Archive for March, 2018

  • Blog
  • March 26th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

“I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics. There is a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?” That’s ranked number 42 among the 100 most famous movie quotes of all time. From the 1967 movie, The Graduate. More prophetic words never were spoken, although not in the context meant by the speaker, who was giving career advice to young and confused Benjamin.

Fast forward to 2018 and the news that in the Los Angeles area alone, ten metric tons of plastic fragments—like grocery bags, straws soda bottles— are carried into the Pacific ocean every day. I recently saw a video of a person underwater in the ocean swimming through what looked like a blizzard. The water was virtually opaque with bits of white material. Snow? No, it was particles of plastic clogging the ocean with a frightening curtain of a substance which will still be there decades if not hundreds of years in the future. Plastic does not deteriorate. It just endures, an everlasting example of man’s inhumanity to his environment. Mother birds collect the droppings, eliminated by their babies and carry them from the nest for disposal elsewhere. Man, unlike so-called lesser creatures, routinely shits in his own nest. Where is man’s mother bird when we need her so desperately?

I am the scourge of grocery clerks from Hawaii to Maine. When they see me coming they hide under the checkout counter because they know if they even reach a hand toward a plastic bag I am going to jump down their throats, snarling and growling and roaring, “I don’t want your rotten plastic bags! Don’t even think about putting my groceries in one!”

And I slam a recyclable grocery bag on the counter, two or three if necessary, and fix the innocent clerk with a misguided glare. It’s not the clerk’s fault— it is the fault of the management that trains clerks to stuff all groceries in plastic bags regardless of the lack of need to do so. Somewhere in the manual of grocery store management is a clause which reads, “It is a firing offense to fail to diligently put all groceries in plastic bags, and contribute to the defiling of the environment.” That clause must be in the manual, because they all do it and they do it because they are stupid, careless, ignorant, and uncaring about the world we have to live in.

Or, more likely, the world our descendants will have to live in, contaminated by plastic debris so thick that it will be difficult to find what little soil is left to raise the food that today we are so dedicated to stuffing in plastic bags. If you want to be bumfuzzled by statistics: about 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide every year more than one million plastic bags are used every minute of that year.

I hate statistics because they depersonalize the human element in a crisis. But the figures are undeniable—we are drowning in a sea of plastics. More than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped in the oceans every year and more than 100 billion plastic beverage bottles are sold in the US every year. The estimate is that about 50 per cent of all plastic used in various ways is just used once and then is thrown away.

Once, I was canoeing down an Ozark stream when I saw a great blue heron in distress. It had gotten tangled in the plastic holder of a sixpack, legacy of some previous and obviously uncaring boater. I managed to free the bird, wary of its stiletto beak and we went our separate ways— perhaps the bird to become further tangled in a snarl of monofilament fishing line discarded by yet another careless river user, or maybe in another sixpack snare.

In 1952, the year I remember buying a cup of coffee for the first time— I decided to pull an all nighter study session at the University of Missouri, thinking that was what college students had to do to pass tests. I was a freshman from a literal backwater town (it once bordered the Missouri River, but the capricious River went away).

The coffee cost me a nickel. And there probably were free refills, although this being University coffee it probably was so bad I didn’t want any. After a cup or two, I decided I knew the subject of the test well enough that I didn’t have to stay up all night drinking coffee to get ready for it and I never again pulled an all night marathon. I passed the test. I could have bought two glasses (in a glass) of beer at The Shack for the price of the two cups of coffee, although I might not have passed the test the next day.

Now, Starbucks, the business most associated with a cup of coffee, will stick you more than two dollars and up to almost five dollars for various coffee concoctions. And they will throw in a nonrecyclable plastic-lined cup which you can pitch (and most drinkers probably will) when you are finished, and thus contribute your own little bit to the deterioration of the environment. In 2008, Starbucks promised to cut its plastic waste by switching to recyclable cups, but in spite of that promise they continue to litter the landscape with about 4 billion of those cups annually.

To be fair,in a classic case of better late than never, Starbucks has announced a $10 million challenge, offering grants to anyone who can come up with a disposable cup. Starbucks does add a surcharge in England to penalize those who use throwaway cups.

