lauren walker 224.88.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I was raised a nice Jewish girl in central Massachusetts. We were Reform Jews and only went to temple on special occasions, like bar mitzvas and weddings. We even had Christmas stockings during my mother's hippy-feminist-experimental phase. We ate bacon. I did go to Hebrew school every Saturday for seven years and I learned which foods were kosher and which foods were not.
I grew up in a medium-sized city. My grandfather was born in Massachusetts. Grandpa Butch owned a steel parts company. Grandma Gert was an actress before she had children. My mother was a shrink and my father was an entrepreneur, at times selling real estate, shlock art or alcohol. My uncles and aunts were lawyers and housewives.
I had a difficult time accounting for my unique longing for the natural world. My family, close and distant, seemed content with urban living. Many of them now lived in New York City. My great-grandparents had lived on farms in eastern Russia, Ukraine and Vilnius. My great-grandmother, whom I knew because she lived to be 101, came from a dairy farm in Lithuania. She was a milkmaid.
I seemed to be a Jew of the old caste. I was connected to the land. I wanted to live on the land, from the land, with the land. I felt I understood the Jews in Israel.
My immediate family thought of me as strange, idiosyncratic, affected.
I had a hard time explaining to them that I was now living in the wilds of British Columbia, on a trapline, alone.
Most people do not know what a trapline is. It is a piece of land, generally an enormous piece of land, on which a person has certain rights. Outfitters can bring hunters to shoot elk or grizzly bears. Some companies have the right to cut trees. I have the right to trap furbearing animals. Most people find this practice repulsive, without the slightest understanding of this ancient skill. But most people here are ignorant. So I give them a break.
I put on my gear, pick up my hickory pack-basket and head out the back door of the cabin. In a Swiss Alps landscape, I walk through my deep groove of snow. Bald eagles soar overhead, and ravens fly so close I can hear their wing beats like scissors cutting the air.
There are hundreds of animal tracks in the fresh snow. I start to get an idea of how the animals live. Where they find food. Where they make a kill. Bloody patches with not a wisp of animal left. Not a tuft of hair, a claw, nothing.
The air is pure. At the edge of the lake I test the ice. I look both ways before I cross the railroad tracks. The passenger train is deceptively quiet.
One day I watch a black bird, no larger than a plum. He puffs up his feathers and dives into the icy water. He jumps back onto the ice, shakes his feathers and nibbles the bits of plant he gathers. I watch him for an hour while trying to stay warm in my subzero gear, perched on top of a beaver house.
I am snaring bunnies. They are the one animal whose fur is worthless at the fur market. Even squirrels bring two dollars. I don't understand this, because snowshoe hares have beautiful fur. Wild hares are finer and more elegant than farmed bunnies. They have pale-gray underhair left from summer and long snowy-white outer hairs, to hide them from the fox.
Because they are worth nothing, I am allowed to snare and keep as many as I can. It is also incumbent upon me, as a conscientious trapper, to keep my population healthy. I don't want to trap out all my animals or that will limit my future trapping and reduce the food source for the fox, lynx and eagle, the primary predators of the bunny. This is part of the learning of a trapper, who is also a de-facto naturalist.
It is easier to skin a rabbit without gloves on. The guides all say you should wear them to protect against disease. But I think it is just another way to keep me separated from the truth of life. To keep things simple and free of the reality of what it means to be alive. The most popular shows on TV in North America are reality shows. But the reality they portray does not resemble the reality of life. We no longer know how things work, where things come from, how to make things, grow things.
So I skin my rabbits without gloves. The first bunny I caught, I roasted in the oven. It was overcooked and stringy. But I ate it. It was the first food I had eaten in my entire life that I had brought to the table with nothing but the work of my own hands. I was ecstatic. It was delicious.
THE SNOW SQUEAKS when I walk through the forest. I have not been bringing my gun with me and today I regret it. Today, for the first time, I am afraid. Across the deep groove of my path is a huge set of prints. I wonder if they might be human, and this scares me most. I follow the tracks to see what I can learn. They cross the barbed wire fence without disrupting it even a bit. They continue toward the lake. I stop following because I don't want to be weaponless if I meet something scary. I go back to my trail and check traps and snares.
