yr old and 7 yr old brother/sister team are taking care of the chickens and cat. Neighbors are bringing in the mail. Someone else entirely is in charge of the tomatoes. The tomatoes have their own care-giver. The childcare spreadsheet I created suggests I’d be better suited to manage a circus than go hunt for food.
I keep reminding myself that in 24 hours, much of this will be out of my hands. Time will swell, and my focus will become exquisitely narrow.
(And, as my friend, Tara, so wisely reminded me: I’m going to the mountains to spend five days alone with my husband. OMG).
The truck is packed, the prayers are said.
Of course my goal is to have the opportunity to take one killing shot. But also, I hope to surrender to the experience. To let the mornings be frigid and early, the hiking be long and grueling, and the food be more calorie than cuisine, without my mind making any more of it than what simply is.
Thank you for all your support in all the many ways you’ve given it.
See you on the flip side of one woman’s small personal history,
p.s. I’m not even going to give you the jar-count for the coolers. But I will tell you there’s at least one half-gallon jar of homemade chicken soup (from our henopausal chickens, the slaughtering of which also happened this past week). Someone save me from myself. Oy.
It’s morning, heralding the inevitable convergence of four people’s needs at one kitchen table. Col is taping and folding an enormous paper airplane, enveloped in the auditory fog of his own whistling. Rose is explaining how she likes oatmeal but only under certain, somewhat changeable circumstances. (She’s also drinking milk with a straw AND medicine spoon because apparently there could always be a little more plastic involved with her food). I am pondering what to do with all the backyard grapes and apples we picked in hopes of discouraging the neighborhood bear. Dan is pushing a glossy hunting magazine in front of me, pointing to a photo of a massive bull elk, asking, “this one?”
The bull stands broadside and I mark an X on his vitals; this is the shot I pray for. On an elk facing forward, I pen an X adjacent to his mane of neck fur, into that vital pouch of lung. “Dead on, honey!” Dan says. He flips through pages, pointing out elk in varying positions. “Don’t think, just place the mark,” he instructs. He turns pages, I scrawl killing Xs.
“Ok, with this position you need to shoot higher,” Dan instructs.
“But, wouldn’t I be shooting through the scapula?”
“Sure, sometimes you’ll break through bone to get to the vitals.”
Moments like this are sobering. I don’t want to hurt anybody. In June, backpacking alone, I came across a small herd of cow elk grazing in a meadow. I took off my pack and leaned against a rock, watching their velvety brown heads lowered to the earth, tearing mouthfuls of new summer grass. When they raised watchful eyes towards me, I whispered, You’re OK. I‘m not going to hurt you.
At least not until fall.
Mornings, after meditating, I pull the hunting rifle out of the case and practice different positions: sitting, standing, kneeling, with a rest, without. Next, I do lunges and squats while sleep-rumpled kids blink their way into the livingroom, “Good morning…pant…pant…darlings!”
Every day I do at least one thing for the cause—ride my bike uphill, lunges and squats, guzzle bone broth, target practice, prepare my mind, concoct uber-calorie backpack snacks—while also putting pounds of tomatoes through the preservation paces. I read The Magician’s Elephant to the kids while wriggling into thick, wool pants. “How do they feel?” Dan asks. Col inspects and assesses the situation: “a little bottom heavy.”
Everything is still a little surreal and romantic: packing the truck with firewood, marking X’s on airbrushed photos, imagining sneaking through the Technicolor autumn woods with a goal far removed from say, trying to turn Rose against plastic.
And then, everything comes startlingly into focus. I’m in the “shooting meadow” with Dan, pushing copper bullets–which are just so alarmingly…bullet-like–into the rifle chamber. It’s 85F and I’m practicing shooting with a backpack, jacket and wool gloves. I’m wedged against a ponderosa stump, thistles biting my legs, trying to condense my multi-pronged mental checklist into one swift, decisive action.
The shots go where I want them to at 150 yards, and I allow myself to think that maybe—if all the many other factors converge with mystical-like order, then maybe—I can pull this off.
