Saga of Othala ch, XII: Bear it

A wise man once said “The purpose of life is finding the largest burden that you can bear, and bearing it”. I eat meat. The largest burden for a meat eater is to hunt and kill an animal. I shoulder that responsibility, which is among the most recent meaningful commitments of my life. This integration of the predator archetype and participation in a natural human ecology of life feeding on other life has been uncomfortable, challenging, and time consuming. In truth, the transition into an onset hunter-gatherer-forager is still in the realm of virgin experiences. I recently dispatched four small game creatures and processed a rabbit for meat. Doing so invited some of the hardest emotional downloads that I have had to saddle up to, and as the above writer hinted at, come to bear…

Being a journal on homesteading, I am fully aware and wish to make evidence for my readers that admitting these stories to my community and the wider world is not easy. I can not compose these sagas on my lunch break at a cafe on the natch, nor in the tired venues of public libraries. These stories happen at home, and stay at home, and sometimes they are uncomfortable. Sometimes even, they are inconvenient, triggering, and taboo, but if they are one thing, they are raw, real, and a direct distillation of my present experience of living as a homo-sapien in a very weird world, trying to make sense of it the best way I know how.

To me this has meant shoring up in a hand-built tree house, for my home is of the Tamarack variety, and living as far out of the modern world as I dare, holding off Ragnarok just a little longer. This kingdom is solar powered and watered by a mineral well, not a corporation with wolverine greed. I sleep on straw, wool and pelts, burn wood, re:cycle my own humanure, and practice doing without. If it means I must cleanse my body with incensed oils and ashes instead of hot running water for six months of the year and bathe in rivers and streams the other six, then that is something I have accepted and adapted to. When I carry water, I feel it’s weight and the strain in my biceps that come from pumping it up from deep below the subsoil. Less is wasted in my kitchen, as my water usage consciousness is more acute. Homestead repairs are slow, often unorthodox, and economical but most of all practical. I can live with a few mosquitoes getting through a ripped mesh screen, but a disintegrating wood-stove is more of a safety concern. Whether to rebuild the threshold of my cabin door first, or replace a broken glass in my workshop window from a rogue pheasant collision is a fairly easy choice. And when winter comes, and it always does, I feel success with a room full of preserves, flour and dried goods with five cords of wood stacked a few paces from my mantle. There is not much need for anything else, as company occupies the land that loneliness may try to raid, study and contemplation of the arts render a renewed mythology of being in the world, and a deep semblance of being can be attained from doing nothing, sitting still, and observing the breath. It’s harder than you think!

Looping back to the killing complex, it loomed upon me in this transitional season that the acquisition of meat was becoming important for a more integral diet. While my hidden trail camera revealed photos of a few nuisance rodents actively chewing the wooden doors of my hall while I was away in the sugarbush. So it would play out that these creatures, long in tooth and claw were aware of my working hours, and decided to pillage my abode in my absence on repeated occasions. On returning home I would find a fresh pile of wood shavings neath the base of my door, while inside all my spice jars and masons of delectable nut butter would be scattered across the floor, fortunately none broken but often with lids ajar and their contents spilled out like entrails on a highway. I tried hiding the proteinate treasure troves inside baskets, and confining the apothecary of spices to new locations to no avail. The red furred beasties had found ways to ransack the larder through brute force or careful contortion, fitting through the smallest of niches to access their addictions. They evaded my attentions but not that of the camouflaged lens of the camera, carefully disguised against the bark of a poplar trunk. One night before potluck I caught the thief in full color. Cycling through the pictures taken over just a week, I came to be aware that he was not the sole visitor to my hall. A band of bearded turkeys, a few wandering grouse, a woodcock in launching flight, a sleuthing red fox, and a black cat always retreating. Red squirrel showed up in almost every second frame, leading to and fro on methodical trails between the cabin and his nest. I had found his tracks and set a trap therein, and would let peanut ally with steel for an ingenious ploy of my own…

