November, 2013

A Neighbor in a Different Land

November 27th, 2013

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I went deer hunting in Texas week before last. It was a trip arranged by Weatherby, the firearms manufacturer, and it was intended to give me and a few other writers a chance to test some of the new rifles the company is offering. From the point of view of companionship, hunting, and testing, the trip was wildly successful and a lot of fun. Good people, good times, good guns, good hunting.

But what I really want to tell you about was a small incident that was a first for me.

Hunting in Texas is completely unique. First of all, there is almost no public land in Texas. There are only two national parks that I know of (Big Bend and Guadalupe) and only a few state parks, so all hunting must be done on private land. Deer and exotics are the backbone of Texas hunting. There is great waterfowl hunting along the coast, and in the moist, sweltering areas of eastern Texas they are so overrun by wild hogs that if you knock on a farmer’s door and ask permission to hunt, he’s likely to offer you his youngest daughter’s hand in marriage. There is even a national television show about a, uh, highly colorful family that makes its living hunting hogs down there. (“Colorful! It’s what you get when you’ve lived in Bolivia for twenty years. You get colorful. Bingo!”) But it is deer and exotics that bring in the big bucks (you should pardon the expression) for private ranches in the Lone Star State.

Because whitetail deer and exotics represent big dollars to private landowners, just as black angus do to cattlemen, a lot of time and effort and money is put into maximizing both the quality of the animals and the quality of the hunting of those animals.

Ranches are completely high-fenced. Think about that for a moment. The ranch where we hunted, a relatively small one by Texas standards, is twelve-thousand-plus acres, cross-fenced into pastures of about a thousand acres each. I happen to know what regular horse-wire fencing costs per foot (which is why I had to do almost all of it on my little ranch myself), so I can only guess at the millions of dollars in fencing alone that have been invested in this ranch. I was told by the ranch manager that there was a permanent two-man fencing crew, whose sole job it was to build and repair fence, day in, day out, all year long. Sort of like painting the Golden Gate bridge.

Then there is the deer-breeding program. Yes, deer-breeding. The first thing a deer needs to grow large antlers is good genetics. Breeding deer is, by itself, a significant economic enterprise in Texas, where artificial insemination is done on scientific principles in facilities that make most hospitals look poor and slovenly, and breeder bucks with good genetics are treated with the kind of care and respect normally accorded to famous stallions. For reasons neither I nor anyone else on this hunt understands, this is only possible with whitetail deer. Mule deer cannot be bred successfully in captivity. We had a lot of debate about this while I was down there, and while mule deer seem to have somewhat larger spatial requirements than whitetail, they are just as adaptable and just as capable of living in close proximity to humans as whitetail are. Just ask anyone—my wife, for example—who has tried to grow roses or apples or just about any kind of garden in these mountains. So I don’t know why mule deer are different.

The second requirement for large antlers is good nutrition, and there are companies that specialize in the development of nutrient-rich feeds specifically for deer. I know what I pay to supplement my two horses, so I shudder to think what a hunting ranch must pay to put nutrients out for literally thousands of deer. Which, of course, raises the question of how you feed wild animals. Scores of feeders, perhaps hundreds, are spread across the ranch. They run off of solar-powered batteries, but like anything made by man, they are subject to inexplicable breakdowns and must be checked regularly. While I was there, the young hand (guide, if you will) I was with found three feeders that needed fixing. It’s a labor-intensive industry.

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(Photo courtesy of Brad Fitzpatrick)

Why a guide for something as inherently private and solitary as deer hunting? Apart from the fact that this was all new land to me and they didn’t want anyone getting lost, the third factor that influences antler size is age. The ranch does not allow any buck (other than obviously deformed bucks that must be culled) under the age of five to be shot, and the guides are there to both judge the age of bucks and to enforce the rule. It turned out to be very instructive; I’ve been hunting deer for almost forty years, but I learned a lot about details of aging that I had not known.