Driving home, Dan says, “Our advantage is that we’re not afraid to go where the animals are.”
“Right. Because we’re in good shape and our minds are strong, too.”
Why am I doing this? For adventure, challenge, connection, intimacy with my food, the season and the land. I’m also interested in the notion that instead of being a mom who brings home, um, library books, I could be the mom who brings home meat.
My hunting season starts in less than one week.
My friend, Mikel, asked me this morning, “Are you nervous?”
Grape-apple fruit leather
This idea blossomed much like many wayward marital brainchildren: my husband cajoled; I laughed and blew him off. The cajoling continued for five years, becoming such a regular seasonal exchange I could have penciled it in each spring. What seemed fraught with obstacles to me seemed perfectly clear to Dan: if I, too, became an elk hunter, we could double the chances of filling our freezer with meat.
Read the rest here
Scouting the big game in the big country with the big rifle (actually, that’s Col’s .22, unloaded. Just practicing hiking and quick aiming with a gun).
When I am an old lady (which is approximately 2.5761 dog years away), I won’t remember the crying, bleeding, pissing, pouting, fighting, complaining, cluttering, whining or excessive reminding. I will just remember this.
Have the loveliest of weekends, friends. Back on Monday with some exciting news (no, not pregnant, this is the 40+ year old news).
I imagine that while we humans see a sunflower as a complex assemblage of botanical moving parts, a honeybee sees it simply as a yellow powder-box of pollen. Those wildly breathtaking morning glories, pole-dancing up our arches, are likely, to a hummingbird, nothing more complicated than deep-throated bull’s-eyes of nectar. Ready, aim, fire.
My children, I’m certain, once saw me as simply a pair of milk boobs stapled onto two arms (soothing voice piped in from somewhere north). And now, what? Maybe a dispenser of strange meals not found on TV (soup from a roadkill deer ankle bone, anyone?). Also perhaps, a slightly annoying booster of Communication for All! (“You must be really disappointed, honey,” I told Col after having to extract him from soccer practice 15 minutes early. “That’s not working, Mom“ he sighed back).
And Dan? Well lets just say, whatever Dan sees when he looks at me has kept our relationship well-spiced for 20 years. My friend, Kristi, who has a similarly appreciative husband, agrees that having a partner who’s like a cross between a libidinous 14-year old boy* and enthusiastic canine, (“You, again! Wow! In that shirt? OMG. Pant pant. Awesome!”) is better than flowers, jewelry, or whatever else the media suggests women want.
In early Sept, I clip all tomato flowers and about 1/3 of the leaves, to encourage energy into the fruits that already exist.
But really, I want to talk about tomatoes. Because when I see my two garden beds of tomatoes, I see precisely two things: salsa and roasted tomato sauce. Even when the tomatoes are bitty upstarts innocently stretching their tender green limbs in the March greenhouse, I’m thinking only of their September future. I guess there’s the purpose-driven life, there’s your one wild and precious life, and then there’s me and my tomatoes, living the, er, pre-programmed life.
So, I was pleasantly, happily surprised when I broke out of my hierarchical tomato hoarding box to make stuffed tomatoes for our friend Sharon, who threw me for a loop, dinner-wise, being a vegetarian. And I realize this isn’t exactly the beacon of flexibility, not exactly the wildest thing you could do on a Friday night, but it felt like the smallest inroad into well-trod rigidity. Plus, they were crazy delicious.
*with the romantic finesse of a 43-yr old.
Stuffed, baked tomatoes
8 med sized tomatoes
1 cup finely chopped chard (or kale, spinach)
1 cup grated cheese
1/2 cup minced onion
1-2 cloves garlic
handful chopped fresh basil (or dill, cilantro, chives)
1-2 TBSP coconut oil
1 tsp salt
Slice tomatoes in half. Scoop out insides carefully, trying not to make holes in the bottom (which I did and really was fine). Reserve tomato insides in a bowl. Saute onion and garlic in coconut oil on low heat for 15 minutes. Add chopped chard and reserved tomato (you will need to mash the fresh, raw tomato. I used a potato masher. A fork would work fine) and cook for 5-10 more minutes, or until the chard is thoroughly cooked. Turn off heat. Add grated cheese and fresh basil. Mix. Add to scooped out tomato shells. Bake at 300F for approx 20-30 minutes, or until cheese is slightly browned on top.
