Sunday, October 19, 2014

Prairie Chicken

Nebraska is a big wide-open state with endless vistas of corn and wheat interspersed with houses, barns, and windmills.  Actually there is much more to it than that, but farming is the dominant perception one has while driving through the state.

I had to visit a company store in Kearney where one of the department managers was an old high school friend.  Actually he went to a different high school from me, but we lived near each other, and soon became friends.  It seems his family was from near Kearney and had a rather large farm they tended, but for about four years mom and the kids moved to Fort Worth to take care of a sick relative.  I lost track of Barney just after graduation when his family moved away.  When I met him again, it was at the store in Kearney, to which his family had returned.

We spent the evening discussing old times, and it wasn’t long before he invited me to his family farm for a visit.  He mentioned hunting prairie chicken if I could make it there in the next few weeks.  Hunt??  Is a four-pound canary fat??  Yes!  I will be there!

I went on to a number of other company stores in the central plains before I could arrange to return to Kearney, but in a couple of weeks I was back and ready for prairie chicken.  I drove to Barn’s family farm where he and I went over our plans.  Well, actually he went over the plans.  I just listened.  I was quite surprised that this hunt was not with shotguns, but with cameras.

I didn’t quite know what to think.  I had never thought of hunting without some kind of a weapon, and I couldn’t understand the purpose, but I had my camera with me, and I was willing to give it a try.

That evening, just as the sun was disappearing, we were sitting outside on his front porch, and I could hear the strangest noise in the distance.  It sounded something like a “boom” or a prolonged “thump.”  “That’s the chicken we’re looking for.”  Barn told me the place we were going before sunrise would be filled with that noise.

Well, okay.  I can’t say I was enthused.  I really wanted to taste some prairie chicken, but my friend was certain I would enjoy using a camera on these birds. 

By 4am the next morning we were in his Jeep driving to the far end of the farm where a large area was still untouched prairie grasslands.  We stopped and hiked about a quarter of a mile to a place where that booming sound could be heard very close by.  Here we sat down and waited, but we didn’t wait long.  As the sky quickly grew light, the prairie chickens begin to gather. 

For about 3 hours I was treated to a ritual the likes of which I had never before witnessed.  It was a mating ritual where the male prairie chickens would dance, jump, vault, spread their plumage, and in general put on a display designed to attract a female prairie chicken.  The booming was almost non-stop among the male birds, and the females were gathered around watching.  Sometimes a female bird would join in with a male and soon the new couple would disappear into the prairie grass to do their prairie chicken stuff in private.

I watched with my mouth hanging open until a fly flew in.  After that I remembered what I was there for.  I picked up my camera and started taking pictures.  I believe I burned through every roll of film I had with me that day.  Most of the photos were bad, but a handful were very good by my amateur standards, and I enjoyed looking at them and bringing back the memories for several years.

I never had another opportunity to hunt prairie chicken either with a camera or a shotgun, and it’s just as well.  Like so many of our wild game in North America, the numbers are dwindling and careful management is necessary for the species’ survival. 

I won’t say whether hunting or fishing is right or wrong, but a camera can provide great satisfaction to a hunter or fisherman.  I haven’t hunted for many years now, but that is mostly due to physical abilities.  And even if I could hunt today, it would most likely be with a camera.  As for fishing, I catch and release, and when I can remember to bring a camera along, I photograph my catch.

My prairie chicken hunt was in 1972.  I like to think there are many more birds today just because I used a camera rather than my shotgun back then.

Monday, October 6, 2014

A Man of Few Words

I’ve known quiet people in my life, but one stands out as unique.  Most quiet people have a voice, and when they speak, they really have something to say.  Small talk is worthless to them, but they are not without a sense of humor and will occasionally participate in a joke or good story.  However…

Late in the spring one year I was in the town of Rutland, Vermont to meet with the manager of the small store my company had there.  I never quite figured out the culture of the area, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.  Some years later someone told me the harder I tried to figure it out, the worse the divide would become.  The best way to function was to keep one’s mouth shut and just watch.  Meanwhile, I was working hard at having a conversation with Josiah.

I arrived at the store and asked to see the manager.  The employee raised an eyebrow, looked me up and down, and then pointed toward a corner of the store.  I walked over to the corner where two men were looking at a few sheets of paper.  I asked if one of them was the store manager.  Both nodded ‘yes.’  I introduced myself to both of them, and one motioned me to follow him.

Walking through the store to the manager’s office, I realized no one was talking.  There were sales personnel waiting on customers, but not a word was being uttered.  The store was so quiet it felt almost strange.  Once in the office Josiah sat down behind his desk and looked over at me until I began to squirm.  Finally I sat down, reached into my briefcase for some papers, and handed them to him.  He looked them over, signed them, and handed them back to me.  Then he got up and walked out of the office.  Not a word had been spoken.

I sat there for a few moments wondering what I should do next before he walked back in with two fishing rods and a tackle box.  He reached into his wallet, pulled out his fishing license and pointed at it with his eyebrows raised.  I reached into my wallet, shuffled through about thirty fishing licenses from various states until I found the one for Vermont.  I lifted it up, pointed at it, and raised my eyebrows.  Josiah smiled.  We walked out to his truck, climbed in and drove a few miles to the east to a place called Kent Pond.

We were both still dressed in suits as we fished along the dam and from along the shore of this small impoundment, but we weren’t alone.  I saw four or five other fishermen wearing suits or at least upscale casual during our four or five hours at the water’s edge.  The fish we caught were pumpkin seed and largemouth bass, and after we cleaned them, Josiah wrapped them in newspaper and placed them in an empty cooler.  From there we drove to a nearby house where he disappeared inside with the cooler for a few minutes.  Soon he was back in the truck and we were driving back to the store.  Silence reigned supreme.  There was not a word about the fish, the fishing, the weather, business—anything.  I wondered if this man could even speak at all.

Back in Josiah’s office, he picked up a few papers from his desk and handed them to me to look at.  On top was a newspaper comic strip of ‘Barney Google’ and below it was one of ‘Li’l Abner.’  Underneath that was a stack of blank typing paper.  I looked at these for a while, and then handed them back.  He nodded in approval, and then got up and showed me the door.

I drove back up to Montpelier where I was staying at a motel. And I’ve wondered ever since what happened.