Monday, December 31, 2018

Nothing New….

creature of the night... bobcat

 There won't be any New Year’s Eve party here on Lightnin' Ridge.  Things will be about like they are almost every night. Before midnight, a pair of raccoons will be ambling along the small creek that leads down to the river, looking for food that is becoming harder to find because the crawdads are in deep water and the frogs are buried in the mud, just as it has been for hundreds and hundreds of years.

    A great horned owl will leave his perch at the edge of the meadow and sweep down upon an unsuspecting deer mouse without a sound other than the rustling in the grass when he pins it against the cold earth with sharp talons. A great horned owl’s wings still make no noise, just as it has been for who knows how long. Unfortunately for the mouse, he won’t live to see the new year, but he doesn’t even know that there is one coming. He didn’t see the coming of the last one. He has lived only 10 months, and that’s a long time for a mouse.  The field where he has lived is a home for dozens of field mice, voles, cotton rats, and shrews; nearly a dozen species of small ground mammals, some of which spend the entire winter beneath ground in hibernation. Fortunately for the owl, and other predators, there are some species of small mammals that do not hibernate, but remain active throughout the winter or at least much of it.

       Inside the big oak where the owl sat, a pair of fox squirrels sleep in a small, protected cavity. They will miss the dawning of a new day and a new year if the temperature is well below freezing for a good while. Squirrels do not hibernate throughout the winter, but in periods of extended extreme cold, they will sleep for days, in a semi-hibernation much like the raccoon, the skunk and the opossum.

There are some big sycamores along the bluff over the creek, and several wild gobblers spend the eve of the new year asleep on their branches, their forms plainly visible in the moonlight. Three are big old toms, but there are five jakes which have never experienced a new year’s eve before. They sleep through it, with tightened tendons in their legs securing their toes to the limbs of the sycamore like the grasp of a vice. Their ancestors weathered the passing of hundreds of new years in the same way. Change is not clamored for amongst wild creatures. It is a resistance to change that ensures survival of the species. It is sameness that gives security in wild places.

     In a cedar thicket, buried in the grasses, a covey of bobwhites form a ring, ten of them in all. There were nearly twice as many in November. The new year brings little for them to celebrate. With their bodies huddled together, warmth is passed to the weaker members of the covey by the stronger and they preserve heat as feathers fluff and insulate. When there are too few and the temperature plunges, there is less chance of survival. As the new year begins, smaller groups find birds of another covey and join them, in greater numbers finding greater strength to resist the cold.
creature of the night... a shrew
    Huddled beneath the cedar, they are unaware of the grey fox, which passes as the new year approaches. His is an eternal quest for food, and if he only knew they were there, what a New Year’s Eve party he would have. But like the owl, he will settle for a few small ground mammals on this final night of an old year.

    A half dozen mallards spring to flight as a bobcat streaks across the river gravel bar where they rest, upstream from the mouth of the creek. He leaps high to grasp a slower member of the flock with his forepaws and pulls her down, taking that weaker, slower individual for a new year’s feast. The hen mallard is a substantial meal for the bobcat. The rest of the flock circles in the moonlight and will settle into another hole of water upstream.
    The dying protests of the quacking hen breaks the stillness, but other sounds of nature at midnight are subtle. A buck snorts from a cedar thicket above the creek. A dying rabbit shrieks from the field across the river, as a mink ferrets him from a brush pile. Smaller than the rabbit, the mink can go anywhere, and he wraps his body around the cottontail’s neck and hangs on, his teeth buried in the soft fur as the life and death struggle which marks the beginning of a new year is just as it has always been.

     Here where the creek joins the river, where the woodland breaks into meadow, there are thickets of briar and cedar, standing as they have since men first came to change and scar the goes on. There is no celebration here.  It is only the passing of another night, the coming of another day.

    And I know that for some it is necessary on this night to group together and make much of the ticking of a clock, where alcohol flows and the noise grows to a blaring crescendo.   But I’ll walk that quiet wooded ridge above the creek at midnight, and treasure the silence, listening for little more than the distant yodel of a coyote. I’ll survey the river bottoms in the moonlight and be thankful for the stability of unchanging nature...wild creatures living as they always have, evidence of God’s unchanging laws which even man will eventually answer to.

