On The Trail

Airing it out

Finally, my bird-hunting gear is hanging in the open carriage shed. I pulled it out Tuesday morning, under cool sunny skies, white clouds, a blustery wind sweeping yellow maple leaves across the yard. By the time I sat here to get started, a ladybug invasion had bloomed. Looks like a banner year for those little critters farmers are so fond of. Honestly, I’d be chill with them were it not for part-time innkeeping.

They say ladybugs are helpful because they devour aphids. In the process of buying my home more than 15 years ago, a home inspector found many of the red turtle-like bugs crawling on the front upstairs windows on a sunny winter day and told me they were the sign of a healthy home. Now, even when I can’t see them, I know their odor, nothing unpleasant or overwhelming, but I recognize it immediately. I really enjoy ribbing farmer friend, neighbor and Recorder colleague Jay Butynski early each spring by inquiring as to whether his dad might want to stop by with a cardboard box to gather the little critters as they emerge en masse from under the upstairs picture rails on a sunny day. The Big Boiczek just grunts a half-chuckle, never has taken me up on the offer.

But that’s neither here nor there. Bird-hunting season has arrived — archery deer season, too — and I finally got out Tuesday for my first pheasant hunt with Lily and Chubby. It was a pleasant yet unproductive push through a familiar wetland that seems to get wetter, thicker and thornier every year now that beavers have free reign of our bottomlands. I picked my way through the productive that’s indelibly covert stained with ancient family DNA and enjoyed every tangled step despite never raising my side-by-side, anticipating a flush or hearing even a distant blast. That’ll soon change. Maybe even this week. Actually, I wasn’t overly enthused about the trip, just had to go when I felt the cool fall air and stiff breeze. I had to run the dogs anyway, so why not do so toting a shotgun? On my way back to the truck after braving thorns along the edge of tall alders, bag empty, I bumped into an old friend pulling in. He recently received the unwelcome news that he’s carrying aggressive prostate cancer that must be dealt with, sort of piling on for a guy riding out an ugly divorce, young kids, no fun. It will, I’m sure, be a recurring subject when we hunt together through the season. We’re as compatible in the field and we were on the Florence softball diamond where we met decades ago.

Tuesday’s slim pickings were not to be unexpected to start the annual put-and-take pheasant season. The flushes always increase as the season progresses, the stocked birds accumulating and acclimating to their new, wild habitat, acquiring feeding patterns and learning escape routes. Apparently the state put for opening-day and weekend hunters took, because Lily or Chubby never once “made game” during a robust hour-plus romp. I was astonished by the number of hunters I saw on a Monday. It was precisely what I intentionally avoided on Saturday’s opener, when I begged off, choosing instead to putter around home, finish a Chief Joseph Brant biography, and attend an evening Jim Vieira lecture on the stone monuments and chambers of New England’s prehistoric ritual landscape. I’d guess Vieira drew 150 people, which, frankly, surprised me. I was anticipating maybe 20 or 30. It was, in my opinion, a home run, enhanced by a historic building that greeted me with a warm, familial embrace. I had never before been inside Ashfield’s handsome Town Hall, originally the First Congregational Church before getting rolled down to Main Street from nearby Norton Hill. The building oozes with family spirits, it being the church where fourth great-granduncle Rev. Alvan Sanderson preached to brothers Asa and Chester during the first quarter of the 19th century. Not only that but fourth great-grandfather Col. David Snow of Heath had a hand in creating the proud hilltown edifice as an apprentice for famed Buckland architect Col. John Ames, who, depressed in deep debt, committed hideous suicide outside the church … but more on that later. Snow apparently learned the carpentry trade well from Ames, because some 20 years after helping to build the Ashfield church, he himself was contracted to build the Heath church in 1833. A daredevil of sorts, legend has it that Snow celebrated the church-raising by climbing the frame to the ridgepole, tight-roping it to the middle, taking off his hat and standing on his head upon it. The man was 54 at the time, and weighed more than 220 pounds. As for the infamous Ames suicide, it occurred on Sept. 4, 1813. With his Ashfield project near completion, a despondent Ames sat along the church-side Norton Hill burial ground fence in broad daylight and sliced open his jugular with a chisel. Say what you will. No denying Ames was a man.

Back to the present, though, I must admit I’m happy to have my bird-hunting garb airing out on familiar nails and hooks and pegs on the westernmost carriage shed wall. I had quite a time of it Tuesday morning wiping my Filson oilcloth bibs and shooting vest free of the mildew it had collected while hanging on a wooden peg protruding on a 45-degree angle from a heavy vertical post separating two of the four open stable stalls. It’s funny. Just Monday my neighbor was bemoaning his home’s mildew problem, claiming it’s a new Meadows plague, that he can’t remember mildew as a kid. He suspects global warming to be the culprit, which is good news. The man’s a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. Well, lo and behold on the very next day, I myself had a major mildew issue, one of my own making, I might add. My labor-intensive cleaning project set me back an hour, and I can’t say the garments were totally mildew-free when done. What a fool. Had I hung my hunting clothes in the attic as usual, I would have eliminated the problem. But I had a lot going on at the end of pheasant season last year and got distracted. So now I’ll have to carry a mildew stench into gas stations and convenience stores until it fades. If the problem doesn’t soon resolve itself by aggressive brushing through heavy cover, I’ll probably have to wipe the clothes down again, maybe Sunday, using a sponge saturated in a diluted mix of bleach and warm water. The bibs are tattered and on their way out, anyway, but I’d like to save the vest — comfortable and functional, with a lot of good years left if properly cared for, which obviously wasn’t the case this year. Oh well. Live and learn. The story of my life.

One more thing before I go. I would be remiss were I not to give a quick plug to loyal reader Ned James of Ashfield. We have become email friends, corresponding moften, and we finally met by chance at Saturday’s Vieira talk. James, a humble artist or craftsman (is there a difference?), found me seated inconspicuously at the back, introduced himself and sat down. Speculating beforehand that I may be in attendance, he brought along a small box of reading material he wanted to share. After the talk, he accompanied me back to my truck and I drove him to his car, parked off Main Street in the opposite direction. Two of the books he wanted me to read were by an author I had heard of but not read. His name is Jack Weatherford. On Monday, I opened “Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America” and honestly can’t put it down, a fascinating read on the heels of my immersion into the colonial history of New York State’s Mohawk Valley, an early gateway to the west then ruled by Sir William Johnson and the Iroquois Nation. I recommend Weatherford to anyone interested in Native American history and how prehistoric peoples shaped our continent. Weatherford’s right up there with the likes of Francis Jennings, James Axtell and William Cronon as a Native American scholar.

Yes, what a fascinating civilization it was that we destroyed; sadder still the prehistoric Native history we continue to obliterate and deny. That was the precise subject addressed Saturday night before an overflow crowd in that stately Ashfield meeting house where, for me, the air was thick with smiling kindred spirits, the hall stuffed with interesting, engaging folks of all ages. I must say I love the hilltown feel. I guess my ancestors did as well.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Read his blog at tavernfare.com. Send email to gary@oldtavernfarm.com.

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