In the first twenty four hours I had caught the homewrecker, he was rattling around the cage when I came down from syrup mountain, and I knew I had a responsibility. I brought him into the workshop and tipped the cage on it’s end and tried to calm him down, while a friend loaned me his pellet gun to snuff him out swiftly. I am adverse to guns generally, though at the time a blunt arrow felt like an unsuited tool for culling this creature in such a setting, so I lodged one copper ball behind the shoulder of the squirrel and prayed that he would not suffer long. He writhed and jostled and did not seem to take his death throes easily so I reached in with a welding glove and grabbed him by the tail. He arched around and bit the thumb of the glove but it was too thick for penetration, while I pinched his scruff and resorted instead to the more intimate way I had learned of dispatching an animal from the Hadzabe tribe. A small crunch on the upper vertebrae in the neck region, and his furry body un-tensed in my hand, eyes closing on the world, the spirit evaporated, and I thanked him for his pelt and his meat. He was fat from gorging on white oak acorns in a pack basket that hunt from a nail in my hall, and several hundred grams of almond butter. Keeping the local terroir of wild flavors and culinary inventiveness, I opted to collect the half bitten peanuts that were pilfered in my pantry for shelling and grinding into a dry nut flour for breading the squirrel. Steaks and thighs were braised rare and tossed with the powdered peanuts, then caramelized in butter and maple syrup. Served up with a slow cooked ham that a sister rescued from a supermarket bin, and a savory pot of green pea soup. We ate a wholesome feast, where farm meets wild, and all for the grand sum of… free.

Turning a problem animal into a sustaining wild meal shared amongst kin, and a beautiful pelt for craft use felt intimately right and natural. Unluckily, a house cat then stole the pelt from the woodpile where I had processed the meat and buried it in the snow out of reach, leaving only the tail as evidence of his scavenging. I had acquired the taste for squirrel in Tanzania, which was the main small game animal we hunted in Hadzalands. Little did I know there was more than one avenger to the former’s death, who may also have been a co-conspirator to the evisceration of my wooden doors. In another two days, I trapped two more fuzzy destroyers and bit the neck in the same as before, these times with more grace in the sacrifice than before. While engaged in the act, my mind entered a different consciousness, a sacred necessity even. Taking the life of a squirrel was not easy because it was small, the gravity of a life lost was still felt in full. When I noticed a patch of fur missing on the nose of the third squirrel from rumbling violently in the cage, and he caught my gaze eye to eye, a deep sadness prevailed, and I almost set him free. I was caught in the grip of this unique creature who came to teach me to be more careful in protecting my house. I remember thinking, “I wish I could trap or hunt something larger than a squirrel and make several meals from them, instead of all these small portions”, as if to safeguard the feelings of necessary grief that comes from being present with an animal in the last moment of its life. But the thought was irrelevant, the giver gave what was fit for the moment, could I really process a giant moose right now? Maybe, but somehow I doubted it without help.

So two more squirrels made their way into the freezer, and by some strange happenstance, a ruffed grouse, after returning home from Skedaddle ridge one afternoon to find him sitting on the cutting board in my outdoor kitchen space, very much alive. I received this to be a sign from nature that he had come to offer his life, though not without the short lived lion-like predation I used to catch him. I proceeded with caution and lunged forward to grab the bird, but he exploded out of arms reach and hit the window, then shot to the opposite side of the shack in a ruffle of feathers, back and forth a couple of times. I let him tired himself out while guarding the open doorway until he lurched underneath my motorcycle and tried evasion techniques instead. We engaged in this hide and seek for a couple of minutes as he followed a passage behind the freezer. Rocketing skywards from there and impacting the wall, I had a chance to wrap my paws around him and hold this fine feathered friend with a firm grip. He seemed a little lean, and instinctively I felt called to let him free, yet upon tossing him back to the trees, he gave no flight of wing and landed back down on my woodpile. Well then, I was not about to be made a fool and so lunged at him a second time catching the talons, swiftly breaking the neck with a turn of the wrist. Stepping on the bony edge of the wings while pulling up on the feet to undress the animal. The grouse are one of the easiest birds to field dress, their feathered hides come off the carcass like a sweater, and there is little blood. The strings of sun yellow fat that lay between the breast meat and the ribs demarcate the choice edible portions, though with a bird hunting husky for a companion, nothing went to waste. The neck, feet, entrails, skull and every keratin rich feather were fed to the dog for lunch while I boiled maple syrup the next afternoon. With the dark organ meat and breasts I made a wild game version of Indian butter chicken, paired with wild lake rice and a Ukrainian borscht recipe for one of the finest meals shared under this roof.

