Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

  • Blog
  • June 19th, 2018

I’M MAD AS HELL!

By Joel M. Vance

When Jeff Sessions the grinning troll stands at the podium and says that the Bible mandates that it’s all right for United States immigration enforcement agents to forcibly drag children in diapers away from their parents and sequester them in a converted Walmart store where their prison wardens are forbidden to touch them no matter how hard they weep for their parents, even the most hardened heart has to wonder what the hell is wrong with our country.

Sessions is ugly and what he spouts as justification for the actions of our government is beyond ugly- it is cruelty personified by a racist and authoritarian regime that more closely represents the early days of Adolf Hitler than it does anything we have suffered in our 250 years of history as a Republic.

This demon-eared twerp, afterbirth from the most egregious days of Southern segregation, is a visible symbol of the innately cruel and uncaring person who is his bloated boss, Donald J Trump, known in this household as the biggest political mistake in the nation’s history. Unfortunately, in too many American households the knowledge has not yet seeped in that this is an evil, sociopathic monster who has no normal human characteristics.

He acknowledges none of the wrongs he is perpetrating and maintains that the only right is what he wants. He shows it every day in every way. He fawns over those ruthless despots of other regimes and brags that he wants “his” subjects to bow to him as those automatons in North Korea do to their porky despotic ruler. I have news for him. We are not subjects, asshole, we are citizens of a Republic where supposedly we wisely choose our leaders.

The United States often has blotted its copybook over the 2 ½ centuries of its existence but seldom have we gone as far against the democratic grain as we now are doing. Only with slave families did we disrupt the household and separate children from their parents. Even as we interned Japanese-American families during World War II—an unpardonable offense— we allowed families to stay together. Even on the long march where the Cherokee Indians were forcibly evicted from their Carolina homeland and were forced hundreds of miles to a desolate reservation in Oklahoma territory , they went as families. Even as we similarly evicted other Native Americans from their ancestral lands to often inhospitable reservations, they retained their family identities. Even as we turned away Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and sent them back to be killed in concentration camps, they went as families.

Those were egregious acts of cruelty which should forever stand as examples of national shame and for which we can never make total amends. The best we can do is to remember these acts of violence against humanity and try not to repeat them. But, unfortunately, we not only are repeating the worst of them right now, we aren’t even making a good attempt to stop it before it gets any worse.

Now the Trumpites seize families at our country’s southern border, separate parents and their children, send the parents to prison, and send the children to tent cities in the desert under blazing temperatures, wondering how they are now better off than they were when endemic death and desolation in their home countries forced them to head North to what they believed would be a better life.

We have a craven Republican Congress whose most notable achievement is to kowtow to Trump’s every un-American (and demented) demand and a feeble Democrat opposition party so ineffectual as to make the word “opposition” meaningless. Shovel in the Supreme Court with a conservative five to four majority which is agreeable to approve state laws designed to deprive legitimate voters from their right to cast a ballot.

Renowned actor Robert De Niro summed up what should be universal outrage when he dropped an F bomb on Trump at the Tony awards show. He got a standing ovation. But the problem is that no matter how little free speech remains (and if Trump has his way there won’t be any before long) De Niro’s one finger salute to Trump may prompt a negative reaction. First of all it will just make the Trumpites even more fiercely dedicated to dismantling civil society than they already are, and secondly it prompts even more coverage of the outrageous lies that Trump routinely tells— and it’s an unfortunate truism that the more you lie about something the more it becomes believed by the gullible.

The whole Trump presidency is a fabric of lies, routinely documented by the media. But he counters by calling reported and proved falsehoods “fake news” and stoutly maintains that the news media is the greatest enemy of the United States, a statement which on its face is so outrageous that anyone who believes it, or endorses it, is almost by definition an enemy himself or herself of all that we purport to stand for.

“If you’re smuggling a child then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably as required by law,” said Jeff Sessions that freaky little creep that masquerades as the Attorney. General of the United States. “If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.” This sleazy little moron who looks remarkably like Alfred E Neuman the half witted caricature from Mad Comics, can’t even speak grammatically.

Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly was touted as someone who might bring a voice of reason to today’s chaotic circus in the White House. Instead he has bought into the strategy of holding children hostage so that the Democrats will cave in and agree to build Trump’s stupid border wall in return for which the separated families might be reunited. I don’t hold out hope that the Democrats won’t cave in— humanitarian instinct may force them to, but it will be taxpayers who foot the bill for that moronic wall and for the Army of storm troopers who will be needed to maintain it.

Former first lady Laura Bush had this to say “Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso. These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in US history.”

Those Trump voters of limited intelligence may conceivably remember that Laura Bush is married to George W. Bush, a Republican president and not one of those Democrats whom Trump blames for the family separation crisis on our southern border. Parenthetically speaking, is there any Trump voter who is not of limited intelligence?

Another little factoid for those cretins who believe Trump’s lies: Trump attacked Germany’s immigration policies, claiming that crime is up in that country (because of immigration) when in fact crime is at a 25 year low. No wonder Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, recently fixed Trump with a glare which should have turned him in into a pillar of salt like Lot’s wife. Ms. Merkel is only one leader of a number of countries who once were our staunch allies who now think that the United States is a beleaguered and staggering country run by a hapless clown.

In a six-week period, just over one month, nearly 2000 children have been separated from their parents by the immigration authorities. Nothing sums it up better than a photograph taken by Pulitzer prize-winning photographer John Moore. The photograph shows a two-year-old child crying helplessly as she looked up at her mother who was being searched by a US customs and border patrol agent. “I took only a few photographs and was almost overcome with emotion myself,” said Moore. Moments later the border cops put the child and mother into a van with a group of other undocumented migrants and took them to a processing center. No one knows whether the mother and child were separated, but given the continuing trend it’s a good bet they were.

Moore talked briefly with the mother who said she was from Honduras and had been traveling for a full month and was exhausted. Just the kind of helpless mother and child that Donald J Trump and his heartless followers enjoy picking on.

Cameras have been banned by the border Nazis so there’s no footage of the chain-link cages that the kids are been stuffed into but there is an audio recording where you can hear children rending your heart with sobs, calling for their mother and father amid which can be heard one of the ICE thugs commenting, “Well, we have an orchestra here, right? What’s missing is a conductor.” That guy probably drowns kittens as a hobby, especially if they are the cherished pets of small children. Anyone who can listen to that recording without tearing up should be down on the border terrorizing infants.

Even Trump’s own First Lady, Melania, weighed in on the zero-tolerance policy of her awful husband, the serial Abuser in Chief. In a tepid comment on the family separation she said through her communications director Stephanie Griffin, “She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart. Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform.” Notice that is not a direct quote from Melania Trump but instead comes from the same office that has spawned such luminaries as Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Hardly a biting commentary on the order of the scathing one delivered by Laura Bush— more a timid way to say the same thing that the creepy wizened gnome Sessions said.

By contrast, several other past first ladies have echoed the sharp indignation that should be inflaming every citizen of this country. Michelle Obama retweeted Laura Bush’s fiery outrage, Hillary Clinton and Rosalynn Carter also declared their ire and said what should be said by anyone with an ounce of compassion. These women speak for every woman in the country and especially they speak for the mothers of those seeking asylum in this country who can’t speak for themselves.

Perhaps this parade of outraged first ladies is a symbol of what will bring an end to what now is the most reprehensible act of cowardice and cruelty yet devised by Donald Trump and his heartless hit squad. These angered eminent women echo the famous phrase from Peter Finch’s character in the movie Network who implored people to stick their heads out the window and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” If the nation’s women voters and younger voters turn out in record numbers in November they are more than adequate
to oust the cowardly Republican majority from the House and Senate and bring enough pressure to bear on the many investigations into the Trump administration’s misdeeds that, one would hope, Donald J Trump would be forced to get the hell out of the White House and out of our lives forever.

And he can take the insipid Melania with him.

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  • Blog
  • June 13th, 2018

SPIDERMAN….WITH PAWS

By Joel M. Vance

If ever there was a wildlife media celebrity, it is the raccoon that scaled a 23 story office building in Minneapolis, exhibiting all the characteristics of Spiderman. How or why the little raccoon decided to go technical climbing is beyond explanation, but it did and became an instant media celebrity, thankfully supplanting the clown president and all the other political entities who daily make the news cycle toxic.

One Twitterite said this, “if that poor raccoon can climb all the way to the roof then I can make it through college.” News cameras, smart phones, and anybody with a camera followed the progress of the animal as it progressed floor to floor all the way to the roof of the UBS tower 23 stories above the street and then back down several floors to a window ledge for a well-deserved rest before animal control lured it into a cage with cat food. Apparently, inexplicably in the middle of Minneapolis’s cityscape, the raccoon was startled into flight and started its epic climb and didn’t quit until it reached the top of the building.

Wildlife often appears in an urban setting, far from its usual habitat–deer appear in downtowns, peregrine falcons nest on Manhattan window ledges–but perhaps never has any animal done what this little raccoon did. But then I would not put anything past a determined raccoon

Bears are bears, ducks are ducks and mooses are mooses…meese…whatever. The point is that animals are what they are. But if there ever was a critter that pushes the envelope between critter and human it’s the raccoon. It’s hard to describe a raccoon without resorting to human characteristics (sneaky, devious, selfish, stealthy, etc.)

I’ve had a love/aggravation relationship with coons for years, even as I recognize that what they do is just coon-ness, not deliberate bad behavior. Given Ft. Knox filled with crawdads instead of gold bars, an average raccoon could break in with the finesse of old time robber Willie Sutton who allegedly said he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is” and then managed to escape from jail most of the time. Then the coon would give us the same impudent grin that Mr. Sutton displayed in newspaper photographs of the time.

The raccoon is America’s most important furbearer, is the source of much entertainment for people who like to follow the sound of a baying hound while falling into ravines and crashing into unseen trees, and is a pain in the pocketbook for bird lovers who would prefer to feed purple finches rather than paunchy pilferers.

As an economic boon alone, trapping furbearers brings in an estimated $800 million annually to wildlife agencies in permit fees and much of that is contributed by the raccoon, the most frequently-taken furbearer.

Few states lack raccoons. In the Western mountain states the animal is absent from large chunks of territory but in the eastern part of such states as Wyoming the habitat is raccoon rich (the raccoon range is southern Canada to northern Argentina). Given the human trend to mountain development, raccoons surely will follow—coons love people (or the food benefits that people bring. Western Montana has seen an influx of raccoons in the past several decades, along with people.

There are six species of raccoon, but the common one is the most commonly seen and cussed at (no great surprise). The name comes from an Algonquin word and originally the Latin moniker was “Ursus lotor,” meaning “washer bear.” But the Latin now is “Procyon lotor,” or “washer dog.”

Raccoons historically were thought of as little cousins of the bear, but they aren’t related to either bears or dogs—their nearest relatives are ringtails, coatis and coatimundis. They are also related to the kinkajou, olingos and the lesser panda, none common in the wilds of North America.

Raccoons can weigh up to 50 pounds, but 20 is about average. They’re attracted to water because that’s where much of their food comes from. In the West they’ll come to livestock watering areas. They’re largely nocturnal and as omnivorous as people—they eat just about anything that doesn’t eat them first. They have an uncanny ability to judge the ripeness of sweet corn. Once I had a wonderful crop of succulent sweet corn and planned to pick it the next day. I found the raccoons had beaten me to it the night before and had stripped and eaten every ear.

Average litter size is 3-5 and females breed between their first and second year, then every year thereafter. Lifespan can reach 12 years, but usually is considerably less.
In keeping with the raccoon’s rascally reputation, males are in it for the fun and the female is left to raise the young. She takes care of them until they’re fully grown, often through the summer and succeeding winter.

