February: Fun, Folly, and Blue Funks
Never does the month of February roll around but that I fondly recall my Grandpa Joe’s thoughts regarding this time on the annual calendar. “February,” he would opine, “is the shortest month of the year for a good reason. A body rightly can’t stand any more than twenty-eight days of misery.” Warming to his subject and punctuating his conversation with his hands and an occasional expectoration (for those of you who don’t care for what a favorite high school English teacher of mine called “ten dollar words,” that means spit), Grandpa would light into February like a mountain cur grabbing a downed grey squirrel or a chicken on a June bug.
“I’m tired of the miseries,” he would say, “all the decent hunting’s gone, the fish won’t bite for another two months, your Grandma Minnie is peevish as a sore-tailed ‘coon hound, and I’ve got a hankering for a mess of poke sallet which won’t be met for another three months.” Now that I’m sixty-eight years old and have an all too intimate acquaintance with some of the arthritis and general feeling of lassitude Grandpa styled “the miseries,” the accuracy of his words from better than a half century ago is abundantly clear.
Yet Grandpa was far too much the optimist to let something like cabin fever, a prolonged spell of bad weather, or a lack of hunting and fishing opportunities trouble him for long. I will admit though, that he did have a streak of paranoia along the lines that there was some kind of conspiracy attached to almost every bureaucrat and politician. He thought they had him and all other ordinary folks constantly in their crosshairs. Such thoughts seemed far-fetched to a carefree boy, but they are ones which seem all too justified in today’s world, one where most politicians have lost every semblance of common sense, decency, and meaningful connection with everyday folks. Okay, I’ve got that mini-diatribe out of the way and we’ll turn to more pleasant topics. Let’s look at some of what I considered fun as a boy, some of what was probably sheer folly, and some certain ways to get out of any and all blue funks.
Once he got through complaining and perhaps had his hands wrapped around a steaming cup of what he called “Rooshian (i.e., Russian) tea, Grandpa Joe would turn to the brighter side of the daily coin of life. Among his favorite pastimes at any season was what Grandpa described as “dreamin’ and schemin’,” and February was perfect for such mental enterprises. One moment we might be reliving an episode from his early manhood, way back in the latter third of the nineteenth century, when he shot a “painter” that was airborne and at point-blank range. I have no idea whether the cougar tale was true, and sober reflection forces me to admit that Grandpa was a firm believer in the old Southern adage which suggests “’tis a poor piece of cloth which can use no embroidery.”
Yet I have no doubt whatsoever that he lived in a time when cougars, which mountain folks called panthers or painters, roamed the North Carolina high country. Certainly his tales of a cougar’s scream (caterwauling he called it) were sufficiently graphic to scare the bejeebers out of a decidedly impressionistic lad who listened to him with a rapt attention combining admiration, awe, and total belief. Also worthy of mention in defense of his truthfulness in this particular story is the fact that there are place names in the Smokies, literally by the dozen, which use some variation of the word panther.
Other topics covered in Grandpa’s extended sessions of storytelling included a hilarious account of catching a whole bunch of cottontails which couldn’t maneuver in a deep, soft snow and turning them loose in the one-room shack of an eccentric old mountain man (at his insistence). Apparently they just about tore the place apart and left a legacy of fleas in the bargain. There were tales of dealing with wild turkeys, something I had never seen at the time and would not see for many years to come, and much the same when it came to deer. I loved Grandpa’s recollections of squirrel hunting when the reigning king of high country forests, the American chestnut, had not yet fallen victim to a deadly blight. He told of killing a dozen squirrels while never leaving the log on which he was perched, and of trees so tall a shotgun had no effect on squirrels feeding in their uppermost limbs.
Sooner or later though, the subject matter would turn from reminiscences of the good old days to thoughts about how we could create some new memories in the days of spring both of us wanted to arrive posthaste. Usually such “schemin’” would involve two key considerations—where to go fishing and piddlin’ with equipment. The latter matter gave us a perfect excuse for some hands-on activity, and virtually every February the two of us would get involved with cane poles.
