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THE WILD ONES
A Quest for North America's Forest & Prairie Grouse
John D. Taylor Denny Burkhart Illustrations
The genesis of The Wild Ones goes back to the early 1990s, the roots of a small quest that evolved into a larger one-and continues to grow.
Looking at a map one evening, I realized that my sampling of ruffed grouse experiences was fairly limited. At that time, I had hunted parts of Michigan and Minnesota and maybe 10 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties, most within several hours of home, and in just two of the six regions Pennsylvania's wildlife agency portions the state into.
Gunning grouse over Nash (my first DeCoverly Kennels English setter) in those coverts special to us was certainly fulfilling. Yet questions nagged for answers: Was grouse hunting-the coverts, the style of hunting, the geography, the plant life, the…everything-different in various parts of the state? If so, how was it all different?
The seed of curiosity took root. One resolution emerged: "Go..." said my subconscious. I could not argue. The sprout grew into a quest of discovery, a pilgrimage to understand Pennsylvania's grouse somewhat better. A backpacking tent, camp gear, the Lefever, and other accoutrements found their way into the back of the Bronco II. The gas credit card got stretched further than it had ever been stretched before. And in a single season, we hunted Pennsylvania's six regions.
Nash and I shared the wine of that autumn joyously, completely. On Route 6, in Potter County, we watched the mountains shake October's leaves from their backs. Gnarled oak skeletons and slate gray marked November skies and woods. December was 12 degrees cold, campfires, and dark green hemlocks punctuated by flecks of falling snow.
With pleasure, we experienced bonasa umbellus umbellus and b. u. monticola across southwestern Pennsylvania's hawthorn and aspen thickets, land that summoned George Bird Evans magic. We explored the immense Allegheny National Forest, finding 17-Bird covert and Iroquois Rocks-a campsite rich in the spirit of Iroquois warriors making orenda, medicine, for hunter's luck among the reflections of our campfires flames on four head-high boulders placed serendipitously in the four cardinal directions. I remember almost getting lost and several hours of rainy hunting near LaPorte, topped off with campground showers that required more quarters than I had to get warm. In the Pine Creek valley, a huge plywood clown painted in a riot of bright colors announced another campground amidst a mountainside of ancient hemlocks. And the ghosts of unnamed state forest roads winding back, back, back into the hinterlands with the suggestion of unexplored coverts, still haunt the recollection of an unmarked map.
So it wasn't too surprising that, five years later, the quest expanded.
I first heard its summons in the summer of 1996, along South Dakota's Moreau River, on the Cheyenne River Lakhota Reservation-perhaps an echo of the post-college call I'd heard in the Badlands during a 1982 trek to learn something about the outfitting business in Montana.
A group from St. John's United Church of Christ in Red Lion, Pennsylvania had come to the reservation to install playsets for kids, to create a relationship with the Green Grass UCC church, and to foster some relationships with the native people there-to help. Personally, the trip was a spiritual pilgrimage, to learn more about a great religion and a people whom I admire. Standing along the river, looking across the prairie horizon, remembering unfulfilled prairie chicken encounters on Kansas's Cimarron National Grasslands, I wondered what hunting prairie grouse there would be like, especially over Nash. But Nash left this world in 1998, before we had a chance to go, though he got to hunt coverts in Maine and some of our old Pennsylvania coverts before departing.
Another seed fell on fertile soil...
In September of 2001, Shana, another DeCoverly Kennels setter and I filled "Dandy Girl," our Explorer, with a month's worth of food, clothing, shells, duck decoys, a canoe on the rack, and other truck, and embarked on a four-state grouse adventure.
For six weeks, from mid-September through late October, we shared South Dakota, Oregon, Montana and Minnesota in an effort to experience as much of grouse and grouse country as we could. This time, the focus had expanded to both forest grouse (eastern and western ruffs, blue grouse and spruce grouse) and prairie grouse (sharptails, greater and lesser chickens and sage grouse) with the goal to reach a fresh understanding of all of North America's grouse. We wanted to know the birds and their worlds-especially how the wildness inherent in the birds and the wild country they roamed were connected. We also wanted to explore the human relationships connected to these birds. We tent camped and networked new experiences with those who know and love grouse-biologists, sporting men and ladies, grouse guides, and other people.
As it was for early naturalists John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson, hunting-the act of moving through bird country, encountering grouse, and often possessing a bird, feeling its limp warmth in hand, admiring the plumage and offering great thanks for sharing its life-was our vehicle of discovery, but not the sole interest of the expedition.
We lived richly in those six weeks, coming to know things about grouse that most people will only get a glimpse of in their lifetimes. Joy was found in the birds, their country, and the people connected to them, as well as in watching a young English setter blossom into a fine and experienced pointing dog. These things-and more-are what you'll read about as you continue with this book.
The Wild Ones is a book about wildness and birds and the relationships a variety of other things-particularly people-form with wild places and the magnificent wonderful grouse that inhabit North America's wild places.