And she teaches them the wily wares of raccoon. I have spotted a mother coon on our deck instructing her rowdy kids in breaking and entering our bird feeder. She is a tough mother, knowing that the skills she teaches them tonight will be vital in nights to come. She’ll nip their impudent back ends if they get involved in coonplay and redirect them to the business at hand.

Raccoons are among the best-known carriers of the dread rabies virus. For example, West Virginia had 96 diagnosed cases of rabies in 2001; Wyoming none. There’s little pattern in where rabies pops up. Some Western states have had rabid raccoons; others none. The same pattern applies to Eastern states.

Rabies can be latent in a raccoon for up to six months, long enough for the animal to breed a litter of rabid young. But calls for intensive trapping and other supposed rabies control programs are misguided—they’re expensive and don’t work. Also expensive, but more promising are air drops of bait containing an anti-rabies vaccine in a capsule that has been designed to be absorbable only by raccoons. The air drop program has been in use in Europe for more than two decades and has been used widely in Ontario and several Northeastern states where rabies is endemic.

An Iowa study found that about three-fourths of raccoon deaths are from trapping and hunting, with another 12 percent due to road kills. Distemper and parvo, two disease threats they share with dogs, accounted for less than two percent; however, a distemper outbreak can wreak havoc on a local population of coons.

Raccoons are classified as predator animals in Wyoming but in most states they are listed as furbearers. Those classed as predators can be taken year-round, with no limit; however other regulations (such as no shooting from roads) usually apply. Coon hunting behind hounds at night is permitted if the hunter follows the rules. You must have written landowner permission on private land, use a hand light, and have a coonhound along.

While hound hunting for coons isn’t a big thing in some states, it is hugely popular in Midwest and Southern states where to a dedicated coon hunter a good coonhound is more valuable than most of his kids. Hounds can bring thousands of dollars and to a hound man Placido Domingo never sang sweeter than a good bawling hound on the trail.

Coon hunting is different than fox hunting. Where the fox hunters build a warm fire, sit on logs and lie to each other about their hounds, as the distant dogs run the fox, coon hunters stumble through the bleak night after their dogs, keeping warm only by excessive exertion.

I coon hunted…once. It was a sharply cold December night, with a light snow falling. My coon hunting companion apparently was in training for a marathon and we tripped and sprawled (well, I did—he didn’t) across miles of back country in the pit of night, following the distant bawl of his hounds. Finally they bayed treed and we eagerly closed in for the kill…only to find that the coon had treed in a farmer’s barn.

The house was dark (responsible people having gone to bed long before) and we doubted that the landowner would take kindly to us shooting up his barn, no matter how unfriendly he felt toward raccoons or how much permission we had to be on the land, so we called off the hounds and the hunt.

Hound hunters account for about 60 percent of raccoon pelts and trappers take the rest (not counting the irate homeowner who plinks one off his bird feeder). Fur prices vary wildly from year to year as trends in furs change from long haired animals to short and back again. Raccoons, being long-haired, are at the mercy of fashion. The 1920s saw a great boom in raccoon fur. Full length coats for both men and women were the in-garment for the F. Scott Fitzgerald crowd (it takes 30-40 coon hides to make a coat).

Fur resurged after a lull during the 1990s when animal rights activists and fashion trends combined to bring trapping to its knees. The Russians and Chinese, now our trading buddies, are particularly fond of long-haired pelts. An otter pelt might bring $100, while a raccoon pelt might go for anywhere from two dollars to $50 depending on the year (in the 1970s coon pelts averaged $25 or more, but were down to $6 or less in the early 1990s, then more than $20 at the end of the decade). Generally raccoon prices are in the ball park with mink and beaver.

Save for trappers and hunters, raccoons and people usually meet under disagreeable circumstances—the human’s trash can or bird feeder. I briefly stored trash and bird food in plastic cans which the coons chewed through quicker than a Sutton jailbreak. Then I went to galvanized cans, but the coons flipped the lids off and dove in. Now the lids are wired down, an inconvenient barrier for me and raccoons alike. They haven’t yet figured out how to untwist the wire….but I’m not putting it past them.

Controlling pest raccoons is almost impossible short of what spies call “wet work” (i.e. assassination). You can live trap-and-transplant and hope that the coons don’t find their way back (or that more coons don’t fill the gap). Or you can try scaring them off which is temporary—coons don’t scare easily. A friend once wired his garbage can to his house current and when he heard the telltale rattle of a marauding coon, he’d flip the switch. That worked fine until he forgot to turn off the juice and his wife took out some garbage. They’re still married…barely.

One wildlife damage control bulletin says, with wry understatement, “shooting can be very effective.” Beyond the income from trapping permits and fur sales, trapping and hunting raccoons is necessary as a population control. The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates the nationwide cost of rabies education and control of raccoons, foxes and coyotes at more than $450 million annually…and that the cost would jump to $1.4 billion annually without hunting or trapping. The figures are for all three species, not just raccoons, but it’s a telling statistic.

Fur is the primary reason for hunting or trapping a raccoon, but barbecued raccoon is considered a delicacy by some. I once tried it but because we’d had several young raccoons as house guests, snacking on one was somewhat like eating one of my bird dogs and I didn’t finish my helping. For those with a yen for culinary adventure a Google search of “raccoon recipes” finds countless ways to fix the meat. Chances are you won’t want to tell most of your dinner guests what they’re eating.

Years ago I was host to a young raccoon for several weeks. He had been confiscated by conservation officials from someone who had taken him from the wild. He was too young to release, so I volunteered to keep him until he was grown enough to make it on his own.

Bimbo had been a favorite of the wildlife people. They fed him popcorn and other treats until he was as chunky as an NFL linebacker. He was a thoroughly delightful animal, playful and intelligent. He tussled with the family kitten but rapidly outgrew the cat whereupon the cat lost interest in being treated like a beach ball. You could wool him around like a puppy and he’d chew on your fingers, but not hard enough to break the skin.

Bimbo got into everything. No cabinet was safe from his investigations. Once he crawled into a backpack and carefully tucked the flap around his neck while he took a nap. He was sweet-natured and charming…but he was a wild animal and we knew that as he matured he would become less agreeable and possibly dangerous (an aroused mature raccoon is nothing to fool around with).

So, while Bimbo still was a big, lovable clown, we took him to the very middle of a National Wildlife Refuge where there was an ample food supply and no predatory threats, and I led him down to a borrow ditch that had a whole bunch of water to explore. Bimbo began to feel in the muddy water, using those delicate and dexterous paws as extensions of his curiosity.

I ran up the hill to the car, jumped in and floored it. A hundred yards down the road I glanced in the rear view mirror. Bimbo was in the middle of the road, standing upright, looking after the car.

I didn’t go back.
-30-

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  • Blog
  • June 6th, 2018

TELL ME A STORY

By Joel M. Vance

People often ask me (well, one did, one time) “where do you get your ideas?” And I tell them that ideas are everywhere. You just have to let them flow over you like mudslide on a California highway or lava from a Hawaiian volcanic eruption.

There was a time when I was a tadpole wannabe fiction writer and my wife, Marty, was in a doctor’s office waiting for a prenatal checkup when she noticed a woman next to her cradling what appeared to be an injured arm. “How did you hurt your arm?” Marty asked. The woman mumbled something.

Then, embarrassed, she confessed that she had gotten her arm caught in a pool table pocket, shooting a game of eightball by herself when her husband was at work, her kids at school. She scratched the cue ball by mistake and reached in the pocket to retrieve it. But it kept scooting away from her grasping fingers and finally her elbow slipped into the pocket and she was trapped as thoroughly as a raccoon in a coon trap. She had to wait until someone came home to help her. Somehow Marty managed to keep from laughing but I couldn’t when she told me about it and instantly a short story began to form in my mind and it became a chapter in my first collection of Birch Lake stories, Grandma and the Buck Deer.

Other fiction pieces have been similarly inspired by the misfortunes of others. I am a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and that has been a fertile ground for story ideas. OWAA members attend the annual conference for a variety of reasons: to see old friends, to see new places, to get away from the humdrum for a while. But primary among those reasons is to gather material for outdoor communication that will result in bounteous compensation. (And anyone who believes there is bounteous compensation in the outdoor writing field is not an outdoor writer).

It’s a chance to pick the brains of more experienced members–tips, information and other valuable intelligence vital to amortize the cost of the few days spent away from the routine. Sometimes a few minutes spent with a grizzled old head can result in a virtual frog choker of dollars– see above comment about bounteous compensation.

The late and much revered past president of the outdoor Writers Association of America, Mike Levy, then outdoor editor of the Buffalo, New York, newspaper was one of those grizzled heads and in addition to cherishing his long friendship I will eternally owe him an unpayable debt of gratitude for a few moments of his time that not only padded my bank account, but also gave me a lifelong story for retelling time and again— and a good true story is priceless . Actually, some of the bullfluff which on the face of it is outright fiction makes for even better stories.

It happened this way. I was looking for material for a humor column for a magazine which shall remain nameless because they dropped the column to save the pitifully few dollars they grudgingly shelled out each time I sat at a word processor until beads of blood popped out on my forehead. It had to do with fishing and I got the idea that, since every angler I know has had one or more unpleasant experiences with fishing hooks. I should gather those unhappy moments and treat them with humor—after all what are friends for if you can’t exploit them?

So I polled my OWAA friends for their traumatic trials with fishhooks, among whom was Mike who came up with the capstone anecdote for the column. It seems that he and his son who was about five at the time, went fishing and the little one insisted on using a long plug equipped with three treble hooks—hardly the equipment for bluegills, but his tolerant daddy went along with it. Then the youngster tangled his fishing line and Mike helpfully started pulling at the bird’s nest but his son suddenly jerked the fishing rod and hooks on either end of the fishing lure neatly impaled Mike’s opposable thumbs.

While opposable thumbs are the one piece of human equipment that separates us from lower animal life, they aren’t much use when the only available help is a five-year-old with no idea how to separate his daddy from embedded fishhooks. “Did you ever try to drive with your thumbs hooked to a fishing plug?” Mike asked rhetorically.

Somehow, he managed to get the car started and get on the road steering painfully and awkwardly with his impaled digits. Then he spied a rural fire department with the lights on (it was getting dark now) and he knew that the firemen would have at least one EMT available who could separate him from the Pikie Minnow. It turned out that the reason the lights were on was that the firemen were having their annual beer and brats party and at least some of them were as lit as the fires they often put out.

While they tended to Mike, they hoisted his son on the fire truck and let him pretend to drive it which delighted the lad no end. And so probably did the language used by the intrepid firefighters which tended toward the salty.

When Mike and son arrived home, the kid raced into the house shouting “mom! Mom! You’ll never guess what happened. Dad got his thumbs hooked together and I got to drive the fire truck and what does @#$%%@!@ mean?”

Poor Cynthia, Mike’s wife, was bumfuzzled— she sent her husband and son off to fish and he comes home a wounded warrior, and the kid is shouting something about a fire truck and where did the little guy learn that kind of language!

So I used the anecdote in my humor column and got paid my usual pittance. But I thought it was too good to quit there, so I adapted the incident into a short story, sold that to a major magazine for a lovely chunk of money, entered the story in OWAA’s freshwater fishing contest, and took first place for what at that time was a nice winner’s bonus. When I told Mike about the bonanza his story had created (for me, not him), without a hint of shame for exploiting his misfortune, he grumbled, “I’m never going to tell you anything again!”

Later on I included the story as a chapter in a book— but I didn’t tell Mike about that.