This versatile plant had a myriad of uses, and there was a fine canebrake just up the river from where Grandpa lived. We would cut a bunch of them to be used as frames for runner beans, October beans, and crowder peas (also called field peas and clay peas) to climb, with smaller switch canes being suitable for half-runners and the base of big bamboo stalks doing fine duty as tomato stakes. One or two especially long canes would be dedicated to “fishing for chickens,” a process I’ve described in the past which involved getting the raw material for Sunday dinner to grab a kernel of corn attached to a fishing hook. Similarly long canes had another use; obtaining fish bait in late summer in the form of wasp and hornet larva. The lengthy canes could be used to knock down nests or to hold a smudge to stun the stinging insects before knocking their domiciles to the earth.
Primarily though, we were making fishing poles. Anywhere from a half dozen to a dozen canes would be selected, stripped of all side foliage with Grandpa’s finely whetted Barlow knife, and sawed clean through the middle of a joint at the base. At that point the canes were ready to be straightened and cured. This was accomplished by tying a rock or other weight to the tip end then suspending the pole from a suitable tree limb. We tried using rafters of the house one time, but Grandma Minnie promptly and unequivocally made it clear we weren’t going to decorate her home, never mind that it was the back side facing the garden, with such “old man’s trash” and “young boy’s foolishness.”
After a few weeks of hanging and as fishing season drew near, we would take the now dry and straight canes down, outfit them with black nylon line tipped with a few feet of monofilament, add a sinker fashioned from the lead used to cover roofing nails, and finish things up with a hook and possibly a bobber made from an old bottle cork. Grandpa was a firm believer in “make do with what you’ve got,” and except for the hooks and line, everything else was free.
Other February activities included squirrel and rabbit hunting (Grandpa wasn’t involved in the latter because it required too much walking, but every weekend would find me, my father and one or two of his buddies, and an assortment of boys spending all Saturday after cottontails). Occasionally it would get cold enough to skate on ponds, and we did a lot of sledding. When it snowed we rode home-made sleds with wooden runners, but when it was dry and sunny you could also make a fast trip down a broomsedge-covered hillside on a big piece of cardboard. There was no steering mechanism but a briar patch, honeysuckle thicket, or flat spot would bring things to a halt soon enough.
Another of my various ways of dealing with February involved reading. By my mid-teens I had exhausted everything the local library had in the way of books on the outdoors, not to mention all of their holdings of Zane Grey, Theodore Roosevelt, and others. Robert Ruark’s wonderful tales in The Old Man and the Boy and The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older were read and re-read, as was his Horn of the Hunter. From that time in the latter half of the 1950s onward, I harbored a secret desire to become an outdoor writer.
Eventually, decades later, I reached that point. I’ve now been writing about hunting, fishing, nature, cooking wild game and fish, camping, hiking, and related subjects for some three decades. I’ve been a lot of wonderful places and met a lot of grand people. All of it is grounded in a boyhood which was, I now know, an ongoing exercise in pure joy. Today, when possessed by the mollygrubs (a splendid word from Smoky Mountain English which means being depressed or down in the dumps), all I have to do to lift my spirits is look back with nostalgic longing to those halcyon days of yesteryear.
Or I can turn my energies and memories to telling some tales of my own. I’ll never match the mastery of Grandpa Joe, huge advantages in education notwithstanding. Grandpa may have been barely literate, but when it came to verbal communication he was truly masterful. That’s something we sometimes forget in a world dominated by the written word, and don’t for a minute tell me we’ve got a great orator for president. An orator doesn’t have to read every word, and Grandpa never had to read any word. He spoke them with a flair which entranced his youthful understudy. I’ve reached a sufficient level of competence as a communicator to keep me busy, and I do a lot of public speaking as well as writing. The fact remains though that I’m a teller of tales, whether it is in writing or through the spoken word.
That thought brings us to the inevitable and shameless hype which goes with this newsletter (hey, it’s free and I need to make a living!). With that in mind, here’s a bit of an update on my doings along with mention of what I’ll be doing in coming weeks and months. Incidentally, you can check my full schedule on the Web site, and if I’m going to be in the area where you live, I’d love an opportunity to shake and howdy.
By the time this comes to your computer screen a new book, A Southern Sportsman: The Sporting Memoirs of Henry Edwards Davis, will be out. As many of you know, Davis wrote the finest of all books on turkey hunting, and there’s plenty on that area of hunting in this book. But there’s also coverage of all sorts of stuff which you either can’t do any more or which is seldom done—hunting hawks, shooting owls, and chasing bobcats with dogs, for example—along with a glorious literary journey down darkening roads into a sporting world we have largely lost. If you are interested in the book, which fellow South Carolinian Ben Moise edited and for which I wrote a lengthy Introduction offering a biographical appreciation of Davis, just give me a holler.
