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Archive for the ‘West Virginia’ Category

feral horse appalachian

Feral horses run in the wiry grass of Don Blankenship’s prairies. Once real mountains stood here, all crowned in ash and oak and hickory, but beneath them was a black rock. Over the centuries, men came and dug at the earth and sweated and died and then the bulldozers came and the mountains were gone. The state demanded that the coal operators do something to reclaim the land, so they planted some cheap grass and a couple of pine trees.  But the land was forever changed.

Over the years, the jobs all went away, and those who had a few pleasure horses took them to the new grasslands and set them free. Better to be “wild horses” on the range than dog food was the simple logic.

And the stallions round their mares in this new steppeland.  They nicker and fight the wars of that ancient Equus lambei, which a few romantics like to hope gives some sort of license to the native status of the modern horse on this continent.

At the same time, the state of West Virginia is trying its hand at restoring elk to these very same prairie lands. The elk were natives of the Eastern forests, and the ones being turned out onto these ranges are from Kentucky and Arizona. And those of Kentucky are still of the Rocky Mountain form of elk, not the long gone Eastern kind, which may now exist only in the muddled genetics of some New Zealand ranched herds.

The elk need the grass too, and worries are the horses will make the range too bare. And the elk will not make a comeback.

But the truth of the matter is neither species is native to land that never existed before. The glaciers never made it this far south, and the steepness of the terrain before the dozers came is testament to the antiquity of these mountains. They once stood like the Rockies or the Himalayas, but the millennia of erosion wore them down until the coal operators showed up to cut down their remnant. The glaciers never smoothed out the mountains, but human greed certainly did.

Meanwhile, Don Blankenship is back in politics. He is a former coal operator, a greedy, nasty one at that, the kind that was once excoriated in all those old union songs, but now as the mines employ fewer and fewer workers and UMWA is all broken and busted, he plays the working class victim.  All railroaded by “union bosses” and Obama, he didn’t do anything wrong, he tells the gullible.

He’s thrown his hat into the US Senate race. His ads call all his opponents liberals and abortion lovers. He plays up his conspiracy theory about Obama having it out for him. He feigns tears about Indiana bats that are being killed by windmills.

He says he’ll drain the swamp. Maybe, he will, but I have the idea that he might just fill it up with coal slurry. That’s what happened to poor Martin County, Kentucky.  Blankenship was CEO when his company’s slurry impoundment overflowed and filled up the Tug Fork River.

He sells the false hope that if you just get rid of a few more environmental and labor regulations, the coal industry will come roaring back.  He also says that if we just build Old Man Trump’s wall on the Mexican border, we won’t have any more problems with drugs. After all, the drug problem must surely come from brown foreigners, and not the pharmaceutical industry and those totally unscrupulous doctors who prescribed opioids for every little discomfort.

The politics he offers are the politics of the apocalypse. In land where no real hope can be found, a little false hope will do.

And the miners lose their jobs and their homes and their pleasure horses join the ranks of the feral bands.

The Bible talks about the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but in West Virginia, the hoofbeats of that sound the impending doom have no riders at all.

They are the roving bands of the abandoned, left out to sort out a new existence on Don Blankeship’s prairies.

The snakeoil of politicians rings out on the airwaves, and every year, new horses get turned out, and the mares drop their feral foals.

The coal company’s rangeland gets denuded a little bit more, and the elk might not stand much of a chance.

In this apocalypse, death will come.  Sooner or later, the horses will starve on those pastures. A few good souls might get some of them adopted, but most will either starve or wind up shot.

Perhaps, this election will be the final burlesque of Blankenship, but he’s not the only coal country caudillo in West Virginia. The current governor is a more successful sort of politico of this stripe, and the legislature if full of people like him. The long suffering of the people will go on and on, and the horses will continue to be turned out into the wild,

Already, coal towns are advertising their “wild horses” as an attraction draw tourism. It’s a more benign falsehood than the one Blankenship is offering.

But it is not so benign for the horses or the coming elk. For them, the apocalypse is coming. They cannot know it, for if they did, they would run.

And their hoofbeats would ring out the warning of our impending doom.

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black angus

The snow swirls wildly.  Whiteout conditions then subsume the land. But just as soon as the snow squalls came, the sun blinks and out, and the snow clouds dissipate. The dusting left on the dormant grass melts away. It is the sallow grass of winter.

But soon it will be greening, for we have entered into that oddball month that runs from late March to late April, when the days switch from balmy sweetness of coming spring to the driving chills of winter. The two forces will war against each other over the next month.

Spoiler alert: the warm and balmy beats the dagger cold in the end.

This is the time of the great calving. Not of glaciers or of wild beasts but of the beef cattle that move their way through the green pastures, munching away at their forage, getting fat as they fart and belch and chew cud in the sunshine.

