Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Teaching a giraffe to shoot a shotgun

Yeah, I know, ridiculous isn't it?

But that's how it feels sometimes when I'm trying to improve my shotgun shooting. Just think about how the shotgun works - how your face has to fall comfortably onto the exact same spot on the stock every time. Then think about how hard it is do to that when you've got a stupid giraffe neck like I do.

Watching Boyfriend mount his shotgun with the greatest of ease once last year, I declared, "I bet my neck is an inch longer than yours!" I actually measured our necks. Mine is two inches longer - 6 inches to his 4. Giraffe neck.

I've been grumbling about this to my shooting instructor, Harv Holcomb, who invites me out to his Sunday morning skeet shoots with the guys. "You might want to try an adjustable-comb stock," he said a few weeks ago. Read more...
An adjustable comb allows you to actually move just the part of the stock where your face rests when you're shooting - you can move it up or down, left or right, until it's absolutely perfect. Competition shooters use them a lot.

Honestly, a good gun fitting can do the same thing. Mostly. With an adjustable comb, you can move the comb without moving the butt even farther to the left (in my case) or right (for normal people).

Harv called me last week and asked if I was going to be shooting on Sunday. He had a gun with an adjustable comb that he wanted me to try - a 20 gauge Remington 1100.

Quite honestly, I just wanted to get out there and practice with Sarah Connor (that would be my new 12 gauge Beretta 3901 - black synthetic stock, hence being named for the bad-ass heroine of Terminator and Terminator II). But I decided to humor Harv.

He adjusted the comb for left-handed shooting and had me shoulder it. Meh. I wasn't moved. My gun felt better. I spent the rest of the morning shooting Sarah.

Then, before we wrapped up for the day, Harv asked one of his buddies for an Allen wrench and he tinkered with the comb some more, got it cranked as low and as far to the left as he could get it. "Try this," he said.

Hmmmmm. It felt better. Not natural - I still had to think about it, as I seem to have to do with all my guns - but better.

"Let's try it," he said.

So we went out, and all coaching stopped, he just let me shoot, and I'll be damned if I didn't just kick some butt. I nailed two sets of doubles, where one clay flies from the left, followed immediately by another from the right. And one of them was at what Harv says is the toughest station for doubles. No thinking at all. Didn't think about where my face was on the stock. Just raised it and shot. I was in heaven.

"That's the best I've ever seen you shoot," Harv said.

'Nuf said.

The next day I ordered an adjustable-comb stock for Sarah. It's not that I had $260 lying around, but I would do almost anything to make my shooting routinely feel like that last round did on Sunday.

And hey, the gun was free - I won it at a duck dinner - so $260 was a small price to pay... Oh yeah, I can rationalize anything.

Anyway, I'm trying not to get too excited about it. The stock is from a different company than Harv's stock. My gun is a different gun. But the guy I ordered from said I could return the stock if it didn't work well for me, so what have I got to lose?

I'll let y'all know how it goes when I get it all put together next week - it won't be in time for the cottontail opener, but there's a long season on cottontails.

And, hey, Walter B! Yes, it will have a Kick-Eez pad on it.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Friday, June 18, 2010

Hunters, you've been played

When I got a press release yesterday from the California Department of Fish and Game urging people to "leave young wildlife alone," I groaned.

The campaign itself is excellent: It's a message urging well-meaning people not to "rescue" baby wild animals they think have been abandoned, because usually they haven't been abandoned, and the "rescue" can be very harmful to them.

But when the HSUS announced last month that it was partnering with the Wisconsin DNR to produce and air a couple 30-second radio spots on this topic, a battle ensued, and I can say unequivocally that the result was HSUS 2, Hunters 0 - something I don't want to see repeated here. Read more...
Before I explain that score, I need to state very clearly that I couldn't care less if HSUS wants to take some of the money it usually uses to fight legitimate, lawful and ethical hunting and give it instead to a cause hunters can support. Seriously, go ahead!

