Hunting and gathering wild food was such a part of my childhood it seemed natural to bring a bag of my mom’s frozen rabbits and squirrels on a plane from Green Bay to San Diego as a young sailor many moons ago.
Both of my parents hunted, but my mom stuck with it longest and almost always hunted alone. With only a second-grade education, she knows more about the woods, hunting and cleaning game than anyone I’ve ever met. She practically raised my sister and me in the woods. Even today, the cooler temperatures and changing colors of the trees mean one thing – squirrel season.
When Tina and I were still toddlers, my mother pulled us in our Radio Flyer wagon to the woods. I don’t know how she managed when we were babies. Imagine the workout she got as she pulled us over plowed cornfields and through grassy meadows. She’d look around until she found just the right tree to park us near. It had to be fairly big, and bent over like a fishing pole hauling in a lunker, but with some springiness left in it.
Then Mom set down her 20-gauge shotgun, her favorite with the stock modified to fit her short arms, and then she’d climb the tree to show us how to have fun bouncing up and down or swinging from our knees. As soon as we got the hang of it, she grabbed her gun and beagles and headed as far away from us noisy kids as possible.
Other times, she left us in groves of hickory nuts, apples or blackberries, and put us to work picking fruit while she hunted. After an hour or so, my mother would silently appear from the wilderness with her daily limit of squirrels or rabbits stashed in the pockets of her canvas hunting vest. I don’t know that she ever washed her hunting clothes as she wanted them to smell like the woods.
When I was school age, I often saw my mother walking briskly toward home in the afternoon, trying to get there before the school bus. Bushy, golden tails protruded from her vest, stained crimson red after years of successful hunts. I’d duck down in my seat and pretend not to notice her. She looked more like a teenage boy than my 30-something mother trailing behind two or three bounding, yelping beagles alongside the road.
We never had a dog strictly as a pet, although the beagles had the privileged position of living in the house while the hounds were penned outside. I can scarcely find a childhood photo without a dog in it somewhere. They were as much a part of the family as we were.
My first gun
When I was 10, I got my own gun, an old 410 shotgun that was famous for bringing down game in one shot to the head. I learned early it was better to pass up a shot than to wound an animal or waste the meat by blasting it full of holes. Also, if I was to hunt or fish, I first had to learn to take care of the meat.
I can still remember my first instruction with a squirrel on a cutting board in the kitchen. We usually removed the animals’ innards while in the woods, but took off the hides at home where they were bagged and frozen for sale. The meat soaked for a day in a pan of lightly salted water in the refrigerator before cooking.
My dad preferred the thrill of bird hunting, and brought home many geese, pheasant, ruff grouse, duck and partridge. He also hauled in the first big buck on opening day of deer season annually, with my mother bagging hers a day or two later.
Venison was the only meat we didn’t process ourselves, but took instead to a locker plant in town to be made into roasts, sausage, steaks and burger. Often just one of those monstrous Wisconsin whitetails would last all winter.
My mother could cook any wild game and got even better through the years as she experimented with techniques and recipes. It seems everyone but me liked her spicy coon stew, cooked like chicken until the bones literally dissolved. I preferred fried rabbit and squirrel soup, which explains why I brought some on the plane. My mother says the only animal she wouldn’t cook was possum.
Large snapping turtles hung from the clothesline overnight as the blood drained. Then Mom put the entire turtle into her canning kettle to simmer until the shell easily fell apart and the seven different kinds of meat removed. The legs also can be eaten after taking off the thick skin.
We spent needless time removing fish scales until an elderly neighbor taught Mom to make fillets by pulling the meat from the backbone. I never got the knack of it, but my mother did, and traded her squirrel tails to him (he made fishing flies with them) in exchange for bass and bluegills. Not a bad trade in my opinion.
Coon hunting in the 1970s
My absolute best times in the woods were during coon season. It did not matter to me that it was a school night and I would get very little sleep. We would head out after supper when it was dark. The hounds would know when they heard the dog box open on the truck it was a hunting night. I dreaded opening their pen because they always came barreling out, practically jumping out of their skin they were so wound up.