The agrarian life is in a moribund state here in North-Central West Virginia. The old ways of farmers turning out a few beef cows with calves and keeping a few head of sheep are slowly but surely in decline. Georgia and Tennessee are better lands for beef, and the price of wool is but a pittance.  Big agribusiness works the more fertile lands of the Midwest, Great Plains, and California, and the mixed operation little hill farmer of the Alleghenies is left way behind.

Only a few souls cling to the business of cattle. Virtually none do it full-time. My own grandfather on my mother’s side was one of these part-time cattlemen. He was a school bus-driver. He “drove bus” is the way his occupation was described.  But his heart was in raising beef cattle. He was not a man of great education, but he was every bit as into improving his strains as Robert Bakewell or Thomas Coke. He was always looking for a fine bull to put to his cows, and he never kept any scrub cattle.

But now the old farmers have gone. Their children have gone off to make their fortunes elsewhere, and by now, several generations have been removed from that lifestyle.  Children’s hands, which once milked dairy cattle, now caress smart phones and video game controls. To most of us, this world as a foreign as Outer Mongolia.

But I often drive this stretch of rural road, though, where the farmer still turn out their cattle into roadside pastures. And in between the March snow squalls, I slip along this road.

The cattlemen along this road keep only “black Angus” or the crossbred form known as a black baldy. These Scottish cattle grow thick coats during the winter chill, and although they are hornless, they sort of make me think of bison when I see them. Their shaggy hides just have that sort of primeval look to them.

And March is the time when the calves drop. They fall black and wet onto the yellow grass, and their mothers stand over them, licking them with the deep cleaning, stimulating strokes of their muscular tongues.

And then they rise from the grass and drink the colostrum, while the snow flies all around them.

The cattlemen breed the cows to give birth in March, so the calves can grow and mature on the green grass of spring. That way, they can get top dollar at the autumn livestock markets.

There is a toughness in these cattle, though they are so carefully bred for their fine marbled beef, that they drop their young into this time in which the winter chills square off against the coming spring warmth.

This scene feels ancient, but in long history of the Alleghenies, it is but a brief footnote. Mammoths and mastodons once dropped the calves here, as did the ancient North American bison.  And when the Europeans came, the forests were full of elk and modern-day bison, and they too had their young in the spring sunshine on these glady hills.

And 50 years ago, the Angus weren’t grazing the hillsides. The very stately English Herefords were the beef breed of choice, and a hundred years ago, the most farmers kept shorthorns, which are always called “Durhams” in West Virginia. Cross them with Jersey or Holstein, and you’ve got a nice little dairy cow.  The rest can be killed for beef or sold to market.

As I drive down the road, I come to pasture that is enclosed by an 8-foot fence of woven wire. When I first saw this fence, I thought it odd. Most cattlemen just put in four strands of barbed wire, and if that doesn’t hold the cows back, a solar paneled electric fence certainly will.

But here, the fence is so elaborate, and I never could figure out why it was so.

And then one day, I saw a them standing along the fence nearest the road. They were a herd of about a dozen bison.

They looked out of place behind the woven wire.  In my mind, a bison is a wild animal, one that our greed largely killed off in the past two hundred years.

But on this farm, they have returned, but their reintroduction is ersatz. Two hundred years ago, the bison roamed up from the Ohio River Valley during the early spring to eat the rich mountain grasses, and every winter, they would wander out of the snowfields of the higher mountain into the mild river bottoms.

These bison, though, are confined. Sooner or later, they would go to slaughter. Their wildness has been bottled up, but I can’t help but wonder if they would enjoy running loose as their wild ancestors once did.

I think of these bison and of these cattle, and I think about the question of permanence. In a thousand years, will this bison or the Angus still be grazing these pastures? Will the pastures even exist, or will the temperate forest absorb the grasslands as they have done with all the old hill farms that have been abandoned to nature? Will the snows of March still come flying in that great whirlwind battle between warmth and freezing chill? Or will the warming climate declare final victory over the March snow?

Permanence is illusory.  To adhere to that illusion is to become subject to a delusion.  Sooner or later, the fracking trucks will come, and if the groundwater gets ruined, these little farms will be gone.

Economics and ecology will simply clear it all off, just as these forest bison were cleared off nearly two hundred years ago.

So now behold this land of the black buffalo, but don’t blink.  It might not be around too much longer.

 

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dead white oak

Dead white oak.

They stand as edifices on the ridge-lines.  They seem as permanent as the stony ground on which they grow, but they are not eternal. Sooner or later, boring of insects and the general rot of wood bring them into death. Then, the winds of summer storms and winter gales bring them to the ground, and their matter returns to the soil from whence they came.

The oak tree played a major role in the identity of two of my ancestral people. The German people see the oak as a national symbol, and the English had a similar position for them. It was from the oak trees that the Royal Navy’s ships were made.

The forests I know best in West Virginia are called “Appalachian Mesophytic Forests.”

