Book In Common: The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder – do you still watch Nature for signs?

When I was a child, hunting season was all the chatter at this time of year. First, pheasant season – kicked off with “hunter’s breakfast” fundraisers all around the country. At Grange Halls and churches, the early bird could get himself a pile of bacon and eggs and all the fixins, served up by old ladies that knew everybody’s business, which they shared later over the dishpan.

Pheasants are not native to the United States, they were brought here as a game animal by the Fish and Game Department, a long time ago. Hunting and tourism have almost always been big industries in California. Nowadays I don’t know if Fish and Game still releases birds, but there are plenty of hunting clubs and private breeders that release them for hunting. Once released, plenty of these birds have made California their native habitat. Tromping the ditch banks as a child I saw more than one, many times a mama pheasant and her babies would shoot out of the brush at our feet and it seemed they went in a million different directions. Spotting roosters from the back seat of Gramma’s car was one of our favorite sports.

In those days people joined the Glenn Pheasant Association and got a tag or ribbon they displayed on their hat. They looked for signs on private property that said, “Glenn Pheasant Association Hunters Welcome,” and they pulled over along the road to see if they could bag a few birds. It was good to have a dog or at least a pack of kids to roust them off the ground. The smart ones won’t move, the dog has to be well-trained not to attack them on the ground, but nose them out gently until they flush. 

Duck season was for die hards. The successful duck hunter woke hours before the sun, slid into waders at least knee high, and trod out into the dark and muck with his shotgun to wait for the ducks to rise at dawn. But a roasted duck dinner was certainly worth the trouble. 

My mother was a fair hunter and learned to clean birds when she was a kid. She used to get duck and pheasant from friends at hunting season, in return she’d clean all their birds.  Every now and then she’d take one out of the freezer and roast it for dinner. Pheasant is tough but savory. Duck is tender and juicy. 

People did not eat much goose when I was a kid, even though we were surrounded by them in every direction at  this time of year, the constant bleating overhead inspiring the mascot of my mom’s high school – Willows “Honkers”. Snow geese, the big white ones, were considered inedible, stringy and tough. I don’t know about the Canadian geese, I never knew anybody who hunted them.  Shooting a goose was considered ignorant, city people behavior. 

I did eat a goose dinner once, a domestically raised bird purchased at the butcher shop, and it was absolutely incredible, I’ll never forget the sweet tender meat. The woman who roasted it was one of the best cooks I’ve ever known, and she slaved over it for two days. 

But no, goose was not a meal offered up too regular at Glenn County tables. The wild goose was our talisman – geese and water went together, and we needed water for that other non-native – rice. It was a subconscious, unspoken relationship, but everybody seemed to understand it. When the geese didn’t come, people worried. When they blew in night after night for weeks, squeaking and chirruping, people were happy.

I’ve been enjoying “The Long Winter”. It’s so familiar, it brings back those rainy afternoons by the wall heater. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a good storyteller, she leads us along, little by little, the suspense mounting. At the end of Summer, we always know Winter is coming, but like young Laura observes in the book – “the sun was blazing, burning on her shoulders through the faded, thin calico, and the hot wind was blowing, and stronger than the damp mud smell of the slough was the ripening smell of grasses parching in the heat. Laura could hardly think of ice and snow and cruel cold.”

Despite the prairie heat, Pa sees the signs – he shows Laura a big mound of earth and straw, the plaster house of a muskrat family. It’s abnormally large, he says – an indication the animals can feel a hard winter coming. 

An early hard frost kills their garden, and they make a mean little harvest of pumpkins, beans, a disappointing pile of potatoes. They remain positive, Ma makes a pie with green pumpkin.

When Pa hears geese flying over their house one evening, he decides to set out for a nearby lake next day and set up some geese for their food stores. He sets out early that morning, expecting to shoot all day and come home with a wagon load of game. Ma is shocked when he comes home late that night with an empty wagon. He tells her, “Something’s queer. Not a goose nor a duck on the lake. None in the slough. Not one in sight.”

Going on, more ominous, “They are flying high above the clouds, flying fast. I could hear them calling.  Caroline, every kind of bird is going south as fast and as high as it can fly.  All of them, going south. And no other kind of game is out. Every living thing that runs or swims is hidden away somewhere. I never saw country so empty and still.” 

What would you do? They had to stay on the land to keep it, and I guess they’d never experienced a prairie winter, so they really weren’t making their decision with all the factors in play. Pa feels something, but thinks it would be foolish to give in to hysteria.

Here, when the geese don’t come, we have something else to fear – Drought. Look at the hysteria low rain years has caused here over the past few seasons.  It’s true, when the geese don’t come, even the most rational among the old timers starts to worry.




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