Saturday, October 8, 2011

the hidden farm

I started my day yesterday morning in my father's blaze orange deer hunting jacket, walking through the nearby NY state gamelands with my shotgun. I had on knee-high rubber boots, extra-denim padded brier field pants, and a flannel shirt. I had not had coffee, or even fed the sheep yet. This early dawn was for me, and the forest, and the hope that I could put a pheasant in the bed of the truck and make a pot pie for dinner. I walked through the woods, listening, breathing slowly, senses on fire, my desire focused. The world was beautiful, and I was a part of it then. There is no sitting on the bench when pursuing game. You are on the front lines of the way things are. Your hackles are raised but your mind's a haiku.

I adore hunting, the whole process. I love the silent times waiting for turkeys in the blind, or the high stepping conversations and laughter and loping dogs of the upland fields. I love knowing that I am engaging in one of the oldest activities humanity has ever known, and how it brings me back in time to feelings and anticipations rarely equalled anywhere else.

I didn't get a pheasant. I didn't even see one. But I did spend an hour hiking, tuned in, and not worried about missed emails or office work or hoof rot. My mind was in pursuit, which is when I am at my best.

Us humans are carnivores that hunt in daylight and live in community groups. So are dogs. It's why scientists believe we paired up as early as we did. Long before horses were pulling carts or cats curled up in our laps: people and dogs were a team with a common goal of living another day with the other's help. If you watch a shepherd and his dog work sheep, you see something not too different than early man and their wolfish kin working together to gather a different meal.

I never thought this would be a passion of mine. I never thought I would be the pickup pulled over on the side of the road where the state land begins with a deer sticker on her truck and a gun in the back seat. I'm ashamed to admit that I used to think, not that long ago, that trucks, camouflage shirts, blaze orange hats, and guns were things for dull minds without anything else to do. I am ashamed I looked down on hunters, hunting, and the important role we play in managing wildlife and promoting local food. It is one of the endless changes in how I see the world that farming and rural life has granted me. Now I own a blaze orange hat. I dream of venison in my freezer. I feel safer, more prepared, and more alive in the world because of it. And now there is little that rubs me the wrong way more than hunter jokes or assumptions. Some think hunting is man playing dominator of nature, a rampage of ownership and carnage. Hunters are not above nature, we are simply participating in it.

A few years ago I was a vegetarian.

But now, hooooo! Lord, do I love the food! The forests offer here in the North Country. I adore rabbit, pheasant, venison, duck, goose, elk, moose, and stag. I think the best piece of meat I ever ate was at the cookout after last summer's Hunter Safety Class where the Orvis staff cooked up some red stag from Europe that made the best beef steak I ever ate in my life taste like a hockey puck. It's true.

After my hunting adventure was over, I came home to the farm and put my shotgun away. I grabbed my trusty .22 long rifle, a good friend. The gun I know inside and out, that I have used to put down livestock and hunt small game. I took it with me back into the wilder places of my property, not so much to hunt as to retain that sense of vigilance I had when I was dreaming of pheasant pie.

The forest at my place is magical. It is a system of ravines and paths that lead to long forgotten orchards and groves, stone steps that lead to where a barn once stood, circles of fieldstone, running streams, old stone walls and a history of people and farmers who were here since before the American revolution. I walked back there in awe, stopping at a steep ravine that looked down on the stream running to my pond. That is where that picture was taken, the hidden farm.

I spent so much time on my farm in the domesticated places. Working inside fences and open spaces. But yesterday I walked past the wing of a dead chicken, the giant fox's latest meal (He is the size of a labrador, several people have seen him. His tail is as long as my arm, white as snow on the tip). I found deer scat, and then, with shock, bear scat. I had to double check my tracking books but it was bear scat and it was fresh. This was not the backyards of my hometown, this was a wild place. A place of monsters and crime scenes but also a place of dappled sunlight, and old barn steps, and groves of orchards long forgotten. There are eaters and eaten here. I am one of them. I am not above this system, and find peace knowing my place inside it.

I'm a carnivore. I hunt by daylight. I seek community.



Blogger Goat Song said...

Awesome post. :) Thanks for sharing!

October 8, 2011 at 11:13 AM  
Blogger Flartus said...

I don't know if it's age, or my growing-longer separation from wild spaces, but more and more I am in tune with the Indian's inability to understand the concept of owning land. How can you claim ownership of something so ever-changing and interconnected to the weather, to living and dying plants and animals, to millennia of geologic forces and to time itself?

October 8, 2011 at 11:35 AM  
Blogger Flartus said...

(Jenna, that wasn't meant as a diss! Just expressing a respect for nature that I know you share.)

October 8, 2011 at 11:36 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

I agree! I only "own" this place in a legal sense for our societys current system and culture. It's where I sleep and feel safe and needed.