    There is perfection here...thank God we haven’t ruined it all. We will in time, I suppose. These mushrooming numbers of human beings will destroy it all eventually. But maybe not this year… On this little Ozark ridge-top, there is life continuing as it always has.

This quiet wooded ridge overlooking the moonlit river, is a good place to ask the Creator to allow us all to enjoy one more year, to ask that the coming year be a good one.... a year wherein wild things and wild places continue to exist.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Christmas, 1939

 Pop with a cache of furs about the time I was born in 1927

Author’s note….This is part of a chapter from the book ‘Little Home on the Piney”, which is the book about my father’s boyhood, published in 2017.

         It was a happy time when Pop got back from his trapping excursion down the river, and eventually all the way to the F.C. Taylor Fur Company in St. Louis. It took him twenty-three days to get back up the river to our little cabin in his johnboat. It was three long days of upstream travel from the railroad crossing at Jerome. I had heard him talk of the days before I as born when that river trapline would bring him six or seven hundred dollars with less than a month’s work. But that first winter at our new home on the Piney, the same cache of furs would bring only a couple of hundred dollars.

         It was money that was used to get new shoes and a new pair of overalls for all of us kids. Pop actually had enough money to buy some lumber at the Williams’ sawmill only a couple of miles away, lumber to build a new johnboat. With Norten and Zodie both guiding fishermen in the summer, we would need two boats. Bt there was a third boat to be built that winter for a resort at Jerome. They had seen Pop’s boat and wanted one like it. If it was a good one, they intended to have him build two or three more. Pop intended to make it 15 feet long, out of yellow pine, and sell it to them for ten dollars. He agreed to throw in one of his hand-made sassafras paddles, since they were willing to pay so much.

         Christmas was wonderful that year. When Pop got back we cut a cedar tree and put it in a bucket filled with sand so it would stand up, and we decorated it with painted pinecones, and strings of popcorn on sewing thread. Mom put a half dozen candles on the tree, and when it got late at night we could light them and sing Christmas songs like Silent Night and Little Town of Bethlehem, and Hark the something or another, Angles Sing. My little brother, Bryce would get all the words wrong, but his little face shined in the glow of those candles. Afterward, Mom took the Bible out and read us the Christmas story while Pop smoked his pipe.  Bryce didn’t want to go to sleep; he had figured out that we would all get something on Christmas morning, thinking Santa Claus would come. Pop didn’t think much of letting his kids believe in Santa Claus, but he let it go when we were very young, because Mom insisted on it.

         On Christmas morning I got a book. It was a used one, but a treasure to me, a story by James Fennimore Cooper about Indians call Mohicans. We didn’t sleep much on Christmas Eve, and Bryce was awake before anyone else was. Pop had a big fire going in the old barrel stove he had made. We climbed down out of the loft and there were some apples and oranges scattered around under the tree, and a pair of coconuts. Those coconuts fascinated Bryce. He carried one around for days. There was also a cap pistol and holster for my little brother. It was the same one I had got a couple of years before, and I had played with it until I ran out of caps in a few days of playing cowboys and Indians. When I got tired of shooting it, with no caps left, Mom had taken it and put it away, and for that Christmas, Pop had brought a whole bunch of caps from the dime store in Houston making it a brand new toy for Bryce. At first I was a little bit upset because they had given my little brother one of my toys, but shucks, I knew that it had been Norten’s pistol when he was younger…and beside I had a book.

         Norten got a whole box of .22 shells and Zodie got a dress that Mom’s sister had made on a sewing machine. Even Mom got something. Pop    bought her a hat and a shawl while he was in St. Louis selling his furs and he brought them all the way up the river, only bending one feather on the hat.

         I reckon Pop didn’t get nothin’ cause no one in our family ever got their hands on any money back then but him Pop and he said he was too old for Christmas presents. But I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for him, cause when he was a boy, he never had got anything for Christmas, and then he wound up having to take care of all of us and never got anything after he was full-growed neither. I said back then that when I grew up and if I was ever able to get a job and make three or four dollars a week like some of the town folks did, I would buy Mom and Pop lots of things, especially at Christmas time, and for their birthdays.