Pre-and post conference trips are a gold mine of stories and on one of them the incomparable storyteller Marty Malin, a prolific and annual prize-winning freelance radio personality from Texas, regaled us fellow trippers with the story of how he and a friend sneaked in to see the exotic dancer in a tent at a county fair in his misspent childhood. For him it may have been just a story to tell amused buddies, but for me it was the inspiration of another short story and a chapter in a book. Thanks, Marty.

The fishing hook column also inspired, yet another short story and book chapter— Randy Vance (not my son and I’m not his father– we used to inscribe our nametags that way to avoid the inevitable confusion) told him someone he knew fell backward into an open tacklebox bristling with treble hooked fishing plugs. Inspiration blossomed and one of my hapless fictional characters became entangled with guess what? A situation involving an open tacklebox, fishing lures, and a painful encounter with them.

Then there was a casual mention by an old friend, another OWAA member, George Mattis— a fishing buddy from Birchwood Wisconsin, who wrote a book titled Whitetail, which turned out to be the biggest seller of the Outdoor Life book club ever. Anyway George told me about stopping in the woods once to sit on a log and smoke a cigarette, only to have a buck deer walk out of the woods over to him, take the cigarette from him and walk off chewing it with gusto. “Apparently deer have a tobacco addiction,” George said, “so strong that once they get the taste they’re hooked.”

Story idea! I turned it into the title story of Grandma and the Buck Deer, combining the fact that my real life uncle, Roy Finnell, raised tobacco in Missouri, some of which made its way to my fictional Birch Lake, and a confrontation with my fictional rowdy uncle Al, and my also fictional but formidable grandma.

Back in World War II there was a poster saying “loose lips sink ships.” Good advice during wartime but when it comes to paying attention when others are telling outrageous stories, some of those loose lips mean story tips….and money in the pocket.

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  • Blog
  • May 31st, 2018

LISTENING TO THE MOCKINGBIRD

By Joel M. Vance

To some it is the song of the angels; to others it is fingernails on the dark blackboard of sleep.

The mockingbird is a master improviser on the melodies of other composers, but he (and it is a he that disturbs the silence of night) can be less than enchanting to the light sleeper when the bird riffs at 2 a.m.

Most of the singing is between midnight and 4 a.m. which should catch any light sleeper with the window open right in the crosshairs of irritation. Mockers in full musical spate love to be illuminated, either by a streetlight or a full moon. Tin Pan Alley songwriters are fond of the moon in June as a romantic hook on which to pin lyrics; mockingbirds equally so.

When we lived in town a mocker used the streetlight pole across the street as its podium and sang incessantly. I would sit on the front stoop late at night and listen and, rather than being irritating, I enjoyed the concert. The neighbor nearest the light pole did not share my enthusiasm. A lineman for the power company he donned his climbers one night and disconnected the street light.

The mockingbird, deprived of a spotlight, found a different theater.

There are other birds that imitate, notably catbirds and brown thrashers. But none is as versatile and untiring as the gray bird with the white wing flashes. In addition to fellow birds, mockers create melodies of their own and also imitate barking dogs, squeaking gates and police sirens.

There may be more than two dozen different imitations in a mocker’s repertoire and ornithologists have catalogued more than 200 different imitated sounds (but brown thrashers claim the record for versatility with a documented 1,100 different song types and an estimated 3,000 songs). The mockingbird’s ardent song most commonly is the love ballad of a bachelor bird, though both sexes sing, including mated males—just not as persistently as the guy without a gal.

The male will mark a territory just as surely as does a dog…only with music instead of the dog’s more elemental tribute. Some lovelorn bachelor birds will sing all night long, which tends to drive insomniac urban dwellers up the bedroom wall. Possibly the ultimate avian nightmare would be a mockingbird and whippoorwill singing all night, then a woodpecker drumming on your metal drainpipe at dawn. Most bosses would not accept this as an excuse for lethargy on the job, no matter how valid it is.

There is method behind the mad frenzy of song—ornithologists have discovered that the more varied a male mocker’s song, the more likely it is to interest a female. Once mockingbirds establish a relationship it generally lasts a long time, often for life. And once a bachelor male finds a sweetheart he doesn’t sing nearly as fervently.

The pair nests in low bushes or trees and a mocker’s nest to it is a sacred trust, to be defended fiercely. A mocker protecting a nest is fearless and will dive bomb a human, cat or dog like an avian character from Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds. Mockingbirds are prolific, laying between 2-6 eggs which hatch in just under two weeks. Two weeks later the young are ready to leave the nest. Both parents feed the young.

By their nature mockingbirds are combative and often engage in aerial dogfights as frenzied as a scene from a World War One sky battle between the Lafayette Escadrille and Baron Von Richtofen’s Flying Circus. They’ll dominate a feeder (they feed on insects and fruit) and even will attack their image in a mirror, eyes wild and feathers flared in anger. They won’t come to a seed-feeder (although they might guard it against other birds just on general principles), but might snack at a suet feeder or on grapes and berries.

Mockingbirds are most musical during the time of year when people are most likely to hear them—from early spring through late summer. Generally the singing period runs from February through August. The birds often raise their wings in jerky fashion, a trait called “wing flashing.” Some ornithologists believe they do this to scare up insects from the grass, but chances are they do it because they’re so inordinately pleased with themselves.

Catbirds usually sing their different songs once, thrashers twice…but mockingbirds repeat each call three times and switch rapidly from one mimicked bird to the next, four or five in a row. It’s an in-your-face performance and a little wing flashing to cap it off is a curtain call at the end of a masterful performance.

In winter, mockingbirds migrate south from northern states and have another singing period to establish a feeding territory. So, Southern states have a much longer time to enjoy mockingbird music, which perhaps is why five of them have chosen the mocker as the state bird: Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and Texas. According to legend, the Texans chose the mockingbird because it is “a fighter for the protection of his home, falling if need be in its defense, like any true Texan.” Shades of the Alamo!

As a state bird, the mocker ranks third behind the cardinal and the Western meadowlark (seven redbirds, six meadowlarks and five mockingbirds).

But as a song subject it’s well ahead. You won’t see hit parade numbers written for crows or buzzards, although robins and bluebirds have had their day on the Top 40.

No song about birds has endured like “Listen To The Mockingbird,” written by Alice Hawthorne in 1854, and a standard ever since. Hawthorne is as intriguing as the bird he wrote about.

Yes “he.” Alice was a pseudonym for Septimus Winner, whose mother was a Hawthorne (related to writer Nathaniel Hawthorne). He made instruments and taught several, including guitar and banjo and wrote many popular songs of the day, none as enduring as “Listen.” Winner put words to a melody by Richard Milburn, who worked in his music store, and “Mockingbird” was born. For all his business acumen, Winner blew it by selling the publishing rights to the song for $5. It subsequently sold about 20 million sheet music copies.

It really is a weeper about “Hallie” lying in her grave o’er which the mockingbird sings, not about the bird. And it’s not the lyrics that turn people on– more musicians have developed virtuoso instrumentals of the melody than have learned Winner’s sappy words.

Fats Domino found his thrill on Mockingbird Hill. Carly Simon revealed that “he,” whoever that was, intended to buy her a mockingbird, but if it didn’t sing “he’s gonna buy me a diamond ring.” Not much chance for her and that ring—mockingbirds rarely don’t sing. And there is a Rhode Island rock band called the MockingBirds.

The mockingbird also is a symbol for innocence in Harper Lee’s great novel To Kill a Mockingbird. “Shoot all the blue jays you want,” Atticus Finch tells his two kids, Scout and Jem. “But remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Blue jays and their devotees might not agree and it’s a cinch the wildlife officials wouldn’t.

As tempted as the sleepless human might be to go for his gun when beset by a night-singing mocker, shooting is not an option. “It’s enough to raise the dead!” he growls through gritted teeth.

If so maybe there’s hope for poor Hallie yet….
-30-

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  • May 23rd, 2018

PACK UP ALL YOUR KARES AND WOES

By Joel M. Vance

Hell, as visualized by Dante, the Italian poet has a pit of ice at the lowest level, presumably where if you bore a hole and jig a Swedish Pimple tipped with a minnow head you will not be rewarded with a trophy walleye. When you die you don’t go to your dream fishing honey hole, but to the hellhole of Stephen King’s fevered imagination. And, instead of a ice fishing augurs, you will find demons with augurs to bore through you!

The hero of Dante’s epic Inferno, Odysseus, missed one level on his harrowing tour of the underworld. The one where you spend eternity in a commercial campground on a hot summer holiday weekend.

Maybe he couldn’t get a reservation. Those who inhabit this Inferno on Earth don’t realize they’re in Hell! They enjoy it. They are there by choice.

Once I spent time in a Kampground (always spelled with a “K”– in fact they’ll rent you a Kamping Kabin) in northeast Pennsylvania on the Fourth of July weekend. I took notes on the experience because our tattered tent did not have air-conditioning nor satellite television. The summary reads somewhat like Dante’s Inferno updated.

Hot and dusty, no rain, but the humidity for it, dust haze in the air, Tunkhannock Creek low and with a reek of decomposing algae. It was just slightly more agreeable than parking next to a sewage lagoon (something I suffered through once, sleeping in a cab over camper owned by a fellow hunter who was obviously olfactorily impaired). A sleek dude with reflective sunglasses and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth turns Polish sausages on a barbecue grill. He wears no shirt; he is flabby. His mate, inside the screened patio, sets the table, a cigarette dangling from her mouth.

A couple walks ahead of me, about five- five and 250 each. It’s like watching a team of elephants. He is shirtless and she wears a T-shirt big enough to host a Shriner’s barbecue. Their four legs weigh more than my family. Later I see them with their family, a mammoth group except for one cadaverous man whose shoulders hunch as if he were caving in. He is smoking a cigarette.

Some RVs have grown roots: permanent carpeted patios, often screened, one even with a wooden picket fence containing a large, noisy dog. Every patio is festooned with Chinese lanterns–more in this Kampground than there are in all of China. The trailer across from me is hung with decorations intricately constructed of plastic drinking glasses. Dusk comes and the proud owner throws a switch and they become lamps, glittering as a thousand jewels.

Nearly every “yard” (that tiny wasteland of sunblasted grass and dust) sports plywood figures–Woody Woodpecker or a little Dutch boy and girl or a frog on a mushroom saying “Hi!” The plastic daisy is endemic. Several trailers have full-sized refrigerators outside (and probably a deep freeze or walk-in cooler inside). One has two enormous planters tastefully built of discarded automobile tires. The flowers, predictably, are petunias, the wimps of the botanical world. Garfield the Cat clings to many a window in the Kampground. If ever there was a cat that deserves the ultimate fate at the animal shelter, it is Garfield, the surly, arrogant little animal-that-should-be-euthanized.

The Kampground pool is jammed. “Swimming” is a stand-up procedure because no one has enough room to go prone in a swimming position. Everyone is shouting and the din is terrific. It is not, as my friend Marty Malin says, “silent, like the ‘P’ in swimming.” There is the inevitable rec room (not recreation room) with Space Invaders and other games to provide mental stimulus for the Kamp adolescents so they won’t have to torment their unwrinkled brains with books.

This Kampground features a hayride, a rubber-tired wagon pulled by a small tractor. There are about a dozen kids and a very pregnant woman (perhaps she does not know she is pregnant) riding on it. A small boy is throwing the hay out by handsful as they move along. By the fourth circuit of the Kampground the pregnant woman begins to look as if she will deliver. While cab drivers are famous for delivering babies in the back seat of their vehicles, I doubt the driver, a slack- jawed teenager with a thriving case of acne, will be much good in a birthing crisis.