Other companies are joining the effort to limit trash, including McDonald’s which hopes to reach 100% recyclable packaging within 10 years. Dunkin’ Donuts is getting rid of all its polystyrene cups by 2020, Evian Water promises to make all its plastic bottles from 100% recycled plastic within 10 years and both Coca-Cola and Pepsi have similar plans. All these are optimistic and encouraging signs, but the uncomfortable truth is that 1000 years from now what’s already in the environment will still be there.

Roadside trash not only is endemic, but it also is mostly plastic—what is not aluminum beer cans pitched there by the local redneckery. Some years back, Texas instituted the nation’s first Adopt a Highway program where volunteers would clean up sections of the roadway. Good for Texas. But I also once was in a car driving around San Antonio and the roadways were absolutely the most littered of any I have ever seen anywhere. Missouri, my home, was the second state to institute an Adopt a Highway cleanup program, but it has languished for lack of promotion and now we can stack our strewn highways up against Texas or anybody else. Not exactly an inducement to enjoy a Sunday drive. New Hampshire has the cleanest highways I have ever driven on and the state could serve as an example to the other 49 sloppy ones.

Theoretically, most plastic could be recycled if people would take the trouble to gather it and do it. It can be melted down and be used to make useful items, such as chairs and tables. However, the problems of such recycling are many— expensive and complicated. The bottom line is that wholesale recycling is likely never to happen.

Plastic dates to 1907 when, through the miracle of chemistry, a combination of polymers and other elements that I don’t know and don’t care to, became what today is plastic in an almost infinite variety. But the history of plastic as we know it now has happened in my lifetime. Once, grocery bags were paper, bottles were made of glass and handguns were metal. Given time virtually all trash was biodegradable or reusable. Now even your baby’s sippy cup is plastic as is his bottle and even his clothing, which contains plastic and, can generate tiny plastic microparticles that break off in the washing machine, go down the drain, and ultimately find their way into the nation’s waterways and into the oceans. And expensive 3-D printers actually can manufacture a plastic handgun, undetectable by security scanners. I suspect well-funded terrorists organizations already are excited by that advance in the world of plastic.

Oceans constitute most of the mass of the world and without them we’re goners. There now is what scientists call “a garbage patch” in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii that is three times the size of France and is composed mostly of plastic debris. It is 79,000 tons of plastic crap composed of 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic. And that doesn’t count what has sunk to the ocean floor. Much of the debris is cast-off from fishing, like nets, and you can imagine the potential effect that could have on marine life. We are strangling our oceans. Simply enough, the death of the oceans, would mean the death of us all.

In simpler terms, if the proliferation of plastic doesn’t scare the crap out of you it should. So-called bio plastics offer some hope against our reliance on and use of non-biodegradable plastic, but they rely at least partly on oil. And oil is not exactly an environmentally friendly substance either. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

If it will make you feel better, insist on reusable fabric grocery bags, recycle waste material in the hope that it won’t wind up in a landfill, freeze water in used milk jugs for your cooler, fill your empty water bottles with tap water (which probably is just as pure as the expensive and highly touted “spring” water which originally came in the empty bottle) and don’t do what we always seem to do— leave the problem for a future generation to solve. In other words leaving it for your grandchildren who will either sink or swim, leaving you hoping that they won’t be sinking or swimming in a sea of plastic particles.

Badger your local government into banning plastic bags or instituting a surcharge on their use. And if you don’t have a local recycling center, start one, as did my late dear friends, Chuck and Sharon Tryon in their hometown, Rolla, Missouri, years before recycling became a common word in the language.

In the meantime I will continue to terrorize poor innocent grocery clerks for trying to give me plastic bags in which to carry my groceries immediately after I plunk a reusable bag in front of them and before I can say “no plastic!” Let’s all try to stick up for truth, justice, and not the American way (the American way all too often is to throw everything out the window and look steadfastly aside as we pass the local recycling center).

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  • Blog
  • March 18th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

It has always been just The Place, hardly an inspirational name like Shangri-La. It originally was 30 acres and we added 10 acres to it for a total of 40. If I could be sure that a family who would love these woods as much as I have for nearly half a century would acquire The Place after I’m gone and our family perhaps no longer goes to what we’ve always called The Place, I would mandate my ashes to be scattered throughout the woods, or perhaps on the overgrown gravesite of so many of our beloved Brittanies.

I can’t stand the thought of these cherished woods belonging to someone else because people these days are prone to buy a place in the country and strip it of the woods and brush that gave it character and turn it into a cityscape, precisely what they flee the city to escape. So, our family will hang on to The Place as long as it can and hope for the best, knowing that the best is The Place.