“Mesophytic” means not particularly wet or dry.  The oak and the hickory are the dominant trees, which has led to their other name, “oak-hickory forest.”

But the oak predominates.  In a typical West Virginia forest, around 60 percent of the trees will be oak, and unlike Western Europe, where just a few species of oak exist, our forests will be filled a great diversity of the trees. The most common species are divided into “red oak species” and “white oak” species. but there are many other types of oak that fall under neither distinction.

One of the weird delusions one must fight against in these forests is assuming they are old, that they are the same forest primeval that existed when Europeans first arrive. However, most of these forests are regenerated from old farm pastures that were left fallow after the agrarian economy fell apart in the latter decades of the twentieth century.

Those old forests certainly had many oaks, but they also shared their growing space with massive American chestnut trees.  The deer supposedly preferred the chestnuts to acorns, and even now, one can buy chestnut feeds to bait deer.

But those deer munching prepackaged chestnuts will never have the privilege of foraging beneath those old chestnut trees. In the early 1900s, a chestnut blight came sweeping through the Northeast and the Appalachians. The indigenous American chestnuts died off. And now only the deer’s ancestral proclivity manifests itself when the bait is put out.

I knew people who were alive when the last of the chestnuts died. I knew a few old farmers who missed the trees so much that they planted the Chinese chestnut as a replacement tree.  My grandpa Westfall had a massive Chinese chestnut as the “shade tree” for his deck, and I can still see him sitting on his the deck, peeling away chestnuts with his knife that he had just collected from his favorite tree.

A big storm came one summer, and the howling winds twisted that tree down to the ground. I thought it would be there forever, but the wind had other ideas.

It was a lesson in the simple reality that trees are not permanent. They are living, and they die.

This year, a firestorm went off in West Virginia.  The governor wanted to open up some of the state parks to logging. The reason for this move was never fully mentioned, but the truth is the Chinese market wants good quality oak lumber, especially from red oaks. The Chinese are buying the logs straight out and processing them over there, and the state wanted to make a few dollars selling big oak logs.

The plan has since been abandoned.

Now, it is certainly true that oak trees do grow back, but what is not mentioned much of the discussion about oak forests in West Virginia is that oaks are also under threat.

Just as the chestnut blight brought down our native chestnut tree, the oaks are under pressure now and have been for decades. Yes, the forests are still dominated by oak trees, and acorn mast still drives the ecosystem.

But now, it is quite difficult for oaks to reproduce. Squirrels still take acorns and bury them away from their parent tree, which makes for better growing conditions for the seedlings.

But when the seedlings arise from the leaf litter, the chomping maws of white-tails rip them from their shallow little roots.

Deer have always eaten little oak seedlings. The two species have evolved together, and during the autumn, the deer rely heavily upon acorns to build up their fat reserves.

However, we now live in a time in which deer densities are high. Sportsmen expect deer to be a high densities, and during the 80s and 90s, the numbers were even higher than they are now.

The state DNR, realizing that high deer numbers were ultimately bad for forests, for agricultural interests, and for auto insurers, decided to allow hunters to take more does from the population.  The deer numbers went down a bit.

This deer number reduction coincided with a coyote population increase, and it was assumed that the coyotes were the reason why the deer numbers dropped.  Some conspiracy theorists believed that the DNR or the insurance companies turned out coyotes to reduce the deer population. The story goes that some trapper bagged a coyote in his fox trap, and on its ear was a tattoo that said “Property of State Farm.”

Of course, the coyotes do take fawns, and some coyotes do pack up and hunt them. But there is very little evidence that coyotes have an effect on deer populations, at least in this part of the country.

Coyotes aren’t like wolves in that they don’t need to kill lots of deer to survive. They can live very nicely on rabbits and mice. Those smaller species have the added advantage that they don’t fight back with sharp hooves when the predator must make a kill.

So we have sportsmen demanding higher deer numbers and lower coyote numbers, and we have oak trees that are having harder and harder time regenerating, simply because there are too many deer eating their seedlings.

And now, fewer and fewer hunters are taking to the woods to hunt deer. State parks, of course, are off-limits to deer hunters.

So if these big oaks are taken for the Chinese market, it really could mean the end of oak trees in the state parks.

And statewide, they could become a rarity entirely.

Of course, the deer themselves will starve without acorns feeding them every September, October, and November, and maybe that crash will allow some regeneration to occur.

But it might be too late.

The truth of the matter is deer hunting is about forestry, and if more and more people see deer hunting as a cruel “sport,” then we’re going to see drastic changes to our forest ecosystem.

Our only hope is that black bears become more carnivorous and eat as many fawns as they can find, and the coyotes learn to swarm the hills like Kipling’s red dogs.

Or maybe more human hunters will take to the forests and fields in search of high quality meat.

But none of these events is likely to happen.

And in a few decades, we may very well see the end of the oak-hickory forest as we know it.

