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The Hunting Incident

It started out well enough...

It started so innocently…

“Mom, can we bring the pup?” asks Kai, gazing up with expectant hazel eyes, the freckle under his left eye illuminated in early afternoon sun. I glance at our dog, Coco: a small whitish mass of downy fluff and energy, her tail alert and wagging.

“Sure,” I say. “She’s part of the family, too, right?”

My children, Kai and Rory, exclaim “Yay!” in unison. Kai takes Coco’s leash from its hook in the laundry room, attaches the leash to Coco’s black collar, and stands and salutes, saying, “Ready for takeoff, ma’am!” Rory follows suit, also saluting. She giggles. Her freckled cheeks giggle with her.  The dog sneezes.

We open the door to a gentle easterly fall breeze, and pile into the car for a hike in nearby hills.

*

Our valley had its first snow a few days earlier, ironically, on the calendar’s first day of autumn: snow sheathed the higher rocky crags, and icy confetti dotted our driveway.  I mused on Mother Nature’s harsh whims, knowing better but nevertheless pressing a grey smudge of bitterness on my heart.  The weather gave us a short reprieve, and I seized the chance to venture out – with the kids, the dog, and the camera – in search of changing leaves.

We drove to Power Plant Road, and started up a trail that leads to a peak overlooking the valley. Kai offered to walk Coco so that Rory and I could take pictures. We passed two hunters dressed in dark camouflage suits, a common sight during the annual hunting season.  They knelt in the dirt with their backs to us, rinsing their hands in a stream of snow run-off, and talking in low, deep voices.  We continued up the trail with Kai and Coco in the lead. Kai stopped abruptly.

“Mom?” he asked. “Mom, what’s that?”  He pointed.

“What’s what?” I said, unzipping the camera bag and wrestling out the camera.  My eyes followed Kai’s finger and saw a bright red leg, deftly removed of skin, with muscle, bone, and hoof in tact.  A precise cube of venison steak lay in the dirt by my feet; stringy maroon entrails scattered along the path in the short distance between us.

“Is that blood, mom?” asked Kai, who is squeamish about everything related to internal anatomy. He presses his hands to his eyes during portions of movies or television shows that involve the handling or manipulation of flesh. “Sorry,” he says, genuinely apologetic. “It’s just that it makes me feel yucky inside.”  He gags at the sight of blood and prefers to eat things that grow from the earth.

Around us, autumn’s leaves succumbed to winter; they changed colors, but the colors were muted and pale.  The deer leg offered the brightest hue for miles.  I looked at Kai, who stared at the neatly severed leg with uncharacteristic calm. His arms strained to hold Coco, the only hunter among us, pawing at the dirt and sniffing furiously.  The sun shone warmly on my skin, but I felt chilled.  Distant gunshots pierced the air.

“Come on back down, you guys,” I said, as coolly as I could, though even I felt yucky inside. “Don’t let the dog get that meat,” I added.

The hunters had left; clouds of dust swirled in the wake of their four-wheelers.  I have never hunted, but I was puzzled.  Why would anyone leave such a huge portion of meat behind after going to the trouble of killing the deer?  Would the hunter return to claim what remained?  We did not linger to find out.

*

When I was a child visiting my grandfather in Idaho, we said grace before meals. Grandpa spent most of his career working in Africa as a physician and missionary for the Lutheran church.  He dreamt in vivid detail and often recounted his dreams at the breakfast table: wild tales of hunting and harrowing near-death experiences, the tableau of his memories translated into the larger-than-life adventures of his subconscious mind.  Grandpa hunted and fished for sustenance as well as survival. Saying grace was his way of honoring the providence of his Lord.  The naked affront of flesh on the trail brought his voice back to me.

We thank you, Lord, for this meal we are about to receive and for the blessings you give to us each day…

Heavenly Father, we thank you for the sustenance you provide to our bodies and to our souls…

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. Let these gifts to us be blessed…

*

Winter brings deer down from the mountains into our high desert valley.  Their trails scissor the deep, impacted snow.  They nibble at bare hedges and bound fences easily.  The deer congregate in clusters, trotting past the house, lingering underneath the trampoline with luminous black eyes, watchful but emboldened.

