Tuesday, May 31, 2011

ALONE: My harrowing real-life survival story

One of the reasons I love hunting is the sense it gives me that if everything went to hell - I'm talking a massive collapse of civilization - I might actually be able to survive.

What I didn't realize until recently, though, is that survival situations can come in many forms.

Then, on May 15, Hank headed out for the first leg of his "Hunt, Gather, Cook" book tour, and my real-life survival story began.

What happened, you ask? I'll tell you: This guy's been cooking for me pretty much every day for the better part of the last four years. He has completely domesticated me, and that, my friends, has left me virtually unable to feed myself. (Yes, you read that correctly. It's all his fault.)

I moped for a while after he left. Nature rewarded me with a massive thunderstorm, complete with hail - a fitting soundtrack to my self-pity.

Then the skies cleared, my stomach growled and I asked the question: What next?

Step one: Assess your food supply.

I opened the door of the refrigerator and found it was almost empty, except for beer, a half-drunk bottle of wine and condiments (which, in our case, means stuff like small vats of duck fat and jars of strange green things oddly mislabeled "cranberries").

But wait, what was this cardboard box?

Oh yeah! Hank had taught a sausage-making class in Sausalito the day before he left, and we'd come home with leftovers. Awesome. I love sausage.

I opened the box, and discovered, to my horror, that they were not cooked sausages. Oh no. How the hell do you cook these things?

Momentarily stumped, I decided to go over the photos I'd taken the day before to see if there were any clues.

Cracking dirty jokes about sausage making? No, that won't work.

Expounding? No, no, no - that doesn't generate enough heat.

Then, I saw it:

There it is, in the background: a frying pan.

That sight was enough to jog my memory - I distinctly recalled Hank telling the sausage students, "Slow and low - you can never cook sausage for too long."

So, I broke out a frying pan, turned the heat down really low, then dropped a link in there, and I'll be damned if 45 minutes later I didn't have a totally delicious, perfectly cooked sausage.

That knowledge - and that cache of links - kept me going for a good three days. I even took the extra step of browning rice in the fat that remained in the pan before tossing it in the rice cooker. I was delighted with my ingenuity.

Step two: Forage for foods you know are safe.

I may not know how to cook, but I do know how to drive, so I got my butt to Costco and looked for survival food, and there it was: peanut butter! Organic, creamy, Kirkland-brand peanut butter. In a two-pack, no less!

In the cart it went, and voila! All I had to do with this stuff was stir, then dip a big fat spoon into the jar. Healthy, nutrient-dense - ahhhhhhh. That got me through the next several days' lunchtimes.

Step three: OK, go find some real food.

Peanut butter gets old fast, so I started longing for one of the staples of our kitchen: roasted duck.

I remembered roasting ducks. Yes, I've actually done it! I even have a recipe on this site. It's so easy: Brown it in a cast-iron pan, roast it until the breast meat hits 135 degrees, remove from oven and cover with foil for five minutes, then EAT.

First, I had to find a duck. Given that it was May, I knew I couldn't legally go out to kill one, so where's the next best place?

The freezer!

I trooped out to the garage and dug through a baffling array of frozen meats. Gizzards. Livers. Unidentified sausages. Goose breasts - closer! Then, I saw it: A grocery bag full of frozen ducks.

Bufflehead? Oh, heavens no. I mean, I shot it, but Hank says buffleheads can taste fishy. I'll leave that one for him.

"Gadwall with stinky butt?" Ooooooh, yeah, I remembered that one. Very stinky duck. Also beyond my skill level. Good thing Hank labeled it.

Then I found it: "fat gadwall." This I could do.

I defrosted the duck, browned it, and popped it in the oven. After 10 or 12 minutes, I went to check it with a meat thermometer and


I texted Hank. WTF, did you take the meat thermometer with you?

He texted back. Yes. Deal.

A meat thermometer. On book tour. What, was he cooking the books?

So I guessed and took it out then. After I let the bird rest, I sliced into it and saw it had come out a bit rare. No, a lot rare. Gadwall sushi, anyone? But I just popped it back in the oven for a few more minutes, and it was fine.

The next day I bought a cheap meat thermometer at the supermarket. Then I ate duck every day for the next six days - roasted one day, leftovers the next.

But that wasn't all I ate. I had rice too. Browned in duck fat first, of course.

Step four: Mastering the kitchen.

After eating all those ducks, I now had quite a collection of duck carcasses. I saved them in part because I was raised by parents who grew up in the Great Depression, which made me loathe to throw away food. But there was something else.