What hunters need to understand, though, is that there are calculated benefits that HSUS can expect to receive in return for its money, which totaled $6,000 for the Wisconsin radio spots.

The first benefit is that HSUS looks good for participating in the program. That one's a no-brainer. We all look good when we donate money to worthwhile causes and get our names associated with those causes. I think it's safe to say that's a huge motivation for a substantial chunk of the philanthropy that takes place in the United States. Any of you who have raised money for a non-profit will agree with me on this one, right?

It's the second benefit that kills me, though, because it's insidious, and hunters played right into it.

You can predict what happened when the Wisconsin partnership was announced, right? Hunters were pissed, and they slammed Wisconsin DNR for taking money from, and partnering with, an organization that's anti-hunting.

Believe me, I understand the resentment. When the agencies we fund take money from organizations that would like to end what we do, it's insulting.

But here's the problem: The non-hunting public doesn't understand our reaction. Members of the non-hunting public, most of whom mistakenly believe that HSUS is an umbrella organization for local animal shelters, look at what the HSUS did, and how hunters reacted to it, and think, "Well, why would a cash-strapped state agency turn down free money for a good cause?"

The folks at HSUS must have been jumping for joy, because here comes Benefit No. 2: In response to the hunter outcry, the HSUS placed a bunch of op-eds and letters to the editor in Wisconsin newspapers sweetly bemoaning hunters' shortsightedness. Check out an excerpt from this letter placed in the Lakeland Times:

It's a shame that some are so ideologically rigid that they believe two groups cannot work together unless their positions on every issue are perfectly congruent.

We at The HSUS see things differently. This project is only one piece of our national efforts on behalf of wildlife. Many of our campaigns are supported by thoughtful hunters. Some are not.

Benefit No. 2 is a two-fer: HSUS gets additional publicity for itself by placing these commentaries in newspapers, and it makes hunters look bad. And make no mistake, every time hunters look bad publicly, it is a nail in our coffin because it costs us public support. HSUS loves that. And all too often, we hand it to them.

Ever watch a manipulative child pull a sibling's hair until the sibling lashes back, and then the sibling is the one who gets in trouble? Sound familiar?

Wisconsin isn't the only place this has happened - hunters in California have also reacted angrily when our DFG has taken contributions from HSUS for its poaching hotline, with similar outcome.

So what do hunters need to do to avoid getting played like this? I have a few ideas to start with:

1. So what if HSUS wants to give money to our wildlife agencies! Instead of complaining, why not take advantage of the opportunity to point out that hunters and anglers provide the vast majority of funding for wildlife habitat, management and enforcement, and to say that we welcome the little bitty contributions that HSUS wants to add to that vast ocean of money?

2. If we don't like being "shown up" by the HSUS, we could ask some of the many organizations that represent us to donate to similar causes, whether it's baby wildlife protection or poaching enforcement. Or ...

3. We could point out that we already provide the majority of funding for these agencies, and rather than make additional contributions, we choose to channel the money we give to non-profit organizations into the most pressing concern there is for wildlife: habitat. Personally, I'm happy that the organization that gets most of my contributions - California Waterfowl - is using that money to give ducks more and better places to live. Without habitat, the rest of this stuff is moot.

4. If we don't want to do any of those things, let's at least remember this: Folks at HSUS love getting the opportunity to make hunters look like we don't care about baby wildlife, or poaching enforcement, or whatever message the HSUS is on at the moment. But they can only do that if we help them, so let's not, OK?

By the way, when I clicked on that California press release about baby wildlife yesterday, I saw no mention of HSUS, so for now we won't have a repeat of the Wisconsin situation. But I guarantee you it won't be long before HSUS donates some cash or sets up some sort of partnership with our DFG. I can only hope we give it some careful thought before we react.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mushroom hunting: Love at first sight

If you believe the old saw that men are hunters and women are gatherers, then all is not right in my household, and not just for the obvious reason that I love hunting.