I guess it is time we thought long and hard again about selling out our natural resources to out of state concerns.  The curse of West Virginia is that we never really have, and those who dared raise the issue were either driven from office or kept as far from centers of power as possible.

Maybe times are changing.

Let’s hope they change fast enough for our forests and wildlife.

 

 

 

 

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dead cows

What is about cattle that makes take this risk? When the storm clouds appear on the horizon on hot summer days, so many of them will high-tail it to the shade of the trees in their pastures. And then, with luck, the lightning bolts don’t come dropping down on the great wooden rods and electrocute some free standing beef. It doesn’t always happen. It doesn’t happen most of the time, but it does happen often enough.

On this hillside farm in rural West Virginia, two crossbred black Angus cattle and their black baldie associate played the wrong game. On this sultry July evening, the thunder bolts filled the sky and rumbled and roared, and all the beef cattle on the pasture came racing for the great red oaks that stand tall and wiry against wind.

For thirty minutes they stood under the trees, nervous a bit of the great roaring but feeling secure in the shade.

Then suddenly it was all lightness and burning.  A bolt had descended near enough the tree to catch its branches, and three cattle were instantly electrocuted there in the oak lot.

The storm had come on a Friday, and it just so happened that the farmer who tends these cattle was at hand. He lives many miles away, working in that part of West Virginia that abuts both the Blue Ridge and the Washington, D.C., Beltway.  He comes back to tend his late father’s holdings in the rugged land of the Allegheny Plateau, visiting the herds once a month or so, usually less often in warmer months of summer.

When he arrived upon the macabre scene, his heart sank. Three dead beef cattle, all “black Angus” in ancestry, all valuable animals, all cows in calf. Thousands of dollars were wiped away in a single thunderbolt.

He didn’t know what to do next. The warm night and rapidly heating morning had made their carcasses fully putrid, and the only thing he could do is find some way to get rid of them.

The best he could was to go out with the tractor and drag their bodies out of the pasture. He knew he had to get on with the job quickly, for it wouldn’t be long before their  paunches began to fill with gas of decay and then exploded green nastiness all over.  He had to move them quickly and gently, a tough task for man dragging great gassy beasts over rocky ground with a rickety old John Deere.

He dragged them to the far end of the pasture, then down a logging road that followed the course of the ridge-line until it dropped off into a steep hollow. It was near that drop-off that the absentee farmer unhitched the deceased and cast them down with a few hard heaves of his shoulders to get them started.

The first cow rolled down the steep wall of the hollow and came to a crashing stop about a hundred feet below. The trunks of two old tulip trees caught her back and sides, and she was left hanging beneath them, paunch sticking up towards the sky. She had not had an explosion of the death gases, but she would continue to rot away and stink until she  did.

The second and third cows made their final descents in much the same manner. The second got caught at the base of a stately beech, and the third, the black baldie, landed in the same stand of tulip trees where the first had fallen. It got caught in much the same way, except that one of the catching trees held up her head at an odd angle. Her final repose was to have her head perched up and facing the hollow, where the gentle breezes from the creek-bed below would come wafting up after a summer rain. If she had been alive, she would have felt these cool breezes, and they would have pushed off the biting flies that would have festooned eyes almost as much with her alive as they did now as she soured in death’s decay.

The farmer wiped the sweat from his head. He’d done a good job this morning. His dad would be proud of him. His hands smelled of putrid death.  In the sky above him, a big flow of turkey vultures coursed the sky. They would be eating well for a few weeks.

If this farmer had been a little more experienced, a little bit more savvy about the natural history of his land, he wouldn’t have cast these carcasses off so near to where he let his brood cows graze.

His father would have easily gotten away with dumping some cattle off that logging road into the hollow, for when his father farmed this land, the only scavengers were turkey vultures, crows, ravens, and red foxes. Crows rob the corn, but they can be shot. And the neighbors ran the red fox with hounds every night in winter, and they feared man above all else. It was very rare for them to raid hen houses. The crack of guns fired from bedroom windows was that terrifying for them.

But now the land had been left alone, and the forest came to fill in the pastures of all the neighbors. Big bands of white-tailed deer came moseying in during the dusk and dawn hours to graze the cattle’s grass. And big flocks of wild turkey would come in and peck at the winter silage.

The farmer hunted all these animals, but his father barely knew them. Both wild turkeys and deer were rare when he ran cattle and sheep on this land, and it was only in his later years that he ever got enough mastery of the deer to be considered a proficient hunter.

His son, by contrast, had dropped many big bucks on this land.  And he was starting to the turkey hunting bug.

Indeed, he wasn’t so much a farmer, but a hunter with a private estate that happened to manage with a small herd of beef cattle. The cattle kept the pastures open, as did their hayfield, and the deer and turkeys relished the open grasslands for their forage.

But in those years in which the turkey and deer numbers grew, something else had happened.

