The huntress

Jane Dally - 10/20/2016

A friend texted recently and asked if I wanted to join her for a hike to catch the last of the fall colors. “Thanks. I can’t,” I texted back. “I’m busy harvesting.”

For the last several years, autumn has signified a time of gathering for me. Harvesting in the hunter-gatherer way. I have been inexplicably drawn (compelled really) to follow the seasonal patterns that humans have adhered to for millennia: storing food and fuel for the upcoming winter. Commodities in my larder have included fruit, turkey, fire wood, fish (kokanee salmon, in particular), and hopefully this year – deer.

At times I have wondered why I am so drawn to spending countless weekends stockpiling resources like a frenzied squirrel when my friends are enjoying folk festivals and late-season river trips (which I would love to be doing myself). And through reflection, I’ve uncovered some tendrils running through the tapestry of my life that have lead me to engage in this habit.

My mother was a master homemaker. I’ve never used that term before, but it is the truth. A Catholic mother of five (with an unfulfilled dream of being an opera singer), she raised four girls and one boy during the ’60s and ’70s – a time when convenience foods and ready-made clothing were the trend. But rather than follow that trend, my mother toiled countless hours to produce domestic creations that would put Martha Stewart to shame and make one reminisce about “Little House on the Prairie.” My mom grew an immense garden; harvested and preserved vegetables from that garden, as well as local fruits and berries; baked her own bread once a week; sewed and knitted clothing for us; and cooked home- made dinners from scratch every night (yes, every night). I know that watching my mom engage in these age-old practices, passed down to her by her grandmother, imprinted indelible impressions within me of what it is to be a craftswoman in the home.

Before she died of metastasized breast cancer, I intentionally asked my mother to teach me some of the homemaking arts that were so second nature to her. In particular, I asked her to teach me how to knit and how to can and preserve. I also asked her to teach me how to fold a fitted sheet in the old fashioned way (i.e., without bulges and edges hanging out), but I forgot and still to this day can’t fold fitted sheets correctly. Sorry, mom.

In recent years as autumn approaches, I have harvested fruit (peaches, pears, plums, apricots) from local orchards, beside roadways, along the river trail and from amicable neighbors wishing to diminish damage to their fruit trees by marauding bears. I proudly and excitedly take my gleanings back home to can and preserve in many forms. I inherited my mother’s canning supplies and use them in my own kitchen every fall as I follow the decades-old recipe cards for her canned peaches and apple butter. She hand-wrote them on 3-by-5 cards with sweet (and corny) images of fruits and vegetable in the corners. Thus, I carry on the traditions of my mother, and her mother, and hers before her, born of Northern Wisconsin Catholic Irish heritage.

When I was in my twenties, I worked for the Outward Bound School in northern Minnesota. The instructors lived communally at the school’s base camp, fondly called “Homeplace.” The “uniform” of the day was Carhartts, rag wool sweaters and socks, and Birkenstocks (replaced by Sorels in the winter). We split our own wood to heat the shabby cabins we lived in, caught northern pike in the crystal clear lakes and fried them on open fires, and gathered water cress and sour dock to make “trail salads.” In the fall, as we stored the canoes from our months-long expeditions into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Quetico Provincial Park and waited for the snow to accumulate enough so we could run our dogsleds, we harvested. Those who had meager gardens on site dried, preserved and cold-stored their vegetables. Those who could hunt did their best to bring in a deer. And all of us gathered wild berries and canned them into syrup or jam. Those were by far the best years of my life, and I have brought into the rest of my life much of what I learned in that precious, vibrant time. Including a fascination and deep desire to learn how to hunt.

Several years ago, I dated a man who is a master hunter (he would roll his eyes at the use of that term, but again, it’s true). This man has hunted since he was 7 years old or so and solely and successfully hunts deer and elk in the fall with a bow. He invited me (or was it that he allowed me) to his hunting camp one fall, which I realized even then as a great honor and privilege to gain entrance into the inner-manly sanctum of the hunting camp. He would typically do his morning and evening hunts alone (the goal, after all, was to “put meat in the freezer,” so he needed to be focused). But during the day, he would let me accompany him as he scouted his next hunts. I was like a pig in mud examining tracks broken twigs, and scratches in the dirt for hours on end! The hunting bug had me good, and I was hooked.

A few years later, a friend of mine agreed to “mentor” me in hunting. I tagged along with him on his hunts, and shot his weapons to get a feel for them. Gradually, I have pur- chased my own rifles and shotguns, and mainly hunt on my own, preferring the connection to the land that only comes through solitude in the woods. I bagged my first turkey last year and hope to do the same with my first deer this season. My friends find this obsession of mine quite odd. “A Buddhist hunter?” they inquire with raised eyebrows. I can only reply:

“It just feels like it is a part of me.”
Perhaps this draw to hunt and gather, stimulated by the waning light and diminishing temperatures, really is written in our DNA. And those of us who follow the primal call to harvest, preserve, hunt, fish and stockpile those supplies in our larders for the long, cold winter are just doing the only thing we can do: walking in the footsteps of our ancestors.

My friends still don’t understand it. And that’s OK. While they are out hiking the trails and boating the last water of the season, I am busy harvesting. Harvesting the life I was meant to live.

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