A father and son walk in front of our motorhome, sharing a warm moment together. They have matching sunglasses, so you can tell they are close. Ward Cleaver turns over in his grave. A man is walking a hairy little dog. He is a veteran of the Kampground, for he is wearing a plastic glove on his left hand and when the dog pauses to make a hard little deposit, the man scoops it up like Ozzie Smith fielding a hot one. Give that man a Brown Glove award!

This is not a campground like one where I once camped in northern Minnesota, a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, where Big Falls roared just over the bank from the hookups and where a full campground was six vehicles. The roar in this Kamp is from incessant and heavy traffic on the nearby Interstate and is as irritating as the tumbling waters in Minnesota were soothing.

Many years ago when I was a wannabe soldier in ROTC, spending six lovely weeks at Fort. Sill Oklahoma, learning how to be abused and humiliated by superior artillerymen— everybody on that godforsaken military post was superior to Rotsy tourists— we spent several nights under the stars doing something or other military (I conveniently forgot what if I ever knew to begin with).

If there is anything charming about Fort Sill at night it is that the sky is uncluttered by ambient light, and there is none of that annoying civilization to disturb your tranquility. Instead of closing ourselves inside pup tents, several of us spread our shelter halves under the stars and stared into infinity. If ants ever gaze up into the night sky, I know how they must feel–pitifully insignificant. The memory would be more impressive except that all along we had the knowledge that at 5:30 AM a sergeant with the empathy of a prison guard would motivate us by screaming obscenities welcoming us into another day so we could spend many hours under a broiling sun listening to the ear shattering blast of 105 mm howitzers.

My camping life has evolved gradually over the years, as has my concept of how best to enjoy being outdoors and living a simple life. I graduated from a pup tent to a family size contraption devised by the Coleman company, to confound incompetent campers like me with yards of material and aluminum poles all cleverly designed to collapse in the middle of the night, in the middle of a windstorm. One night on a Current River gravel bar the tent buckled on top of us and we crawled into the starlit night, counted heads, and realized that Andy, our youngest son, was missing. Ultimately we discovered him under the debris of the tent, still sound asleep and irritable at being disturbed—not by the wind or the tent failure, but by us waking him up.

Another time the entire family camped in that same tent under a looming old tree and, wonder of wonders, the tent did not collapse. The next morning, with the help of family members who understand the complexities of tent construction, we folded up our portable accommodations and hit the road. Later we discovered that a violent storm had blown through the campground after we left and the huge tree broke into pieces and fell exactly where our tent had been. I interpreted this as an omen that perhaps tent camping was not the safest way to ensure family longevity.

I bought a succession of one man tents, none of which provided any more comfort than a bed of nails. All seemed to magnify rocks, roots, and any other tiny profusion beneath the tent floor, no matter how many layers of air mattress or other padding material I lay down. Among those tents was one which trapped the moisture which I apparently exuded copiously during the night and every time I woke and jostled the tent I created a mini monsoon. For a long time, I opted to rough it when I went on the road for the Conservation Department, sleeping in my tiny tents, saving money for the state and feeling grandly charitable, if also grandly uncomfortable. Gradually it dawned on me that I was on an expense account and did not have to sleep on a bed of rocks while gamely gathering material for outdoor articles, but instead could opt for a motel room where I could watch nature in the raw on the National Geographic Channel.

It did not occur to me that this also was a signal that I also was getting older, softer and wimpier.

So when the era of the recreational vehicle came along it was a simple jump from staying in motel rooms to staying in motel rooms that moved from one place to another. However, I soon discovered that Motel Eight does not gulp gasoline at an alarming and expensive rate, and, the first time I was faced with emptying a holding tank, I learned to appreciate the fact that using the facilities in a Motel Eight and pressing the flush lever was infinitely more convenient and infinitely less potentially disgusting than figuring out the complexities of a dump station.

Once, deep in the Ozarks, I stayed in a decrepit motor court, too primitive even to be called a motel. But it had a sagging bed, scarcely more comfortable than sleeping on a river gravel bar, and instead of a flat screen television set with the National Geographic Channel, it had an antique radio which played scratchy low power stations, populated by evangelists and gospel groups. It cost $2.50 for the night which seemed excessive for what I got, but still was far less than the eight dollars a night charged by the original incarnation of Motel Eight.

So, now in my geriatric wimp hood, at the end of a long day of challenging the outdoors, outwitting hungry wolf packs, dropping charging grizzly bears inches from my boot tops, fleeing from cheetahs, and swimming with crocodiles, I slump behind the wheel of my battered road vehicle and wearily look for the ultimate sign of civilization:

ROOM VACANCY! WELCOME!

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  • May 15th, 2018

MOBY DORK

By Joel M. Vance

Think of yourself as a herring. Visualize a crowded city street, thronging with people. Or rush hour on the access ramps. Wall to wall people, all crowded together. Now think of giant alien whales from outer space circling the city, gradually herding you and your fellow human herrings into a tighter, more confused and frightened ball.

And then, Wham! Whale sushi.

I’ve seen it–humpback whales doing what they call “bubble net feeding.” Several whales start circling a school of herring, singing (the guide lowered a microphone and it sounded more like timber wolves howling than Willie Nelson), creating a curtain of bubbles through their blow holes, and gently guiding the by-now baffled herring with gigantic flippers into an ever tighter bunch.

The bubble curtain keeps the herring inside, a sonic corral. The singing confuses them–is this a lullaby or a threat. The flippers indicate which way to go (“right this way to the lunch counter, folks” although the whales don’t add that lunch is not FOR the herring; the herring ARE lunch.)

Then comes the moment when the whales surge through the bunched herring and…well, it got me to thinking, something always dangerous. I had a brilliant idea, an even more perilous situation.

What if I could train my Brittanies to swim in an ever-tightening circle, barking as they do so? Would this confuse fish, like maybe a school of bluegills, and bunch them whereupon I would cast into the middle of the circle and catch fish when no one else can?

Could I train Brittanies to do this? I once had a fishing Brittany who would spend hours swimming in circles, occasionally plunging his head and snapping at the bluegills swimming around him. Once he caught one and surfaced with an astonished look, the fish flapping in his mouth. He spit it out and his lust for fishing diminished after that.

My Brittany bubble net idea evaporated as quickly as it had come when I remembered the most embarrassing incident of my life, one that also involved fish and dogs. I was invited to hear Chuck Yeager speak at a meeting of steelhead anglers. Gen. Yeager is the quintessential American hero, World War Two fighter ace, first man to break the sound barrier and the titular godfather of the astronauts.

We had sold a puppy to a friend who was such a fan of Chuck Yeager’s that she named the puppy Yeager. My brilliant idea bloomed so quickly that I had no second thoughts. If only it were possible to get Gen. Yeager to inscribe will a book which I could give to my friend.

I was at a meeting where general Yeager was to be the featured speaker and I thought to myself what a wonderful opportunity, not only to meet a great American hero, but also to get him to autograph a book for my friend— who also happened to be a magazine editor and thus would be forever obligated to buy anything I wrote and pay me voluminous amounts of money.

I visited a local used bookstore and found a tattered copy of a book which seemed totally appropriate. What a serendipity moment! I would have him inscribe the book “from one Yeager to another” and we would share a comradely laugh.

It didn’t occur to me that Gen. Yeager was promoting his autobiography, curiously titled “Yeager.” No–I was thinking dogs (or like one, more accurately). I bought a copy of a dog training book (which looked as if perhaps the dog it was intended for had been using it as a chew toy) and took it to the meeting where I spied the good general chatting with a few fans. Presently they drifted away and there he was alone for the moment, his back to me.

I walked up and said “Excuse me, general….” and he began to turn and instantly I was aware of the incredible stupidity of my Grand Plan. I knew exactly how a field mouse feels when it becomes aware of a shadow passing overhead and looks up to see a sharp-shinned hawk three feet above, talons extended.

I was going to ask this great American hero to inscribe a book to a dog…and it wasn’t even his book?

The enormous idiocy of my idea finally sank through my thick skull into the tiny part where common sense lurks and even before this famed American military hero turned toward me, one uncomfortable memory from the past flooded my mind like the fabled life-flashing-before-your-eyes an instant before you are hit by the incoming missile.

I was back in the National Guard arriving after a 900 mile 2 ½ day ride in a Jeep at the head of our artillery battalion convoy to camp Ripley Minnesota. I was tired, hot, and in no mood for the flipparies of military courtesy. Oh sure, I would return the halfhearted salutes of my equally weary troopers as they hosed down their dusty vehicles, as eager as I was to see the duty day come to an end.

A Jeep pulled to a stop some yards away from me and I assumed it was yet another stray from the incoming summer campers (this was not Camp Bidawee for adolescents–this was a chance for us to spend a lot of government money shooting howitzer rounds, costing $100 each, at distant targets like empty barrels, isolated pine trees, and the occasional suicidal white tailed deer that had wandered into the impact area).

From the corner of my eye, I saw a couple of guys approaching, but I ignored them, concentrating on the militarily vital task of washing our travel weary vehicles. “Captain!” I turned to behold, like someone standing in the path of the lava flow from a devastating volcanic eruption, a bird colonel and, standing beside him, the diminutive form of a one star general. Even before the colonel, who apparently was the bad cop, spoke in the tone of the judge rendering a death sentence to a serial killer, I realized that I had effed up big time. “Don’t you know you are supposed to report to a commanding officer?” It was not a rhetorical question, politely asking for information. It was the prelude to damnation by hellfire which the colonel proceeded to deal to me like a stoker shoveling coal into a blast furnace.

The general, who looked remarkably like portraits of Napoleon, stood idly by slapping his thigh with a riding crop while the colonel flayed me as if preparing to tan my hide, possibly for use as a chamois for drying the general’s Jeep after I finished washing it. Finally the two high-ranking officers were done with their sadistic fun and left me lying gravely wounded on the battlefield.

So, General Yeager turned to me and I knew exactly the way the pilot of a Messerschmitt ME 109 felt when skewered by twin 40 caliber machine guns manned by a P 38 Lightning pilot, possibly manned by a fellow named Yeager. My idea had been asked him to inscribe the dog training book “from one Yeager to another” and now even years later the enormous foolishness of that idea gives me cold chills.

Instead, looking remarkably like Mortimer Snerd, the half witted Edgar Bergen dummy, I stammered something or other and thrust the book at him and he looked at it as if I were offering him dog droppings, instead of a book about dogs. Brusquely, he signed the book, and turned back toward someone with at least half a brain and instantly dismissed me to the dustbin of history.

That was the worst instance of my inconveniencing celebrities with my oafishness. At a meeting of outdoor writers which included several guest celebrities I went to breakfast with a tall, handsome gentleman and thinking to involve him in my hamfisted version of small talk, I said, “And what do you do?” thinking that he was another outdoor writer– he did look familiar, possibly someone I had hobnobbed with in outdoor writer circles, although he obviously was more successful at it than me–for one thing he wasn’t dressed in tattered blue jeans. To his eternal credit and the fact that he was an authentic gentleman, he did not look at me as one looks at an unusual insect, and merely said, “I’m an actor.”

Not only was Richard Anderson an actor, he was one of the stars of the highly successful Six Million Dollar Man television series, and a veteran of countless movies, but he reportedly also was Debbie Reynolds’ first boyfriend. All this I discovered far too late to apologize. Although I probably would’ve blurted something idiotic like “too bad you have such a forgettable face.”

Another time, at a meeting, I was crossing a room when I encountered a fellow whom I was sure I knew but whose name I could not remember. In the way that us feebleminded folks do, I faked it and said heartily, “Hey, good to see you! How’s it goin’?” He looked at me, obviously trying to place me among his many friends and embarrassed that he could not do it. “Fine!” He said. “And it’s good to see you too!”

