was always the beauty.
me and many people with whom I have spent time outdoors, the beauty,
the magical beauty of nature, is always the thing that draws us.
to experience the kind of beautiful magical morning I remember from
past decades, I was walking a snowy ridge line covered with an inch
of wet snow. The valley 100 feet lower and 100 yards to my northwest
was split by a springfed mountain stream, the sort of waterway associated
with ultralight tackle and smallmouth bass that take nearly a decade
to grow to a foot in length.
winter, such places are the secret haunts of small flocks of mallards
that come as if by magic to feed on acorns washed to the shore by
winter rains and covered on such mornings by light snow, except
in the clear water itself, where they wash into the eddies and provide
breakfast at dawn for birds whose ancestors must have been wintering
in the same highlands long before European conquerors braved the
Atlantic to take such places from the native people.
mallards themselves are no more beautiful than their cousins that
winter in fields and patches of flooded timber around the winding
bayous near such places as Lodge Corner or Grady.
is something extra precious, however, about finding them there in
the high country where I first saw them 30 years ago.
they are Arkansas mallards but not Arkansas County mallards. They
likely never were as numerous as the lowland flocks. The habitat
on which their ancestors' migratory instincts imprinted was never
as secure as the big river bottoms and prairie ponds of the east.
was always easy to get close to a duck that had only a small stream
to visit in the worst of winter when most bodies of water were solidly
sealed by layers of ice.
so, wintering waterfowl in all parts of Arkansas were relatively
safe from overhunting before Europeans brought firearms.
it was always the beauty.
modern shotgun allows waterfowl hunters to harvest birds at reasonably
long range, in many cases 50 yards or further. And ducks will rest
and feed on even the ugliest of waterholes, including sewage pits.
the beauty of mallards setting their wings and sailing through the
branches of oaks, hickories, bois d'arcs and such and then gliding
onto the surface of a mountain stream is the thing that compels
me to seek such spots on winter mornings when even my most powerful
Labrador retriever would content himself with a quick turn about
the yard and a fast return to the comfort of a living-room chair
to listen to the wind bending branches against the window screens
and to dream of hunting with men whose shots never miss and ducks
that always fall in sight and never dive or climb into hollow trees.
the most recent morning I experienced all this, I had stayed awake
all night after a late-evening nap that followed a softball game
and a hot bath. Rain blowing against the windows gently awakened
me from my nap. Rich dark coffee intensified my awareness of the
extraordinary night when the weather's changing was the only thing
that really mattered despite the best efforts of CNN's news team
to convince me otherwise. The snow had been predicted, and I knew
the prediction had been true when the sounds of the rain ended.
I had gone outdoors with my dogs only briefly during the rain, waiting
up with them sleeping nearby until the silence of the snow made
me realize the magic time had come.
only a half mile of walking with my Lab Beowulf at my side, still
a long way from our dreamed-of rendezvous with what turned out to
be only nine mallards, three hens and five drakes, I was already
questioning the logic of challenging such harsh conditions.
obvious question is why would a person leave a warm house or vehicle
to walk in a trackless wilderness where no other person would be
likely to find him in case of accident?
more basic question is why did human beings long ago begin to selct
their mates with an eye toward eliminating the natural fur coats
that protected our ancestors? Why did we become dependent on clothing,
houses and fireplaces when our ancestors once must have been able
to snuggle under the thick branches of a cedar tree or back into
a cave and defy the worst winter could do?
winter clothing is excellent, although far from the most expensive
available today. I depend on wool sweaters and socks, leather boots,
neoprene waders, nylon raingear and items made of other natural
and manmade substances to make me tough enough to go where my ancestors
must have been able to go wearing only the fur coats that grew from
their own skin.
as I was thinking how great it would be to have my own fur coat,
my reverie was broken by my dog suddenly turning to scratch and
chew his back. Obviously, our ancestors shed their natural coats
in order to shed their fleas. Beowulf, however, tells me he's willing
to put up with a few parasites in order to be tough enough to hit
the cold water without a whimper
all part of the beauty.