But man, does it feel good not having someone else deciding what I can raise and plant or how long I can stay...

October 8, 2011 at 11:51 AM  
Blogger Kat said...

I had read "Made from Scratch" and wondered about your transformation from vegetarian to hunter--what things had made you change your mind. I think that by playing an active part in the food chain--having to take an animal's life in order to feed oneself or one's family, one retains a sense of gratefulness and appreciation for that life and for nature in general. This is something lost, I think, in our age of 'pre-packaged' food. I'm still 'mostly' vegetarian. I don't much care for meat, and I do feel the twinge of guilt with the occasional chicken breast or seafood; for as a beginner in homesteading, I'm still just a consumer, not an active participant in the food chain. It was nice to hear about your changing thoughts and rationale--thanks for the peak into the 'hidden farm'.

October 8, 2011 at 12:13 PM  
Blogger Monster Librarian said...


I loved this post!

October 8, 2011 at 12:30 PM  
Blogger redbird said...

Some of the most intellectual and ecologically minded people I know are hunters—both male and female. Looking forward to some hunting this fall/winter myself. Hard to picture pheasants in the forest but I know they’re there! I’m so used to the fields of South Dakota where it’s joked you can bag as many birds by hitting them with a vehicle as they fly across the road as with a shotgun…love there cackle which was background music to my life for many years. Good luck at getting a few for your table! Love how you describe your forest as well, it does sound magical—your writing is wonderful. Keep enjoying your Saturday!

October 8, 2011 at 12:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should come to my subdivision and "hunt" the wild turkeys that roam in flocks of 35 this time of year. They'll stand toe-to-toe with any cat or dog on a walk and play chicken with oncoming SUVs. They're hardly a challenge to shoot, but I'd appreciate if you could not shoot them when my kids are in the neighborhood (it's a safety thing.)

October 8, 2011 at 2:09 PM  
Blogger Karen Rickers said...

Such a great post!

October 8, 2011 at 4:07 PM  
Blogger Debi said...

Beautiful picture and post! The woods of NY are certainly magical. I'm so glad you are enjoying your land and home. :)

October 8, 2011 at 4:37 PM  
Blogger Jen said...

I must say, I envy you your venison (And bear ;) )

October 8, 2011 at 4:40 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

What a lovely essay about the upstate NY woods in the fall. I wish I was a hunter but it is a skill I've never attempted. I would suggest that corn fields might be a better choice for hunting Pheasant.
I hope you get a deer this fall. You probably won't see anything more of the bear than the scat. I found bear sign in my woods today too.

October 8, 2011 at 5:21 PM  
Blogger Kathleen Stoltzfus said...

Wait - you have a pond?!?

How excellent is that?

October 8, 2011 at 5:50 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

I have a pond! small, but spring fed and full of bass!

October 8, 2011 at 5:57 PM  
Blogger Firecracker Farm said...

Well written. Well lived.

October 8, 2011 at 6:58 PM  
Blogger PansWife said...

Are you sure you have pheasant in your area? Unless they are stocking for game bird season I think your climate is too cold for them. You should see turkey this time of year. Bon appetite.

October 8, 2011 at 7:06 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

PansWife- there were Pheasant in Jen's area when I was growing up there. My Uncles, both hunters, got them and I remember seeing them.

October 8, 2011 at 7:44 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

NY state hires farmers to raise them for hunting season, some are native though, not many.

October 8, 2011 at 7:51 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

As the wife, daughter, and friend of many avid hunters, and the occasional tag-along hunter myself, I really appreciate you sharing your views. Too often hunters are viewed as idiot red-necks who would like nothing more than to shoot up every living thing they see. The truth is that the vast majority of hunters care deeply about the animals they hunt and want them to proliferate and live their natural wild lives.

October 8, 2011 at 9:07 PM  
Blogger Lori said...

OMG Jenna,
Loved the post but loved the way you signed off even more.

October 8, 2011 at 9:31 PM  
Blogger luckybunny said...

Awesome you have a pond full of bass! I was a vegan for 10 years, so I can relate to the being a vegetarian and than hunting thing. We hunted partridge today, with no luck... we came home covered in ticks... but it was still worth the effort and it's beautiful being out in the forest in the quiet just enjoying nature, whether you get anything or not. Great post.

October 8, 2011 at 10:42 PM  
Blogger Karen said...

Your posts often make me homesick; but in a good way. The gratefulness you have for the life you are living shines through.

October 8, 2011 at 10:55 PM  
Blogger Christine said...

What a beautiful piece of land you have; I didn't realize you had that much property.
I like the word "steward" instead of "owner" when talking about land. We are caretakers, temporary but capable of such great care or destruction. Your little slice of country is lucky to have such a good steward.

October 8, 2011 at 11:50 PM  
Blogger Bovey Belle said...