It was 1969 and we were looking for some acreage outside town where we could escape on weekends, holidays, or at times when life threatened to overwhelm us. We looked at possibilities as far as 50 miles from Jefferson City, but nothing spoke to us and said here is where you want to spend as much of your lives as possible until one evening the realtor who had sold us our house in town took me out to what had been his family’s retreat from the city and said, “Our boys are teenagers now and more interested in girls than coming out here, and I can’t get around as much as I used to, so I’d like to see this place go to someone who would appreciate it as much as we have.”

We parked at a closed gate and I saw a rough concrete block cabin which proved to be about as rustic as something you would see on National Geographic’s Life Below Zero (although it was summer and in the 90s and many hundreds of miles away from frontier Alaska). The cabin had a fireplace which offered minimal heat and no indoor facilities such as water and a toilet. There were rollaway beds where overnight visitors could sleep on mattresses every bit as comfortable as sleeping on a gravel road and a kitchenette for cooking on a World War II vintage electric stove.

We were at the top of a hill which sloped down to a one acre pond where there was a rickety dock. Across the pond was another hill forested with oak and hickory extending to the property line there was a small shed near the cabin, in which was a John Deere garden tractor which the realtor offered to me as part of the deal. The whole package, he said, could be mine for $12,800. Even in 1979 that was like being offered a nearly free ticket to heaven, and I exclaimed, “I don’t care what it costs. I’ll take it!” The Place was ours. Not exactly the wisest response to someone who is trying to sell you something, but he was a person of rare generosity and stood by his offer.

Since, The Place has afforded us an endless supply of firewood which now heats the cabin where there is a wood stove insert in the fireplace (and an indoor toilet and water and a hot shower). And for 21 years while we continued to live in Jefferson City, The Place fed our wood stove there. Our garden has produced years of vegetables and an endless population of red cedar trees has produced an annual Christmas tree for our living room, as well as logs for a sauna, support posts for our deck, for rail fences and other do-it-yourself projects.

A number of wild turkeys from the far ridge across the pond have graced our table at Thanksgiving. I’ve shot squirrels, and once managed to miss a nice buck, but did collect one on another family’s Place. Hundreds of bluegills have migrated up from the pond to form the foundation for countless fish fries. Huge channel catfish lurk near the dock waiting for us to throw fish food to them— but son Andy claims them as semi-pets and won’t let us keep them. He also has caught and returned eight pound bass to fight another day.

A mother raccoon and her babies once made nightly visits to our deck (built by sons Eddie and Andy) to help themselves to the black seeded sunflower seeds we put out for birds. She got so used to being spied on that I could open the door and talk to her and the kids. But after the many gray squirrels which also cherish the seeds destroyed my birdfeeders, I put a moratorium on supplying expensive sunflower food to other-than-birds and the raccoons now are on their own as are the squirrels. The squirrels still visit the deck to forage for scraps of vegetables and fruit that we put out there for them. The cat sits in the doorway and looks out at them, muttering curses and dire threats.

The two cats are housebound, because feral cats are the worst enemy of birds and, as much as I cherish our cats, I also cherish the birds, so I keep them strictly separated. Hummingbirds decorate the deck all summer, entertaining us with their incomparable aerobatics.

The deck overlooks the pond, which my wife Marty insists on calling “a lake,” but let’s face it, it is a pond. As a pond or a lake it has furnished fish us with fish, a place to swim in summer, a place to ice skate in winter, a place to watch such wildlife as visiting Canada geese, wood ducks, and even once a coot that apparently grew tired midair and fell out of the sky onto the dock.

Once, while sitting on the deck listening to 1950s rock ‘n roll, I saw what I took to be a UFO arcing across the night sky. It was a bright ball of light, too slow to be a meteorite, too fast to be an airplane or a satellite. “The truth is out there.” When I’m not distracted by alien visitors, I listen to the night creatures— a chuck will’s widow shouts its incessant challenge to the darkness and a pair of barred owls communicate across the dark woods. Bullfrogs grumble their virility at the pond edge. We’ve collected a few over the years for their delectable legs, but now I’d rather listen to them than eat them.

The deck would not be there except that in 1993 we decided town living was at an end. Since we bought The Place we had always intended to build our life dream home there, but until the five kids all were out of the city school system, we didn’t want to change their and our lifestyle. Now, two of the boys live on the 40 acres and take care of their elderly parents who, you might guess, are Marty and me.