Texas-style deer hunting is done out of blinds over feeders. This is a fact many people find repugnant, but consider that in almost every state where I have hunted whitetail in the East or Midwest, it is legal to plant feeder crops out in the middle of the woods to attract the deer and to hunt over those crops. In the parts of the West where water is scarce, mule deer, elk, and pronghorn are frequently hunted over waterholes. So the bottom line is that I don’t see much of a difference. As it happened, this particular ranch also runs black angus, and both the deer, and my guide and I, got run off the feeders by greedy cattle, so I ended up hunting by glass-and-stalk (and taking a dandy buck), but that was just an accident, and I spent the first two days happily and optimistically sitting in a blind.

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And it was in one of those blinds, on the second day, that I got my first good long look at a gray fox.

We have gray fox in the mountains where I live in California, but very few of them. (We also have kit fox down in the Central Valley at a much lower elevation.) If you have a lot of wolves, you won’t have many coyotes. If you have a lot of coyotes, you won’t have many fox. In California we have coyotes coming out of our ears, so there are very few gray fox. In twenty-two years up here I only seen tracks, one dead one by the side of the highway, and one flash of a live one running across the road late at night, so I was delighted to see a gray fox hunting his—or her—way delicately toward the blind.

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The land on the western edge of the Edwards Plateau in Texas is rolling savannah dotted with live oaks, mesquite trees, prickly pear, and pockets of brush, and this fox emerged quite suddenly from some heavy brush just north of the blind. He was small, elegant, beautiful, and had that typical vulpine air of confidence in his own native wit. I half expected him to stop, look up at us in the blind, and make a sarcastic and insulting remark. (This is a somewhat inaccurate bit of anthropomorphizing on my part, since the gray fox is scientifically named Urocyon cinereoagenteus, not Vulpes.) As it was, there was something I couldn’t see there in the grass (mice? voles? insects? a little of each?) he found to his liking, so for about twenty minutes he hunted happily within ten feet of where we sat, sometimes making a quick darting snap with his muzzle, sometimes making the lovely arching pounce I associate with foxes, rising up on his hind legs, jumping into the air and landing on his prey with both front paws. He evidently felt quite safe and at home, never pausing to check for any other predator (primarily bobcat in that part of the state), never paying the slightest attention to the cattle stealing grain out of the feeder one hundred yards away, or the unhappy deer circling cautiously around watching the cattle steal their dinner. At one point he came so close to the blind I could have dropped my notebook on him. Then he gradually hunted his way into a tangle of brush and live oak on the south side and vanished.

If I were a Howard Pyle, I would have drawn him with boots on and a battered cap, a game bag over one shoulder, rifle on the other, a happy fellow hunter on a glorious winter day.

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About the Artist…

November 8th, 2013

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The coyote piece evidently resonated with some readers, in particular the painting I used for illustration. It is by a man named Tom Quinn (if you do an internet search of his name, be sure to add “wildlife artist” to the search, because there are several other people out there with the same name, including another artist) and I just sent in a profile of him to one of the magazines I write for. As soon as they publish it, I will put it up on this site. In the meantime, he is, hands down, the greatest living wildlife artist alive today. Anywhere. Period. Unlike so many artists who become successful and then try to capitalize on their success by replicating the qualities that made them successful (a specific topic, a specific place, whatever) Tom fights very hard to make each watercolor new and unique and individual, and when you add to that the fact that he does not mass-produce prints of his work (he only does occasional limited runs, and sometimes won’t even sell certain paintings he especially loves) he is not as rich as he should be in any right-thinking society that puts proper emphasis on art. His wife, Jeri, is equally gifted; the difference between them is that she works in oils and concentrates on magnificent landscapes of the northern California area where they live. (I tried to buy one of her small landscapes, but a slew of bills—medical, veterinary, tax, insurance, yadayadayada—came in and the project had be postponed.)