Coyote came to me, both in song and in skin. They have been howling outside my cabin for weeks, and one day after making syrup on Maple hill I was offered a pelt of a handsome ‘yote for spring tanning. One silver fox rabbit was also gifted to me, but unfortunately had died of Pasturella disease in the lungs. At least this was the conclusion after consulting a sister who bred rabbits for years. He did not alas, make it into the Hassenpfeffer, but was offered back to the earth scavengers in the deep woods. The luscious pelt was preserved and stored frozen with Coyote and Bear for brain tanning after the frost. Another more aromatic animal was brought back to the land from the side of the road, when a drive in the country with a friend yielded us in contact with a recently deceased skunk. My logic at the time was that I already had three other pelts to work with, what’s a fourth? Besides I could learn something new from this one, and had not worked with a skunk since I nearly poisoned myself with contaminated meat from one when I was a lad of twenty-seven years old. It left a bad taste in my mouth, literally, and I felt like giving it another try.

The direct contact with the deaths of these seven animals, and their subsequent shapeshifting into food for the table, fur bearing skins for craft, and canine protein walked me through some new emotional sets that I was not used to. Exposing the insides of a rabbit that I had intended to cook the community and coming to the realization that the meat was unfit for eating grieved me. Though even more so it brought home the stark reality that life sometimes includes and is not indifferent to suffering. The poor creature would have endured intense misery in the time before its demise as the disease prevented the normal functioning of its lungs and would asphyxiate it unto its last breath. One less heartbeat in our greater community, meant a loss to our collective resilience, and the night took on a shade of gray and tinge of loneliness.

Though these ruminations must not all be about loss and death, and the sun still shines on everyone now longer each day and with great thawing power on the frozen flesh of earth. Green herbs, and ephemerals will forever return for spring gorging and foraging, and I have my eyes on for the first shoots. Spring beauties, fiddleheads, trout lily, wild ginger, and watercress, but even before this are the balsam poplar buds, birch sap and colstfoot. I’m harvesting knowledge from two wild food cookbooks by Pascal Baudar, and Alan Bergo, with a main course from the anthology of foraging literature from Samuel Thayer and Euell Gibbons, peppered in with some psychodynamic floral lore from Stephen Harrod Buhner and I have more on my plate than I can possibly eat. Relationship forming with plants and their associates; fungi, lichen, and moss is a lifetime marriage, and one that I am fully committed to. All of the major homestead improvements on my blackboard this year relate to plants either directly or indirectly. A south facing hothouse for season extension, a grass roof for growing herbs and mushrooms, planting a heritage garden and native trees, and utilizing the forest in a sustainable way.

On a frosty march morning, my mug fills with hot maple syrup from the evaporator pan and my blood sugar spikes from a massive dose of boiled tree blood, probably too much, but I love the way I feel after 6oz. of the freshest syrup, delivered straight from a forest of rock maple, and transmuted into its signature complex sweetness in under an hour. We are joined by four men from Guatemala who have never been to Canada, tasted maple syrup on their pancakes, or seen snow before. They are intrigued with the giant stainless steel tank that is pouring out the dark amber liquid, and ask many questions using a translator on their phone.

An early season cold snap and freezing temperatures in the daytime has halted the flow temporarily and reserved my outputs to more local venues, as I help a sister build Larsen trusses for her garden cabin. The construction methodology is simple and consistent, and reciprocates in equal levels of satisfaction returned for each truss finished. The collaborative efforts of the labors of love enhance the work time with frith, joy and satisfaction as we tack and turn out boards by the woodstove, in what feels more like play than employment.

At the end of my own hands, I hold a cold chisel and a hickory hammer and chip away flakes of slate on a standing stone that has been erect in my hall since the week I moved in. Over the winter I made the final draft of the old Norse translation for a runestone inscription, which was then translated into the Elder :Futhark:, and at long last is being carved into the gray slab. Stave by stave, recited over with poetry, and hallowed by Thor. It is a process and a praxis, as the means serve an even greater means without end. One word leading to another word, a deed for yet another deed, and a serpent that bites its own tail and begins again. Every man must have a legend, a myth, and his saga may be preserved in runes or on the tongues of others long after he enters the mound. I intend for both.

We are living through a new medieval age, one that no human knows the fate of. I think it is only reasonable to put some faith in the old time weavers, the ur-Gods, the mystic seers and holy prophets, and the forces of life that animate us as carnal beings, we must be ready for anything. In my worldview, I envision another golden age on earth, of right relation to nature, diversity, abundance, simple survival and love as the prime motivator for action. Though I don’t believe this is possible before a period of darker times runs it gamut, a spell of disintegration, destruction, and reckoning, the “ashes” of civilization which we are bearing now.

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