There is a trail which circumnavigates The Place from the cabin, staying within the property line fence. It’s about 7/10 of a mile from the cabin back to the home of that we built in 1993. Now, son Andy lives in the cabin, and son Eddie lives about 200 feet farther along the trail in a beautiful home which he largely built himself.

On one stretch of the trail during the summer when the oaks are in full leaf they arch over the trail giving it a cathedral effect. You might say this is my church, but I don’t pray there, I just enjoy the peace and the demonstration of nature’s ability to create fine art and the soft touch of the landscape. Near the end of this stretch there once was a log. Before I retired I had a poster in my office reading “Sometimes I sits and thinks and other times I just sits.” My boss used to look disapprovingly at that poster but it perfectly described what I did at the old log which now has moldered into the forest floor, the way of all things in nature.

Once I sat on my log armed with a bow and arrow ostensibly to shoot at squirrels on the ground. But one incautious gray squirrel posed on a nearby oak and I couldn’t resist. I fired an arrow and like the old couplet which says “I shot an arrow into the air and where it fell I know not where” the arrow sailed into the great beyond but en route it neatly sliced the squirrel’s throat and the animal ran up the tree a few feet until it ran out of blood and fell to the ground.

I have shot several turkeys both on and just off the old trail and often have surprised deer crossing the trail, heading either onto or off The Place. Once a skunk and I met and cautiously passed by each other and went our separate ways. Just off the trail once I saw scratches high on a tree trunk and theorized that possibly they had been made by a black bear. I really doubt that we have had bears in our woods, but one never knows— there have been bears reported in the county, so who knows?

I have tried to naturalize the place. I planted ginseng, scattered among the graves of the dogs. There is a small group of white pine trees elsewhere in the woods, planted there by my best friend who has gone where the dogs have gone. They won’t last—white pines have a limited lifetime in our part of the country, but then also did my friend and the dogs. I planted loblolly pine seedlings on a bare bank of the pond to stabilize the soil and now they tower 100 feet above the shoreline. I planted 25 white pines near the cabin, but a helpful brother-in-law drove the John Deere like Mario Andretti and mowed them all down.

More successful was a planting of bald cypress seedlings in the boggy upper end of the pond where they thrived and now poke their bony knees from the soggy soil and, in the summertime, before they shed their lacey greenery, are a counterpoint to the loblollys. Some of the hundreds of tree and shrub seedlings I planted have thrived and others have served only as browse for rabbits and deer. That, too, is the way of nature.

Once, a deer waded into the pond, afflicted with bluetongue disease, and died there, perhaps in its final moments finding cool relief from the fatal fever. We hauled the carcass up to a remote spot on a glade at the far reach of the acreage and within days coyotes and vultures, carrion eaters, had reduced the reeking body to a heap of bones. That also is the way of nature.

There is a quarter acre bare spot near the cabin which might’ve been a pasture in the days of the old bachelors who supposedly pioneered The Place where I have established a mini tallgrass prairie. When we bought the place it was dominated by wasteland grasses of no value, but as the years progressed native tallgrass began to emerge, having lain dormant in the soil for decades. I started collecting seed to augment what already was there and once I pulled over along highway 36 in North Missouri and began stripping big bluestem and Indian grass seeds from plants along the right of way. A Highway Patrol car passed and I had a vision of trying to explain that I was collecting grass seed to a cop whose concept of grass equated to marijuana.

Fortunately, he continued on. Another time I was collecting rocks from another right-of-way when another patrol car did stop, and instead of offering to let me break rocks on a chain gang. the officer said, “There’s some really good ones over on highway M.” A kindred soul in law enforcement. Once we had butterfly weed, which is wonderful for pollinating insects, such as honeybees, which are in short supply, a worrisome trend which threatens the existence of many of the plants that we depend upon for food. Now, we are down to one surviving plant, like Martha, the last passenger pigeon, among the millions that once populated the country, and which died in captivity many years ago. I’ve collected and scattered seed from purple coneflower, but so far they haven’t populated my Mini Prairie. More successful is purple gayfeather which envelops the tallgrass in a purple haze every summer.

