On The Trail

Food for thought

Kids, customers, a call from a friend, completion of an old novel about a familiar subject, and matters related to all of the above — that’s what I’m thinking about as I sit here today; Worm Moon waning; brown, brittle leaves, feeble remnants of fall, tumbling, hopping and tumbling again in blustery winter winds sweeping the sunny front yard. In the background, a babbling brook, today crisp and clear, emits its soothing springtime rattle. Spring is here and, though cold, life is good.

Appropriately, my friend Killer called to say he’s getting restless for his annual ice-out woodland adventure to a secret pond he must hit just right to catch large squaretails, my favorite, before all the ice vanishes. It’s a short window for success, with punky ice covering most of the pond except at the feeder-stream inflow, where a small patch of open water boils with hungry spring trout eating whatever is swept their way. If you wait till all the ice is gone, forget it, it’s too late. By then, the trout are far from shore and inaccessible. But when you hit it right — Bingo! — fat, tasty squaretails with moist orange meat, what I used to call oven-bakers, a foot or better, occasionally even a nice 18- to 22-inch trophy some folks travel far and wide to catch.

I too have such secret waters to visit but can’t say I’m hungry for brookies just now. I’d rather let our only native trout live to see another day unless, of course, I was teaching my grandsons how to enjoy real angling for a fish Indians savored before European invaders arrived and added foreign rainbows and browns to the local mix. In that case, I’d bounce out of bed on short sleep to get the kid there before the birds sing. Otherwise, how many must a man catch to prove he’s a fisherman? At least, that’s my way of thinking. Yes, the way I see it, you master one game and take up another, which is about how I feel about turkeys and deer. Not that I consider myself a master hunter of either, but I do understand them and have learned how to kill them both, so what else must I prove? That I can bag a big one every year no matter the physical price I must pay? No thanks. Don’t need the ego boost or Facebook fame. I’d rather move on, maybe learn to understand critters new to the same habitat, perhaps moose or cougars, maybe even ceremonial landscapes, clues of which most hunters walk right past without noticing.

But wait! Before I venture further, a quick related reminder that the stocking trucks are rolling and will by the end of the week have hit: the upper Deerfield River; lower-Deerfield tributaries in Conway named Bear and South rivers and Poland Brook; Sawmill River in Shutesbury, Leverett and Montague; Lake Mattawa in Orange; and the three Warwick Ponds called Sheomet, Moores and Forestry Camp. Truth be told, it’s getting to the point where publicizing this type of information is a waste of ink when you consider that your average angler can pull it up with a few effortless clicks of an iPhone or BlackBerry at the water’s edge. But that’s a discussion for another day. Yes, one worth exploring.

Anyway, the grandkids were in town for Easter and we had a splendid weekend, capped by a tasty ham from a hog their mother’s new man raised. The whole gang was at the old tavern for the first time, and it really is a magical place for an Easter-egg hunt. Six guests appeared, four of them children: my two grandsons, also the man’s 5-year-old daughter from another marriage and a new 3-month-old half-brother. Before bed Saturday night, older grandson Jordie and I were chatting in the parlor when he, out of the clear moon-lit sky, asked if I’d take him hunting someday? Of course, I told him, if that’s what he wanted.

What’s funny is that earlier that same day a carload of Jehovah’s Witnesses had stopped to chat in the driveway, and the driver had in tow (I would guess) his 3-year-old grandson. When I told him I was soon expecting my own Vermont tribe, he asked if I was going to teach them to hunt someday. I said yes, if they wanted to learn. I told of trying to teach my own kids, how they loved accompanying me through tangled fall pheasant coverts, watching the dogs work, the birds flush, me shoot, the dogs retrieve, but they never had a stomach for killing, which was cool with me. They did love fishing, though, I told my impromptu visitors, and they didn’t like throwing them back, either. That I can understand. What’s fishing to kids without snapping the fishes’ necks, gutting them, putting them on a stringer or into a fern-lined wicker creel, and bringing them home for breakfast, pan-fried in a Griswold skillet with eggs, home-fries and thick-cut slab bacon? Again, just me, I guess, but it never hurts to teach kids where their food comes from, no matter what your vegan pals try to tell you.