The red foxes rarely whistle-barked on the ridge pastures these days, and it had become rare to see one.

What replaced the whistle-barks was cry of banshees, the barking cacophony of coyote howls.

The coyotes had come into the land and set up shop in the forest. They drove out all the red foxes as poaching interlopers, and those that didn’t get the message often wound up dead.

The coyotes were reviled by every hunter and herdsman from one side of the Alleghenies to the other.

But the farmer never saw them on his land. He didn’t have a coyote problem. He never heard them howl either. He’d heard tales of coyotes around, and he promised that if he’d ever see one during deer season, he’d blast it away. But he’d never seen or heard one. They didn’t exist. If he heard a howl in the evening’s last light, he’d justify it as a yapping dog or an ambulance siren screaming down the distance highway.

Of course, the neighbors up the road had a pear and apple orchard, and already, they had seen packs of coyotes come through and eat the fallen fruit. Early season apples were a delicacy. One afternoon just before the thunderstorm, the neighbor had counted eleven coyotes in his orchard, all munching away at the fallen fruit. He’d wanted to get a gun, but he was so impressed by their multitude that he left them alone.

By mid-July, the packs had settled into their denning sites. Of those eleven in the orchard,  only five laid claim to the lands that included the stinking bovines in the hollow.

One was a pack of three: a big buff-colored dog with a nick out of his left ear, a veteran of many fights with interlopers and even stupid-ass dogs; a black female, his mate; and a dark gray daughter from last year’s litter.

The mother of the dark gray had been taken by a foothold trap left at the edge of a big meadow where voles were thick, dumb, and juicy.  She’d come sniffing along a hole dug in the hillside along main game trail leading out of the meadow, and when she went to inspect it, she was caught.  She tried to free herself, but the whole band moved on. In the night came the running quad-bike, and a rifle shot rang out over the meadow.

The buff male needed a new mate, and when he came across the little black bitch during the winter, he was pleased as punch to have her. His daughter, the dark gray, became her subordinate, and this spring, she had been her nurse-maid to four yelping pups. Three were black like their mother, and the other was reddish brown like his father.

In the July heat, they had pups to feed. The buff male and the black bitch had lifted many fawns from their coverts all through the late spring, but now the fawns were sprightly, and the does were now much more attuned to their game.

This was a time of hunger, of needing meat to sate the little ones, and simply not having any that could be easily procured.

As night fell upon the hollow, the black bitch and the bluff male followed their noses to the stinking beefs on the hillside. The turkey vultures, the crows, and the ravens had torn big holes in the hides. The anus was ripped out of one of the black Anguses, and the black baldie’s stomach had ruptured.

The scent of man was upon the carcasses, and they approached with deliberate caution. A man could be sitting up on that ridge somewhere, pushing forward the safety on his .243 and peering down with a thermal scope to blast them into that great coyote beyond, where all sensible men or, rather, men who believe themselves to be sensible, are certain all coyotes rightly belong.

The buff male came in downwind. He wanted to be sure that no man was nearby. The scent troubled him, troubled him deeply. He didn’t know why.  His kind had come east through the slinging of lead, the setting of traps, and the poisoning of bait. Poison had selected away all the coyotes that didn’t feel tense or nervous as the scent of man on a carcass. It was just one of those things. Man bred the dog to be tame and loyal and docile and to take to his commands and edicts. Man bred the coyote to be paranoid.

The buff male circled the dead cows. Each circle got closer and closer until he finally got himself enough to courage to lick at the open bit of rumen. Within 30 minutes, both the buff male and the black bitch were tucking into the meat.

And there was plenty of meat. So much meat that 30- and 45- pound coyotes can’t eat it all, but they try their best. They filled their stomachs with offal and bits of putrid meat, and then trotted back to the den, where the gray female and the four yelping juveniles dived upon them. The two adults vomited up some fine food for the babies and their babysitter, then they rushed back to the cattle carcasses to fill their bellies again.

And by dawn, they were at the den-site, all full and fat and stupid and lazy, like big dogs lounging the backyard on a fine autumn morning.

The pack slept through the day, and as the night fell, the black bitch and the buff male decided to begin their long mosey over to the carcasses for another gluttonous feed.

But this time, another scent wafted down from the tulip trees: the scent of interloping coyotes.

It was a pair of dark gray ones, the more typical phase for this part of the Appalachians. They were mates. One was a big, husky female whose mate and she had fought many a battles in oak woods and along wild creek-beds over both territory and deer offal. Her right ear was torn and bent at the tip. Her face was scarred with canine tooth tears. She was a war bitch.

Her mate was younger and stupider. He’d was 25 pounds of slight coyote, and if he hadn’t somehow hooked up with that war bitch, he probably wouldn’t have lasted long.