When things get really crappy, which they do more often than not these days, and until the moment that a UFO sweeps down from the sky and I’m abducted by aliens, there is always The Place and a hike around the trail where I might surprise a deer or turkey or say a cautious hello to a skunk, and at the end of the trail I will feel renewed, at least for a little while

The green tongues of daffodils already are peeking out of the cold winter numbed ground and soon there will be spring beauties on the trail and later on May apples carpeting the forest floor. It will be another season, filled with promise, filled with hope and surprise.

Another season on The Place.

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  • Blog
  • March 10th, 2018


by Joel Vance

There is a sameness to their dingy charm, yet each has a personality, like a group of hobos squatted around a jungle camp fire, each with a story. The duck shacks I’ve been in over the years stretch the length of the migration route, but they all share common traits.

They have age on them, like most of the hunters who come there, although the grizzled hunters are careful to bring along some sprouts to learn what life really is all about. But there is no such thing as a “new” duck shack. If it’s hooked up to city water and sewage, chances are excellent it’s not a duck shack.

The dogs are a mix of gray muzzles and bumptious pups. Labrador retrievers are a given. They are the canine personification of the place and no matter how often the rare fastidious hunter mops there will remain a few muddy paw prints. The linoleum manufacturers should have offered a muddy print pattern 50 years ago, which is when the linoleum got laid in those shacks that don’t have worn bare wood flooring.

The last shack I visited had a pair of Labs, a chocolate lady of seven years with the manners of Queen Elizabeth, and a rowdy pup who, when we were out hunting, visited the trash bin in the kitchen and strewed an assortment of plates, coffee grounds, cans and bottles halfway across the kitchen and into the living room.

The shack’s proprietor, said, “That’s the third time he’s done it. You’d think he’d learn…or his owner would. I’m not mad at the dog, but the guy that owns the dog is gonna clean it up.” The pup hid out and the owner would have, except he was busy with a trash sack and a grim expression.

Almost all true duck shacks are decorated with photographs, mostly taken many years ago and gone sepia with age. Generally several hunters group around the tailgate of a 1950s Chevrolet or Ford pickup (those were the choices then) on which rests a lineup of dead geese or ducks. They all are young and smiling–the hunters, not the waterfowl.

I remember one shack in particular. An old, old man sat on his throne, a creaking rocking chair. He was king of the shack. His name was Wayne Steinbeck and he had lived on Yellow Creek, just across a muddy ditch from Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, since the refuge began in 1945…and years before that.

He had bought his cabin and 80 acres for $1,600 in 1927. The 11,000-acre Refuge began 10 years later and hunters swarmed to the land around it. Today you couldn’t afford any acreage if you were Donald Trump. It was a shack with personality. A cracked pintail call, trailing a darkened leather lanyard lay on a shelf, alongside a photo, curling and brown, of some hunters with a bag of ducks and self-conscious grins.

There were framed pictures taken from the calendars of shotshell manufacturers or clipped from outdoor magazines, pictures of ducks settling in to decoys or Canada geese gliding toward frosty corn stubble. Most of it wasn’t great art; some of it wasn’t even very good art, but it fit the mood of the shack and it was not chosen for artistic value but because the artist had triggered a cherished memory, had evoked a sweet morning from the past when good friends hunted together.

Steinbeck buried two dogs beneath the pin oaks, one a mix of Lab and Chesapeake Bay Retriever. They were his friends for more than 20 years. There is a tribute to Raz, the first of them, written by Steinbeck in 1965 in blank verse and few poems by anyone could evoke more feeling:

“We was pals 15 yrs what a pal and always a friend put to sleep at Marceline a.m.Tumor in jaw getting hard hearing And eyes getting bad Buried up at Marceline dug up the next day Made a box for him and I had him brought Back to his home Don’t disturb ever How you miss em”

The shack smelled of turnips because Steinbeck loved the awful vegetables and invariably fixed a mess of them for visitors. If there was an upside to that for a visiting hunter confronted with turnips for lunch, it was that Steinbeck was nearly blind and could not see how much the finicky hunters ate.

It certainly was not an upside that he had gone blind because he loved the sunrise and the Canada geese that set their wings for his decoys in the fields bordering the refuge. He loved to see the pecan trees bordering the muddy road into his shack and he even loved the occasional high water that flooded the road and isolated him for days at a time in his shack. He had plenty of turnips.

He still was hunting when he was 85, his vision dimming. When he hit his 90s he’d lost his vision, but not his love of the old shack…or of turnips as I found when I revisited him. They stank up the shack but actually tasted pretty good at lunch. Maybe it was that I shot a Canada goose that morning and anything would have tasted good. Or maybe I was getting more tolerant.