Coco invariably barks at them.  I’ve seen Coco confront a doe, who held eye contact with the dog, lifting and lowering her head repeatedly as if to say, Don’t cross me, runt. I suspect the doe’s powerful hooves would trump Coco’s teeth in a fight.  Exiles of the snow, the deer seek what sustenance they can find, wherever and however they can find it.

There was a time when I, the reformed Yankee, frowned upon hunting. But time and knowledge changed me.  If deer in our valley proliferated unchecked, they would render our gardens bare without so much as a guilty exhale, clearing trees and shrubs of foliage, chewing lettuces flat to the ground. My friend – a true Renaissance man who bakes his own bread, bottles wine from grapes and fruits he’s grown, and gardens by principle – lost acres and months of gardening effort to a single family of deer last year despite preventative barriers. The deer ravaged his extensive garden overnight.  Deer graze everything, and they reproduce rapidly.  They multiply, despite their high rate of roadside casualties. Do I see myself hunting?  No, but I understand the practicality of hunting in my area.

*

As a meat eater, albeit an occasional one, I acknowledge my complicity in the demise of animals who, while not hunted, are born and raised to give their lives for my supper.  I may not wield the gun, but I purchase and consume the spoils.  The plastic-wrapped parcels I buy are a different version of the same primal hunger.  Meat is flesh; organs are organs. The bare leg on the trail confronted me with this humbling reminder.

My grandfather died years ago, and my practice of saying grace at the table died with him.  His spirit has not left me, however, so instead I practice gratitude, sprinkling my thanks on plates of crunchy fried chicken and seasoning my meals with care.

The deer distressed me. Is it common for hunters to leave unwanted meat? Are deer legs undesirable cuts, and if so, why go to the trouble of skinning an entire leg only to leave it, carelessly strewn in the woods? Why make the effort of killing the animal, only to waste such a considerable part of it?  It struck me as an appalling lack of regard: towards other humans and, more importantly, the deer itself. I think I heard my grandfather’s voice that day to tether me, to remind me of what it means to be grateful.  His voice rustled through the pale leaves, whispering condolences for a loss wholly lacking grace.

© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2013

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Picture Perfect

Last Wednesday after work, I left the classroom, grabbed my camera, and drove up Power Plant Road into the mountains.  Power Plant Road is a common picnic location for town residents.  Giant evergreens flank the road, making it feel as if one has entered a fairy tale; rough, oversized picnic tables sprawl over lush grass, shaded by woodland.  Squirrels, conspicuously nonexistent in town, scamper from tree to tree, chattering and squealing.  Giant crested jays scissor through the pine trees; woodpeckers flit from branch to branch conducting their evolutionary carpentry.  Water rushes from the small, red brick power house that gives the road its name, filling the air with pleasant white noise, and a stream fed by last winter’s snow trickles just beyond the safety fence, winding through a grove of aspens.

For two or three fleeting autumn weeks, this place explodes with color. Aspen leaves flutter in syrupy gold; maples blush shocking crimson.  What once was green glitters like gems on nature’s shapely limbs. Acorns and snail shells litter the trails that lead into the mountains, where new snow has already fallen.  Cool air sweeps down the slopes.  A person has only to look around to realize that beauty exists in everything, from the smallest hat on an acorn’s head to the sweeping valley swathed in low clouds.

I went to Power Plant Road to photograph this beauty. I needed to remind myself that it is sometimes very pleasant to be alone; to drive the car in fits and starts, wheeling off the road with the blinkers flashing, stalking from one point of view to another trying to capture that perfect picture. Usually, I’m apologizing and begging to take just one more shot: perpetually the first person to enter the room and the last to leave, camera bag askew on my shoulder as I hastily put my camera away. My tiny digital SLR accompanies me everywhere.

My brother is the true photographer in the family.  I’m just an amateur enthusiast, but I find that photography helps me recollect the details I want to include in my writing.  It’s a hobby that costs practically nothing, but records the moments of my life in full, vivid detail, so that I can later accurately record them in my work.

Last Wednesday, the wind and the trees beckoned me.  I went gladly.  I stopped often.

