Archive for December, 2016

On your mark. Get set. Go

The week before Thanksgiving a northwest blow delivered the harsh promise of winter. The snow, driven like a battle of arrows, flew parallel to the ground through the woods behind our home.

I never heard the birch crack, twist and fall. And it wasn’t until the storm was playing itself out the following day that I decided to head into the woods to bear witness to the tracks of our non-human neighbors.

High overhead, I heard them first. Swans. The November storm triggered a predictable passage of tundra swans hurrying high overhead from their autumn north. And just like last year and the years and years before that the large white birds move in formation following their ancient bearing wending through their sky trail.

Less than a hundred steps from entering the woods I discovered the torn birch. The thigh-thick butt of the upper tree bore directly into our meandering trail. The twenty-foot, shattered limb fell violently decapitating a nearby small white pine. Over the past dozen or so years, I have fondly marked the growth of this pine and in knowing it, I initially felt some sadness for the damage to it.

The pine, in its full vigor, was perhaps 10 to 12 feet tall and well on its way towards climbing into an opening in the forest canopy. Now, savagely trimmed by the gale, it  stands maybe seven feet tall, its shape is more rounded than tapered.

Like a flute-playing snake charmer beckoning a cobra higher and higher out of its basket, the overhead sun has the same appeal to the undergrowth and trees in the woods where shade reigns. Unbeknownst to us mere mortals, there is an ongoing race in the meadows, woods, and wetlands. Rise to the sun or die.

I assessed the integrity of the wood of the fallen birch to see if it was worthy enough to be chunked and stowed in our wood shed. I could find no rot and actually looked forward to splitting something more easily rendered to firewood than gnarly old oak.

I glanced at the standing partial pine and felt some remorse over having to cut it down. In the next moment I realized that in the pine’s  injury had exposed an opportunity. Here was an experiment in terminal growth waiting for me to begin the observation.

When trees are young, especially fast growing ones like pines and popples, their growth is quickened. The terminal leader or main stem of the tree is tallest and most vertical because it harbors a hormone, one of the few that plants have, called auxin. (Pronounced like “oxen”)

Auxin encourages the lengthening of stems while it inhibits lateral growth. This is called apical dominance.

For illustration’s sake, imagine an old wagon wheel laying flat on the ground. The wheel’s spokes are centered on the hub and angle outwards. In the case of a pine, consider an overhead view looking directly down on the small pine and you will see the lateral branches growing from the trunk or hub. The terminal leader would be an extension of the wheel’s hub, rising skyward. Auxin slows the lateral, spoke-like growth of branches while it accelerates the vertical growth of the tree.

Amazingly, when the terminal growth is cut off or damaged as it was in the case of my beheaded pine, the auxin will be redirected to one or more of the lateral branches. Over the course of passing seasons, these lateral auxin-fed branches will be reprogrammed to bend their growth towards the sun and reach skyward as one will become the new tip leader. Plant physiologists refer to this climbing plant movement as phototropism.

So while the shortened pine I stood next to might look shattered, it is only reinventing itself. And like one’s own child, I will get to watch closely to monitor the growth and see which of the laterals wins the race to the sun.

Not much further along our trail through the woods is an old bur oak that was damaged long ago. Perhaps it was rubbed by one of my grandfather’s milk cows that were once pastured in these same woods? Maybe a buck deer, many October’s ago, roughed up the small oak with his antlers as he felt the annual rut approach. Because of the pronounced arch of the oaks main trunk, I suspect it was a storm that pushed another tree into the tender growth of the oak bending it to the ground.

With the tip of the bent tree pushed into the earth, the three limbs have each received a dose of auxin. Standing like three hefty candles off an arching candleholder, the once lateral oak branches are all racing to pull ahead of its neighboring limb. The once terminal leader is now a craggy snout of a wound bent down in defeat.

I’m trusting that my own march towards decomposition is a ways off. In the meantime I’ll be marking future seasons by watching the damaged pine’s lateral limbs race to the sun could provide some meditative entertainment and learning.

On your mark. Get set. Go!

Roasting a Deer Head


Faced with butchering the whitetail buck that my wife, Nancy, recently shot with her bow, she declared, “We should eat the head.”

Now this is from the same woman who called me earlier in the day and told me that she had just gutted the buck and that the liver, heart and kidneys were in the fridge cooling down. And the buck wasn’t even out of our woods yet.

Nancy also holds a black belt in bold and experimental eating. And she is an ardent disciple of the school where you eat, “everything but the squeal of the hog and the bellow of a steer.”

While traveling in Barcelona, Spain and in Cusco, Peru we had found ourselves both intrigued and repulsed with the collection of sheep and goat heads hanging for sale in the open-air markets.

We take pride in butchering our own venison. By the time we are done boning out the deer the neck, rib cage, spine, and pelvic girdle are pretty much cleaned of flesh. Usually the carcass goes into the lower branches of a burr oak where the woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches will clean it by spring.

This year however, Nancy boiled down almost all the deer bones into ten gallons of rich bone broth.

Traditionally we eat the heart for our first meal after a kill. And so it was with this buck. But when she suggested that we roast the head, I only hesitated for a moment. Why not?

This past August I hosted my great grandnephew for two days of chasing butterflies and other hopping, crawling and slithering creatures. He caught a mess of grasshoppers so I suggested a grasshopper pizza. He smiled, albeit a little nervously, and said okay. I might add there wasn’t a single piece left.

So why not a roasted deer head? In many places such as Morocco, Italy and Greece, a roasted livestock head is a prize and delicacy. Serving the beast’s slow-cooked head combined with spices and vegetables is a tradition at celebratory feasts.

Native Americans who lived in buffalo country depended on these animals for food, clothing, shelter, tools and more. While they dined on much of the buffalo, a roasted calf head was considered worthy of a feast celebrating the hunt. The head was wrapped in a hide and buried in red-hot rocks and surrounded with coals. Atop the head, a fire was burned all night. The following is a quote taken from a native who had participated in such celebrations. “Next morning when we opened the hole to feast, even the birds of the plain were made hungry by the smell of the cooked meat.”

Nancy pulled out a clipping from a Montana outdoors magazine where a game chef shared his big game head recipe.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Build a hardwood fire and let it burn down to a bed of coals.
  • Skin the head. Cut off antlers if it is a buck.
  • Rinse the head in cold water.
  • Season with salt and pepper.
  • Wrap the head in three layers of aluminum foil.
  • Wrap the foiled head in a water-soaked burlap.
  • Dig a slight trench and set the head in the coals.
  • Cover the head and coals with three inches of dirt.
  • Build another hardwood fire on top of the dirt.
  • Let it roast for 3-4 hours.

Like two kids on Christmas morning we carefully peeled away the burlap and foil. The steamy smells that wafted out inspired a saliva release. Seriously.

Some folks might find it distressing to face a roasted deer head perched on a platter. But with candlelight and two flanking glasses of a good red wine, it looked exotically delicious. And it was. The meat was moist and sweet with a slightly carmelized flavor.

The two of us could not finish the meat on one head. While the top and front of the skull have little meat there was a good amount on the upper neck next to the head. The cheek muscles were also excellent. If the idea of eating its jaw muscles makes you queasy consider the prized delicacy of walleye cheeks.

The other bonus was the roasted tongue. We cut the tongue into medallions and they were outstanding. Some folks prefer saving the tongue for sandwich meat. We could not restrain ourselves from feasting to celebrate the hunt.