I went back once more in 1980. Wayne Steinbeck had died at 93 and I paused at the dogs’ grave site and at the cabin where decoys were stacked on the porch. The rocker was empty. Maybe somewhere Steinbeck and his dogs are reunited in a place where all hunters have keen eyesight and all dogs are young. Maybe even today at the sound of Canada geese disturbing the still, cold, star-shot winter nights there is the ghostly thump of a sturdy tail within the old shack.

That was a sweet, sad shack. Not so the Milonski farmhouse a couple miles away as the duck flies. Mike Milonski was a bear of a man who came from a family of bears. He was Polish and proud of it. He never met a stranger. His staff, first when he was chief of the Missouri Conservation Department’s Wildlife Division, and later as an assistant director, loved him. Once a prominent woman anti-hunter came to town to protest something or other and Mike greeted her with a hug and a booming welcome and you could see her (and her protest) melt.

He did it with everyone. He was a natural in an often unnatural world. He could lace his conversation with cusswords and it was so in character that no one noticed. His shack, a shambling two-story farmhouse on the west border of Swan Lake, was, like Mike, shaggy and filled with rough edges.
The Milonski farmhouse, even though it was big and two-story, was a shack and it was a rare treat to hunt there, although occasionally hazardous. The place had stoves that were as dangerous as playing soccer with bottles of nitroglycerine. The propane cookstove was in an added-on alcove which, fortunately, had thin outside walls. A friend once tried to light it to cook supper and the stove exploded, blowing him through the wall into the back yard. They got a new stove, but my buddy gave up eating hot food.

I was there when the heating stove began leaking oil until there were puddles of it everywhere. We managed to get it shut down and spent the night shivering, both from cold and from the fear that someone would strike a spark.

But this was an explosive shack on the edge of Paradise. Swan Lake Refuge topped out at about 180,000 Canada geese each year, and ducks swarmed to a pit blind in a crop field across a drainage ditch from the shack.

The only problem was that Milonski, who gave up being afraid of anything long before, would load a miniscule boat with several dozen decoys, several hunters, a couple of massive Labs, shotguns and possibly the defective kitchen stove and cross this deep, dank moat in the pitch black of pre-dawn, water lapping at the gunwales.

I crouched in the boat, feeling as heavy as a tugboat anchor, just waiting for the boat to flip. Swimming in December isn’t my idea of sport. Shooting geese and ducks is and it was worth a frightening trip on the Titanic to get to the pit blind and wait for the sun to rise. You could hear the roosted geese shouting to each other by the thousands.

The Milonski house featured sagging double-decker bunk beds that creaked and groaned in the night, much as did most of the hunters who tossed fitfully in them. There were photos on the wall, one I remember of a revered lady biologist riding the shoulders of some brawny hunter, waving a beer bottle. Another featured a Conservation Department commissioner caught on the throne. He was saluting the camera with an obscene gesture.

One hunter wrote a song called “Up In Mike’s Place” which had the tag line, “There’s gonna be a party up at Mike’s Place.” Few duck shacks have their own anthem. Mike’s place had what amounted to a revolving door, open to kings and peasants alike. One of the peasants, I once fell for the world’s oldest gag. “Here’s a Polish duck call,” Mike said, handing me a horn shaped like a French horn. “Blow real hard!”

Since Mike was Polish, I didn’t associate it with the infamous Polish jokes and dutifully blew hard…and a cloud of talcum powder erupted in my face, choking me and clogging my eyes. “Geez,” Mike said. “I never thought you’d go for it.”

One day Winston Milonski, Mike’s wife, left on vacation with some other women and got no more than 15 miles from home before she was in a terrible accident which nearly crippled her. She recovered, but the Milonskis decided that life was too short and unpredictable to waste on bureaucracy. Mike, by then, was an assistant director at the Conservation Department, maybe in line to get the head job.

But he chucked it in and they moved to Florida, coming back to Missouri only when the waterfowl season opened. Winston had cut Mike’s hair their whole married life, but she went on strike and he began to look like a big ol’ lion, except his roar was laughter, not menace.

Mike’s place rolled on and so did Mike until he caught what he thought was a case of the flu. It didn’t get better and finally he grudgingly gave in and saw a doctor. The news was awful. Mike came home to Mike’s place and sat on the porch and watched the sun set over the Grand River, watched the geese setting their wings as they roosted over the canal in the corn stubble fields.
And there he died.