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I have known Tom—in a long distance mail-and-telephone way—for about twenty years or more, ever since I bought a book he wrote on dogs (The Working Retriever: the Training, Care, and Handling of Retrievers for Hunting and Field Trials)

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and if you can get your hands on a copy, either the original first edition or the reprint, snap it up at any price, if you can possibly afford it. It is one of the best training books I have ever read, and it is illustrated with his own art, making it the kind of book you will spend happy hours drooling over, simply enjoying his work. He also has an art book out (The Art of Thomas Quinn) that has the kind of paintings that will fill you with wonder and delight. He really is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind genius. And a damned nice man.

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L.B. is right when he says coyotes normally do not run in packs, but as he points out, “…coyotes regularly confound any and all established notions about them!” Making a long story short, I once (long ago when I was better able to do such things) had to go the rescue of a German shepherd who was attacked by coyotes. It was a long, confused fight that involved a gun, a baseball bat, three bull elk, three other dogs that had to be rescued first, and my covering a tremendous amount of rugged terrain on foot at high speed in my only good suit and my only dress shoes, all of which ended up considerably the worse for wear. But the point is, I knew back then, knew, for a calcified fact, that coyotes only ran in pairs, at most, but there were at least four and possibly a fifth involved in this encounter, and they were all coordinating very well with each other, thank you. Certainly, they were coordinating with each other far better than the German shepherd and I. Sometimes, when I watch the news and get spectacularly depressed at the cruelty and stupidity and cupidity of the human animal, it cheers me up to reflect that long after man has either reduced his numbers to Paleolithic levels or exterminated himself entirely, Br’er coyote will still be around, drinking and carousing at night, singing lewd songs off-key, and enjoying his Hasenpfeffer or Curried Rabbit or Braised Squirrel in Sauerkraut, and grinning as he lifts his leg on the bleached bones of Homo we-only wish-we-were-sapiens.

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The painting immediately above is by Jeri Quinn; the others are by Tom. If anyone reading this has the financial wherewithal, contact one of the galleries that represent them (both he and Jeri are represented by Gerald Peters in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Tom is also represented by Collectors’ Covey in Dallas, Texas) and snap up everything you can lay your hands on. You won’t regret it.

The Coyote on the Hill

November 6th, 2013

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We’ve been having some of those glorious, God-given autumn days that make you feel that you’ll live forever. Crackling, crystalline air with a hint of cool in the wind, warm sun, and that indefinable something that only seems to come this time of year, that special quality that with each breath fills your corpuscles with health and well-being and longevity and a restless desire to be outside doing anything. Of course, in my case I don’t want to breathe too deeply because my ribs are still a little tender (the doctors say that can last for a year) but you know what I mean. It’s that divine discontent that Kenneth Grahame wrote about in The Wind in the Willows.

For some reason—possibly because they feel as good as I do at this time of year—the coyotes have been especially active lately, having wild parties at night, carousing and singing and carrying on in ways that—if they were humans—would tempt me to call the police and complain. But somehow, being woken up at night by drunken coyotes harmonizing off-key isn’t as annoying as it is when humans do it.

One large female in particular has been hanging around the place and hunting during the day. This is something I encourage. I know coyotes are the bane of cattlemen and sheepherders, but ground squirrels and rabbits are the bane of my life, and since coyotes eat more of those than any other predator, coyotes are always welcome at the Parker household. She walked across the hill behind the house yesterday, only about ten yards away, before finally angling up higher through the rocks and trees. For once the dogs seemed oblivious and slept right through her passing, not that their barking from inside the house would have particularly disturbed her, but it gave me a chance to admire her, sleek and elegant in her fashionable winter coat, eyes, ears, and nose all working toward a single end:Brandied Rabbit with Mushrooms and Cream; Squirrel Stroganoff with Mushrooms and Onions; or possibly Brunswick Stew, where I believe you can combine squirrel and rabbit and just about anything else your heart desires, though I’m not entirely certain which recipe coyotes prefer.

