Ah, Earth Day. What better to do than rise before dawn and stroll through the countryside with a friend, marvelling at the wonders of nature and admiring the beauty of its woodland creatures before blasting their feathers off with a shotgun. No, wait – let me back up a bit.
I sort of knew what I was getting into when I married into a family of hunters 20 years ago. Sure, I knew (mostly) how to handle a rifle, and over the past couple of decades I’d managed more than my share of beginner’s luck in rounds of trap and skeet shooting with Grandpa Alan and Uncle Carter. Even got my hunter safety certification a couple of years back. And more recently, Jeremy and I have been spending a lot of time knocking off wooden targets and old seashells at 20 yards in our backyard archery range.
But honestly, in my entire life, I’ve never once pointed anything vaguely ballistic at anything that would mind being shot. Not that I was ever opposed to the idea: if I’m going to eat meat (I do wish I didn’t find it so tasty), I think hunting it in the wild is the most honest way of going about it. Most humane? I’m sure there’s an argument there, but hunting is a visceral acknowledgment that the meat we eat doesn’t just magically appear in shrinkwrapped styrofoam on the Safeway deli counter.
So where was I? Oh right, rationalizing my eager acceptance of Steve’s invitation to go turkey hunting with him. There was another week or so left in the wild turkey spring season, and Steve – my father-in-law – was looking for an excuse to take another trip up to the family ranch land near Petaluma. The last time he’d been up, the turkeys were practically mobbing the ranch house, and he knew I’d been curious about finally taking that next step into hunterdom (hunterhood?), so it was pretty easy to hatch a plan from there.
Once we’d settled on a date, I sat down to do my research. I’d followed along on a few pheasant hunts and assumed the drill would be about the same: start early and tromp across golden fields of tall grass and scrub oak in morning’s first light, trying to flush the cagey birds from their hiding places. You know how Mark Twain described golf as “a good walk, spoiled”? For me, the image of turkey hunting was “a good walk, spoiled by intermittent ear-splitting explosions and terminated by getting up to your elbows in bloody gore and sticky feathers”. But still strangely enticing.
But this, apparently, is not how turkeys are caught. According to the Guide To Hunting Wild Turkeys in California, your hunt begins late afternoon the day before, when you go out to the land and watch turkeys from a distance as they find trees to roost in for the night. You then pull out your cookstove, tent and various entertainments and bed down as close as you can, setting your (very-very-very-quiet) alarm for some godawful hour the next morning, at which point you (very-very-very-quietly) don full body camouflage. In addition to have excellent hearing, turkeys apparently also have excellent eyesight, so you are covered in the best fake rock/shrub/tall grass camo you can obtain. Your gun is camouflaged. Your face is camouflaged. You are so well-hidden that a prairie ninja would trip over you, if such a thing as prairie ninjas existed.
And then? And then you plant yourself on the ground with your back against the widest tree you can find and sit there motionless for hours, hoping some poor bird will be unfortunate enough to come within range while trying to escape those prairie ninjas. They have good hearing and excellent eyesight, but nobody’s ever accused them of being particularly smart.
Anyhow, the guide has pages of helpful hints: once you’ve settled in, don’t move because you might be mistaken for a turkey by some other well-camouflaged hunter who unknowingly settled himself in at the next tree over. If you use a turkey call (generally operated by swinging it back and forth) don’t swing it back and forth, because it might be mistaken for the neck of a turkey by some other well-camouflaged hunter. Do not wear patriotic underwear. I’m not kidding. Page 37 of the guide states:
Never wear red, white or blue clothing, not even undergarments of those colors. Red is the color many hunters count on to differentiate a gobbler’s red dewlap fro the blue-colored hen’s head. White can look like a snowball head of a gobbler. Leave those white handkerchiefs at home. Blue is the principal color of a hen turkey’s head, but this color is found on a gobbler’s head as well.
Basically, the guide says sit down, shut up and wait. I thought I’d check my assumptions with Steve and he said yeah, in most situations, that’s what you’d do. But we’re not in most situations, so we’re not going to do most of that. Instead, we were going to drive up to the ranch at dawn and drive and walk around a bit to see if there were still turkeys everywhere. If there were, we’d try to get close and shoot one. If not, we’d still have a lovely day up at the ranch.
It sounded like a fine plan to me, so I went online and bought my residential temporary hunting license and upland game bird validation (total of $55.90 at http://www.dfg.ca.gov/), set my alarm for 4:15 and went to bed dreaming of cranberry jelly. Met Steve in San Francisco the next morning and were up at the ranch by, oh about 6:15, with the sun just starting to hit the tops of the hills.