         But times were hard in 1939.  Sometimes I wondered if I would ever grow up and be a man like Pop.  But when Mom read the story of Jesus being born from that old Bible, for some reason, just for awhile…I never worried about anything.  That night, life was just too good.

Monday, December 17, 2018

A Two-Dollar Gift


       Grandpa McNew and my dad bought the pool hall on Main Street in 1959.  I was nearing twelve years old at the time, and immediately dad let me start working there, doing racking balls and collecting money, when he and Grandpa were out for awhile. There were a host of old men and middle-aged men who came in regularly to talk hunting and fishing, and the outdoors was all I thought about. It was the greatest place in the world for a boy like me?
Ten or twelve of those old men became my best friends, men with little education and great wisdom. One who in-fluenced my life a great deal was old Saldy Reardon. Dad had a day-job in a factory at the time, and Grandpa would open the pool hall at 7:00 a.m. and work until noon. Saldy would take over at mid-day and work until I got there at 4:00.
    Dad said Saldy was as fine a man as he ever knew and he would trust him with every penny the pool hall made in a week, which usually wasn't enough for anyone to run off with anyway.  And he was my friend so it hurt sometimes to see him like he was late on a Saturday night when he had been drinking heavily, I guess when the loneliness was too much to bear. Everyone talked about how great an athlete he had once been. Dad said that when he himself was just a boy and all the Ozark towns had baseball teams, Saldy was the greatest pitcher anyone had ever seen. There were times on a Sunday afternoon when Saldy would walk miles to a country ballpark and pitch a double-header. The other team just felt good if they got a few hits, no one expected to beat him.
   He was young then and had a wife everyone knew as Pinky. Pinky was young and beautiful and so adored by Saldy that he couldn't go on after she died. In his mid-thirties at the time, Saldy fell apart, and turned to alcohol to forget. He never found anyone else, he never pitched again, never held a steady job, he just drank and drank and drank.

   I didn't know anything about all that 'til I got older. I'd just come in after school and Saldy would say, "Where the heck you been Squirt?" like he was mad because I was always a little late from stopping by the drug store for another outdoor magazine. He always said he didn't figure I'd ever grow enough to amount to much. But he always smiled, and messed up my hair and I knew it was all in jest.

   Saldy carried the only two-dollar bill I had ever seen, and one evening when the place was nearly empty he showed it to me and said someone real important to him had given it to him a long time ago, so he couldn't sell it to me like I wanted him to, not even for two dollars and a quarter as I had offered. But on Christmas Eve that year Saldy handed me an envelope and said, "Don't open this 'til Christmas, Squirt." At home that night I read the card inside and found that faded old two-dollar bill. I could not have imagined a greater gift.

   As much as I admired Saldy, he taught me in reverse how not to live. I saw him as I grew older, staggering along the dim-lit street near a local tavern, or lying on a street bench wet with urine and waiting for the local police to find him and take him in.

   There were tears in his eyes when I went away to college and he told me he was wrong, I had grown a little. And then he said to me, "Don't do like me, Squirt, don't take up with a bottle. It's the devil's partner and you can get tied to it like I've been all these years. It pulls you under and you can’t fight it off."

 I've enjoyed living life to the fullest without ever needing the alcohol that took Saldy. He died within the year, in mid-November of 1965. I doubt if he knew that he made an important positive impact on a young life. Today when I see some young kids tipping a bottle or bragging about how drunk they got the night before, I wish they could have been fortunate enough to see into the future as I could, as a boy, when I watched Saldy fight that demon and lose.

 Somebody told me years later that a two-dollar bill was bad luck. I guess Saldy would have maybe agreed. It never brought him much luck. But me, heck I was the luckiest kid in the world. I had friends… friends like Saldy Reardon.

   As sad as the story is, Saldy had a friend too, and we  both knew about Him. On that Christmas Eve long ago we were about to celebrate the birth of someone who came to earth and made all lives count for something. And it is because of Christmas that there is hope for the least and the lowest of us. Saldy didn't really lose the battle. Liquor eventually lost it's hold on him and he slipped from it's grasp into forgiving hands. 