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Crush With Buttermilk

Memories and flavors three generations deep…

I am nine years old, sitting at a picnic table on my grandfather’s patio at the ranch-style house on Winchester Street.  I watch Grandpa across the table.  His wife, Juliet, spreads out our breakfast: a brown ceramic pitcher of whole milk for us to share and a small glass of buttermilk for Grandpa; moist, freshly baked zucchini bread, cut into rectangular slices; a thick jar of apricot preserves made from last summer’s harvest; a large bowl of granola set next to a bowl of red raspberries, plucked from the bush just before breakfast and still warm from the morning’s sun.  Grandpa lowers his head to say grace.  “For what we are about to receive,” he says, pushing his wire-framed glasses up his nose, “may the Lord make us thankful.”  Liver spots mottle the top of his tanned, balding head.  “May we be mindful to the needs of others and ever humble in our service to you.”  His pale blue cotton shirt is buttoned to the top, ironed crisp and smelling of soap.  “In Christ’s name, we pray.  Amen.”  I amen a couple of beats too late.  The wind chime tinkles.  Grandpa claps his hands, smiling, and says, “Let’s eat!”  He drowns a bowl of granola for himself, then reaches across the table, gesturing to make me a bowl as well.  I nod, but add: “Less milk, more raspberries, please.”  He heaps half the raspberries onto the bowl, entirely concealing the granola underneath.  His fingers are long and shapely, his fingertips flattened by time; purple veins carve valleys from his knuckles to his wrists.  He hands me my bowl with a wink.

Summertime has a terrible reputation for nostalgia.  For me, summer conjures memories of my grandfather, Stanley Moris, who doted on me throughout my childhood and was instrumental in my pursuit of writing.  My mother and I lived next door to him in Boise, Idaho, for six years, and he cared for me during the day while my mother worked.  Mom and I moved to Brooklyn when I was seven, but I never stopped spending time with Grandpa, sometimes during Christmas break and always for long summer stretches.  I remember his kind blue eyes and funny faces. He had a love of learning and reading, and frequently fell asleep in his favorite brown armchair with a book folded over his small paunch.  Grandpa drove his Subaru wagon like a kamikaze pilot and was adamant that one should drink root beer with the occasional slice of pizza. He dreamt of his years in Africa in vivid detail.  I loved hearing his wild dreams at breakfast each morning.

More than breakfasts or eating outdoors, more than raspberries, granola, or milk, summertime reminds me of buttermilk, that tiny telltale cup by Grandpa’s side.  My grandfather’s love for buttermilk originated in his childhood on Minnesota farms at the turn of the last century, when honest-to-goodness churning of cream rendered the protein-laden by-product of his youth.  Sometime in between his farmstead youth on the Red River, his family’s move to Minneapolis in 1920, matriculation from a class of six medical students at the University of Minnesota, and a missionary career served in China and Africa as a physician for the Lutheran Church, the hand-churned buttermilk he knew became the commercially produced buttermilk I know: milk fortified with lactic acid to render an appealing sourness.  Grandpa continued to drink buttermilk throughout his life, despite its evolution. He drank it cold and straight.

As temperatures surge, I find myself besieged with visions of strapping, muss-haired young men dressed in plaid work shirts and dungarees, lads like my grandfather, who enjoyed raising chickens, “but not turkeys,” as Grandpa was quick to clarify; young men who fished the nearby river, hunting rabbits and ducks, and trapping muskrats and minks.  So, in order to reconnect with my grandfather and allay distracting ghosts of yore, I cook with buttermilk.  I use it to cut mayonnaise from pasta and potato salad dishes, leaving a dash of mayo as a binder and swapping the rest with tart buttermilk and spicy heat.  I incorporate it into pancakes and waffles, cakes and biscuits.  I marinate chicken breasts to make a healthier, baked version of “Malibu Chicken,” a dish that evokes post-church Sunday lunches at Sizzler with my grandparents and a rotating group of extended family.  Though he is gone, I commune with my grandfather through memories and flavors three generations deep.  I pour a glass of buttermilk and feel nine again, laughing outside in the early morning sun, in a time before I knew about anything much at all except maybe my grandfather’s love.