We are at the kitchen table, the central household meeting place; the work station; the setting where entire theatre companies of emotion are played out; the place where we gather, growing imperceptible hours older together. Rose is joyously reliving our unexpected arrival at the grocery store during Free Sample Bonanza! Col’s consciousness is layered inside the pages of an airplane magazine, likely erecting a force field around himself, in which female voices bounce promptly off. Dan has been gone eight days (five hours and twenty three minutes), not that anyone’s exactly counting.
Rose: We came at the ezact right time!
Col: (Showing me a glossy page of indistinguishable techno-parts) See Mom, this is an older engine, with pistons, before turbo props.
Rose: At free sample days, they never have vegetables. Have you noticed that? Except maybe those little carrots.
Col: Remember Mama, you were wondering about turbo props?
Breathe, just breathe. There is space for all of this.
Rose: They do have fruit, though…bananas dipped in vanilla pudding, and fruit rolls. Do those count as fruit? Not really, except maybe if that was the only fruit you could find. Right, Mama?
Somehow, the kids seem more themselves when I’m solo-parenting, or magnified, like their most selves. It’s due to some abstract law of physics, like, the fewer adults around to absorb and witness, the more heightened everyone’s personality becomes. It’s great because you get to really see them – it’s like being an anthropologist in your own family. When Rose informed me that Col had climbed into the dumpster at the farmers market last weekend, I was completely unrattled. “That’s so you. Now, can you please climb out?”
Dan comes stumbling home at dusk, after nine days in the woods, green facepaint still dabbed on his ear, a veneer of wild-living adhered to his very person; it becomes him. The kids rocket out of the house and launch themselves onto either hip. I stand there in the dimly lit yard, watching the people I love most, relief and desire flooding me.
“Where is it, Daddy?”
“Your ear is green, Daddy!”
Dan shot an elk with his homemade yew bow. “Holy lovin young fat dry cow,” was the precise text I received from 11,000 feet. (“Dry” refers to the cow not nursing). The next days were spent packing the animal out, one full-day, round-trip per load: four legs, two rib racks, hide, and goodie bag: heart, liver, backstraps and tenderloins. (Oh whoops, the tenderloins got devoured at camp, never to see a freezer, kitchen…or, wife).
My mom texted me sometime between Day 5 and 9: How’s Dan doing with all that packing out?
I texted back: I think he’s in heaven.
- Dan would never, ever brag, but here’s the details: he killed this elk at ten yards, one arrow, through the lungs, she ran 60 yards and dropped.
We spill outside into the rain-refreshed garden. The chickens flow through the yard like water. September shines. There is a chair placed permanently under our grape-vine, little legs climbing atop it, hands nabbing juicy purple clusters. Col is engaged in semi-supervised fire activities in our fire pit (meeting his current needs for autonomy, adventure, competence). I am nearby, planting garlic, admiring our compost-rich soil and pep-talking myself out of suggesting to Col that he build a nice, boy scout-approved fire, rather than striking match after sulfurous match. (And maybe wondering a bit what it would be like to have a 10-year old whose current needs were safety, collaboration and cooperation).
Col: Mama, what would happen if you lit a battery on fire?
Me: Google it.
Dan fleshes the elk hide in the back corner of the yard, cheerily greeting the magpies who swoop in for a scrap. Rose flits around, eating more grapes than a hyperphagic coon, visiting me at my garlic-planting station, visiting Col at his fire pit, following the chickens, but maybe steering clear of the hide emanating its particular stink.