He’d left his parents’ territory in search of a mate. He found her on a dreary December evening. Her original mate had been dead for just a few weeks. An unlucky doe hunter had seen the coyote pair slip beneath his tree stand, and blaming the coyotes for his misfortune, slung some lead in their direction. Four shots rang out, and one made contact.

The war bitch became a widow,  but the little 25-pounder came slinking along to nibble a deer gut pile that the scarred face dog had claimed for herself. When she scented the little fool trying to nibble at her gut pile, she came flying at him with a nasty growl.

He ran from her but stopped to look back at her.  Something about this little stranger appealed to her. Perhaps it was his slightness and gauntness. Perhaps it was her instinct to have a mate.

But she whined and wagged her tail at him.  He came tentatively and with apprehension, but he ate from the gut pile.

And he became her mate.

The pair produced a litter that spring– only three pups. The slight male tried his best to feed his mate at the den, but his hunting skills were still being honed. On many days, the meat never arrived at den site. The gaunt male’s stomach was empty, nothing regurgitated for his family.

It was going to be a tough summer for the family, but the litter met an ignoble end:

When the war bitch slipped down to drink from a little stream, a copperhead slid into the den and envenomated all the pups. It ate one of them and went on its way.

And the whole litter died.

No litter meant that the war bitch and her little man could run the hills together.  They didn’t have much of a pack, but they had each other.

And she would teach him to be a real mate.

For two days, the pair had scented the stinking cattle carcasses, but the war bitch was so wary of the scent of man.

But the buff male and black bitch had broken the ice. Their scent was stronger than the scent of man now, and the war bitch knew the carcasses were safe.

So she dragged her little man along for a good feast of fetid beef.

The buff male stopped hard. He let loose a single coyote bark. Then he allowed a stern growl to rise from his throat.

The war bitch rose from the rib cage she had been eating on. Her face was so bloody that it made her scarred face take on a demonic countenance. She stood over the carcass, tail tuck down between her legs, teeth showing in a coyote gape threat.

The buff male approached the carcass tail down and in a matching gape threat as well. The black bitch did the same.

The war bitch held her ground as the enemy approached.  The buff male and the black bitch circled the carcass. The war bitch stared down with the contempt of a thousand hells.

She had fought enough battles to know that if she just stood her ground, she could win without a scuffle. Most coyotes don’t want a big fight, even if they could potentially win in growling melee. Those kinds of fights run the risk of injury, so they can be bluffed.

She knew the buff male would fight, but his new mate was inexperienced. She wasn’t a total lightweight like the gaunt male, but she wasn’t ready to charge into a fight.

The gaunt male saw what was coming, and he took off. He raced up the hill above the carcasses and stood behind a pin oak, quivering in fear but not wanting to leave his mate, who was also his mentor and main protector.

The war bitch stood in her gape threat, and the two opponents continued their circling. And then, the black bitch in her anger and impudence broke her circling and charged the rib cage.

She decided to take on the war bitch from behind, but the old fighter swirled around to meet her adversary. And the two coyotes became a fighting and snarling blur that soon descended from the exposed rib cage.

The buff male charged the blur, and soon he was upon them. Two minutes of growling, snarling, and whining, and a gray streak shot out from the melee.

The war bitch knew she was over-matched, and now her own blood poured from her right hip and from both shoulders.  She was beaten, and she knew it.

She raced toward her mate behind the pin oak, and both the buff male and black bitch were racing behind her. They stopped after she began her ascent up the steep hill, and stood staring hard to make sure she had truly left the scene.

The buff male and black bitch had defended their carcass, and they licked each other’s wounds and whined in elation. They were a team now.

And in their joy, they lifted their heads to join in a good coyote howling session.

Afterward, they trotted back to the carcasses and ate their meat in big gulps.

***

The black bitch and buff male ate from the carcasses every night for three days. When they came back to the den digest their meat, the gray female would leave her post to wander up on her own to eat some meat for herself.

They could eat the rotting meat until it was gone.

And it was going fast.

During the day, the ravens and crows and vultures flew down to peck around at the bounty. Once, two dogs came into enjoy a bit of meat. One was an English shepherd. The other a bluetick coonhound. The two dogs belonged to a little self-styled homesteader who let them roam over the country.

They were country dogs through and through.  Rugged runners who had ticks and fleas, they weren’t above the proper manners of a dog in civilized society. They were wandering fawn lifters and manure rollers. They were owned and named, but they were still given liberty to be wildish things.

The coyotes all had sense to avoid them. Dogs are the traitors. They are for all intents and purposes the same people as the coyote, but they live in a confederacy with man.

And dogs can mean the end for coyotes. All it takes is one little scrap with a dog to alert man of the existence of coyotes, and they can be wiped out

The dogs were just transients in the world of the wild. They came to roll in the stink and to nibble at the putrid, but they soon were on their way.

The dogs were banal visitors, but the arrival of a bald eagle on the third day was something to behold. Every crow within a two mile radius came to mob the eagle.