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Sweet Tea


When the summer storm subsides, I creep around in the evening air, taking photos of flowers bathed in the golden light of the setting sun, their petals resplendent with drops of rain. The gray sky recedes.  My mother-in-law, Zora, smiles when she finds me huddling by the rose bushes, camera in hand.  She leads me beyond her front yard, across the street, and onto her neighbor’s curved driveway.  Zora assures me that her neighbor won’t mind, so I snap away.  Zora points out beautiful blossoms and adjusts the blooms, moving them to the right, left, up, or down to create prettier shots for me.  Wrens wave their tawny tails at us.  Cardinals flit from the undergrowth.  Water laps against the red clay bank that surrounds the neighborhood lake.  I photograph incandescent yellow lilies, ivory magnolias, serrano chili pepper plants, mauve cornflowers, and her neighbor’s collection of miniature birdhouses, which hang on cedar fence posts – a constellation of hospitality venues for small finches and songbirds.  I photograph Zora: fuchsia lipstick on curvaceous full lips, short dark curls, white shirt with blue stripes and matching navy shorts. For the first time in a very long time, I feel right again.

It’s not just the rush of trespassing with my mother-in-law; nor is it the blessed salve of South Carolina’s humid June air on my frosty, sun-starved Utah skin.  I feel right among the area’s lush green foliage: the electric pink azaleas, globes of blue hydrangeas, and billowy, purple butterfly bushes; the crested blue jays, robins, and yellow-headed finches; the squirrels, tails twitching as they ferret away acorn stores…  I feel right that Zora stands by my side admiring this landscape with me.

Zora’s lilt enchants me: rounded sounds born of the rural South, recounting tales of putting up fruits and vegetables for the winter, picking watermelons from the vine, or driving out to visit the cows.  Expressive blue-green eyes punctuate her words as she describes how her mother loved to tap dance.  (We both aspire to tap too.)  From our hundreds of conversations, I have adopted several of her sayings and mannerisms.  I catch myself all the time: Quit!…  I might could…  I’m fixin’ to…  I reckon…  Fourteen years of southern inculcation has taught me the respectful utility of the phrase Yes, ma’am, though Zora has yet to scold me for my habitual disuse.  Zora stops mid-sentence to hug me, whispering I love you.  She calls me darlin’, honey, and sweetheart far more often than she calls me by name, a habit I’ve formed with my children.  I address her as Mom Z; to my children, she is Gran Z. We all steep like sweet tea in Zora’s radiant light.

Zora influences me profoundly in the kitchen.  We love to talk shop.  She indulges me as I record her recipes, my fingers typing furiously to catch each step of her work.  How many bananas do you use?  How much sour cream?  Brand or generic, and if so, is there a specific company or store you prefer?  She continues her work as she answers my barrage of inquiries.  A smile forms in the crook of her right cheek.

“Look at this,” she says, nudging two hard-bound, jade colored books across the table: a two-volume set called Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking, originally published in 1947.  “Meme just gave them to me,” says Zora, winking.  “She’s had these so long, we just call them the green cookbooks.”  (Meme is the 91-year-old Hartley matriarch.  Everybody giggles when I inevitably fail to pronounce her name correctly.)  Zora thumbs through the stained, yellowing pages of the second volume.  “See this?  It’s a set of two, but the index for both is in this one,” she says. “Let’s see what this has to say!”

On the first pages, I read: “Mealtime is more important than many women realize, not only physically, as the time for refueling the body, but emotionally as well, as the time when the whole family gathers together to enjoy each other as well as their food.”  Zora embodies this philosophy.  Mealtimes are for sharing communion and company.  Zora prepares eggs, grits, sausages, and fruit for breakfast before anyone else has woken up.  She chides those who depart the meal a few minutes early to help with dishes: “Now, honey, don’t worry about that!”  She saves vegetable scraps for the wild rabbits in her backyard, fortifies the soil of her plants with eggshells, and champions recycling and composting, a resourceful remnant from her childhood on the farm.  She reveres the vitality of things grown in the earth, offering me tastes of her first tomato, juicy and sweet, and succulent halved figs from her prolific tree.  A born adventurer, Zora shares my curiosity for food: Did they coat the fried okra in flour or corn meal?  What’s that secret kick in the low country shrimp boil?  Have you ever made chocolate cake with cola?  I never feel like a food-loving geek in her company.  Did I mention that she is an incredible cook and a masterful improviser?

“If you’d like, those might come to you one day,” says Zora, eyeing me as I gape at the green cookbooks’ color photography.  “That’s pretty beautiful, especially considering how old these are,” she adds. I nod and mutely think: priceless, heirloom, treasure, love.  I think: azalea, hydrangea, butterfly, bee.  I think: New York, South Carolina, Zora, me.  As I leaf through the cookbooks with Zora so close by, warm, grateful rightness steeps warm amber in my soul.

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