The swiss chard glows in the sun. The tomato vines droop with the gravity of fruit. The 3-sisters patch is an unruly, promising jungle of food. Mornings hold a touch of winter’s chill, a tease that the day still shakes off easily. Sunset is now a calculated and finite thing, reminding me, in a helpful way, that nothing lasts forever, yet gratitude is ever harvestable.
First, drive up above 10,000 feet and set up camp in the conifers. Feel the emotion: “excitement-relief,” at having three days of family time in the woods. There will be scuffles and discontentment, but somehow the wind, the forests, the big space can hold it all. Note the welcome committee of chipmunks and grey jays. Announce that it’s time to go find some mushrooms.
Give children each a knife and paintbrush (to remove dirt). Feel the giddyness of our good luck! Pretend not to hear any complaints about mushrooms, about hiking. When they say, “we’ve found enough,” smile through deep breaths and explain about the fact of January.
New stash! Like a vein of orange gold on the forest floor, follow it. Cut plump fruiting bodies–these messengers from the subterranean!—and, brush off dirt, polishing each mushroom. Feel heart swell to watch the family work together, to hear Rose say, “this is actually fun!”
Last night at camp. Feel the blessing of this work: the slow walk of searching, eyes to the ground; the quick slice, freeing meaty jewels from the earth; the brushing of each silky, gilled crevice; the feasting on gifts of the season, of this place.
Bring gratitude back home. Stash bags and jars of mushrooms in the freezer, for that surreal notion of January.
I can hardly believe it’s late August. (Why do I never feel this way about, say, February?)
I do feel a little blasphemous admitting to you that I am feeling just fine about transitioning out of the perma-freedom days of summer into a little more structure. Maybe it’s because much of summer has been an extended Take Your Child To Work experiment (Rose accompanied me all this week to Mindfulness Arts Camp where I taught writing; Col’s been on the job site with Dan, building fence).
Maybe also, I am sensing that the kids will benefit from actually getting dressed in actual clean clothes (Col), or from the experience of getting needs met with other adults (Rose) plus there’s always the wild practice of leaving the house for extended hours.
(We homeschool, and the kids attend “shared school,” a fabulous program in which the kids go to public school with other homeschoolers two days/week. Plus they each have a homeschool co-op one day/week).
I’m aware that this blog was once the chronicles of small, cute kids and their mom who felt occasionally overwhelmed, at what…toy clutter? Missed naps? Bad moods that lasted for 3 minutes? Weaning children who could do basic arithmetic? For many sweet years we were immune from the rumblings of puberty, toxic mine spills, the media and its enticements, the developing beast of self-consciousness, and the complex psychology of growing up.
If I were to give you an in-depth look at our household now, you’d see me losing sleep trying to assess the true risk in the kids’ current desires (Col: flying in single engine airplanes the size of my couch; Rose: purchasing dubious plastic, outgassing, made-in-3rd-world-sweatshop items laced with a shitstorm of chemicals).
You’d also see Col and Rose locked in a 30-minute, heated, courtroom-esque drama regarding the consequences of “accidentally“ destroying each others’ belongings, while their mother is deep-breathing in the corner. (New amendment to the sibling constitution: reparations must be made!) And, Dan? He’s prepping for bow hunting season, shooting his bow across my garden every chance he gets, not bothered by much.
:: Bumper crop of purslane (and some kick ass beets, too).
:: What happens when you can not plant in rows, nor pull volunteers:
(cabbage, broccoli, marigolds, squash volunteer, morning glory volunteer).
:: Another use for that old deer skull lying around: perfect rest for the BB gun.
:: My friend Tara and I found a roadkill doe driving up to a hike last weekend. I called the roadkill guru (AKA: that man I married), who instructed: “Get close and smell it. Feel under her armpits – still warm? Eyes still glassy, or clouded up? You gotta knife? Now, gut her, throw her in the Subaru, and park in the shade.” No can do, but she’ll be waiting for you at mile marker 48, honey.
Rose, introducing her friend, Jordan, to the pleasures of smoked deer heart.
Heading off to mushroom country for the weekend, with ample butter and garlic in the cooler in case we get lucky.