Good to read of you shaking of the scales of the 20th century and stepping back into the Mesolithic - albeit with some modern-day technology rather than a flint-tipped spear!

Beautifully-written - I felt I was at your elbow. We all need to "touch-base" like this. To become part of the natural world and realize our position within in. I agree with you over the point Flartus made, how can we "own" this land? Although boundaries were put up as long ago as the Bronze Age and perhaps earlier in Europe.

Nothing tastes so good as wild food, because it tastes of what it has eaten (natural herbage etc, not something man-made from the feed store). Best meat we've ever had was venison (wild red deer in this case) caught on HM the Queen's Balmoral Estate, and bought from a top-class butcher her in Carmarthenshire. Properly hung and you could have cut it with your fingers. The flavour was out of this world.

October 9, 2011 at 3:03 AM  
Blogger shepherdkelly said...

beautiful nature pictures, would love to see more, hint hint!

October 9, 2011 at 9:10 AM  
Blogger Tina - Our Rustic Roots said...

I'm not as good with words as you are, but hunting is an art and an important step in managing wild life and I'm glad you are involved in it now. I know that your words and experiences will help others who have never been involved to at least understand it better, even if they never participate.

We've got two deer in the freezer so far this year and hoping to get a few more. I hope your freezer is full of venison soon, too.

October 9, 2011 at 9:33 AM  
Blogger Carol said...

My husband always says there is nothing better than a walk in the woods with your shotgun to clear the head and feed the soul! He's usually trying to feed the belly as well, lol. So glad to know you are enjoying all the farm before the winter sets in and you don't get to trudge off to far. Happy Autumn, my favorite time of year!

October 9, 2011 at 10:02 AM  
Blogger Niki said...

Great post! And don't feel bad about your previous thoughts towards hunters. We're used to it. The important thing is that you learned the truth.
Welcome to the pack!

October 9, 2011 at 10:27 AM  
Blogger Burk said...

First and foremost, I loved your post. However, I grew up in the Arkansas Delta. A land of monoculture commodity farming. I grew up on one of those farms and grew up hunting. Over the last few years I have started to learn a new way of agriculture, the way people like you do it. Sustainable, diversified. My history with hunting was a bunch of guys getting drunk with guns and killing things. Camo was a fashion statement. There was no appreciation of the culture and lore that goes along with it that you so eloquently put forth. I really appreciate what Orvis as a company has done to show me a different side of hunting and fishing that I can now appreciate.

October 9, 2011 at 10:38 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Burk, I do know that side of hunting exists. Up here, it can be like that too. A lot of people won't let you hunt on their land because deadbeats left a case of cheap beer cans all over their field and shot a hole in the side of the barn.

I am grateful to be learning from the Orvis staff and customs, while the company mostly focuses on bird hunting: most of the guys at work hunt deer, fish for bass with bait, and ice fish too! We can get a little stuffy sometimes with wildrose kennels, and $5,000 shotguns, but I hunt without a dog and a used $125 shotgun...

October 9, 2011 at 10:43 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

This was a delight - one of your best posts! Thank you for sharing your farm's secrets and for using such beautiful wordcraft.

October 9, 2011 at 7:52 PM  
Blogger Sewing Machine Girl said...

Jenna, having grown up with wild pheasant all around. Just a tip: they like grasslands and low scrub. You will never see them in the deep forest (as far as my experience goes). I spent a lot of time as a child in winter, following their tracks on top of the snow in hayfields, only to flush them out with that special crowing sound they make. Music to my ears. Happy Hunting!

October 9, 2011 at 8:19 PM  
Blogger Lilly said...

I really like how you discuss hunting, since there are so many misconceptions and misunderstandings out there. I agree that most hunters are ecologically and conservation minded, in contrast to the redneck stereotypes. My husband and I are members of a mounted foxhunting group (where RARELY ever is a fox killed) and are frequently startled by people's misconceptions. People are just not connected to the reality of nature anymore.

October 10, 2011 at 10:51 AM  
Blogger Tami said...

Love it. While we are no where near NY (um...cascade mountains in southwestern WA) we do have pheasant in the "deep forest" here. No idea about where you are. :-) Just saw a beautiful female this last weekend while out scouting for deer and elk. They are not something typically seen here however. Too wet and cool along with a lack of grain farmers.

October 10, 2011 at 12:24 PM  
Blogger Spiderjohn said...

Jenna, I wish you would take a hunting partner with you when you go out like that. Way to many accidents can and have happened out in the woods. Be careful!

October 10, 2011 at 12:32 PM  
Blogger hlbrack said...

This was such a wonderful post...I grew up in a family of hunters, and I feel the same way that you do - far too often they are drastically misunderstood. My father has been a hunter ever since he was a young boy and I have never met anyone who appreciates the natural world more than he does :)

October 10, 2011 at 8:11 PM  

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