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Perfect Tree

before cutting
I think I could help our state highway department make hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. They are always wanting to increase gas taxes or do something to make more money. I have an idea. Between Branson, MO and Springfield and between Springfield and Clinton you will find thousands of the most perfectly formed cedar trees to be seen anywhere.

       Over most of the open banks in the Midwest, cedar grows in thickets where competition makes individual trees misshapen and bushy there’s nothing wrong with that. You’ll find no perfect Christmas tree cedars in a cedar thicket, but you will find birds and wildlife in those thickets when the cold wind blows and the snow flies parallel to the ground. A cedar thicket is the greatest shelter for wildlife in the dead of winter and where snow is deep. The cedar’s blue berries provide an emergency food.

       Have you ever seen a flock of cedar waxwings in a cedar tree in the winter? It is one of the more beautiful sights in nature when there’s a snow on the ground and in the cedar boughs.  But the surprise is, cedar waxwings are mis-named.  They should be called juniper waxwings, because there actually are no true cedars here.  True cedars are found in the Mideast, and perhaps you have heard of the ‘cedars of Lebanon’.  That’s a different tree.  Our junipers are almost never called that.  We hear them referred to as Eastern Red Cedar, and as years go by, cedar thickets that mean so much to wildlife in the dead of winter, are being cut away and bulldozed away on both private and public land.

Highway department efforts to remove cedars along the highways seems to serve no purpose except to promote ugliness and spend unnecessary money
        I talked to two fellows at a cafĂ© recently who said they had been contracted to cut and clear all the cedars on Conservation Department managed Corps land on Stockton Lake.  “They say they are a problem and that western cedars aren’t native trees,” one told me.  I explained they were actually not cedars, but junipers, commonly called Eastern red cedar, not Western, but you could tell they didn’t believe me.

       Large cedars, with a base of 8- or 10-inch diameters or better, are worth several dollars now, with Amish sawmills buying tons of them.  And the Highway Department in this state occasionally sends out crews to cut cedars and all other shrubs and bushes on slopes well above the highway right of way… for what reason I don’t know.  Much of what they do seems to meet no purpose except for providing jobs, but it makes scenic highways rather drab. I have photographed much of it, and on one major highway from Joplin over to Poplar Bluff, they have cut away small cedars on steep red clay banks that are eroding badly.

       But on many highways in the Ozarks, you will see hundreds, even thousands of the most perfectly shaped cedars you will ever find, tall and small circumference, the most perfect cedar trees ever.

       The cone-shaped perfect cedars are often 8 or 10 feet tall with the largest part of the lower branches small enough to reach around.  Truthfully, I have selected many of our family Christmas trees from among them, as others are doing.  But I expect that if you are caught doing so, you’d be issued a citation of some sort Along these highways, some cedars grow in perfect shape to 20 or 30 feet tall.  Maybe we ought to use them in our Ozark shopping malls and parks in place of pines. Christmas tree markets sell pines that are not nearly as perfect and pretty, so why couldn’t these beautifully formed cedars be used for trees in homes as well.   Imagine how much better the home would smell.

       They grow so perfectly because they are absorbing full sunlight with good nutrient, not competing with close individual trees which cause branches to reach and turn as they grow.  It makes sense to use them as Christmas trees, and perhaps add to the funds the highway department wants to receive through more taxation.

       I have nice cedar groves on my place that won’t be cut away.  In the winter, with snow on the ground, I walk through them and look at the tracks of rabbits, quail, turkey and deer.  But they aren’t the perfect cedars you can see along our highways.  Even so, I value a place where a wild turkey might shelter her poults during a heavy spring rain, or a bobwhite can go undetected by the hawk.  And when some cedar waxwings come through, I shoot a bunch of them… with my camera.

