“I used to know these things when I was young. But when I got civilized, I forgot all these things.”
Chief Dan George as Lone Waite in The Outlaw Josey Wales
Two things got me to thinking recently, which explains the smoke that has been coming out of my ears for the past few days. Part of it came from Stranded, with his post on Camp Stranded, reminding me of growing up on the farm, working with my hands, and the way I used to study nature. The other tripwire event was a backpacking trip I just took with three Iowa flatlanders to a high mountain lake.
Such things make me realize how much I’ve forgotten of what could be considered the important stuff, rather than the trivialities of work and the lethargic apathy of instant entertainment separating us from reality when one stumbles home unhappily from work.
Some knowledge still hangs in there. How could anyone forget the call of the red-winged blackbird, harbinger of spring, or a western meadowlark singing from his wooden fence post?
The knowledge came from spending as much time as I could out in the woods and fields, not from any of the college courses which I can no longer name, let alone remember. I could not tell you why a bird in flight was a robin; I just knew it was from its bouncing flight. I couldn’t explain the differences between the call of the barred owl versus the great horned owl, I just knew the difference. I couldn’t point out all the different ways to tell a whitetail from a mule deer out in the field, or a black bear from a grizzly, but I can just tell which is which.
Now the bird calls I used to know escape me as to their source. Plants and flowers I once readily identified slip my memory. I used to be able to sit silently for hours, waiting for my prey to show, all the while closely observing all the little signs and activities around me. Now I keep looking at my watch, thinking when I have to be done with the hunt.
I didn’t realize what I considered common knowledge and ordinary sounds were foreign to many until once, more years (decades?) ago than I care to think about, I was out with some boys from the Iowa National Guard. We were doing all-night weekend training in a patch of oak-hickory woods with limestone outcroppings along a large stream. Some of the kids were freaked out to the point of contracting a case of “the willies” by the strange sounds emanating from the darkness. It was then that I awoke to the shock that the upcoming generations of city dwellers and suburbanites have become completely removed from the natural world.
Coyotes were yipping and yowling in the distance. A barred owl hooted occasionally. A wild turkey shock gobbled when disturbed on its night roost. A whitetail doe disturbed by us unknown creatures in the night stomped her front hooves and gave out her coughing wheeze of alarm trying to figure out what we were. In the morning, ruffed grouse were drumming. All these things were completely alien to my comrades.
Thank God Montana bow season is coming up in just a few weeks. There’s nothing like stalking through the woods bugling for elk to hone the senses to the sights and sounds and even the smells of nature. I need to devote more time to it this year, to slow down and take my time, to leave the damn wristwatch at home and go by the sun.
So, to all of you in the same boat, try to slow down from the pace of our modern fast-paced never-quite-finished instant gratification lifestyle. Take the time to smell the horse droppings and cow manure. Instead of coming home to watch the slow-motion trainwreck of a dying Republic on TV, sit under a tree somewhere and just watch and listen. Take a long, slow, meandering hike through the woods with no schedule, destination or deadline.
You have to re-learn these things, and it takes time, slow time. But I think you will find that it’s worth it, and good for the soul.
Once again, I plan to heed the advice of a very wise dead white guy by the name of Thomas Jefferson.
“Give about two of them [hours], every day, to exercise; for health must not be sacrificed to learning. A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise, and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body, and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks.
Never think of taking a book with you. The object of walking is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk; but divert your attention by the objects surrounding you. Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far. The Europeans value themselves on having subdued the horse to the uses of man; but I doubt whether we have not lost more than we have gained, by the use of this animal.”
Substitute “horse” for “car”, and the advice is still spot on.