So the eagle came and pecked at some meat. The trees around the carcass were now full of turkey vultures. A couple of ravens croaked away, as mob of six black vultures devoured what they could, as the great eagle dined.

These cows in calf were meant to feed the multitudes of men, but now they were feeding the multitudes of beasts.

The carrion beetles were working their way through underside of the cattle. Thousands of them were eating away at the flesh from below.

And opossums were getting their fill too, and several had taken up residence inside the black baldie. They woke from inside the body cavity to chew away at the meat and offal all around them.

And the coyotes came every night.

But on that fourth night, the buff male and black female made their way to the carcasses, a new scent wafted down towards them. It was the pungent aroma of a black bear.

This time they knew they would have to wait their turn, for a bear of any size could easily claim the cattle carcasses.

And this was not a bear of any size. It was a hulking 400-pound boar, who had finally come out off his summer courting, for a little bit of a beef dinner.

He was hulking blackness, full of muscle and power. He ripped through the carcasses. His claws tore them apart. His teeth tore at the flesh.

The coyotes were unable to stop him.

And after that one night of devouring, he soon came every night.

The coyotes were able to eat only when the bear’s ravening was sated, which usually happened when the morning sun began to filter through the darkness.

Coyotes in this part of the world had long learned to stay hidden during the daylight hours. Man’s guns are always out when the sun shines.

Their eating hours were greatly truncated, hemmed in by the bear’s appetite and the sunshine, and so they stopped relying upon the carcasses to feed their growing family.  They returned to long nights of mousing and running rabbits.

After a week of boar’s visit, a sow with three young cubs also made her way to the carcass. The cubs nibbled at scant remains, playing with the bones and ripping up what was left of the hides.

By two weeks, the carcasses were reduced to yellow bones. All that meat and all that money had been carried away into the sky, into the bellies of furred beats, and in the abdomens of carrion beetles.

Profit was lost from the death of those three cattle.  The lightning bolt robbed the farmer and gave to nature– a sort of cosmic Robin Hood that temporarily took man from his vaunted status and dispersed his possession to the lowly and the savage.

300 years ago, the death of a few bison by lightning strike would have yield a similar bounty, and because bison weigh so much more than domestic cattle, the bounty would have gone longer.  The only people robbed would be the hide and meat hunters who sought the bison, and there were plenty of those beasts roaming the hills. Another herd would be just beyond the next ridge.

The ersatz-bison, the debased aurochs that we call cattle, are owned. They don’t roam freely, live freely, or die freely. Their hides and the meat and bones don’t return to the soil without the interference of man.

But sometimes, the lightning strikes, and their elements go to nourish nature once again.

Three dead beef cows in calf got to do this nourishing once again.

It’s a drop in the bucket to be sure, a sort of re-enactment of the drama that once was but never will be again.

 

 

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buck white antler

The second Thursday in November has just passed. In most of the country, thoughts will be about the big feast that comes exactly seven days later, but not in my part of the world.

This coming week does include American Thanksgiving. Big family meals will be held that day, and swarms of people will go charging out to shopping malls on Friday.

But in West Virginia, another holiday takes precedence: “buck gun season.”  This coming Monday, the woods be filled with more loud booms than the Fourth of July.  Organic protein and “horns” will be the prize, and a few more forest destroying cervids will be removed from the population before the coming winter turns them into twig chomping fiends.

When I was a child, all sort of people came into the rural districts, often people who had grown up in the area but had gone into the industrial parts of Ohio for work. Ohio’s deer season, “shotgun only,” came later in the year, but West Virginia’s came the week of Thanksgiving. If one wanted to visit the family for the holiday, why not come a few days early and drop a buck for the freezer?

It was such a big event that the school was out all week, not just Thursday and Friday. We received a truncated Christmas vacation, but school attendance during that week would have been terrible. So the district let us all out.

And the tradition continues. I don’t know of a single school district in West Virginia that stays open the week of Thanksgiving.

In fact, virtually every college or university in West Virginia has a week-long holiday this coming week. It is that big a deal.

And it’s not like the deer are massive trophies. The state has antler restrictions in only a few public hunting lands, and in most of the state, there will be many young bucks taken. Because the “antlerless” firearms season occurs at the same time, button bucks will be taken as well. When that many younger bucks are removed from the population, the number of mature deer with nice racks becomes much lower.

But this is a state that allows the hunter to take six deer a year.  If you have a family who owns land and have two hunters who have resident rights to it, you’re talking potentially twelve deer killed a year, which could feed a family of four fairly well.

I come from a family of deer hunters, but they were not venison eaters. When I was a kid, every deer that got shot was given to a relative or someone who couldn’t hunt. My grandpa, who loved to hunt everything and would have us eat cooked squirrel brains, wouldn’t even field dress a deer. That was my dad’s job, and for whatever reason, if my dad or my grandpa even smelled venison cooking, it would make their stomachs weak.