Ten feet farther on, I realized that not only did I not know him, but he didn’t know me either. He was Mason Adams, one of the stars of the Lou Grant television show. Now, many years later, he probably still is wondering who the hell that old friend was— although probably not. Only once have I not managed to put my 9 ½ D’s firmly amid my molars. That was when I was at dinner where a fellow chatted amiably with our fellow diners and I gathered from the conversation that he was some sort of hockey player. I know every bit as much about hockey as I know about quantum physics. The only thing I know about hockey is the Rodney Dangerfield joke, “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.” So I managed for once to keep my mouth shut.

Later at home, when I mentioned his name to my son, Andy, an ardent hockey fan, I found out that Denis Potvin not only was a hockey player, but happens to be in the NHL Hall of Fame, one of the all-time greats– the most prolific scoring defense man of all time. At least I didn’t ask him, “And what is it you do?” only to have him high stick me across my big mouth.

So,on the other hand, I think I’ll just let the Brittanies be dogs and forget whatever fantasies they might have had about being humpback whales. And that goes for me, too.

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  • May 5th, 2018

ONE MAN’S HABITAT IS ANOTHER MAN’S WEEDPATCH

By Joel M. Vance

I knew a man who loved blackberry cobbler above all else. He cleared out a huge patch of wild blackberries…and then planted nursery-raised canes. The irony never occurred to him.

He was symptomatic of landowners who have been conditioned away from the wild bounty of the land and into a manufactured version of it. Another landowner I know is a staunch supporter of wildlife conservation. But he cleared out a long brushy draw and a fallow field and planted alfalfa from which he cuts hay, usually during the nesting season. He wonders where his quail have gone.

Habitat loss has many names: wetland loss, desertification, deforestation, fragmentation are just a few. The result is whatever lived there has lost its home. Some adapt to new conditions; most don’t. Some migrate to suitable habitat; many don’t.

So-called “clean” farming has become the norm. It flowered fully during the unlamented tenure of Earl Butz as Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Agriculture. Butz’s mantra was “fencerow to fencerow” farming and he meant it literally—do not ever let a weed, a bush or a tree invade your fencerow, else you be accused of sloppy farming.

Let’s face it, much wildlife habitat is the result of neglect. As much as any factor, it was responsible for the revival of wildlife during and after World War Two. A generation of young farmers went to war and the farms they left behind often were in the draft horse era, small holdings where the concept of megafarms wasn’t even a glimmer.

There were brushy gullies and fencerows, woodlots untouched, fallow fields gone to weeds, no pesticides, no herbicides—in other words a set table for wildlife. Deer, turkeys and other animals thrived under this neglect.

It has been a downhill slide for wildlife habitat since Johnny came marching home. In the 1950s Missouri’s pasture land was more than 90 percent legumes like clover, alfalfa and lespedeza, all beneficial to wildlife. By the end of the century more than 90 percent was fescue, a rank grass that cows don’t even like much but that grows anywhere and is cheap. It’s estimated that five times as much land is in agriculture now compared to when the Pilgrims landed.

Coupled with fescue conversion came the flourish of pesticides and herbicides. Rachel Carson’s landmark 1962 Book Silent Spring waked America to the dangers of hard pesticides and put an end to the worst of them barely in time to arrest the skid of the bald eagle toward extinction (hard pesticide residues in eagle prey caused eggshell thinning and a subsequent decline in baby eagles).

Has 70-plus years of sluicing the land with chemicals affected wildlife, especially ground-nesting birds and small animals? It’s not a rhetorical question—there are indications that chemical poisoning causes genetic disruption, ranging from deformities to sex change in male creatures.

No one to my knowledge is investigating whether quail, an indicator species if ever there was one, have been genetically altered over the years by chemical exposure. For argument let’s say that seven decades of chemically treated quail food (seeds and green matter) have resulted in less potency among male quail or perhaps a one-egg decline in the average clutch size among females.

The result obviously would be fewer quail.

Couple that factor with habitat loss, increased predation, even global warming and possibly some other factors we don’t understand and the result is the most widespread poor quail population in the country’s history.

Hitched to changes in agriculture is the proliferation of people. Not only did Johnny come marching home; he came equipped and supercharged to breed. Since 1945 when the war ended, the U.S. population alone has grown to 320 million. The rate of increase has declined since 1990 when it was about 8 million a year added—but it still is well above zero population growth, nevermind a negative figure.

All those people demand space…not just space to live, but space to work and shop. Yesterday’s mom and pop grocery is today’s Wal-Mart parking lot. The solution is at the same time simple and impossible—quit having so many kids. That elementary conclusion rams head on into religious and other considerations which make it impossible to legislate or often even to talk about.

Yet anything else is a Band Aid on a grievous wound. All the programs for wildlife restoration, for habitat improvement, all the incentive payments to protect and enhance habitat don’t mean a thing if the world population continues to constrict what’s available for critters.

Western states with their hefty proportion of public lands (national forests, grasslands and Bureau of Land Management holdings) are better off than their eastern counterparts—fewer people, more untamed acres. But most of the country lives where wildlife habitat is at a premium. Public programs come and go. In the 1950s the Soil Bank retired many row crop acres to fallow fields and pheasant numbers flourished.

But the Soil Bank contracts ran out and farmers plowed up that habitat to take advantage of high grain prices. Same thing is happening with the Conservation Reserve Program as CRP contracts run out. It is a boom and bust cycle for wildlife that depends on old field and early succession acres.

Some landowners simply don’t like wildlife. It’s competitive with them and a nuisance. Even songbirds eat grain that otherwise would generate cash for the farmer. That group never will accept any idea that encourages critters. Another, larger, group can’t afford to idle acreage or share with wildlife. Farming is a crap shoot, subject to fickle weather and market fluctuations.

The smallest group is those who can afford to subsidize wildlife habitat or who, through a form of genius, have figured out how to make money. I know a man who was about to sink as a crop farmer, but converted his farm to a dog training preserve and righted the economic ship.

The late Eugene Poirot, a southwest Missouri farmer, took a worn out acreage and turned it into a money machine with creative ideas like filling ponds through spring rainfall, raising catfish for market in them, then draining the water for irrigation of crops when drought struck. His long out of print book Our Margin of Life details his many ideas for living with wildlife and making money at the same time, but it takes a person of rare vision, even with Poirot’s blueprint, to make it work.

There really is no way to quantify wildlife habitat loss. We know what constitutes good habitat for some animals, less about what others need. Some species have proved more resilient than we thought. When I began working for the Missouri Conservation Department in 1969, our turkey biologist John Lewis felt that Missouri would have open hunting in about half its 114 counties and he thought he was being optimistic.

Now all counties are open and most have the best overall turkey hunting in the country. White-tailed deer have been a similar success. Both animals have adapted to living cheek by beak with humans.

Not so the prairie chicken, once a common citizen of Missouri’s native tallgrass prairie which spanned a third of the state. Prairie chickens fueled wagon trains heading West in the 1800s. Along with the bison, they were meat for land hungry settlers and gold hungry prospectors.

But habitat loss had the grouse teetering on the brink of extinction long before the first chemical spray hit the land. The plow herded the birds into ever decreasing prairie enclaves (today of what once was 15 million tallgrass acres less than 100,000 remains). Hunting stopped more than100 years ago But the population has stumbled down ever since until now the estimate is less than 500 birds statewide.

You can have a prairie without prairie chickens, but you can’t have prairie chickens without a prairie. It all boils down to habitat and no animal is more dependent on the right habitat than the prairie chicken.

But what constitutes a prairie? There are more questions about Missouri’s prairie chickens and their habitat than there are the birds themselves. Despite repeated efforts to stay the trend, the population of the once-common pinnated grouse has declined to the point that they now are facing extirpation.

“Extirpation” means gone from a given territory. “Extinction” means gone from the world. Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and a few other states can claim tenuous prairie chicken populations. If there is hope for the rest of the grouse’s historic range, it is that other states have brought the birds back from near-extirpation.

The loss of prairie chicken habitat has been staggering. In Illinois it went from more than 60 percent of the state’s acreage to less than one-one hundredth, hardly enough acreage for a back yard garden. The chicken population, estimated in the early 1960s at 2,000 in two southeastern Illinois counties, Jasper and Marion, fell to 50 birds by the 1990s.

Habitat loss coupled with genetic loss. The birds, confined to fragments of their former range, inbred and hatching success fell from the 90th percentile to under 40 percent. Illinois began restoring habitat and introducing birds from other states, with genetic backgrounds similar to that of the Illinois birds. Starting in 1992 Illinois sweetened its ragtag remnant with 500 prairie chickens from Nebraska, Minnesota and Kansas. After new blood came into the gene pool the hatch rate jumped back to 94 percent.

That is an example of a habitat problem identified by nature writer David Quammen in his book The Song of the Dodo. He calls the concept “island biodiversity” and in essence it means that a given wildlife population in an island of good habitat, surrounded by poor habitat, is doomed to, at best, become what he calls a “museum flock” and probably to longterm extinction.

Is that what’s happening with quail? Certainly where I hunt the habitat is outstanding….but in many cases that’s the only good quail habitat farm in a community of clean farms, fall plowed and devoid of winter cover. Maybe my survivor quail are inbreeding themselves to extinction, even though their home habitat is excellent.

A neighbor is a back-to-the-land advocate—they have a garden, raise about 40 chickens for eggs and meat, have a wood stove. But they live in a house carved as part of a rural housing development from a farm where I used to hunt quail. Six of one, half a dozen of the other…..

I can’t complain about usurping rural land from wildlife. We moved to 40 acres 27 years ago, but I like to think we haven’t disturbed the ecosystem that much. I’ve killed turkeys on the ridge across our small lake, and I photographed a chuck-will’s-widow nest there. We have wood ducks nesting, as well as doves. Two barred owls often chat across the lake and there are numerous box turtles.

But the covey of quail that used to be on the place is gone. Maybe I could blame it on the neighbors but I suspect we all share equally in the guilt.

While trap-and-transplant is essential for the restoration of wildlife species, it is not the most vital element—that remains habitat. “It all comes down to that,” said a member of an eight-person prairie chicken team working for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Habitat—it is as ephemeral a word as the life of a mayfly. It’s where critters live, obviously, but there are so many intangibles that the concept is like a medieval philosophical question about how many angels there are on the head of a pin.

Can prairie chickens survive and thrive on non-native prairie? I once saw chickens booming on plowed ground, stumbling and recovering like a drunk on the street. It was a sad and illuminating sight. I’m not sure if they were thriving or not—I doubt it, but I can’t judge without insinuating myself into the private and continuing life of that bedeviled flock of chickens. Perhaps these were the rarest of rare chickens, those who had discovered the secret of adaptation, like deer or coyotes.

But I doubt it.

I suspect they were symptomatic of a species hanging on. They roosted and presumably nested in a railroad right-of-way that served as a remnant tallgrass prairie. Everything else was corn and soybeans…and plowed ground. Before Audrain County was settled, it was a sweeping tallgrass prairie and pioneers reported big bluestem taller than a horse’s back. Riders would appear to be a dozen feet tall because the horse they sat upon was invisible.

After the disaster of the Dust Bowl, Midwestern farmers planted windbreaks in profusion, usually Osage orange a lush tree whose branches stooped to the ground and offered shelter to small wildlife. But Osage orange has the unfortunate (from the landowner’s standpoint) habit of sucking moisture from its surroundings, meaning a few rows of corn or beans adjacent to a hedgerow would be puny. That proved unacceptable and, beginning in earnest in the 1960s, farmers started jerking those audacious hedgerows and substituting, if anything, a four-strand barbed wire fence.