See, Boyfriend loves foraging, and he has noticed that I ... uh ... don't. If he didn't need me to take photos on his foraging trips, I might never accompany him on them at all. It's not that I hate foraging; I just don't love it.

When we went mushroom hunting last weekend, I went along to take photos as usual, but something funny happened: I fell in love with it. It turns out that the quest for a mere fungus - a stationary object! - actually tickles some of the same synapses that hunting does. Who knew? Read more...
Our guide on this trip was Fat of the Landauthor/blogger Langdon Cook, who took us to some of his spots on the east side of the Cascades in Washington state.

Before this trip, I would've called what we were about to do "foraging," but Lang kept referring to it as "mushroom hunting." I didn't know why, but I was about to find out.

Lang hauled us out to some National Forest land in his well-worn Volkswagen Westfalia and went barreling down a dirt road until he found a spot that 1) felt mushroomy and 2) didn't have other mushroom hunters there.

He could somehow tell the difference between mushroom hunters' cars and ordinary hikers' or campers' cars. I didn't quite get it, but I could relate: When you're pulling into a National Wildlife Refuge to go duck hunting, you can definitely tell the difference between hunters' cars and birders'. Birders tend to drive Subarus and Volvos, and tend to wear clothing from REI; hunters favor Ford F150s and wear clothing from Cabela's.

The etiquette was similar: If mushroom hunters were already there, it wasn't cool to barge in on their space. It was also important, once we got out to forage, to do our best NOT to look like mushroom hunters, so as to avoid tipping off competitors that we might be in a good spot. My camera was actually an excellent decoy - "Uh, yeah, nature photography, that's what we're doing here." Heh heh heh.

Starting to get why I liked it?

We had two targets on this trip: spring porcini and morels. At our first stop, Lang excused himself to take a quick survey of our area, then came back and said this was a good spot. He walked us over toward a tree and said, "Holly, do you see anything here?"

I scanned the pine needle-covered ground and spotted two porcini right away. Too easy! Lang showed us how to gently dig around their edges and where on the base to cut them, ensuring that any remaining nubs might have a chance to grow. Then he showed us how to cut away the dirtiest parts of the base, which is part of the "field dressing" process.

Then we spread out in the forest looking for mushrooms. They weren't all as easy as the first two, for sure - you have to develop an eye for the habitat they prefer, as well as for the telltale shape and color easily overlooked by the novice. For example, if you saw this photo anywhere but in this blog post, would you have any clue that you were looking at three porcini?

It seems obvious to me now, but if you're not wearing your mushroom vision, you'd never see those. Oh, in case you missed them, here they are:

Yep, they're the same color as the leaves on the ground.

So I really began to appreciate the whole watchfulness thing, the way you have to relax your vision and look for patterns that feel mushroomy. It's exactly how I feel when I'm out pig hunting, scanning vast open hillsides and looking for that odd little shape that just might be a bedded-down pig. This was way more fun than picking berries, for sure.

When that area was hunted out, Lang took us up the road to another spot where most of our foraging would be done from a path. Why? Morels like disturbed ground, so trails are actually great places to look. And this trail in particular was loaded with a kind of tree that porcini tend to associate with - and no, I can't tell you what kind of tree.

We headed up the trail and I always found myself lagging. Lang's mushroom eye is so good that he can speed along and either spot them or determine a spot isn't so good, but I preferred to linger in one spot a bit longer. I remembered an article from Boston.com about a study of foragers from a rural village in Mexico. "Using GPS and activity monitors, the researchers found that men were less efficient--they traveled farther, went higher, and exerted more effort than women for the same amount of mushrooms."

"Lang, have you noticed a difference in how women hunt for mushrooms versus men?"

He had. My dawdling method was not uncommon among women, and he recalled one mushroom hunting trip in which a woman who hung back from the more widely-ranging men and hit a real mother lode of mushrooms.

When we decided to turn around and head back to the van, I warned the guys to go in front of me, because I liked going slowly.