I never had this problem, and in the last few years, I’ve learned how to cook venison properly. I much prefer the meat to beef, especially when we’re talking leaving certain steak cuts rare.  These deer have been living well on acorns, and their flesh has that oaky, rich taste, which some call gamey. I call it delicious.

I’ll be in the woods early Monday morning. I don’t know if I’ll get anything.  The odds are usually against my killing anything that first week.  I don’t have access to the best deer bedding grounds, and the hunting pressure means they won’t be moving into the area where I hunt.

My favorite time to go is Thursday evening, when more than half the local hunters are at home watching football games and digesting turkey. I would rather go through waterboarding than watch a football game, so it’s not big loss for me.

I am a naturalist hunter on the quest for meat. My ancestors in Germany, the Netherlands, and Great Britain hunted the red deer and the roe thousands of years. They got their meat from the forest.

I am doing the same.

And if you really wanted to know what I think of deer, I’d have to say that I love them. They are fascinating animals.  This particular species has been roaming North America virtually unchanged for 3 million years. This animal watched the mammoths rise and fall. It was coursed by Armbruster’s wolf and the American cheetahs.  It saw the elk come down from Beringia– and the bison too. It ran the back country with primitive horses and several species of pronghorn. It quivered and blew out at jaguars and American lions that stalked in the bush, and it dodged the Clovis points of the Siberian hunters who first colonized this land.

The white-tailed deer thrives so well, but this coming week is the beginning of the great cull. Fewer deer mean less pressure on the limited winter forage, which means healthier deer in the early spring. Better winter and spring condition means that does have had a chance to carry fawns to term, and mature does usually have twins if the conditions are good.  Healthier bucks get a better chance to grow nice antlers for the coming year.

A public resource is being managed. Organic meat raised without hormones or antibiotics is easily procured, and stories and yarns are being compiled for exposition that rivals any trophy mount on the wall.

I know deer stories, including ones about the people I barely knew and are no longer with us.

For example:

My Grandpa Westfall once went on a deer drive for my great grandpa, who was getting older.  He valued his clean shot placement, as many of those old time hunters did, and he would not shoot a deer on the run.

But as he grew older, deer hunting became harder for him, so my grandpa decided to jump one out to him.

My grandpa went rustling through the brush to drive one into my great grandpa’s ran, and he happened to bump a nice little buck and a few does that went running in his direction.

Expecting to hear rifle shots, my grandpa was a bit surprised to hear nothing. So when he approached the deer stand, he saw my great grandpa sitting there.

“Did you see those deer?”

“What deer?”

“I ran three out to you. A buck and two does. Why didn’t you shoot?”

“I didn’t see or hear any deer.”

“Well, you should have at least heard them.”

“Well, if there were that many deer coming my way, they must’ve had their sneakers on.”

He didn’t want to tell my grandpa that he appreciated the effort, but that deer drives were against his ethics. He shot deer cleanly, or he didn’t shoot them at all.

These old men will be with me when I’m out on Monday.  I go in their memory, participating in the Great West Virginia Deer Cull.

 

 

 

 

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When I was a little boy, my grandmother once told me that one of her childhood dogs killed a civet cat.  I was old enough to know that civets lived in Africa and Asia, so when I got the chance, I asked my dad if grandma had ever been to Africa.  He said “No.” And the whole discussion ended.

I always wondered what grandma was talking about.

When I first started this blog, I was a little confused about the existence of spotted skunks in West Virginia. I asked if anyone had seen a spotted skunk in West Virginia, and of course, I got no response.

But it turns out there are some. It turns out that they are found only in the High Alleghenies, where the snow falls hard every winter.

This perplexed me.  I had always thought of Eastern spotted skunks as being a more or less “Southern” species, and although I often saw range maps of the species that included almost the entire state, I had never knew anyone who had seen one.

But maybe I did.

It turns out that one of the vernacular names for the spotted skunk is “civet cat.”

And that’s when the little anecdote my grandmother told me made a bit more sense. Her childhood dog had killed a “civet cat,” but it had most likely killed a spotted skunk.

As for that broad range map I linked to earlier, I think the reason the range appears to be so truncated now is that the spotted skunk was reviled in much of its range as a vector of rabies. Another common vernacular name for spotted skunk is “phoby cat”– “phoby” is short for “hyrdophobia” (often “hydrophoby” in some dialects)– it is very likely that there was massive persecution of spotted skunks in the lower elevations of the state.

It was just too hard to settle and farm in the higher mountains, and those mountains provided some sort of refuge for what is really a more subtropical species than one would typically find in such snowy country.

My grandmother’s childhood dog likely killed one of the few spotted skunks left in the lower elevations of West Virginia.

But I liked to pretend that she had gone to Africa.

Boyhood flights of fancy are tough to beat.

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Best eclipse ever

Not full in WV, but pretty darn cool!

IMG_4487

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