A smell.

The smell of the house during duck season. Warm, almost spicy.

That's it! When Hank broke down ducks during duck season, he always roasted the bones and then made broth with them. Mmmmmm. Broth. Delicious by itself, or you could use it to jazz up other cooking.

How does one make broth, though? I had a vague impression: roasted bones, water, onion, celery, carrots. I'd tried it once before, sans recipe, and it hadn't come out well. So I asked myself: What would Hank do?

What would Hank do? Holy cow, he writes a food blog! He's probably blogged about EXACTLY how to make broth.

I ran to my computer and hit a few links on his site, and there it was: Dark Duck Broth. I printed it out. Gasped when a second sheet of paper came out of the printer. Two pages??? Then ran back to the kitchen.

First, I had to forage for ingredients. Onion? Check. Garlic? Check. Fennel? No thanks. Celery? Rubbery, but check. Rosemary? All over the front yard. Red wine vinegar? Check. Red wine? Check. Tomato paste? Check.

I popped all my bones in the roasting pan, then into the oven, and started assembling and prepping the other ingredients. When I got to the can of tomato paste, I dug for the can opener, then tried to attach it to the can properly. Then fumbled. Repeatedly.

Wow. I had actually forgotten how to use our can opener.

I'm choosing to spin that in a good way - we just don't have many canned goods in the house. I usually have to make special purchases to donate to canned food drives during the holidays.

After several tries, I figured it out. Yes, just like I figured out how to cook sausage, buy peanut butter and find ducks in the freezer. I was getting the hang of this survival stuff.

Next, I needed a tablespoon of peppercorns. I opened the spice cupboard, which is so full of bags and jars and tins of whole spices that they all threaten to fall out every time you open the door. But not one of these containers had peppercorns.

Time to text Hank. Are we out of peppercorns?

Hank: They should be in the cupboard.

Me: They're not.

Hank: Adapt and overcome.

Oh I HATE it when he says that.

I picked up the pepper grinder and gave it a crank and it became clear that was empty too.

Do you see why Hank's not in charge of buying toilet paper? Sheesh.

Oh well, screw pepper. I kept going, tending to the burbling broth pot all night, through a phone call with a student, a phone call with my mother and at least one episode of the Real Housewives of New Jersey. When I was ready for bed, I removed the bones and veggies, poured the broth through a strainer lined with cheesecloth, and gave it a taste.

Hot damn, it was good!

I felt accomplished. I'd gone from recoiling at the sight of uncooked sausages to making my own broth from scratch, despite tragic obstacles like the absence of pepper. And now I had a bunch of broth to cook with!

I'm gonna make some damn fine rice with that.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Monday, May 16, 2011

When a hunter thinks like a vegan

Hunting has been, for me, two parallel journeys.

One is obvious: Acquiring gear, learning how to use it, learning how to hunt. That I began this journey at age 41 has been sheer delight. I enjoy stretching my brain, and revel in the fact that I didn't leave behind learning when I finished my degree 22 years ago.

The second journey - a journey of the mind - has been equally thrilling. Until recently.

This journey has its roots in this blog, which I started on Nov. 4, 2007 - one year to the day after the first time I pulled the trigger on a shotgun.

I quickly became enamored with writing not just about hunting, but in defense of hunting. Hank would call it "the zeal of a convert," but to me, it was just a natural response to discovering that hunters, and hunting, weren't what I'd thought they'd been. At all.

When you make it your personal mission to defend hunting, one thing you quickly find out is there's one aspect of what we do that is incredibly hard to explain, satisfactorily, to non-hunters: We deeply love an act that culminates (on good days) in taking another creature's life.


Interestingly enough, while most hunters will never articulate the reason as well as Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, every hunter I know says hunting provides a connection to nature. (This oversimplified answer, of course, prompts a predictable response from non-hunters: Can't you enjoy nature without killing it?)

But why? I kept asking myself. Why do we crave this connection?

I did a little introspection and became interested in the notion of Eden. Having been raised by atheists, I did not accept the Bible's explanation for why we left Eden, but I knew Eden once existed: It was the remnant of our past that I touched every time I went hunting.

Why was I so hungry for this?

I scoured other hunters' reading lists and Amazon for things that might help me understand, and I devoured a lot of books:

Ishmael, a novel that calls into question our 10,000-year-old assumption that the way we used to live was terrifying and awful.

The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, a book about restoring that way of life (albeit with some deeply flawed visions of the future).