I ambled back, and found some porcini here and there, and then I noticed a deer trail going straight up the mountainside. I hadn't seen it coming from the other direction, but from this direction, it was more obvious than a two-bit hooker on the nice side of town.

I looked up that hill and decided I needed to go up there. It seemed inexplicably right. So I did. So much for just men ranging far and wide!

My boots dug into the duff and low tree branches slapped me as I burrowed through deer-sized passages. Finally I came up to a deer bed, and in it I found one solitary fawn leg - must've been a tiny baby that got himself et - and a single morel.

Reward! My gut had told me to go up this path, and I got what I was looking for. I kept moving up and found a few more before I decided I should get back, lest the guys think I'd fallen off a cliff someplace.

When I did, I found the cutest scene: They'd decorated a full basket of mushrooms with some edible wild violets that would become part of our salad that night, and they were sitting there drinking beer:

Awwww, isn't that cute?

I told them I'd gone up a deer trail, and Lang said it was a good move, because morels love deer trails. Could this mean I maybe had a knack for this? Fuel that fire, baby!

Back at camp, we had the most amazing camp dinner ever, featuring tons of the mushrooms we'd collected that day:


The next morning, we hit a couple more spots near our camp before heading out to a new location, where the first thing we saw was a family panning for gold, the head of the family sporting a .22 semiautomatic in a holster, fingering the clip in his hand.

He was totally friendly, gun notwithstanding. Lang told him we were mushrooming, and he told us that if we headed up the dirt road behind him for about three quarters of a mile, we should find a bunch of morels.

We followed that road, climbing over trees that had blown down across it, and began spotting morels here and there on the side. At one point Lang went ahead, and Boyfriend decided to chill in one spot for a while, taking it easy on that Achilles tendon he'd ruptured in December. And me, I spotted an elk trail and decided going up would be the smartest thing I could do.

It was downright eerie, how certain I was about the spots I needed to hit. I'd look up the hill and think to myself, "Hmmmm. There," and every single time I'd find morels in that spot. Often, but not always, they were elk beds, covered in a fringy moss, bathed in just a little more sunshine than the rest of the forest floor.

Euphoria flooded my brain. Is there anything so sweet in this world as following your gut and getting it right?

If I were a little more mystical, I'd say the mushrooms were talking to me. But because I live with my feet planted firmly on the ground, I'd have to say that mushroom hunting just happens to play to one of my strong suits: my ability to detect and make sense of patterns.

And while having a good eye in hunting is really helpful, in mushroom hunting, it is everything. Once you find mushrooms, there's no shooting or tracking - those babies are yours. And they're really valuable - if you wanted to buy them, you'd have to pay $30 a pound.

After a while, I heard Boyfriend calling me, and began making my way back down the mountain. This would be the end of our trip.

But it would not be our last mushroom-hunting trip. On the long drive back to Sacramento, Boyfriend and I plotted our next moves. Normally our calendar is planned around wild game hunting seasons, but now we had a new season to consider.

Back home, we still might be able to find morels at the highest elevations, before the summer heat really sets in. And fall porcini season is just around the corner.

NOTE: Not all mushrooms in this slideshow are considered edible, and one is quite deadly. There's a reason we stuck to morels and porcini - can you spot the fatal amanita here? If you're interested in seeing what became of the mushrooms we collected, keep an eye on Boyfriend's blog - he'll be posting about the dishes he's made soon.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

An amazing read: The Vegetarian Myth

I'm not in the business of telling vegans and vegetarians their diet is wrong. Frankly, I don't care what they put into their bodies as long as they keep their nose out of my dinner plate. You know, do unto others and all that good stuff.

But when I noticed The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability on Tovar Cerulli's list of recommended books the other day, I was immediately intrigued.

The description on Amazon said the book addresses the destructive impacts of 10,000 years of agriculture and explores a more sustainable way of living. That fit right in with one of my favorite topics these days: the notion that both humans and the planet were much better off when we were hunter-gatherers, living off of what the earth gave us. You know, Paradise. Before the fall. The tantalizing life I can see, hear, smell and taste when I'm hunting.