Which reminds me of a little walk I took last fall with an interesting weekend guest from Wales, he a college administrator passing through with his wife and two attractive 20-something daughters, their accent seductive indeed. This affable Welshman seemed quite pleased to notice a line of old working decoys on display along a high shelf just under the ceiling in my parlor off the carriage sheds. “Oh, are you a shooter?” he asked with a smile. When I told him yes, it immediately drew us into a discussion that lasted the rest of his stay. We swapped descriptions of how and what we hunted and, following the first breakfast, he laced up his shin-high boots to accompany me on one of my daily rambles with the dogs through Sunken Meadow, followed by a quick country ride through the old Fall Town Gore and up into the eastern Colrain and Shelburne highlands, just to give him an idea of the local landscape.

When we walked the western perimeter of Sunken Meadow, I pointed out the distinctive, splayed, V-shaped track of a buck I’ve watched since it was a suckling. I had just seen that deer a night or two earlier and what had been a pronghorn the previous year looked like a 6- or 7-pointer in the 140-pound class. When he asked if I would hunt that animal when deer season began, I said no, that it didn’t seem fair to me. After learning to live with each other for three years, that deer and others he travels with knew my truck, my whistle, my dogs and daily routes. Also, I knew their habits, where they preferred to cross the river or flee when I got too close. I’d rather go to the top of the hill, I told my guest, and hunt deer I don’t know. He just nodded his head with a grin and said, “Yes, I understand, but if you had to kill that deer for food, you could. That’s important, I think. I have often told my wife that I find it comforting to know we could survive if I needed to hunt our food. I guess many people would die today if there were no groceries. It’s sad.”

How true.

Before I go, just a quick mention of a book I found last week in the American Political Biography catalog I receive monthly by snail-mail from a — guuuulp — Newtown, Conn., dealer. Yes, there it was, “The Duke of Stockbridge: A Romance of Shays’ Rebellion,” a novel I wasn’t familiar with but could not resist. Although I wouldn’t call myself a Shays’ Rebellion scholar, I have read virtually everything worth reading on the brief insurrection that unfolded right here in the Pioneer Valley. So this book by Chicopee Falls author Edward Bellamy (1850-1898) was a natural for me. An interesting side note that contributed to my purchase is that Bellamy, son of a Baptist preacher, married Emma Sanderson, a lady I intend to learn more about. Give me a little time. I’ll figure it out.

But back to her author husband, a longtime newspaperman whose final stop was the Springfield Morning Union, where he served as an editorial writer and book reviewer. Best known for his 1888 novel “Looking Backward,” Bellamy’s interpretation of Shays’ Rebellion was way ahead of its time, first published in 1879 as a serialized “Berkshire Courier” feature. After Bellamy’s death, cousin Rev. Francis Bellamy published a rewritten version in 1900.

The edition I bought was more enticing, published in cloth hardcover in 1962 by Harvard University’s prestigious Belknap Press, supported by the Waldron Phoenix Belknap Trust, dedicated to “editing and publishing rare, inaccessible or hitherto unpublished source material of interest in connection with the history, literature, art, commerce, customs, and manners or way of life of the Colonial and Federal Periods of the United States.” This John Harvard Library Press edition, overseen by Editor-in-Chief Bernard Bailyn, erased Rev. Bellamy’s “revisions” and published it as it had appeared in the newspaper.

Harvard historian Samuel Elliot Morison, no liberal by any stretch, identified “The Duke of Stockbridge” as a “great historical novel” that gave “a more accurate account of the causes and events of Shays’ Rebellion than any of the formal histories.” Although it’s no literary masterpiece, I stand in full agreement on its historical value. Bellamy’s “fictional” account reminded me of Upton Sinclair’s “Boston: A Documentary Novel” about Sacco and Vanzetti. To this day, “Boston” is acknowledged as the definitive analysis of the controversial executions, called fiction only because of the “artistic license” Sinclair employed in depicting the socio-political climate that allowed two innocent “anarchists” to be electrocuted for the greater good.

Before I go, one final observation from Bellamy’s Shays’ Rebellion novel. I must say I find it interesting that, like George Sheldon’s classic “History of Deerfield,” “The Duke” was first published piecemeal by a small late 19th century newspaper. I wonder if, in these days of shrinking circulation fueled by reader dissatisfaction with regurgitated news they’ve already seen on TV, maybe local history, analysis and juxtaposition with contemporary issues would sell. Maybe “old news” like that would ignite interest instead of exodus.

It used to sell papers when they were the only news in town. Why not now, when unique news is crucial to survival?

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gary@oldtavernfarm.com.

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