Missouri’s Conservation Department has taken heat over the years for its sponsorship and endorsement of two plants of great value to wildlife: multiflora rose and autumn olive. Both offer thick cover and bounteous crops of berries beloved by birds. Therein lies the problem—birds eat the berries and digest the good parts….but defecate the seeds indiscriminately. So, today’s carefully planted cover strip becomes tomorrow’s invasive plant.

It’s well known, but not widely appreciated that enormous destruction of Latin American rain forest is shrinking the populations of many migratory songbirds. It’s easier to mourn the decline of bobwhite quail because we hunt them and they are North American cousins. We don’t see the ravaging of the rain forest but its impact ripples like the effect of a rock tossed in a pond.

At the other end of the world, the shrinking polar ice cap is closing in on polar bears, like the walls in a Poe horror story. On the Great Plains, the rapacious oil and gas industries are squeezing out the sage grouse and other grassland grouse with their drilling sites, all for the benefit of more oil and gas production so consumers can buy SUVs and other gas hogs and so they can ship their oil across the country through pipelines which inevitably will rupture and destroy even more habitat. Windfarms, supposedly beneficial, often are deadly to birds up to and including eagles, killed by the gigantic whirling blades of the turbines. Hydroelectric dams have caused massive fish kills, and the flooding of countless acres of what once was wildlife habitat. The drawbacks to solar energy may well cancel out the benefits of this so-called free energy. Nothing comes without its price— except to wildlife which always seems to be on the debit side of the ledger.

The destruction of pioneer forest land by loggers was horrific enough in its time, but nothing compared to the wholesale rape of the land today . Scottish poet Alexander Smith said, “A man doesn’t plant a tree for himself. He plants it for posterity” I don’t know of any poets who have written odes of praise for those who cut that tree down.

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  • Blog
  • April 27th, 2018

A LOVE STORY

By Joel M. Vance

I was rummaging around in my computer the other day, a place as cluttered as an old maid’s attic, when I ran across a partial short story that I wrote quite a few years ago. Apparently, I ran out of inspiration short of a conclusion and there I left it to gather pixel dust.

So, I finished it and you’ll find it below. It’s based on an actual incident which occurred when I was riding my bicycle home from work one day, grimly peddling up a too steep hill wishing that Jefferson City were as flat as Western Kansas. The story is fiction— a might have been. Somewhere out there is a beautiful blonde, now at least in her late middle age, possibly still the owner of a spectacular classic blue Mercedes convertible.

I figure the way the short fiction market is these days (and has been for a long time) no one would buy this story anyway so here it is for your entertainment and then it goes back into the electronic file cabinet of what once was.

THE STORY

I was pulling hard up Sugg’s hill on my Trek bicycle, in granny low gear, wishing I had a couple more below granny, listening to “The Lady in the Blue Mercedes” from the Greatest Hits of Johnny Duncan.

Probably not smart to plug my ears with headphones, but I’m a great believer in fate, always have been. If it’s my time to be centered by a semi, driven by the automotive counterpart of Charles Manson, so be it.

At least I’ll go out listening to a great country song…and think of the wonderful shape I’ll be in from riding the bicycle to and from work. Still–my calves throbbed and threatened to cramp and I glanced up from my crouched-over-the-handlebars posture to see how close I was to the top of the hill and there she was, just passing me. I was high enough to see into the front seat of the car and everything registered like a photograph taken by a high-speed camera.

The lady in the blue Mercedes convertible. It was robin’s egg blue and she was as blonde as a golden sunset. She wore a white dress and her hair streamed in the breeze of her passing. I only caught a glimpse of her profile, but it was classic, a small, straight nose, flawless skin. I would have bet her eyes were blue, slightly darker than the elegant old Mercedes convertible.

I’m no expert on cars, being partial to rusty pickups and bicycles, but this one was vintage, maybe even a classic from the 1950s. It bespoke its classic heritage, making the pretenders from other manufacturers look tacky by comparison. As did the lady at the wheel. So stunned was I by this manifestation of the music I was hearing that I actually cried out and nearly ran into the curb.
It was an instant frozen in time, an eyeblink of eternity, but as meaningful as a lifetime of passion. “Wait!” I shouted…but the Mercedes already was turning the corner at the top of the hill and the blonde head did not turn toward me. And then she was gone.

Yes, I know it was like the scene from the movie “American Graffiti” where Curt sees the girl in the white Thunderbird who mouths “I love you” to him. Truth is stranger than fiction, except that she didn’t mime “I love you” to me. She didn’t even look at me– just passed like a lightning strike and was gone, leaving not even a whiff of ozone.

I pulled to the curb and leaned on the handlebars, as stunned as if I had been clipped by that semi. Ever the believer in fate, whether semis or romance, I knew this was not accidental. Fate had sent me a vision and it now was up to me to realize it.

Somewhere was the girl for me, the Grail of Girls–if only I could find her. It shouldn’t be difficult. The town isn’t that big. I’d track her down, lay siege to her affections, and we would ride off to some Nirvana of eternal love…in a vintage blue Mercedes convertible.

I looked for her every time I left the house for weeks. I would travel different streets to work and home in the hope that I would see the blue Mercedes and the lovely blonde within. On weekends I rode around town, aimlessly, checking driveways, finding streets I’d never been on. But nowhere was a blue Mercedes and, most important, the lovely woman within.

I listened to the Johnny Duncan song until it started to sound stupid. That was a song–the girl in the car was reality, or at least I thought she was. Maybe I had been suffering from hypoxia or a fleeting aneurism and only thought I had seen a beautiful girl in a blue Mercedes.

I decided to play detective, something that I quickly found I’m not suited for (I’m a junior partner in a law firm, specializing in insurance claims–hardly the stuff of noir novels). I visited the local police station with a story that sounded phony when I thought it up and got increasingly more so when I put it to the test.

“Ah, I need a little information, “ I told the desk sergeant, a grizzled veteran with a boozer’s nose and cop eyes. Suddenly I realized how stupid I was being. “I think I left a scratch on a person’s car,” I mumbled. “And if I could find out who owns it, I could make restitution.”

“You vandalized somebody’s car?” the cop asked, scowling. I could feel cold sweat puddling under my armpits.

“No!” I exclaimed. “It was an accident. On my bicycle. I didn’t realize until I got home that I had paint on the handlebar. Parked car. You know….” I trailed off, looking as guilty as a member of the Manson Gang.

“License number?” he asked.

“I have to go look at my car,” I said.

“Not yours. The one you damaged.”

“Oh, I didn’t get it. Don’t know. But it’s an old blue Mercedes convertible. Probably the only one in town. Probably easy to find. Probably. Can you tell me who owns it?”

He looked at me with deep suspicion, as if he knew I were toying with him and with the majesty of the law. “No,” he said. “I can’t, even if I knew. We’ll let you know if we run across it.”

And I knew that he would not run across it, that he would forget about me as soon as I walked out the door, except maybe to tell his cop buddies what massive dumbasses he has to put up with.
I was glad to escape without charges being filed on a non-existent vandalism case although a good one could have been made against me for filing a false police report. This would not have been good for my law career. I realized that I was bordering on nuts.

My friend Paul is a practicing psychiatrist and I unloaded on him over a beer. “My office hours are posted on the door,” he said, without pity. “But here’s a quickie diagnosis. Have you ever heard the word ‘obsession’?”

“If I could just find her,” I said. “Maybe she’s as ugly as 40 miles of snot, face on, but I have to know.”

“That’s 40 miles of bad road,” Paul said. “And we psychiatrists have a phrase to describe your behavior. It’s called ‘going crazy.’”

“Yeah, whatever,” I muttered.

“For what it’s worth,” he said, “You’ll appear in my next psychiatric conference presentation under the title, ‘Crazy Friends I Have Refused to Treat.’”

\ “Think of it as a quest,” I said.

“Yeah, whatever,” he muttered.

And then I found her, at an estate auction. It had advertised books among the items for auction and I’m a bookaholic. I parked a block away–it was a well-attended sale–and walked toward the old house. The place was bordering on a true estate, so I figured perhaps the late owner had some collectible books. Most sales feature the very best in Reader’s Digest, Book-of-the-Month and Grosset & Dunlap reprints of Zane Grey westerns but every so often someone dies who actually had read or at least acquired valuable books.

Once again I was head-down, concentrating on not stepping on any sidewalk cracks. It had been drilled into me as a little kid: “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back!” My mother had been dead for many years, but why tempt fate?

And then I stopped short, inhaling a quick, startled breath. There it was, unmistakably, the blue Mercedes. I approached it as if approaching a lovely but wild horse that might bolt and never be seen again. I ran my hand over the fender, along the side and the door frame where her hand must have rested. It felt warm as if she were part of the car, but maybe it was from the spring sunshine.

Still–the old car seemed to breath as if infused by the life force of the lovely blonde who owned it. This was not a car; it was a familiar, a good witch’s talisman.

I looked quickly around to see if anyone was watching, then put my hand on the driver’s seat, leaning into the car and inhaling the sweet scent of old leather and young girl. The seat felt warm, but maybe it was from the sun.

She must be inside the big house where I could hear the bray of the auctioneer as he disposed of someone’s life for pennies on the dollar. I took a deep breath and went up the steps and into the house, following the bellow of the auctioneer’s amplified spiel.

There was the usual assortment of farmers in overalls and implement dealer caps, old people accumulating items for their own estate sale, young marrieds hoping for a bargain to equip a starter home and…just glimpsed through the crowd, a blonde as bright as a spring sunrise.

The auctioneer was deep into selling a Mixmaster, circa 1947, that looked as if it had been used to mix plaster. He sweated and mopped at his brow. “Do I hear five? Let me hear five!” he implored, but he heard massive silence. “Who’s got three? Let me hear two?” Someone scratched his nose and the spotter perked up, then subsided.

“Mark it to me,” said the auctioneer and moved to the next item. The blonde (or, as I now thought of her The Blonde) was across the crowded room and I immediately heard in my mind Ezio Pinza singing “Some Enchanted Evening.” (“…across a crowded room”) My mouth was dry; my breath shallow and quick. My palms sweated and it wasn’t the heat in the room; it was the heat in my loins.

I slithered through the crowd, excusing myself as I edged between people until I was directly behind the blonde. She wore a crisp khaki blouse and matching shorts. Her legs were flawless, long, slender but not model skinny. Moving up, I gazed upon a world class back end, a taut Valentine that rounded to a slim waist, then ascended to square shoulders, partially covered by that golden cascade of hair. One pert ear peeked through the shimmering locks and I nearly drooled with the need to nibble on it, like a sexual hors d’oeuvre.

I tried to speak and it came out as a raven’s croak. It’s a wonder I didn’t squawk, “Nevermore! Nevermore!” like Poe’s bird.

She turned as it was as if someone had turned on a million watt searchlight. There have been times when I have lusted after a receding shape only to have this rear vision turn and show me the face of something that should be on Mt. Rushmore.

This was not one of those times. She was as lovely as puppies at play, as prairie wildflowers swaying in a spring breeze. I cleared my throat of Poe, sounding like a load of gravel dropped down a metal chute, and said, “Some sale, eh?” As suave as facial blemishes.

She smiled and dimples appeared where dimples are supposed to. Her eyes were what they always call “cornflower blue,” although I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cornflower to know. But they were blue, so blue I could have gone skinny-dipping in them forever.

“Yes,” she said, her voice rippling like a mountain stream over lovely rounded rocks. She looked at me with what I hoped was frank appraisal and I was glad I had shaved and put on underarm deodorant (because my pits were gushing flop sweat).