Watching her from the window, she was beauty and grace moving in silence, diminishing, to finally vanish in a few last glimpses—so wonderful. Of course, if I kept chickens, or sheep, or cattle, I might not think it so wonderful, but she was a good-looking girl.

Movie Review: Cabaret

November 3rd, 2013

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I got my dates mixed up the other day. I rushed home to watch the final game of the World Series, only to remember it was a travel day, and I had to satisfy myself with the news. Then, as an after-dinner consolation prize, we watched Cabaret, and that juxtaposition of current politics and the Nazi rise to power in the waning days of the Weimar Republic (the movie takes place in 1931) gave much food for thought.

Cabaret is based on a Broadway musical of the same name, which is based on the play I Am a Camera, which is based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, which is based on Isherwood’s own experiences in Berlin from 1929 to 1933. Whew.

I had seen the movie when it first came out in 1972 or ’73, but I had forgotten what a brilliant piece of film-making it is. It won Bob Fosse an Academy Award as best director, making him the only man ever to win an Oscar, a Tony, and an Emmy in one year. The movie stars Joel Grey, Liza Minnelli (both of whom won Oscars) and Michael York who, despite an incredibly long and distinguished career, is one of the most underrated actors alive today, having—as far as I know—never won any major award, and having only been nominated for an Emmy. (I remember his “Tybalt” in Zeffirelli’sRomeo and Juliet as being spectacularly deserving of an award.)

If you simply watched it as mindless entertainment, Cabaret would be hard to beat, given the performances and the music and the choreography, but Fosse’s genius is to take that mindless entertainment and use it as part of his juxtaposition of all the many different kinds of evil that allowed the Nazi party—the ultimate evil—to rise and triumph. So what we see is the evil of decadence, the evil of moral turpitude, the evil of apathy, the evil of ennui, the evil of willful self-delusion, the evil of willing ignorance, the evil of thoughtless collusion, the evil of self-absorption, the evil of demonizing an entire people, all of it set against glimpses of the more obvious forms of evil: hatred, violence, lies, propaganda (which is just another form of lying). If it sounds like a morality play in musical form, to an extent it is, but like any work of art, it succeeds because of our emotional involvement. We care about Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) and Brian Roberts (Michael York) and the two doomed characters of the sub-plot, the beautiful and wealthy Jewish girl and the impoverished Jew-pretending-to-be-an-Aryan who loves her. Kristallnacht and the concentration camps are still several years in the future, but their coming is foreshadowed in ways that make you long to step into the film and into the past and say, Leave! Go now! Run! There is one moment when you see Marisa Berenson’s beautiful face through a veil at her wedding and for a moment it hints at the winding sheet her violated young body will never have.

So what does all this have to do with American politics? The news was showing some of the hearings currently under way about the debacle of Obamacare. I have no idea whether Obamacare is a good thing for America or a bad thing. I suspect it is something well-intentioned but economically unsustainable, but whatever it may or may not be is beside the point. What one sees in the hearings, on both sides of the aisle, is a smarmy, self-serving litany of lies and distortions, each senator and each congressman breathlessly eager to demonize the other side, and each of them, in their different ways, offering a fool’s paradise they cannot possibly provide. Toward the end of Cabaret, there is a scene where Brian Roberts (Michael York) and the young Baron von Heune (Helmut Griem) stop at a country inn to have bite, and suddenly a young boy stands up and begins to sing a lovely song with lovely lyrics full of hope for the future, for a better world, for love and peace and prosperity. The song is lovely, the sentiments are lovely, the imagery is lovely, the boy is lovely, his voice is lovely, the rural setting of the inn is lovely, the weather is lovely, and gradually, one by one, the normal, average citizens eating their lunch get caught up in the beauty of the moment and join passionately in the singing. Only gradually does the camera pull away to reveal the boy is a Nazi offering a dream that will only be good for a select few. If I had been sitting in that Gasthaus, in that day and age, I too would have probably joined the singing. It’s a sobering thought.

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