The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World, a book about the tension between us civilized folk and some of the last remaining hunter-gatherers.

The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability, a scathing indictment of the precepts of vegetarianism that damns the agricultural revolution in the process.

Health and the Rise of Civilization, a detailed look at the deteriorating health that accompanied every transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural lifestyles.

Slowly, the why emerged and grew, and it led to an amusing discovery: I actually have something in common with anti-hunting vegans:

Vegans are ashamed of what we are - an omnivorous species that's built its bodies and brains in no small part on the flesh of fellow animals. They want to run away from that, as fast and as far as possible. They want to evolve into something else, so they have built for themselves a diet that reflects not their bodies' needs, but the moral construct through which they view the world.

I, on the other hand, am ashamed of what our species has become: an organism relentless in its quest to dominate and control nature, at the expense of plants and animals that have every bit as much right to be here as we do. I want to run away from that - to discard 10,000 years of agriculture and embrace the very lifestyle denigrated, quite unfairly, by the agriculturalists.

In one way, this is a righteous statement: I accept the terms and conditions under which nature operates. Life feeds life. It isn't always pretty for the individual (be it plant, animal or human), but hot damn, it works really well as a system when you don't eff with it.

It is also, of course, a perfect explanation of why hunting is not only acceptable, but essential, in the grand scheme of things. Individually, you can do it or not do it, but on the whole, it is vital. It is the very stuff of life. Vegans can entertain whatever fantasies they like about how nature should work in a "moral" world, but the reality will remain the same.

The problem, though, is this: At its core, this is is still a worldview rooted in self-loathing, and that, my friends, is unhealthy.

When you really examine the concept of what it means to control and manipulate nature the way we do, you see demons everywhere. Every disposable coffee cup looks like an unconscionable waste of resources. Every car, an obscene destroyer of air and land. Every subdivision, an unnecessarily large usurpation of habitat.

I mean, seriously, can anyone argue that these are good things? Convenient, yes, but good? I think not.

Of course, I use all of these things. I try to minimize my environmental footprint: I can and do use travel mugs and canvas shopping bags. I drive a four-cylinder car. I have a back yard in which a substantial chunk is allowed to go wild, providing habitat for little creatures.

But I am undeniably a member of a destructive species that, when given the chance, is shamefully wasteful.

I used to believe that we are capable of doing better. Back in the 1990s, I used to play a computer game called SimEarth. It was super fun: You get a planet with a bunch of types of animals - primates, reptiles, fish, etc. - and you tinker with conditions that will determine which becomes the dominant "higher" life form. You can change the tilt of the earth's axis, change how much light is reflected from the planet, and after a civilization has emerged, alter the balance of investment in art, philosophy and science.

The game follows clear patterns: Your dominant species grows too large, wages wars, wrecks the planet and implodes in an epidemic of disease and/or destruction. If you're really good, though, you can maintain a small outpost of highly advanced civilization that has learned to live in non-destructive harmony with the planet.

I used to believe that humanity might be capable of reaching such an apex of civilization. But now I'm not so sure.

It was that last book that killed my hope - Health and the Rise of Civilization. I used to think the hunter-gatherers lived right, in harmony with other plants and animals. But that book showed me that all of human history has been marked by the same drive to expand beyond the bounds of our habitat.

When we needed to grow, we pushed into new territories. When there were no new territories left to fill, we pushed our hunter-gatherer diet, adding less nutritious foods like grains. When that was no longer enough, we invented agriculture - the ultimate control of fellow plants and animals. When that was no longer enough, we invented ever more clever means of extracting what we could from the plants and animals around us.

The trajectory of more more more has always been there, though it was far less noticeable before the agricultural revolution.

I had been, at the time I read that book, working up the courage to write a book of my own, about the intellectual journey that hunting had sparked in me. But the journey was taking me to such a dark place that I couldn't bear the thought of going through with it. Even if I could write it, I couldn't imagine who would want to read such a depressing tome, besides the people who think the world is coming to an end on May 21.

I became deeply depressed, so I abandoned the book. I immersed myself in work, which was, at the time, blissfully busy. I went on gun-less hikes and fruitless turkey hunts. I started to feel better.

It has taken me more than a month just to feel ready to write this blog post, and still with every new paragraph I spew out, I contemplate hitting the "delete" button.

If I actually hit "publish," I almost feel sorry anyone who reads this far. I'm not the kind of writer who enjoys wallowing in her depression. I find depression insufferable, particularly when it's my own.

But I'm looking for something.