I ordered the book immediately and tore into it as soon as it arrived. Holy moly, what an amazing read!

Author Lierre Keith had been a vegan for 20 years and suffered serious health problems - some irreversible - because of her diet. The book takes us through her process of learning that there is no escaping the fundamental truth that living things must die for us to eat and live. It then explores evidence that the diets of civilization - vegetarian or not - are doing grave damage to the planet and our health.

A lot of vegans hate this book because Keith methodically attacks their worldview, including the notion that their diet does not require sentient beings to be used, harmed or killed. But honestly, I think the book would have been just as riveting without the focus on debunking vegan dogma, because it addresses the foods and beliefs that make up everyone's diet.

Here are the two ideas from the book that I enjoyed the most:

Plant sentience. Keith explores the notion that plants are way more sentient than we'd like to believe.

In The Lost Language of Plants, Stephen Harrod Buhner presents page after page detailing what plants do. They defend themselves. They protect each other. They communicate. They call out to other plant species, asking them to join in forming a resilient community. They sometimes sacrifice themselves for the good of all. ... Where we use locomotion and opposable thumbs, plants use chemicals. That is the difference between us...

Plants are in constant communication with each other. "Each plant, plant neighborhood, plant community, ecosystem, and biome has messages flowing through it constantly - trillions and trillions of messages at the same time." Any place that roots touch other roots or their shared mycelial network, they can also exchange chemistries, medicines. One plant will send out a chemical distress call. The others respond with precise antibiotics, antifungals, antimicrobials or pesticides to help.

That section alone was mind boggling. If you're a fan of Lord of the Rings, you won't be able to stop yourself from thinking of the slow-to-act but powerful Ents here. And if you're an Avatar fan, the plant communication idea will sound awfully familiar.

What I loved about it is that Keith - using science, not fantasy movies - forced me to think differently about plants and substantially broadened my view of the interdependent life forms on Earth. I definitely want to do more reading on that subject.

The perils of the civilized diet. Keith cites research that finds better - sometimes perfect - health in communities with primitive diets, particularly animal-based diets (and yes, this too pisses off the vegans). She notes that when communities of perfect health begin consuming the refined agricultural products that civilization gives them, they begin to experience the diseases of civilization: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis and other degenerative diseases.

She quotes extensively from the research of Dr. Weston Price, who with his wife Florence searched the globe for communities of people with perfect health and studied their diets.

The Prices ... found perfect health in Torres Strait islanders. The government physician for the islanders stated that in his thirteen years among the native population of four thousand, he had never seen cancer. He had operated on several dozen malignancies among the white population of about three hundred. In fact, among the indigenous, any conditions requiring surgery were extremely rare. The indigenous people resisted assimilation, especially to industrial food. They understood that government stores were a danger, and on a number of occasions almost took up violence against such stores. ...

Other doctors have also observed near-universal perfect health of hunter-gatherers. Dr. Edward Howell, a pioneer in enzyme research, reported on another doctor who lived with the indigenous people near Aklavik (northern Canada), stating, "He has never seen a single case of malignancy." One report from a doctor who examined hundreds of indigenous people on their native diets found that 'there were no signs of any heart disease ... No case of cancer or diabetes.' Such observations are common in the anthropological literature and are completely ignored by the medical institutions that control the public health policies of our country.

Keith also spends a great deal of time in the book attacking grain and soy. She makes a compelling case that cultivating these foods has devastated the planet, and eating them has wrecked our health. I don't think Keith ever uses the word "paleo" in her book, but it's clear she has much in common with adherents to the paleo diet, which embraces anything humans ate before the rise of agriculture and eschews most or all that came after it - particularly grains. (If you're intrigued by that diet, be sure to check out Hunt Gather Love, a blog by Melissa McEwen, a New York City hunter who eats paleo.)