Words convey ideas, powerful things, and before we can go too much further, we need to understand "wild" and its derivatives "wildness" and "wilderness," to see how they all come together.
"Wild," says Merriam-Webster, the font of all wordpower, is an adjective, a descriptive word, that comes from Old and Middle English, with perhaps some old High German, wildi, or Welsh, gwyllt, thrown in to make it a cross-cultural experience, something shared in the lexicon of our mostly European culture. (Other cultures don't seem to have a similar idea for "wild," an interesting thought on the limitations of language.)
The idea of wild originated some time prior to the 12th century-call it King Arthur days, when some pretty wild and wooly fellows in armor and chain mail were hacking each other to pieces with wild-looking swords and axes.
Wild, as they originally intended the idea, described living in a "state of nature," not being ordinarily tamed or domesticated, and growing without human aid or care, like wild raspberries. Over time-and it probably didn't take too long-wild came to mean "not inhabited or cultivated," and "not amenable to human habitation or cultivation," also desolate, not subject to restraint or regulation, a lot like the people who created the word, except when it came to honor and stuff like that.
A little more time passed and wild came to hold other meanings. You could be wild-passionately eager or enthusiastic about something, say chasing grouse over an English setter. Wild could mean marked by turbulent agitation, as in stormy. It could also mean going beyond normal or conventional bounds, the fences of mores and manners, perhaps. It also meant sensational; and containing a strong passion, desire, or emotion-like the wild gleam of delight in the eyes of a hunter who takes that first double.
Wild also came to mean "uncivilized, barbaric, uncontrolled and unruly," all of these things describing a characteristic of wilderness, wildlife, or a simple or uncivilized society.
Who defines "civilized"? Any number of indigenous people encountered by our ancestors were termed barbarians, savages. Yet it was the non-barbarians who broke up families, beat children, destroyed cultures, and annihilated ecosystems-all in the name of "civilization." A look at any big-city nightly newscast prompts the question who was really the barbarian, people living in a simple, yet "wild" manner, or the non-savages who continue to shoot, bomb, club, knife and fight each other to death? Huckleberry Finn's ideas on the Widder Douglas trying to civilize him were pretty accurate. How far has humanity has really come? And is all this "wild" the 1960s kind of groovy slang that suggests deviating from the intended or expected course-probably what you think I'm doing right now-or what?
Oh yeah-"wild" can also apply in playing cards, especially in a Northwoods grouse camp, when it's one-eyed Jacks that are wild, anything you want to pretend one-eyed Jacks can be.
Roget's Thesaurus has some other ideas about wild but they're pretty much taken care of by extrapolating Webster. Wild is savage, bloodthirsty, fierce, amuck, frenzied, intemperate, unwise, foolish, rank, thick, jungle-like, skittish, daring, reckless, rash, breakneck, a freak, says Roget.
Wilderness, a word that comes from wild, and is important throughout this book, came after wild, naturally. Sometime around the 13th Century, when our Old and Middle English ancestors were mucking their way out of the wastelands of the Dark Ages and into the warm light of the Renaissance, the need for a name for a tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings-those areas essentially undisturbed by human activity together with the living things that did inhabit such space-and empty or pathless spots. These could also be wastelands, wilds, or badlands which makes things confusing-another description of wilderness as a bewildering situation, "…the moral wildernesses of civilized life," as Norman Mailer called them.
So we've got a pretty good idea of what wild, wildness and wilderness means now-or are you confused, lost in a wilderness of jumbled thoughts? And what does it all really mean? An example might tame the confusion.
When I was a youngster, being able to find and shoot ringneck pheasants was the epitome of York County, Pennsylvania sporting success. The lads who came home from the fields with a brace of three-foot rooster tails protruding from their game vests had accomplished something grand. (Perhaps the best 21st Century equivalent would be youth success in the turkey or deer woods.)
Pheasants, at that time, were wild creatures, natural products of the land. The land, too, despite being tilled for nearly two and a half centuries, had a sense of adventure, a hint of wildness still. The wet spots, the nooks and crannies ploughs could not find, that crops did not root in, were the places November's pheasants habituated. They were wild places, places of the heart.
Pheasant hunting in the mid-1970s was good, both in terms of experience and numbers. From the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, Pennsylvania gunners took between a 750,000 and million pheasants annually, the equivalent to a modest year in Iowa. But something changed in the early 1980s.
Looking back, people blame clean farming agriculture, the crush of megalopolis headed west, owls, hawks, foxes, agricultural chemicals, moon phase…you name it. This was all true, but I also believe those of us who knew pheasants changed, too.
By the 1990s, Pennsylvania pheasant hunters were hard pressed to take more than 300,000 birds, with 250,000 birds coming from the state Game Commission stocking efforts. The quality of the hunting experience declined dramatically. Land that once felt wild, untamed, seemed too small, too close to rural houses, farms, outbuildings-to everything that separated it from the civilized world. Pheasant hunting in the past had meant an opportunity to interact with birds born and raised where we hunted, a natural product of the land. We hunted to experience the wild world, to become one with it, enter into the equation and understand the very natural relationship of predator and prey: We became the hawk, the fox.
