The January Hills…

and their denizens. Federico Calbolli sent me this video of a hunting fisher in Canada.  It is a great hunting scene– watch how she overcomes the hare -pure speed and focused audacity!

Here is the video, and text:

They are splendid but slightly scary creatures. Long ago I lived in western Mass, in a drafty 1700’s farmhouse on a ridge overlooking Quabbin reservoir, in a place  that shows on maps as the January Hills– a perfect name, though nobody ever used it in my presence. (Think of Ray Bradbury’s October country, the idea as well as the book). There we sometimes saw one, usually crossing the dirt road below, often in a single bound if they were in a hurry.They are fearless and brook no trespass; a Maine  bowhunter I know fired an arrow idly at one and it came halfway up the tree to his stand, baring its teeth and hissing like a cat. Look at the way that thing just sucked up that hare. At the beginning, I wouldn’t have given it a chance. She  did it with almost frightening ease.

They are also one of the few carnivores who regularly prey on porcupines; they get under them somehow and attack through the belly. We had  a ead tree in the woods side of our yard that for some reason was a magnet for mating porcupines very early in the spring. As at the time one of us had an exceptionally dumb bird dog, a German shorthair, who constantly tried to kill porcupines in revenge for  the pain that the last one had caused him (try holding down a large pointer sedated only with a pill, with a broomstick in his jaws to give us access to his mouth and his jaws tied tight with a rag- and removing, often, over a hundred quills with needle nosed pliers, and you will guess how we felt about porcupines).

But then then the fisher found them. In a week they were all gone.We picked up three hollow carcasses, neatly emptied. We never saw a porcupine in that tree again.

That area is between Shutesbury and Franklin, where the road north dead-ends in a forgotten town so as not to drop off into the Swift river, and the tiny dirt-road towns on the east side of the hills were high enough to avoid drowning when Boston secured secure water by drowning seven (I think) towns in the valley.

It’s a beautiful place, full of wildlife. Seventy-five miles from Boston you can see many deer, occasional moose, a solitary mountain lion, the wolf-like coyotes that I don’t think are a new phenomenon. You can see them killing deer on the ice in Quabbin in the winter. Bald eagles nest there, and all small predators and game animals — it’s a great place for goshawks.

But there is something sort of creepy about it: it is full of old abandoned ghost settlements, deep in the woods. There are open stone wells that are as hazardous to you as to your dog when you are out grouse hunting. There are at least two inhabited houses dating back as far as the 1600’s, with that black Puritan architecture, and tiny leaded windows. This was one of the battlefields of King Phillip’s War, and there are even signs of that. Libby and I took directions to a stone underground structure about 5 miles up one of these dirt tracks. It was big enough for both of us to fit comfortably, and we peeked out through roots of a giant white pine.

“This too has been one of the world’s dark places..” (Writer? Bonus points for narrator and setting).

H P Lovecraft wrote about these brooks and hills, and peopled them with monsters. He also used his knowledge of the drowning of the towns to write his story “The Color Out of Space”. I think the only place more Lovecraftian is Providence at sunset. It used to be my home, and sometimes I miss it just a bit, though I was iving off clean roadkill and sometimes poached deer, shooting grouse with a 16 gauge Browning and a 20 bore LC, and running a successful wood business. I was also the acting editor of English Literary Renaissance, where Arthur, my boss, asked me to cold-call Phillip Larkin and ask him for a contribution to our Marvell issue, as they had both been librarians at Hull. Since I was so young and dumb I did not know I should be scared of him, and he was very nice, and contributed one. I also got one from my friend -to- be Gerry Cox, but it was 40 years before we actually met…

Update: here is a fine block print by the master of the medium, Francis Lee Jacques, for Victor Cahalane’s Mammals of North America .  Forgot I had it, which was not as weird as the incident of my copy of Birds of Tibet. Remind me…

Meanwhile, at sea…

Brother- in- law George Graham has been getting more and more involved in observing, counting, and studying marine birds and fish off the coast of Massachusetts, so far as a volunteer. He sent this report and these excellent photos, as migration stretces its  lines down the coasts. My only caveat is that George will have to tell you what his acronyms mean.Take it, George!