Duck shacks have a commonality and the heating system seems to be part of it. One I remember featured a furnace in a dank cellar reached through a trap door. If the furnace had been able to talk, it would have said, “Thermostat? What’s that?” The only temperatures it recognized were Polar and Seventh Level of Hell.

And it groaned in the night as if there were doomed souls chained below us. If you stay in a place that has a quietly efficient furnace and a working thermostat, it probably is a lodge, not a shack. Check the corners of the rooms–if they’re clean it’s a lodge; if they have duck feathers and indefinable substances windrowed out of the reach of a worn broom…it’s a shack.

I hunted a legendary duck lake in Mississippi. Gadwalls and mallards dropped through a break in the flooded cypress trees and we shot until we limited. It was the hunt you imagine when you’re about to fall asleep on a sagging cot in a duck shack.

But I stayed in a casino hotel with gold elevator doors, a bed big enough for an NFL pulling guard, a bathroom with fresh bars of soap every day and a flat screen television that actually got more than one channel showing Lawrence Welk reruns.

My late, loved buddy Spence Turner wasn’t there to drop his sweaty socks on the kitchen table beside my sandwich, sink into a battered chair and groan, “God, that feels good!”
As a hunt it was great; as an experience it lacked something.

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  • Blog
  • March 4th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

It was perched on a telephone wire alongside a county highway at dusk on a chilly January evening, a kestrel or sparrowhawk if you prefer, and it occurred to me it has been a long time since I saw one. Once, the sight of a sparrowhawk perched along the right-of-way of any rural highway in my part of the United States was as common as that of any wild creature.

You would see them hovering above the grass on the right-of-way or sitting on a fence post or on a power line, waiting to pounce on supper— perhaps an incautious vole or field mouse or grasshopper. Kestrels are the smallest of the hawks, elegant little birds as charming as any existing member of the airborne kingdom.

Yet, the kestrel population has declined by 50% in the past few decades, victimized by factors that, as yet, are not publicized enough to cause alarm in the general populace, the way hard pesticides did when Rachel Carson’s landmark book “Silent Spring” brought to light the peril facing the American bald eagle, the nation’s symbol. Agricultural chemicals, used to get rid of insect pests plaguing farm crops also caused thinning in the eggs of eagles which resulted in a decline of reproductive success so severe that the birds were threatened with extinction.

You won’t find the kestrel portrayed on coins or other symbols of the nation, but does that make the little bird any less desirable in the natural world than the bald eagle? Chances are the same factor that nearly doomed the bald Eagle is a major factor causing such an alarming decline in the population of sparrowhawks— agricultural chemicals. Though hard pesticides like DDT have been banned for many years, the agricultural community still sprays crops with, possibly, less hazardous chemicals— but they still cover agricultural crops with substances that decimate the food source of many citizens of our natural world.

What research has been done on the decline of sparrowhawks is sketchy. In fact agricultural chemicals are not the only possible culprit in the decline. One theory is that predation by Cooper’s Hawks on their smaller relatives is a contributing factor. If so, bullying is not endemic only to human beings—little birds get picked on as well as little kids, although apparently with more dire consequences.

Researchers think that even the stress of living in close quarters with human beings may be a contributing factor. God knows, humans closely packed become freaked out. A rabbit biologist once told me that when rabbits become overpopulated they act just like human beings: “they develop ulcers and they die,” he said. No one has checked to see if sparrowhawks are candidates for Maalox.

Carson’s book caused a sensation and a reaction so enormous that the hard pesticides, the worst of the malefactors, were banned for use in agriculture. Slowly, the eagle population, rebounded and today the national bird no longer is threatened by becoming another passenger pigeon, a sorry testament to man’s inhumanity to nature. We killed off some of nature’s once prominent citizens. Is the kestrel also on man’s hit list?

Researchers simply don’t know the reasons behind the decline but lay the blame on pesticides as one primary cause— not a bad surmise, since pesticides are both omnipresent and responsible for the decline of many of nature’s citizens. Think Monarch butterflies, honeybees and other useful creatures. Aside from blaming the decline on predation by Cooper’s Hawks, which seems to me to be doubtful at best, others say competition for nest sites from starlings is responsible. Starlings, of course, are an introduced bird, originally stocked by people who wanted to establish creatures mentioned by Shakespeare. How well that silly experiment succeeded is evidenced every evening when massive flocks of starlings go to roost, but whether they compete with kestrels is mere supposition.