However, knowing that many pheasants were released-dumped in public fields like stub-finned hatchery-raised trout are dumped in dirty, warm streams to provide a managed sporting "experience"-lessened the quality of the experience. Hunting these birds became artificial, almost immoral. You could have as much fun shooting chickens in a farmyard and calling it sport. Things were out of kilter, unnatural.
I discovered ruffed grouse in the early 1980s, looking for more experiences to share with Jack, my German shorthair. "Weed" was one exceptional pheasant dog. He could create birds from fields that other hunters had scoured and found empty. In the early 1980s, Chuck Boyd, a friend who hunted deer in the South Mountains, suggested we go to a place he knew, see if we could find some grouse, just-for-the-heck-of-it, a lark. We got up into the mountains, on a plantation of white pines adjacent to a young clear-cut. Grouse spent midday hours in the pines and fed in the cut. We had many flushes, some shooting, but no grouse graced our game pouches that night. What I do remember was coming home with a great respect for ruffed grouse. Grouse were total commitment, survival, a struggle of life and death and all the seriousness that this implies. Something innate in these birds didn't allow them to be less than nature created them. Grouse and I clicked. I kept going back, expanding my knowledge of the bird and the territory. Two seasons later, I put down stocked pheasant hunting for good, except for an annual pheasants-only adventure to honor Jack's bird-of-the-heart. Grouse possessed that essence of wildness I had been seeking. Roaming among the apple trees, barberry, grapes and brush of the reverting farm that was Old Farmers, my first grouse covert, stilled my soul's quest for wildness.
From these experiences, a lifelong passion was born.
In the 20 years that have passed since that time, I've never found a single grouse that didn't possess that essence of wildness, that spark of wild energy that makes grouse, all grouse, uniquely wild. Ruffed grouse, blue grouse, spruce grouse, sharptails, prairie chickens and sage grouse can't be pen-raised, taken thousands of miles from their own world and released to flourish in a foreign environment like pheasants, quail, chukars and huns. This innate wildness separates grouse from other game birds. Grouse are free spirits, untamable. I'm not sure that people who experience a chance encounter with drumming grouse along a spring trout stream, or booming on a prairie lek will ever completely understand this in the same way that someone who has hunted grouse does. You have to experience it, feel it, sense it-something difficult for people growing further away from connections to the natural world to do.
The thread that connects North America's grouse family of birds and the people who inhabit this continent is an ancient and perpetual bond. It goes back-to the time when the Ojibway sang songs about the Thunderbird (ruffed grouse) of their Great Lakes forests; when Cheyenne social dances around buffalo chip campfires mimicked the prairie chickens and sage grouse they saw lording over grassy leks. And it goes forward-to the hunter whose heart sings its most joyful song following an English setter in New England pa'tridge thickets; to the big-hatted Montana sharptail hunter and his German shorthair who pause a moment in the day's last chokecherry thicket to watch the sun ignite gray and blue clouds into cauldrons of amber, pink, and crimson.
In between, grouse "evolved," too. New England's "fool hens" of the late 1600s-meat on the bough-became the revered pa'tridges of Tranquility and William Harnden Foster. The prairie chickens, sage grouse and sharptails that saved trappers and wagon trains from empty bellies-and in the late 1800s were shot in hundreds of dozens, salted and sent to San Francisco restaurants- have became icons of what is left of a prairie free of the hand of man.
There is a reverence, a passionate relationship, with this continent's forest and prairie grouse for those who have come to know these birds. It extends to everyone from the biologists, gunners and conservationists to the birdwatchers and prairie preservationists. We want what is best for grouse, because it is best for our souls as well.
Wildness is at the heart of it all. Connect with North America's grouse family, walk through their world, experience it-see it, smell it, hear it, feel it-and you have touched wildness. In a time when wildness is being stripped away from so many aspects of life, the wild essence of grouse and grouse country becomes far more significant, more important. Grouse are the natural product of their environment, a representation of it, a direct connection with it. No wonder then that North Americans have developed a passion for grouse. Grouse and the places they live touch the soul.
These characteristics-the essence of wild-and how you can make a stronger connection to this, are what we're about to explore. So pull on your boots, bell the dog and let's go a-wandering….
JOHN D. TAYLOR
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Into The Woods —
The Forest Grouse
Spirit of the Woods
Circles of Life
Venery for the King
Chukars in the Woods
Blue Grouse, Naturally
Bad Medicine in
Chief Joseph ‘s Country
The Genuine Fool
Hen of Montana
Will the Real Spruce
Grouse Please Stand Up
The Gift of Power
Across the Prairie — Prairie Grouse
Don’t Fence Me In
Wicker Bill: The Man Who
A Square Butte Into
a Round Teepee
Of Guns and Dogs