“Ah, I couldn’t help but notice your car, the Mercedes,” I said. “What a beautiful car!” She brightened even more, if that was possible, and said, “It’s a 1958 220SE. Kind of a classic so they tell me.”

“Where did you ever find a beauty like that?” I asked.

“A friend bought it for me,” she said and my heart sank because the kind of friends that buy Mercedes for beautiful women are the kind of friends that also dangle those same beautiful women like charms on a massive bracelet that is inscribed: “My Conquests.”

Those friends are male, rich, handsome, suave, and they leave me standing by the roadside, squinting into the dust cloud they and the beautiful girl leave behind as they speed off in the Mercedes.

“Are you looking for anything in particular?” I asked, hoping she would reply, “Yes–you, all my life!”

“Oh…something nice for a friend,” she said. Probably the friend who gave her the car. I’d like to give him a gift, too–a sputtering hand grenade. “Here, asshole.” She had a fleeting expression of hurt and I intuited that there was more than casual giving involved.

“Special friend?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. She paused. “Very special.” She hesitated, looked at me as if judging whether to add anything and I let my face sag in what I hoped was sympathetic, but possibly looked more like I’d suffered a minor brain fart.

She sighed. “It’s sort of a farewell gift, I guess.”

“Your friend is leaving?” I’m as quick on the uptake as the vintage Laurel and Hardy.
“No. We’re sort of…splitting up,” she said. “I guess you don’t want to hear about things like this….”

“Au contraire!” I exclaimed, dredging up an artifact from my college French. In fact it is exactly what I wanted to hear–that she was splitting from what I assumed was her rich asshole squeeze (“Never mind the hand grenade, jerko! You’re history.”) and was, therefore, free, marginally over 21 and certainly over the age of consent, and stunningly lovely. “I don’t mean to pry but…this is someone you care…cared about?”

She nodded and pressed her full lips together, lips that I yearned to treat like a ripe mango. She hunched her shoulders and looked so sad that I felt a surge of emotion unlike anything since Lassie saved Timmy and licked his ear. I wanted to lick her ear and whine.

I put a hand on her arm, meant to be reassuring and empathetic, not a bum’s rough paw. She took it as such and smiled at me and I felt I had taken a giant leap for Mankind, or at least this man.

Incongruously the words to “My Blue Heaven” leaped into my mind. The old song implied an eerie prophesy: “Just Molly and me/and baby makes three.” The blue heaven, of course, was the car (our car as I quickly came to think of it) and the mention of a baby suggested an intimacy that took my breath away. “Your name isn’t Molly, by any chance, is it?”

She frowned. “No–it’s Alice. Why do you ask?” I shrugged, thinking now of “Alice Blue Gown,” although I couldn’t remember the words.

“No reason,” I said. “You just look like a Molly.” I almost said that once I had a dog named Molly who was wonderfully cute, but managed to bite my lip and hold it back. She possibly would not have seen that as a compliment.

She looked around the room shrugged and said, “Well, I don’t think there is anything here for me.” And she turned and headed for the door. I wanted to scream after her “I’m here for you! Forever and always! Forget what’s his name and you and I will ride into the sunset in your lovely blue Mercedes convertible!”

Instead, I just stood there like the world’s thickest dolt, my throat locked as if I had swallowed a golf ball, and watched her walk out of the door and out of my life forever.

Oh, sure I looked for her and for the blue convertible for weeks after that, peddling glumly through the empty streets, going to yard sales, often allowing her memory to glide through my daydreams like a shaft of sunlight. But gradually, as time tends to heal all wounds (or wounds all heels) she faded from my memory and a girl came along who became my everything, including my wife. We made it past first a decade then another decade then a 25 year anniversary and she still is my reality, not a long faded dream.

But if we make it to a diamond anniversary, I will never totally forget the blonde vision in the blue Mercedes. As dear as my wife is to me and always will be, my wife, the girl of my reality, was driving a beat up 10-year-old Oldsmobile with dents and rust when we met.

Real life rarely involves visions in blue Mercedes convertibles and more often is composed of dents and rust.

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  • Blog
  • April 21st, 2018

CHILDREN OF THE DUST BOWL

By Joel M. Vance

There are 20 of them, scattered across the Great Plains, children of the worst natural disaster in American history, nevermind Katrina. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the Dirty Thirties, devastated 100 million acres in states from Texas to the Dakotas and killed countless people from dust pneumonia and just general debilitation and woe.

The 20 National Grasslands are because the country awoke to the fact that grasslands never were meant for plowing and cropping. The 600,000-acre Comanche in Colorado, 108,175-acre Cimarron in Kansas and the 230,000 Rita-Blanca in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, all are Dust Bowl children, all born in the heart of the near-decade-long misery.

There never has been a natural disaster as prolonged and as widespread as the Dust Bowl but as usual American memories are short-term and many of the lessons we learned the hard way haven’t stuck. Still some legacy remains from that grim time.

Today the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which until a few years ago was the Soil Conservation Service, owes its origin to the Dust Bowl. It began as a federal agency to work with landowners to stop the dusters, those almost daily blizzards of dirt that ruined crops, killed livestock and sickened people during the 1930s.

The SCS should have begun in the 1920s or even before–when the first plow bit the prairie, but it’s the American way to react to disaster, not to act to forestall it. A few farsighted folks had realized that the virgin prairie was not meant for cropping, that inevitably the wet years of the 1920s would give way to drought and that the ever-present prairie wind then would whisk away unprotected topsoil. But they were voices lost in that prairie wind, swept away on a misguided tide of optimism.

Everybody was going to get rich on wheat and other crops. Folk legend maintained that rain followed the plow. Plow up your ground and somehow that disturbance would incite moisture. People believe any nonsense if you tell them it will make them money.

There was some federal planning for what to do to protect the Great Plains as early as 1929 but it wasn’t until 1934 and 1935 that there actually was any action and by then it was too late—the prairie topsoil was airborne and the land was ruined.

Cautionary voices had been shouted down by exploiters, including honest, hard-working farmers who descended on the Plains states like a horde of locusts (which also would devastate the land late in the Dust Bowl days), intent on making a fortune with wheat and corn.

It worked…for a while. And then came the Dirty Thirties. The Dust Bowl states never have fully recovered. Today more than 80 percent of the farmers who once staked claims and their dreams in the Panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas and the rest of the Plains have given it up. The ones that remain are banking on water from deep wells, tapping into the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer, a once-huge subterranean lake that lies beneath most of the Plains states—an estimated 174,000 square miles of hidden lake.

This massive puddle is estimated originally to have been the size of Lake Huron, making it the true sixth Great Lake. It’s from long-ago drainage from the Rocky Mountains.

Irrigation farmers are sucking the Ogallala dry at the rate of 1.1 million acre feet a day! As vast as the aquifer is, it can’t forever withstand that rate of depletion. The Ogallala has a shelf life estimated from 25 to 250 years depending on location. Even if dryland irrigation were stopped right now it would take 100 years for the aquifer to recharge…assuming it could (in western Kansas, for example, more than 90 percent of rainfall evaporates rather than seeping into the ground, meaning virtually none would help to recharge the Ogallala)

Young landowners on the dry end of that statistic can expect to see their water source evaporate in their lifetime. The rest can pass the problem on to their kids and grandkids. Planners today are concentrating on extending the life of the aquifer—not of restoring it. It’s quickly apparent, reading through existing studies, that there’s far more hydrologists don’t know about the Ogallala than what they do—but they do agree that the aquifer is threatened and what happens down there dramatically will affect what happens up here.

We don’t seem to learn from our mistakes. Timothy Egan’s best-selling book The Worst Hard Time (Houghton Mifflin 2006) won the National Book Award for non-fiction and should be required reading for every dry land farmer in the Great Plains. It illustrates modern economics in a paragraph: “….cotton growers, siphoning from the Ogallala, get three billion dollars a year in taxpayer money for fiber that is shipped to China, where it is used to make cheap clothing sold back to American chain retail stores like Wal-Mart.”

How’s that make you feel, Wal-Mart shoppers?

Egan’s book is not a diatribe against disastrous land and water use in the Plains. It is a haunting report on the worst natural disaster in American history. And the old saw that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it inevitably springs to mind.

It wasn’t until 1960 that various federal purchases from the 1930s and beyond came to be known as the National Grasslands. The Grasslands encompass just over four million acres. Total federal purchases after the Dust Bowl top just over 11 million acres, far short of the proposed 75 million suggested in the immediate wake of the Dust Bowl. The Grasslands do serve as graphic examples of how careful prairie management can restore some of what once existed before the first plow bit the sod.

I’ve hunted on two of the National Grasslands, the Cimarron and the Ft. Pierre in South Dakota. Once you cross the first rolling hill and can’t see the parking lot, you’re struck by awe, akin to being adrift in a small boat in the middle of the ocean. The grass ripples like waves to the horizon and beyond and one feels vulnerably small clutched by nature’s enormous, impersonal fist.

Yet the fence between the federal and private land is a stark contrast between today and yesterday. The grass on the private land is cropped almost to the thin soil, while the federal land, operated under a grazing permit system, is comparatively lush.

Today the Grasslands are part of the National Forest system, administered by the U.S. Forest Service. Ironically, part of the original restoration plan was to plant trees to act as windbreaks and hold the soil. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted 220 million trees and only a scattering remain, testimony to the fact that the early soil conservationists largely were operating by guess and by God. The Plains never were meant for trees, but at least efforts to restore grass paid off on the federally-owned land.

Corporate America and farm landowners across the country would fight it to the death, but a proposal by some scientists, first floated in 2005, would return much of the Great Plains to the Pleistocene Era of 13,000 years ago—reintroducing animal species that lived 13,000 years ago in the 10 states involved (Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas).

It would take 50 years, the scientists estimate, but we’d have bison which already are established in some areas (an estimated 300,000 in North America)…and such veldt critters as lions and elephants. That’s a fairly nutty and unlikely proposal. More specific to reality is the Buffalo Commons proposal.

Drs. Frank and Deborah Popper wrote in 1987 that dry, sparsely-populated parts of the Great Plains (10 to 20 million acres) should be restored to the historic shortgrass prairie and repopulated with bison through a system of incentive payments to volunteer landowners who would, at the end of the contract, sell out to the Forest Service.

The Poppers had several strikes against them from the get-go. They were from New Jersey which, to a Westerner is like being from Soviet Russia. And they were academics, not hard rock farmers. And they were proposing something that smacked of government interference which always is anathema to Western landowners, even when it’s for their benefit.

Still there is some regional sympathy for the idea. Tourism almost certainly would benefit and the land almost certainly also would. Ideas this revolutionary gain ground slowly. The original proposal would have retired 130,000 square miles—roughly an area the size of Montana but it has been scaled back to what is possible, no matter how remotely.

If the Buffalo Commons ever becomes reality it will take a long time and leaders not only of vision, but of enough charisma to lead the reluctant and the apathetic. President Franklin Roosevelt and the first head of the SCS, Hugh Bennett, were men for their time when the Dirty Thirties threatened to ruin the nation’s farm economy. They fought through apathy and overcame the dreary inertia of the Dust Bowl and brought some measure of restoration to the Great Plains. Nature helped by mellowing its savage dry and hot assault of the Dirty Thirties to more normal weather in the 1940s. World War Two helped by taking a generation of young men off the land, thus letting it rest. Modern land use practices, experimental at the time, helped by proving themselves so that people could see the results.

The federal government helped by stepping in to make the worst acreage of the Dust Bowl public land, without the perceived necessity to beat it to death with crops. Landowners hated it when they had to give up their land heritage to the feds…but they had no choice. It was leave or die.