Even driving up the service road from 101, he kept slowing the car, pointing off to one or another field at roadside and saying “See? Over there – two hens and a gobbler.” (“two females and one male” – with most game, and in most seasons, you’re only allowed to shoot the males – I know, I know, but it always feels a little like a backhanded attempt at karmic balance).
While we made our way through the gates that led onto the ranch property itself, we reviewed safety procedures. We might, for example, split up to have one of us try to drive a bird closer to the other one – what sort of angle out of the line of fire would we maintain? What was the procedure for approaching a wounded bird? Those guys have big sharp spikes on their legs and can cause serious damage when they’re angry. And obviously, if you’ve just shot and wounded him, he’s likely to be angry and in a mood to use those spikes (Solution: shoot him again.)
There was a small flock of birds by the barn, mixed gobblers and hens, so we got out and tried to figure if we could get in reasonable shooting position before they bolted. Evolution favors the skittish, and while they don’t fly much, a turkey on the ground can probably outrun Jesse Owens. Anyhow, they bolted, so we got back in the car to scope out further down the ranch road, past the horse camp and up to the gate that led to the ridge road.
The sun was out by now, and it was a gorgeous morning, brilliant blue sky and a light wind rippling the dried grass and golden poppies on the hillside.
“Shall we turn around and have another look near the ranch house?”
“Sure.” The day had just begun, and I was up for anything.
In the five or so minutes it took us to get back down to the ranch house, the birds had returned with reinforcements. There were a bunch of hens up on the hill and a gaggle of gobblers by the fence at the horse trough. We parked near the side of the barn and tried to see if we could get closer this time. One of the gobblers went left down the road, but the other hopped through the fence and was cautiously making his way toward the hill with the hens, pausing to look over his shoulder at us suspiciously. Bad idea. He was probably only about 20 yards out when he turned around briefly to give us the eye and I let myself slip into the routine I’d practiced: one pump to chamber a shell, click the safety off with the gun pointed up, verify that everything was clear downrange, line up the iron sight on his head, squeeze and wince (sorry, I’m one of those wince-when-you-shoot kind of guys) while waiting for th…BLAM!!! The barrel kicked up an inch and my first sensation was that my ears were ringing like Notre Dame. Geez! that was loud.
But through the kick and the smoke and the ringing in my ears, my brain rewound two seconds to the moment where, yes, I did see him go over like a bowling pin. I could see him better now as we crossed the fence line, lolling on the ground and flapping slowly. It was, mercifully, not the panicked frenzy of an injured bird in pain, but the vague uncoordinated motions of a bird whose body hadn’t yet realized that its brain had precipitously stopped answering the phone.
I always used to grimace silently at those hunters who extolled the magnificent beauty of the animals they shot (Hemingway is particularly appalling in this respect), but now, standing there over this, well, magnificent and very dead bird, I was struck by its beauty. The soft, iridescent plumage, the graceful wings, the broad, elegant fan tail – I knew that in a couple of minutes we were going to start plucking, gutting and doing all sorts of (literally) visceral violence that would waste all of that and leave, as the “useful” parts, a pale awkward carcass that looked more at home on the Safeway meat counter than in these rolling hills.
Steve, of course, understood all of this. His father (a gunsmith and champion trap shooter) brought him up with a profound respect for wildlife and the seriousness of hunting it: I can’t imagine he would ever consider shooting something unless he planned on eating it, and the duck, goose, antelope and venison meat he brought to our house in the respective seasons were always cause for a little party.
Anyhow, there we were, and I knew what we had to do next. And I knew that, as part of the package of shooting the turkey meant that I’d be the one dressing it.
Funny word, “dressing” – more like undressing; we spent probably a half hour each plucking it together, working side by side pulling up at the downy bits and resorting to pliers to dislodge the larger feathers. We plucked until our fingers hurt, took a break and plucked some more. Then there was the “icky part”, which I got to do under Steve’s guidance. I’ll spare you the details of getting the innards out, but the sensation at the end of it all was that of having been tarred and feathered using only the materials found in and around a recently slaughtered wild turkey.
Fortunately, proximity to the ranch house meant that we could actually wash off at the end of the gruesome procedure. We packed the bird up in a big plastic bag and dropped it in the cooler Steve had brought (I guess these are things an experienced hunter thinks to bring along).
And then? Then it wasn’t even 8:30, and we had the whole day ahead of us. We went back out to the field past the vineyard and sat by the side of the path having our picnic “lunch” while we watched songbirds flit noisily through the grass. We talked about life, about travels, and about different types of getting away from it all.
It wasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, what most people think of when they think of Earth Day activities. But you know, if you want to get a sense of what it is we’re trying to protect, and what we have to lose if we fail, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better place than this morning up at the Cayetana Ranch.