Saturday, November 21, 2009

Notes From the Graveyard

As I sit and catch my breath, sweat boiling down, I rest my eyes for the hundredth time on the sun-splashed Smoky Valley to the south. Harvest is done; now is the time of the tumbleweed out here in the West. 

On a windy day you'll see them bowling across a bare field or country road as if they were late for an important business appointment. At night, I wonder how many startled drivers have been scared so badly when one of these buffalo-sized bushes suddenly bolt in front of them that they crash and are killed. I wager more die in the West from tumbleweeds in the headlights than deer.

Along the fences, the tumbling weeds are halted when they impale themselves on the barbed wire. Some of the skeletal brown things look like crowns of thorns, crucified on the wire. Others are bunched together thick like a herd of buffalo huddled against a blizzard. Funny, but this most "Western" of American symbols is not even indigenous to the land. When America was moving west, we imported burlap from Russia. Tumbleweed seeds hitched a ride and the rest is history.

I was sitting here at the Antonino Cemetery last Saturday on the sunny side of the crucifixion statue. All was typically quiet and serene. Suddenly, there were several gunshots nearby. Then I heard a large number of vehicles stopping near the cemetery. This had never happened before so I assumed a funeral was in progress. When I looked up from behind the monument, I was surprised to see six or so white pickups parked on the highway and 12-15 men piling out, all dressed in orange hunting vests. Then it occurred that it was pheasant season. Almost from the moment the men and dogs hit the deck and fanned out over the field opposite, the gun fire commenced. The racket sounded like a pretty decent battle, in fact.

With the neighborhood now gone to hell, I got on my bike and left. I was surprised to see the majority of hunters sweeping the field like some military operation; several "sentries" lingered behind to nail any pheasant who might escape the trap. There was nothing "sporting" about any of this. The pheasants had less chance out there in that stubble field than if they had been caged in a coop. It looked like corporate hunting; or maybe custom harvesting is a better analogy, similar to several combines when they mow a wheat field. I passed a couple of the hunters; to me, they looked suspicious and menacing. I think this hunt had everything to do with killing every living thing in that field and nothing to do with "sport"; the feeling was less of men hunting than it was of a machine destroying. A few miles on, I spotted two men in a field hunting my way. Since I saw no dogs nor heard one gunshot in the five or so minutes it took me to pedal through the ear shed, I suppose the men were having no luck. And yet, judging from their friendly waves and smiles, my guess was that they were having a much better time than the "successful" corporate hunters.

A final note on pheasants: One of the most beautiful of all things, these "upland game birds" are also some of the dumbest fowl in all feathered creation. Their brain must be about the size of a sesame seed. I well remember how hard it was to avoid the poor things as they stood stupidly on the roads of central Illinois as I drove back home to Kansas twice a month in the 1960's. It was almost impossible to miss them. Point is: Not a very wary quarry to hunt.

A final note on this ever-so German burying ground: Two names, one stone, man and wife, never more.

Pfannenstiel (pr. Fannen-steel)

Dec. 29, 1896
Feb. 26, 1959
July 30, 1899
July 26, 1997