The Plains have been in population decline ever since, not as dramatically as they were in the Dirty Thirties, but steadily. Even the dramatic growth of cities like Houston and Dallas-Ft. Worth hasn’t offset the overall exodus of people from the rural parts of the Plains states

Woody Guthrie, who knew the Dust Bowl intimately because he grew up in the heart of it, Okemah, Oklahoma, recorded an album called “Dust Bowl Ballads.” “It’s a mighty hard road that my poor hands have hoed…” he sang and as an expatriate from the ever-present dusters himself, wryly sang, “So long, it’s been good to know ya.”

The United States bred at an unprecedented rate between 1990 and 2000—we added 32.7 million people, the most ever in a decade. The baby boom right after World War Two produced only 28 million and it is considered the most fecund orgy since the days of hedonistic Rome.

But even as the rest of the country has piled people on people, the roughly 450 Dust Bowl counties mostly have lost population. The exodus from farm to city has mirrored what happened in the Thirties—can’t make it down on the farm, head for the big town.

Then it was economic and natural disaster; now it is economic. The natural disaster part is yet to come. But inevitably the well will run dry and what happens to irrigated wheat and cotton?

In 1937, as the Dust Bowl neared its bitter end, there still were 134 dust storms, most of any year in the 1930s, though none that approached the Black Sunday in April, 1935, when a wall of dirt, estimated at 200 miles wide and 2,000 feet high swept from the Dakotas south to Texas with winds of 60 miles per hour, choking people and livestock in state after state. Many thought it was the end of the world. The day turned as dark as the blackest night and dirt piled in drifts like snow eight or nine feet high. Woody Guthrie sang, “Buried head over heels in the black old dust, I had to pack up and go.”

Could there be another Dust Bowl? Don’t count nature out. No one aside from the doomsayers warned that New Orleans could be devastated by a hurricane. But it was. The unthinkable happened. It could happen again next year or next century or never. The unthinkable always is just over the horizon, like the hurricane that hit New Orleans or the tidal wave that washed over Galveston or the earthquakes that shook San Francisco and earlier the New Madrid fault where John James Audubon’s horse braced its legs and “commenced to groaning” just before the quake began.

With modern farming methods the worst of the Dust Bowl isn’t likely to recur, but when nature shuts the water tap above ground and the aquifer runs dry below ground and there is a hot weather cycle (think global warming) and the wind blows incessantly, as it does even in wet times…the stage is set for another down time on the Great Plains.

Remember the woman on television who posed as Mother Nature and warned, “Don’t mess with Mother Nature!” as she summoned lightning and thunder. It was hokey and was designed to sell faux butter…but it inadvertently was words to the wise.

Nature always rules in the long run and those who ignore that do so at their peril.
Where are the wise when you need them?
-30-

FOR MORE INFORMATION

By all means read Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time. It, in turn, has a long list of sources that amplify his history of the Dust Bowl.

. The National Grasslands by Francis Moul (University of Nebraska Press) is a comprehensive look at those prairie gems. Individual Grasslands have web sites with information and maps—Google “national grasslands” for specifics.

For information on the Buffalo Commons proposal, check http://www.gprc.org/buffalo_commons_popper.html . A Google query on “Ogallala aquifer will give you hours of background reading.
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  • Blog
  • April 14th, 2018

READIN’, RITIN’ AND RUIN

By Joel M. Vance

In a recent blog I listed four of the most odious women in the public eye today: Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Laura Ingraham, Roseanne Barr and Kellyanne Conway. I was tempted to add Betsy DeVos to the list, but she deserves a spot all her own. The others can be dismissed as individually reprehensible, but Ms. DeVos is not only responsible for herself and her conduct, but also for the future of the nation’s educational system— something that she seems determined to dismantle and destroy.

Her appointment as a cabinet secretary, responsible for education in the United States, was controversial and had to be decided by a tie breaking vote by vice president Mike Pence. Of particular concern was the fact that DeVos has had absolutely no contact with public school education throughout her life. She is a product from grade school through college of private schools and is a strong advocate for offering vouchers so that kids can be shoveled into private institutions, rather than attending public schools. A charter school is not a public school, is not run like one, does not offer the same benefits as public education, and is not subject to the same oversight of school boards, of public input, and of professional educators as are our public schools, funded by taxpayer dollars.

The DeVos family association with education is a checkered one. Her husband has advocated the teaching of creationism in schools, a subject which I thought had been pretty well dismissed by the 1925 Scopes monkey trial. DeVos’s father, Edgar Prince, was the founder of the fundamentalist Family Research Council which is anti-LGBT, and her mother similarly is an outspoken fundamentalist. The FRC has been termed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

It may be a stretch to call FRC a hate group, but it does have a somewhat cloudy history: one founding member hired a male prostitute as a traveling companion and subsequently resigned from the board while Josh Duggar executive director of the group’s nonprofit legislative arm (a lobbyist) resigned after it became public that he had molested five underage girls, including some of his sisters.

None of this has anything directly to do with Betsy DeVos, of course, but it’s only human nature to judge people by the company they keep. We might also consider her brother, Eric Prince, the founder of Blackwater, USA, a private security company long associated with troublesome allegations over its conduct in Iraq, and more recently his involvement in a clandestine meeting in the Seychelles with a representative of the Russian government, tied to Vladimir Putin.

It is not just public school teachers or people like me, graduates of the public school system, who oppose Betsy DeVos as education secretary. Some 2700 students and alumni of Calvin College from which she graduated and to which her family has given enough money to have two buildings named after them, wrote a letter of protest insisting that Ms. DeVos is unqualified for the cabinet job and should not have it.

She is married to Dick DeVos who once ran for governor of Michigan (he lost). He is the son of the founder of Amway products, and a multimillionaire. One possible reason for him losing his run for governor is that Amway cut 1400 jobs in Michigan and sent them to China.

Education in the United States is in turmoil with teachers in several states walking out to protest both low pay and inadequate working conditions, and students in many high schools are walking out of class to call for stricter gun regulations in the aftermath of far too many school shootings.

Among the most notable teacher walkouts is one in Oklahoma which, at this writing, was in its second week (it ended after nine days). In response to the ardent requests of the striking teachers is a comment by Gary Richardson, a Republican candidate for Oklahoma governor, quoted as saying: “in politics as in life, no one gets everything they want.” Richardson says “Union tactics are less about education and more about pushing a liberal agenda demanding higher taxes and increased government spending”

Read that any way you want, but it appears to me that Oklahoma, which has the second lowest teacher pay in the nation, and where a fifth of the schools in the state are closed one school day a week to save money, has more of a problem with “a conservative agenda” than it does a liberal one—and anyone who cares about public education can only hope that Richardson as in life is one who does not get everything he wants.

Oklahoma, of course, is one of several states where public school teachers are walking out to protest against low pay, poor classroom conditions, and overall lackluster support of public education. West Virginia began the parade of educators quitting the classroom in protest against educational indifference. Since, teachers in both Kentucky and Oklahoma have joined the movement. Arizona is teetering on the edge of a similar walkout. Much of the teacher anger has been fueled by two situations— the appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary and the Parkland school shooting in Florida.

DeVos’s solution to education problem seems to be to get rid of those pesky public schools and replace them with for-profit charter schools, presumably staffed with teachers who adhew to the conservative mindset—which I suspect would include prayer in schools, barring teaching or discussion of evolution, denial of global warming, decrease in emphasis on science, and generally a return to the Dick and Jane mentality of teaching in the 19th century.

DeVos flatly asserts that in her words “public schools are a dead end.” She and her husband would much rather see tax money diverted to private schools. In other words public education would become private education, supported by taxpayers.

Puerto Rico, the US territory, which already has been devastated by a hurricane, has appointed a Philadelphia native as its education secretary (a business consultant) to the consternation and disapproval of the island’s teachers. Julia Keleher is a Betsy DeVos clone who is being paid a quarter of a million dollars a year—roughly 10 times what the average teacher in Puerto Rico makes— and who has closed 179 schools and cut $7 million from an already inadequate budget, and who would like to close another 300 schools and convert them to charter schools. There would be no elected school board, no public meetings to get parent input and no guaranteed school for any student— charter schools would be able to pick and choose the students and disallow any they don’t want.

If there is a living example of what Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration would like to see in public education, Puerto Rico is it. Is this the future of education for our children and their children in the United States of America?

As to Ditsy Betsy’s views on school shootings, refer only to her confirmation hearing where she said that in Wyoming “I would imagine there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies.” If there ever has been a more ridiculous and ignorant answer to a confirmation hearing question, I can’t imagine what it would be. She held up black colleges and universities as examples of “pioneers of school choice,” ignoring the fact that those schools began because black students had no choice, being barred from attending white colleges and universities.

And, amid a spate of scandals involving sexual assault on campuses, DeVos said that too many men were falsely accused and set new rules making it more difficult for accusers to prove their accusations. I’ll bet Donald Trump had orgasmic jubilation over that endorsement. DeVos also has said that under her private school system, discrimination by the schools should be left up to the states. You can imagine how that would play, especially in some southern states.

Under the DeVos concept of education schools would become franchise operations, a sort of McDonald’s of education mostly suited to creating a worker bee society to serve the needs of the monied class. Her elitist “let them eat cake” philosophy cuts close to home for me. Our oldest daughter, Carrie, now retired after more than 30 years as a high school English teacher, began her career practice teaching in a Minnesota school on an Indian reservation where there were signs in the hallways warning students not to set fires.

This was precisely the kind of underachieving school that Betsy DeVos never has visited and never will. It didn’t need fewer fires; it needed more funding and more dedicated teachers like Carrie. Later on, she spent a number of years teaching “last chance” kids (called sweat hogs in the old television series) in a Minneapolis suburban high school where she was underfunded and overworked. The school system was symptomatic, not of the failure of public education, but of the failure of the public to adequately support that system— precisely the reason that teachers now are beginning to awaken the public to what really is needed by going on strike. Not charter schools, not vouchers, not private schools for the privileged few, but schools open to all and funded adequately so men and women dedicated to teaching will have the means to do so.

Carrie says: “I walked a picket line for six weeks in Chaska in 1983, striking for adequate pay. The district chose to hire substitutes (scabs) from all over the Midwest for ridiculous pay, put them up in hotels, and bus them to the schools, marching them through our picket lines in a morale-destroying display. We did gain some concessions in the contract, but most didn’t recoup their losses. But the fact remains that teachers should be able to join unions to fight for their professional rights and dignity along with adequate pay, resources, and representation.”

This was not a failure of public education—it was a failure of the public education system to support the system. Now, Carrie’s youngest son, Martin, and his wife both are teaching in a Colorado elementary school. Their pupils are troubled youngsters, sometimes violent, sometimes seemingly impossible to teach–but both of the young teachers have aimed their entire career training toward giving severely handicapped youngsters a chance at a normal life. No DeVos school would accept kids like the ones Martin and Alex offer love, understanding, and education.

With billionaires dictating education policy and cabinet members throwing money around as if it had been printed just for their benefit, it’s worthwhile to note that spending on education is nearly what it was a decade ago and in more than half the states spending per student is less than it was 10 years ago. The entire profligate administration which seems dedicated to running the country into the ground must quickly be relegated to the dusty, dirty ashpit of history, and their selfish ambitions booted into the trash heap of failed policies.

There’s an election coming up in November, folks, and we all have a choice— bring sanity to government and get teachers off the picket line and back into public classrooms where they belong. It’s a solution to only one of the many problems created by the disastrous Trump regime, but it’s a start.

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