Dad drove to the woods, opened the box and away those crazy hounds would go. We talked in whispers or hand signals as we walked over frozen corn stubble in the direction the dogs went. I don’t remember ever being cold or bored, even though it would sometimes take many hours of waiting for the dogs to “strike” on a scent. We would walk a bit, and then sit on a log or rock and listen for the dogs.
Dad had champion dogs in the 1970s, even winning some first-place trophies that lined a kitchen shelf. His best was Andy Dog, a Walker breed that would climb 20 feet up a tree to get a coon if we didn’t get there soon enough with the gun. Raccoon are intelligent animals and will jump from one tree to another, swim upstream and then backtrack or fool dogs into thinking they’d climbed a tree they hadn’t.
I began to distinguish the dogs’ barks after they were let loose. A whiny yap meant they were on a trail, while a longer howl indicated they’d treed a coon. When we heard that, we’d hurry through the dark woods, pushing aside brambles and jumping over fallen trees.
My dad wore a metal hat like a miner’s with a carbide flame that smelled like sulfur, but only lit it when we got to the tree. I actually loved the excitement of crashing through the woods. My job, a very important one, was to shine the battery-powered flashlight up at the coon so my dad could get a clean shot. We never wanted any animal to fall to the ground wounded.
We’d get home well after midnight and I’d slip off to bed while my mother skinned the three or four coon we’d gotten. In those days, good coon pelts brought up to $40 each, another reason to aim carefully.
I missed all that wild game after joining the Navy, which explains why I took back a plastic bag full of my mom’s frozen squirrel and rabbit along to cook for my pals. I stuffed the bag into the plane’s overhead compartment without realizing the meat would begin thawing before the four-hour DC-10 flight landed. Melting ice dripped onto the head of a passenger seated in front of me, who suddenly yelled, “The plane is leaking!”
A stewardess came running as other travelers turned to see the commotion. She opened the compartment and discovered the source of the cold, pinkish water. There was no way out of it for me. I had to tell her what was in the bag. As I recall, she simply rounded up a sturdier plastic bag for my wild game. Flight attendants apparently are trained for any situation.
Good food and health
My mother gave up hunting almost 20 years ago and now eats mainly processed foods. She used to walk five miles through the snow to bag a single rabbit, but now has high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. I realize her lifestyle is different, but so is her diet. Because she is so influenced by TV commercials, she believes her ailments are an inevitable part of aging. No amount of encouragement by me will convince her to eat naturally as she taught us.
By comparison, Darren was raised in big cities and ate store-bought meat and packaged food all his life. By age 40 he had high blood pressure and cholesterol and a whole host of medical problems. But instead of taking the prescribed medication, Darren read about the hazards of processed industrialized foods.
He began shopping at health food stores for locally-raised, organically-grown meat and produce. He also began growing a garden. As months passed, Darren gradually became healthy, reversing the health problems and lost weight. More importantly, he has remained that way. He can now hand pump 1,000 gallons of water a day (field testing our new WaterBuck Pump), split firewood all afternoon and work like he did 20 years ago.
Looking back on my family’s years of hunting and gathering, I am certain we stayed fit and healthy because we ate from the land. Our groceries were not sprayed with chemicals, radiated, shipped across the world, wrapped in plastic, injected with hormones or genetically modified. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but I sustained perfect attendance from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Darren and I don’t wade through creeks to catch frogs or hike miles for squirrels as my mother did, but we grow as much organic food as possible all year and do most of our chores here with human muscle power. Whatever food we don’t grow here ourselves, like cashew butter, un-sprayed apples and tahini, we buy at Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-Op. The co-op is made of local members, with a 60-mile limit on how far away food can be produced. We especially enjoy our weekly trips to Horsesmiths Farm for raw milk to make all-natural yogurt.
For us, good health is a vital aspect of self-reliance.
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