To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Part 3: Post 12: Paleolithic Dinner

 They took down the bird feeders from the little garden behind the Mansion weeks ago—before all the snow was melted, actually. The idea is to avoid attracting bears, a goal I can whole-heartedly support. There are bears in the area—every so often someone sees one on campus, usually sniffing around the composters or the sheds where they slaughter animals sometimes. But those areas are bear-proofed, so they don’t bother to stay. There are coyotes, too. I’ve heard them singing. Anyway, so I didn’t object when they took down the feeders, but I was kind of sad. I’m not a birder, but I kind of liked watching them at the feeders while I did my homework.

I needn’t have worried; it turns out that whole garden is a bird feeder. Also a butterfly feeder.
The garden has a very Japanese look, with dark evergreens contrasting nicely with the white bark of a few paper birches and the reddish bark of serviceberries, and all the trees pruned low and twisted into interesting, abstract shapes. The serviceberries bloomed early in the spring, before most of the trees had leafed out, these pale pink to white flowers, elegant as brush-strokes. Now, a couple of crabapples and wild cherries have just finished up, their petals cover the ground like snow. A large rock and a couple of big rounds of white pine wood, neither of which, I’m betting, started out here, are covered with moss and little spring flowers—Canada mayflower, goldthread, fringed polygala, and others I haven’t looked up yet—right behind the little Victorian-looking cast-iron bench. A little 
fountain that wasn’t there in the winter bubbles gently into a stone bird-bath and over-flows in a little trickle into a concrete basin lined with gently sloping stones on one side and a very gently sloping slab of mud on the other. Except right after it rains, most of that slab is exposed mud, maybe two square feet worth, but around it are bright green plants that get a couple inches taller almost every day. If you take a leaf off one and put it under water, it turns all silver. When you pull the leaf out again, it isn’t even wet.

And the whole thing, I just learned this, is designed for birds and butterflies. The squirrels tapped the birches and the crabapples for sap (you’d think they’d use sugar maples, but for some reason they usually don’t), and we had hummingbirds here coming to the sap wells even before any of the flowers came out. The green plants that turn silver in water are jewelweed plants, and they’ll make hummingbird flowers later in the summer. The crabapple and services will also fruit and attract birds, as will the cherries, except the cherries also support an uncommonly high number of caterpillars, which is to say, also bird food. Most of the flowers and shrubs either feed butterflies, support a lot of caterpillars, or both. The slab of mud allows some species of butterflies to drink, and the sloping stones allow easy access for frogs and toads, which are interesting in their own right (they eat mosquitoes and they sing), but every so often a heron flies over and eats some of them, so they are bird food, too.

 It’s all Charlie’s doing, of course, but apparently he insists it’s just a bear-proof bird feeder, installed for people who like to watch wildlife. He says this as though he were not one of these people. Personally, I think it can’t be “just” a bird feeder. I mean, there are people who can’t manage to garden for tomatoes; gardening for herons and hummingbirds seems pretty magical to me.

But if Charlie has an interesting way of attracting wildlife he wants, he has an equally novel way of getting rid of animals he does not want. With the sun rising so early now, Ollie and I have started running together before zazen three days a week. The other three days (there’s no morning zazen on Sunday) I go for a walk on campus. I like it; it’s cool and quiet, except for the chorus of birds. I still make a habit of counting all the separate sounds I can hear. And the other day I was walking through the line of trees that boarder the farm fields when I saw Charlie.

He was crouching just under the far edge of the trees, so he was hard to see through the leaves, and he did not turn around, but he must have heard me because he reached back and started to wave at me to stop or go away—but in the middle of the wave he stopped, as though reconsidering, and gestured for me to sit down. I couldn't tell if he knew who I was, since he hadn't turned around, but  I sat down as quietly as I could and watched him.

He was hunting.

Barefoot, as usual, he was crouching under cover of the trees with a leather quiver of arrows on his back, his powerful-looking bow half drawn. He was aiming at...what? I couldn't see. Suddenly he drew his bow fully and loosed an arrow, then nocked and shot two more arrows in unbelievably quick succession, cursed, and ran forward.

I crept to the edge of the trees in time to see Charlie standing over a dying woodchuck as it struggled, pinned to the ground by his arrow. As I watched he shot it again at close range and motioned me forward. He did seem to know who I was.

"I don't mind missing," he told me when I walked up, "but I hate half-kills. I hate it when they suffer."

He had apparently shot at three woodchucks that had been feeding together near the deer fence. The first he had taken by surprise and killed cleanly, but the other two ran and one escaped and the other didn't.

"Why shoot them at all?" I asked, though I thought I knew the answer.

Rough Sketch of a hunting point
 "They'd eat all our vegetables if I didn't. It's this or traps or poison. Or smoke bombs down their holes. This is better. I know what I kill when I kill it, and they die fast, mostly. And I know where they are, so there's less waste." As he spoke, he pulled a pair of heavy rubber gloves out of his shoulder bag, put them on, and freed his arrows from the carcass. The arrows had nasty-looking hunting points, like convergent razor blades. Then he wrapped the carcass in an oilcloth bag and walked over to the other dead woodchuck. "The gloves are for safety; rodent fleas can carry plague. Did you know that? And any mammal could have rabies."

"What are you going to do with the bodies?" I asked, because he was clearly going to do something with them.

"Have you seen 'Dissect a Woodchuck' on the schedule? This is the woodchuck." I had, in fact, seen it, it came up in the weekly list of talks and seminars almost every other week. I'd been meaning to go but hadn't gotten around to it yet.

"And then? You don't just use them for that talk, right?" I was pretty sure he must be killing more woodchucks than could be used for teaching. Maybe he fed them to the campus cats and dogs? 

"And then I eat them," he said, grinning at me. I should learn not to let him surprise me so easily, but eat a woodchuck?

"I didn't know you could eat a woodchuck," I told him.

"Oh sure. Cooked thoroughly it's perfectly safe, organic, don't know about the dinner, do you?"

I didn't. What dinner?

"Paleolithic Dinner. It's a little get-together I host. Invitation only. You're invited."

Well, then.

"What sort of get-together?"

"It's a pot-luck. The catch is you have to bring something you harvested yourself, from within walking distance. Something we didn't plant or raise. Except for seasonings, can get those from the kitchen."

 "Charlie, I'd love to go, but I don't know anything about foraging...or hunting."

"No better time to learn. But for now--you know Rick? He's a senior student, Snake Dorm, I think. Get him to help you." 

So, I guess I get to eat a woodchuck.

No comments:

Post a Comment