Just as most of you have gone through the same stages of hunter development that I've been going through, I'm thinking you may have been down these intellectual roads as well.

So tell me, please: Once you discover the beauty of what we used to be, how do you gracefully accept what we've become? Because if this is just one of those stages in my parallel intellectual journey, I'm quite ready to move on.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Blogger ate my last post

Well, folks, the normally reliable Blogger ate my last post, and all the comments with it.

Blogger is working to restore everything, so the lost post may return eventually. But if it doesn't, I'll live. It was just a small rant about some idiot's snotty remark about pink bows. The only reason I'm bringing it up is so no one thinks I've been randomly deleting posts.

And no (Tovar!), I still will not switch to WordPress. One substantial glitch in nearly four years with Blogger still beats WP's notoriously hellish new-version-upgrade nightmares and hackability. I <3 Blogger, despite this little mishap.


© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Monday, May 9, 2011

Animal mercies, tender and otherwise

It had been an unusual week with animals. First, I saved a mosquito hawk from a black widow. The black widow backed off quickly enough, but untangling the bug's legs from the spiderweb without yanking them off was quite a trick.

Then I saved a lizard from Harlequin the cat. I like lizards and Harlequin just hunts them for kicks, which bugs me. I carried the lizard from the back yard through the house to the front porch, where he stayed frozen for several minutes (great defense against a cat) before scurrying under the gardenia. The cat was still in the back yard, looking quizzically through the grass for her lost lizard.

Those were the easy ones. Giant hero saves the day! "One more act of mercy and I'll be a vegan!" I joked on Twitter. Fun.

What happened Saturday, though, was not.

I was driving up Highway 49 north of Nevada City to go to my mom's house and deliver her Mother's Day present. I had finally passed the hippie who was taking all the curves in the road painfully slowly. I was zooming up the first straightaway after crossing the Yuba River when I spotted something ahead on the other side of the road: roadkill.

So much roadkill everywhere now. Breaks my heart.

It was bigger than a squirrel, but smaller than a deer. As I drew near, I craned my neck to see what it was, as I always do. It was hard to tell.

Until it lifted its head from the pavement feebly, giant ears dangling.

Oh, hell no.

I've seen a lot of road kill in my life, but I'd never seen it still alive, and my rescue gene kicked in hard. I looked for a place to turn around, resisted the urge to do it in an unsafe place, watched anxiously as another car zoomed toward the jack rabbit before I could turn around and get back to him.

The other car missed him. As I pulled over, he lifted his head again. It was clear the rest of his body was not working.

I got out and stood over him. Beautiful jack rabbit. Road rash had stripped the fur and skin off of his left hip, exposing those powerful leg muscles. The blood on the road was bright red. He must have just been hit.

He lifted his head again. I stroked his back gently.

"Oh, sweetie, I'm so sorry."

I grabbed him by his hind legs, apologized again, put his head on the ground, put my boot on it and yanked up hard, breaking his neck. He began to jerk spasmodically - the jerk familiar to hunters and animal farmers, but often mistaken for pain by those unfamiliar with the facts of death.

I looked up just as the hippie passed me on the road. I wondered if she thought I was a monster. Or if, like many people who live in these mountains, she herself had performed acts of mercy on some of the victims that litter our highways.

My reward for this unpleasant act would be threefold: First, the animal's pain was over. Second, no scavenger would die trying to take advantage of the free meal. Third, I would be bringing rabbit home.

I've long said I'd be willing to eat roadkill if I found something fresh and in good shape, but I hadn't bargained for something this fresh.

The rest of the drive to my mom's house felt a little grim, the joy of the gift-giving process dampened by the fact that this jack rabbit had died not because another animal was hungry, but because he'd gotten in the way of human convenience.

I had, of course, put myself in his shoes, imagined my limp body on pavement (something I actually have experienced before), watching oncoming traffic, trying to move but not being able to.

When I got to Mom's house, I apologized and told her I had a little business to attend to before I could settle down with her. She gave me latex gloves - a precaution against tularemia - and a ripped-open paper bag as a work surface to use outside.

I think I apologized to that rabbit six times. He was beautiful and healthy, aside from his grotesquely broken hind leg. I left fur, feet and guts out for scavengers and took Mr. Jack, his liver, his heart and his kidneys inside for a final rinse.

I was glad and grateful to have food, glad to know no scavengers would die getting their share of this roadkill, glad to know he wasn't stuck on the pavement waiting for the final fatal squish.

But I really wished it hadn't happened in the first place. This is one mercy I could've lived without.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011