Speaking of turkey hunting, the spring season doesn’t lie all that far down the road, and right now is a fine time to do some anticipation-building reading on the sport. I’d certainly recommend anyone who cherishes the sport getting a copy of The Best of Tom Kelly, which fellow sporting scribe Jim Spencer and I compiled. Both of us also offered introductory pieces for the book. It’s Tom Kelly at his finest, which is very fine indeed, and since the book is in a limited, signed, and numbered edition of 1,000 copies, rest assured that in time it will become a collector’s classic. Again, if you are interested in the book, let me know. I would also remind everyone that I’ve got a list of 200+ turkey books on offer on my Web site.
Finally, on the turkey side of things, I’m pretty close to wrapping up my detailed bibliography, complete with annotation and thoughts on things such as value and how to form a collection, of the sport’s literature. About all that remains is a visit to the National Wild Turkey Federation to do some cross-checking, then the requisite layout, design, and proofreading work before finally sending it off to the printer.
Meanwhile, I’ve got plenty of proofreading chores before me right now. The second volume of The Lost Classics of Jack O’Connor is close to being ready for the printer. Like the first volume (which I still have in stock), this one features forgotten stories from America’s greatest gun writer. There will be some forty of them along with added material from me, as editor of the book, a Foreword by his son, Brad O’Connor, and an Afterword from Buck Buckner, a close friend and great admirer of O’Connor. To be notified when this book appears, or to acquire a copy of the first one, again, just give me a shout.
I’ll be on the road a lot in the coming weeks, mostly in connection with the new Davis book and at signings for it in combination with the three Archibald Rutledge anthologies (Hunting and Home in the Southern Heartland, Tales of Whitetails, and America’s Greatest Game Bird) I edited and which were published by the University of South Carolina Press. I’ll be at the Calhoun County Museum this weekend (February 7), at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in Charleston all of the following weekend (February 12-14), and at the South Carolina Book Festival in Columbia on the final days of the month.
All along I’ll be continuing to promote my “book of a lifetime,” Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: An Insider’s Guide to a Pursuit of Passion. It was warmly received at the annual Fly Fishing Show in Charlotte this past weekend, although a miserable ice and snow storm dramatically reduced attendance on Saturday. Looking ahead in connection with that particular book, I’ll be participating in Troutfest in Townsend, Tenn., May 14-16. Byron Begley of Little River Outfitters convinced me it is a “must attend” event, and in addition to meeting thousands of folks who share my passion for the Smokies it is a grand opportunity to fly the flag a bit for Sporting Classics magazine and hopefully sell a bunch of the book.
If you are a fly fisherman and live in the Southeast, I’d strongly encourage you to try to make either this event or the Federation of Fly Fisher’s Southeast Conclave in Helen, Ga., June 3-6 (or both). I’ll be speaking at both gatherings of brothers and sisters of the angle.
Now, as I invariably do in these newsletters, let’s close with some thoughts on food. Right now the weather here is absolutely dismal—snow and ice hanging around from this past weekend, cold rain falling steadily, a skim of ice on tree limbs and the shepherd’s crook where we’ve got a bird feeder hanging, and gloom seemingly pervading every room in the house.
To my way of thinking, there’s no finer antidote to the kind of down in the dumps attitude such weather can produce than some hearty, delicious food. For me, that means soup, stew, or chili, and whatever the choice there’s every likelihood that venison will be a featured ingredient. Give me a steaming bowl of pasta e fagoli soup with a slab of nicely browned cornbread on the side, and happiness becomes my middle name. The same thing is true for a bowl of chili, nicely topped off with grated sharp cheddar cheese. When it comes to stew, make mine chunks of venison swimming in rich gravy amidst carrots, peas, taters, and onions. When interspersed with bites of cornbread slathered with butter or perhaps a brace of cathead biscuits, life is good. I’ll close with the pasta e fagoli soup recipe, which is easy enough to make provided you’ve got ground venison in the family freezer. Incidentally, the recipe comes from an award-winning cookbook written by my good missus, Ann, and me. It’s available through the Web site at a quite reasonable twenty bucks.
PASTA E FAGOLI VENISON SOUP
½ cup chopped onion
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Jim Casada Outdoors