 To obtain subscriptions to our new magazine, The Journal of the Ozarks, or send one of my outdoor books inscribed to someone as a Christmas gift, just call me at 417-777-5227 or email me at   You can write to me at Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Smarter Than They Use to Be

         If you have never been hiding behind a tree or sitting in a blind watching a flock of wild ducks circling decoys you have missed one of the most thrilling and beautiful sights in the outdoors.  I am getting everything ready for my first duck hunt next week…not expecting a whole lot perhaps.  I will be sitting behind a big fallen tree in the back of my favorite cove for most of a day with Bolt, my Labrador, watching a handful of decoys before me.  I’ll take a notebook with me and try to do some writing, and build a little campfire if it gets too cold.  Sometime in the mid day Bolt and I will take a little walk up into the woods behind me and see how many buck rubs we can find, or if there are any good photos to be taken, maybe look for unusual rocks in the creek. 

 In that same spot 40 years ago, things were so different.  You could actually use a duck call quite a bit, and watch a flock out over the lake respond.  I wouldn’t have thought about leaving my post, with the possibility of coming back to find a flock of ducks in my decoys.   Today, you won’t see a whole flock sit in a group of decoys, and you had better call sparingly and perfectly to get mallards to respond instead of flaring away.   The old dull decoys with faded paint that worked back then aren’t good enough today, you had better have really convincing blocks.  That word, ‘blocks’ was used a lot when I was a young duck hunter.  It was a term for well-set decoys.  You seldom hear it used today.
       But if evolution is indeed a slow change, wild ducks certainly have evolved.  Wood-ducks have come back from dangerous lows in the 1950’s to very healthy populations now, but they leave the Midwest, where they nest prolifically in the summer, at least 3 or 4 weeks earlier today than they did back then.  Gadwalls have greatly increased, but remain the stupidest duck ever created.  They’ll pitch into a set of decoys with little fanfare.  Mallards were somewhat like that once, but not today.  They will flare away at the slightest suspicion, and so often spend 20 minutes circling decoys before they commit to them.   To fool mallards, and it is always some old hen that leads a whole flock away; you had better be good with a duck call and use it sparingly.  When a flock is wheeling away, you can make them reconsider if you know how to imitate an old hen, but if they are over the top of you, it is best to make no calling whatsoever or that old wary duck that warns the rest of the flock will spot you.

        It was once so easy to hunt from a boat blind, but today’s mallards have just seen
too many of them.  By the time mallards get south of the Missouri Iowa line, they have heard a few duck calls and shotgun blasts.  In Manitoba in September, there are lots of young dumb ducks, and hunting there is great.  There are almost no brightly colored drakes, as they are just forming their winter plumage.

         As a kid I hated eating mallards because we ate lots of them, always pressure-cooked.  Today I cut mallard breasts into cross-cut steaks.  You can get four out of each side of a mallard, three from a gadwall, two from wood-ducks and teal.  Then you season the steaks, put them on a skewer between pepper and onion slices, wrap a small piece of bacon around each and put the skewer on a charcoal grill.  Or you can make stroganoff out of slices of duck meat, or fry finger-strip slices with onions.  Don’t shoot mergansers! They aren’t any good.

       I may kill a limit this week, expecting the first visits in our area from the red-legged northern mallards.  Or I may set there all day and kill none.  But Bolt and I won’t come back at dark without having a great day.  We will have some new photos, maybe a couple of rocks like nothing I have found before and perhaps some really pretty pieces of driftwood.  And we will not spend any time in city traffic, or hear one word spoken in anger.  I kind of like days like that. But if I get to wanting to eat a mallard or two... there is always the secluded ponds I know about where I can sneak up over a pond bank and collect a really good supper in a hurry.  I’ll have more to say about duck-hunting in a column to come in January… a column telling anyone who wants to work at it how to eat ducks this winter.
         Let me take this opportunity to tell readers that they can order any of my outdoor books or a subscription to my outdoor magazine by calling my office at 417-777-5227.  But at Christmas, I like to give away one of my books to kids who do not get much for Christmas.  The name of the book is Dogs and Ducks and Hatrack Bucks. It is a collection of well 28 illustrated short stories, most about boys.  I put it together by digging out old magazine articles I wrote when I was very young.  Many of them won awards of some kind or another.  If you know a boy or girl of any age who loves the outdoors but maybe doesn’t read much… this may be a treasure for him.  Just call and we’ll sign one and inscribe it to him or her if you will give us the name. All I need is the postage to send it, and if you can’t afford that, call anyway and I will pay the postage.