Agrichemical voices are loud ones in the halls of legislation and the chances of ridding the world of dangerous chemicals, used to ensure ample crops is likely impossible. The question is, how do you reconcile the need for corn and soybeans with the need to see a kestrel perched on a telephone wire? Generally, and sadly, the answer is that, whatever the needs of nature’s citizens, they come in second to the perceived needs of human beings. It’s the old case of everyone is equal— but some things are more equal than others.

It’s likely that clean farming deserves at least some blame for the kestrel decline. The practice of skimming the landscape of groundcover to favor farming practices certainly has a deleterious effect on wildlife and it makes sense that the absence of grass cover where kestrels hover on the hunt has an effect on their ability to pounce on supper.

It takes overwhelming public outrage to reverse what all too often is irreversible damage to the natural world and so far that outrage is not reached to the world of the sparrowhawk. We have yet to become incensed by the decline of the honeybee, an insect which pollinates much of the food that we eat and without which pollination we face an agricultural Armageddon. But that’s a long way in the future, if at all, and we can let some future generation worry about it— or at least that’s the laissez-faire attitude that we always have adopted when science warns us of danger just over the horizon. Think climate change, for example.

Not to be the chicken who cried “the sky is falling” but it’s difficult to ignore signs of planetary decline. An estimated third of the world’s coral reefs are dead or dying—the first time in the history of the world as we know it that an entire ecosystem is threatened with extinction. The health of the world’s oceans, which constitute the bulk of our universe, are at risk. Glaciers are shrinking, the polar ice cap is shrinking, the polar bear population is shrinking. Where does it end? Is the sky falling? Maybe not, but something is looming above us and it’s not good. The more we refuse to learn to live with the natural world, the more we are doomed to destroy it.

Once, years ago, we played host to a pair of sparrowhawks for a couple of weeks. The birds had been taken from the nest by some well-meaning but misinformed citizen and had been confiscated by the conservation department and were part of the department’s live animal exhibit at the Missouri State Fair. But they needed a home until they could become self-sufficient in the wild and I volunteered to play daddy as long as necessary.

They were obviously only days from full flight and I wondered if they would be able to make their way in the natural world, but after all that is the way of the wild—sink or swim. Either you survive or you don’t. I banked on the birds’ natural instinct to kill to survive and hoped that instinct would kick in and save them. It was late summer, so there was an abundance of insect life and other prey that, if they would allow their heritage to rule, would provide them with the food they needed before cold weather came.

They were caged when I brought them home but we opened the cage and let them free to do as they pleased. They perched on the railing of our back porch and I caught grasshoppers for them, chilled the insects in the refrigerator until they were slow enough for the little birds to catch, and the kestrels eagerly pounced on them. I supplemented live food with hamburger and the birds thrived on their McDonald’s diet for a week or so and then they began to make tentative flights off the railing and into the world they were intended for. Gradually their returns to the table I set for them became fewer and fewer, and one day they were gone and I never saw them again. Long live, beautiful little birds—you brightened my life for a moment in time.

It’s appropriate to call the little hawk the American kestrel because approximately one third of the world population of kestrels are found in North America. According to the breeding Bird Survey kestrels are on the decline in many areas but indications are that the population actually is increasing in the central part of the United States, giving the lie to my feeling that kestrels are on the decline where I live.

But kestrels for all their visibility are hard birds to study. They’re always on the move and the only way to get a definitive handle on species viability is by long term studies, using modern tools such as banded birds, computer modeling, coupled with human eyesight. And that combination over the long haul does not exist as yet, leading to a murky picture of the future for the American kestrel.
In the absence of whatever factors limit kestrel population, the birds should have the ability to repopulate quickly.

A mated pair will incubate from 4 to 7 eggs for a month and the hatched chicks will be fledged and ready to fly in another month. Assuming a high survival rate, kestrels could quickly replenish a depressed population. That’s the way creatures with low survival rates manage to maintain healthy numbers, such as quail, doves and wild turkeys who lose many youngsters, but make up for the losses with high egg production.

Meanwhile, when the lonely gray days of winter fade to the heat of summer, I’m hoping that a trip down a gravel road will afford me the sight of several kestrels perched or hovering alongside the highway. The hot summer sun not only will warm my body,it will warm my soul.

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