Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Last Weekend

It is the first real weekend in December; last weekend was just too close to November, and Thanksgiving.  It is also the last weekend of deer-hunting season here, if you’re using a regular rifle, and not a muzzle-loader or crossbow.  The day began before light with the sound of gunshot, both near and at a distance. 

By afternoon, though, the noise was coming from chainsaws and log-splitters. You can get a good electric-motor log splitter for around $350, or you could spend three or four thousand for a gas-driven 30+-ton splitter. These aren’t toys for weekenders; with a gas splitter hooked to an ATV you can get back into the far woods, taking on the big trees and splitting eight cords of wood in an afternoon. The sound of that gas engine echoes off the stone walls and the granite faces up the hills so it’s hard to tell where the work is.

That’s not a bad idea these days, when a lot of the splitting is being done on lands that aren’t necessarily owned by the crew with the splitter.  Some is property long unoccupied; perhaps the owner has died or moved far away or gave up on selling it after the market collapsed a few years ago.  In that case, there’s usually some long-standing agreement in place that has passed down by now from father to son and perhaps to grandson.  If the land’s held by one of the old ones, you’re going to split that wood with them, and you’ll split it for them too, saving them the smaller logs, the ones easiest to lift and carry from the woodpile or the abandoned chicken coop or the old well-house.

 Or perhaps it’s state forest land, or it’s on the wrong edge of Catskill Park or it’s part of the wide swath of land the city of New York has claimed for its watershed. This last one is a source of particular grumbling around here.  Partly it’s the stern self-righteousness of the signs telling you to keep out.  They have just a hint of the arrogance locals find in their dealings with the city.  When the governor announced he was going to allow fracking everywhere except in the city’s water-rights areas, he pretty much epitomized the attitude:  if it’s not safe for New York City water, why is it safe for us hardscrabble upstate hicks? Or the obverse:  if it’s so safe, why kowtow to the environmentalist posturing of the city people, people who haven’t ever gotten water from a well.

The poachers up here aren’t cutting down live trees.  There’s no environmental depredation going on.  These are downed trees, and this year the woods are particularly thick with them, often great swaths running down a hill, big trees lying atop one another, their root system still balled by dirt.  The hurricane, and the tropical storm, and a couple of microburst outbreaks took out whole stands of older trees, the tall ones that were most susceptible to the erosion effects of torrential rain and the subsequent strikes of wind. 

That catastrophe of uprooted trees will make superb fuel for wildfires in a year or so if everything’s left alone.  What’s the alternative?  Have the city and the state send in a small army of forestry workers to cut it up and haul it away? And where will all that good firewood end up? In landfills. Up at the Nibble Nook diner, you might hear this line of argument five times between the first sip of coffee and the leaving of the tip.  And the same applies to the deer who have begun to move away from the areas where there’s legitimate hunting, and into the state and city watershed lands.  Up behind the warning signs for Ashokan Reservoir and the long stretches surrounding the pipes down to the city,  they’re no less prone to the devastations of overpopulation—disease, starvation— and they’re all the more likely to end up hit by a car, your car, when they emerge, desperate, at dusk. It’s not like deer in the city watershed are magically protected from propagating deer ticks, and contributing to the Lyme’s Disease epidemic that has every long-timer up here with a case of arthritis and a hefty bill for horse-pill antibiotics.  Up here, there aren’t many long-timers who’ll let their kids or grandkids watch Bambi. They’re too busy checking them for the small black flecks that are immature deer ticks lodged and feeding, or the tell-tale halo of inflammation that tells you it’s time to head back to the clinic for another prescription.

But you won’t hear anyone at the Nibble Nook pretending they hunt deer out of some altruistic desire to eliminate Lymes’ Disease or rebalance the ecosystem to ensure a healthy deer population.  Most of them aren’t particularly keen on the size of the rack, either.  That’s for the stock brokers and financial guys up from the city, hoping for a nice trophy to mount in the game room of their weekend place.  This is about meat, meat that doesn’t cost 6.99 a pound at the Shop-Rite, meat that also isn’t laced with hormones or depleted of nutrients by force-feeding for high feedlot weights. Like the firewood, dressed deer in the freezer sometimes means the difference between your dignity and the ignominy of the food pantry come February. 

So this first real weekend in December, the last weekend of deer season, maybe the last clear, fairly temperate weekend for a while, the days were divided into three parts: hunting from dark to full morning; firewood splitting and hauling till the already-low sun touched the tops of the trees; then back to hunting.  

In the late afternoon light the ridge is rendered vague by the haze of woodburning stoves and wood furnaces that are warming the mobile homes and the small raised ranches and the metal-roofed, paint-scarred houses with the retrofitted chimneys and flues home-installed, probably without a permit from the town. But I’m not too worried about the houses burning down.  These are houses of the volunteer firemen; you can see by the blue lights on the tops of their pickup cabs or the dashboards of the fifteen-year-old Chevys and Fords and Subarus pulled over where there’s a safe space between the road and the woods.  They’re hunting across Harry’s, and Paul and Sarah’s, and our place, too. They’ve owned this territory for decades, and they keep at bay the amateurs, the ones who shoot the joggers and the dogs and the cyclists.  When a cow or goat gets shot up here, it’s not an amusing dinner table story about the stupid rubes upstate. It’s the loss of a significant part of a delicate financial ecosystem.  The dangerous ones, the cow-killers, are posers up from Westchester or Long Island, with the best guns and scopes and the worst aim and no sense of what might be the other side of the deer when they miss.

 Or they’re the ones you give a wide berth to at the supermarket or the discount beer distributor.  Everyone knows who they are.  Like the deer, they’re desperate, sickly, prone to reckless acts. 
So you make sure your guys are out there.  They know the property; they know the angle of fire; they know which way the roads are, and the houses.  If they’re lucky, we’ll have venison chili and stew and maybe a roast, though we usually get the tougher cuts.  We just gave them permission; they’re the ones who sat in the metal folding chair starting at 5am, or shimmied up the tree in the last moonlight, in the cold, and watched, and waited. They deserve the best of the kill and they’re not shy about taking it. 

Next weekend will be different.  That’s the time to pick up the meat from the guy with the handpainted declaration on the piece of beatup plywood leaning against the mailbox post: deer dressed 845-489-0913;  to take it home and put it in the old freezer in the garage after marking each pouch and butcher-paper parcel with the contents and the date, just in case you don’t eat it all before next year. Then it’s time to haul the wood close to the house, to stack it on the old ones’ porches, to fill your own woodsheds and the empty parts of the barn, to make sure the seasoned wood is near and the unseasoned is covered with a tarp or the sheets of metal roof that came off in the storms, too bent for salvage but useful to keep the deep snow out of the pile, so that it’s ready for next year’s stacking, next year’s heat. Maybe by then things will be better. Fuel oil might go down instead of up; you might get more jobs bid with a cushion instead of razor-thin just to get the work, and the boy might get more hours at the mall. New tires. Eggs over easy and ham instead of an order of toast and coffee at the Nibble Nook on Saturday morning. But that’s not for hoping.  And it’s certainly not for planning.

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