I've got to say this aspect of the book really challenged my infatuation with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, because I love grains. I've long said that if civilization collapses in my time and plunges us all back into the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, one of the things I'd miss the most would be bread. But if Keith and the research she cites are right, perhaps we'd all be better off without it.

I had learned about the potentially harmful effects of industrially farmed food - starting with Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and continuing with the movie FOOD, Inc. - long before I discovered Keith's book. But Keith expanded on those works with breadth and detail. And while I'm not inclined to purge grains from my diet anytime soon, Keith's book left me feeling that my diet rich in wild game, unapologetically in love with animal fats and filled with locally grown produce is putting me on the right track.

One of the things I love about this book is that it's clear Keith has done a great deal of research into her topics, and hundreds of footnotes tell you exactly where she got her information. Of course, I'm well aware that research can be flawed, and even when it's not, it can be cited misleadingly or selectively. So the key question here is how seriously can we take Keith's assertions?

The answer is that I don't know. There were several spots in the book that set off my B.S. detector. In one section, for example, Keith praised Weston Price's study of the communities of perfect health because "(h)e wasn't distracted by the variations in macronutrients or by differences in basic food stuffs." But earlier in the book she had criticized researchers who didn't control for variables. Sounds inconsistent to me.

The problem is that I haven't been able to find a thorough critical analysis of the book, and I sure don't have time to do one myself.

A group of vegans have started a website to debunk the book, vegetarianmyth.com (and yes, Keith totally blew it by not registering the domain name of her own book). But the site is incomplete - it primarily addresses Keith's assertions that relate directly to veganism.

And aside from a San Francisco Chronicle story about Keith getting pied by masked vegans when she was speaking at an anarchist book fair earlier this year (seriously - I couldn't make up something that weird), I haven't been able to find any mainstream coverage of this book at all, much less any coverage that would look at it critically.

That said, I still recommend it. It's not as crazy as Paul Shepard's The Tender Carnivore & the Sacred Game, which advocated eating proteins synthesized from petroleum and offered an advanced hunter-gatherer utopia in which women wouldn't be allowed to hunt big game. But it's every bit as thought provoking.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Paying respects with lifetime licenses

Folks who live in California might remember that there was a terrible helicopter crash here in January in which three Department of Fish and Game biologists and the pilot died while on a routine aerial deer survey. At the time, a memorial fund was set up for their families.

Last week I heard the rest of the story while attending the Legislature's Outdoor Sporting Caucus annual dinner: Two of the biologists, Clu Cotter and Kevin O'Connor, had children, and apparently a number of outdoors organizations had come together to purchase lifetime hunting licenses for those kids.

Nearly five months later, though, they hadn't raised enough money to purchase lifetime fishing licenses, and I think that effort deserves a little help.

We all know that a fishing license couldn't possibly take the place of a dad, but it is a small way that Californians can let these kids know that their dads' work was appreciated, and that we all mourned their loss. Let's keep in mind that biologists are the people who make the science behind the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation work: They monitor wildlife populations to determine how much hunting and fishing is possible without damaging a species. Under this model, no game animal in America has gone extinct. This is important work.

It turns out they need another $7,500 to get lifetime fishing licenses for Cotter's and O'Connor's kids. If you'd like to help, you can do a couple things:

First, share this post with all your friends who are avid anglers and see if they'd like to be a part of this effort. Anyone who cares about getting kids into fishing can certainly relate to this cause - these kids no longer have dads to help them.

Second, write a check for whatever you can afford, made out to COHA (which stands for the California Outdoor Heritage Alliance), and write "Lifetime License Fund" in the memo line. Mail the check to:

1600 Sacramento Inn Way, Suite 232
Sacramento CA 95815
ATTN: Bill Gaines

If by some chance they collect more than enough money for the licenses, the surplus will go to those children through their memorial fund.

Yesterday was payday for me, and I'm writing my check tonight. I hope you'll join me.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010