These huge prints randomly cross my path, weaving in and out of the trees. They must be a bear or moose. It would be better if it was a moose, but they seem too large. If it is a bear, awakened in the middle of the winter by the disruptive weather, it would not be good for either of us to meet in the woods. I check my snares quickly and go home quickly. I decide that I will never come out without my gun again. Even my small .22 would give me some protection. Certainly against a human. Against a bear, well, it would just be better not to meet one at all. Shooting a bear with a .22 would simply annoy him.
I wonder if I am afraid because I am alone.
As a Jew I was never taught to protect myself. In grammar school I had pennies pitched at me. At summer camp I was teased and shunned by the other girls. In college I took the A-train home from Brooklyn at 3 a.m. in my short leather miniskirt, in blithe ignorance. I was taught that the pen was mightier than the sword. But the Jews in Israel fight. Really fight. With hi-tech weapons and low-tech martial arts.
I never owned a gun until I was 30. There is a feeling of security that you would expect to come with the owning of weapons. But there is a stronger sense of confidence that can be found, even when your gun is nowhere near. The intention to defend yourself, alone, feeds some ancient part of you that once knew how to survive in any condition, in any place. Perhaps as an American Jew I was raised with a "victim" mentality, a residue from the Holocaust that would never be fully erased from my DNA. But I decided I would never be dragged from my home. I would shoot, and I would kill. I knew, too, that I could do it in reality and not just in theory. Simply because I had killed a rabbit.
Once, before he moved out, my boyfriend and I had a fight, and he accused me of pouting. He said I was trying to "emotionally manipulate" him. He got very quiet. He sat next to me and took my hand. "There is no manipulation in the natural world," he said. "There are no games. It is simply an exchange of protein. We are all part of the cycle of life. And when we are healthy, we play our part in a healthy way."
A certain percentage of furbearing animals die every winter. For most, death is gruesome. Muskrats overpopulate and fight, tearing each other to shreds, eating each other. Weasels, martens, foxes, owls and eagles kill to eat every day. All struggle to avoid starvation. If there were an unlimited amount of land, animals would seek ever greater territory. In the limited territory of the natural world, life is harsh. Many die.
To keep the animal populations healthy, there must be balance. Healthy females must be allowed to reproduce. Unhealthy animals must be culled, some by death, some by me, the trapper. I am responsible for keeping the balance. But first, I must learn the habitat, the life cycles and the feeding patterns. I must learn to play my part in the natural world.
Trapping is a sustainable, human practice. It teaches compassion, conservation, and an honest connection to the cycle of life and death. There is a great power in being able to catch your own dinner in a world consumed with takeout. There is great humility in knowing how difficult this is.
IT IS A LONG way from central Massachusetts and New York City. It has taken me time to come back to the roots of my wandering-Jew nature. I still like dressing up and going to the theater.
I take my questions out into the woods. My mind goes silent in the vastness, overwhelmed by the beauty and terror of this world. With my boyfriend gone, there is no safety net. If I fall through the ice, I can drown, or die of hypothermia. If I'm not careful with my sets, I can break every bone in my hand. If I'm not careful with my ax, I can chop off my foot. I am truly alone in this truly wild world.
I walk farther today than I've gone before. I bushwhack up a mountain, surrounded by shiny trees, lost in the overgrowth. The silence is overwhelming. I listen intently and hear a quiet rush. I force my way between tight trees, up and up, until I come upon a tiny trickle of a stream, running down its icy path. There are prints of deer and mink and some very large cat, maybe a cougar or lynx. All drink from this exposed source high up the mountain. I cup my hands into the icy flow and drink too.
It's not lonely, though I have been completely alone for weeks. All I feel is a profound connection to this frozen world. There are many footprints signaling the busy world beneath my senses. I don't know if I will ever meet a man and fall in love again, or if I will write a book or tend bar or train dogs. But on this afternoon, on the edge of a mountain, in a country not my own, I feel that I belong to the world. And the world belongs to me. And we are both very happy.
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