“I finally made it on one of the last excursions of the year on the R/V Auk 25 miles out to the SBNMS with the crew from NOAA. We had a fantastic day this past Monday, calm seas, low wind and temps about 60. Pretty good score for an October day off Massachusetts Bay. The primary objective was gathering data on seabirds following a predetermined course of over 100 miles, secondary were mammal and debris observations. We counted over 1800 birds in about 17 species. A great experience. Now that I’m a trained recorder, I’m looking forward to riding the whale watches next spring as a Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Steward (S4 project).

“I was the test dummy for the safety brief, see gumby suit. Group shot of the S4 volunteers. The gent on the left is Wayne Petersen,  Mass Audubon’s Director of the Massachusetts Important Bird Areas (IBA) program. He was a great source of knowledge and a pleasure to work with.”

Steve again. Scoters and eiders; more than a bit of nostalgia there. The two opposing poles, the yin and the yang  of Yankee bird hunting, are the slow- moving, rather comfortable ramble with a pretty setter through the transformed glory of a New England autumn, with grouse and woodcock as quarry, and eating such noble quarry cooked by traditional, classical recipes… I mean, the French cook such birds right.

And then there are sea ducks– shot from small boats,  often on dark days off dangerous coasts,  with an east wind blowing sleet and freezing rain at you midst turbulence and discomfort and the smell of salt air and wet dog. A Chessie might beat a Lab, and a ten bore might be the best choice in a gun. To cook them well you had best know some old swamp Yankee secrets or you’d do better to eat the legendary board you were supposed to nail them to.

You might be surprised which I remember best.

Another Letter

Stuff keeps falling out as I reread old books. Angus Cameron, author of the LL Bean Game & Fish Cookbook and Jack O’Connor’s editor at (ahem) Knopf, sent me a copy of this exchange over The New Yorker review of O’Connor’s… The Rifle Book! Click to enlarge:

Jack also got an obit in the NYT. It was a better time– and if you don’t think so look at the Atlantic fiasco below…

Some “Country” Music Videos: Nostalgia and Chills…

Not all “country” music is unsophisticated or even American. Here I give you a bunch of stuff I have been working through and following. Let us start with Tom Russell’s classic “US Steel”— a straight- up traditional country lament complete with sweet pedal steel, but set in Pennsylvania rather than on the border or even Appalachia, full of sad images of decaying industry. I sent it to Marty Stupich, who worked in and documented that mill in the 80’s and now is photographing the abandoned smelter in El Paso, and to Retrieverman in West Virginia, who has been musing on such things. (I also suggested he look at a pre- doctrinaire Steve Earle in the stirring if slightly sinister “Copperhead Road” — a mini- movie with echoes of Thunder Road. Rednecks strike back…)

Which suggested in turn Show of Hands’ poignant “Country Life”. No jobs… no pubs… even in the American west, are we following England down?

The next jump almost leaves the tradition– Show of Hands provides the soundtrack to a traditional, rhyming poem turned strange, a very dark contemporary Christmas tale by Charles Causley, but the images in this version are adopted from Anime! I think it works. Causley changed Herod, the archetype of an arbitrary wicked king, into a more contemporary bogeyman, a sort of supernatural child molester, and put him in the English countryside. SOH gave him a soundtrack that stands at least MY hair on end. And the animator covered all this and added an apocalyptic edge– look at the sky and feel the wind over the line “…melt in a million suns”.

Enough doom! End your tour with “Longdog”, a merry tale of a merry poacher and his lurcher, also by Show of Hands; a hunter- gatherer, a “Municipal Paleolithic Man” in action. If dogs are outlawed only outlaws will have dogs…

A Car

Mary Anne Rose, who is responsible for my dictation software (and who is a doc and who has and loves deerhounds) also likes old cars. She sent me a photo of herself in a Morris Minor station wagon she is trying to get California legal– bet that is no fun at all!
I was amazed because my first car was a Morris wagon or more properly “shooting brake”. It looked like a ’48 Ford woodie the size of a Volkswagen bug. (In Cambridge once, I returned to my car to find such a Ford parked by it. Its owner looked at me and said “I didn’t know it was pregnant.”)

So I had to find this and scan it for her. Me in the yellow and old friend Mike Conca (who now has a huge white beard) at a filling station in Connecticut, 1966 or 7, on our way to the Lime Rock sports car races. Another world.