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Original Issue

A Waiting That Is Worth Awaiting

The first blossoms begin an annual rite of passage for turkey hunters

In those dim and distant days when I was young, there was a firm conviction, widely held by the likes of schoolteachers and fundamentalist preachers, that all of God's creations had been put on earth for a purpose.

I managed to make it all the way through boyhood without getting uptight about this, and I'm even more relaxed about it now because it has always been sliced a little too thick for me to swallow. Nobody was ever able to convince me then that things like rattlesnakes and deer flies and poison ivy and black widow spiders were a necessary and intrinsic part of the ecological system. Nobody can do it now.

The eastern half of the U.S. seems to muddle through somehow without the wood bison. Ireland, Chile and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan appear to be making out pretty well with no poisonous snakes. And I haven't noticed the ecological balance of my own Baldwin County, Ala. going to hell in a hand-basket because nobody has found a Bar-tram's evening primrose in 25 years.

I'm not, as you're probably thinking, an utter barbarian. I do not lie awake at night thinking up new reasons to hate the red-cockaded woodpecker. I'm not a member of an organization dedicated to the extermination of the whooping crane. I do have a mild interest in the welfare of the green pitcher plant and the red hills salamander—though I've never seen either—but I'm afraid that I do believe that there are individual species now listed among the world's flora and fauna that are inevitably going to go away as the world changes. And I'm also afraid that I think nobody is going to miss them all that much after they go.

There's a species of alder common along the upper Atlantic coastal plain all the way from Alabama to Nova Scotia that, except for one thing, falls into this very category. It's commonly called tag alder. Seeds of Woody Plants in the United States (Agriculture Handbook No. 450) calls it sérrulata; George Small lists it as rugosa in Manual of the Southeastern Flora. You can take your pick, except you ought to hang a little loose when you deal with Small. I get paid for calculating the size of wood lots, and I know something about trees. I feel that any man who will take white pine out of its family—as Small has done—create a new family, a new genus in that family, a new species in the genus and list himself as the sole authority for the reclassification bears careful watching.

Tag alder or whatever you want to call it is nothing but a face among the crowd. The wood is weak; the seed is tiny. If you find a tree of the same diameter as your wrist you have discovered a monster, and nobody has ever written a poem on the beauty of the alder blossom. In fact, I suspect that the first 35 or 40 people you might stop on the street wouldn't even be aware that it blossoms. But it does, and it's this blooming that is its single noteworthy characteristic.

In Alabama, it blooms first among all the deciduous trees, and it signals the beginning of the waiting.

I recognize as clearly as anybody my inferior status when it comes to discussing the matter of winters. That ought to be the province of residents of Maine or Montana. A native of the Gulf Coast is far better off if he refrains from comment on the subject altogether. We have a winter here, but it's of such inferior quality that it's embarrassing. Last year I asked a friend down from Minnesota what he thought of it and he said he couldn't comment—said he hadn't noticed. Thin and poor as it is, however, it does exist and the first week in February signals its ending. The first week in February is when you see the alder catkins.

The catkins are a pale, indeterminate green, hang down from the branch tips for an inch and a half to two inches and turn to a cinnamon brown in about 10 days. The pollen as it is shaken from them is the brightest yellow imaginable, almost a chrome yellow. I have cut a limb or two to take in and show somebody—nobody but me ever seems to notice the blossoms—and the warmth inside the car opens up the catkins and the backseat will look as if it has been dusted with sulfur by the time I get home.

Ten days after the blooming of the alder comes the flowering of the red maple; almost simultaneously with the maple comes the elm—you never realize how much elm there is until it blooms in the spring. Next the willow leaves usually appear. Then everything else comes so fast you can't keep up with the sequence, and the phone calls start.

I expect a man could get a doctorate in philosophy on the content of the phone calls during the four weeks which precede March 20. The calls start coming in slowly, almost tentatively, and in the beginning invariably evade the real subject. There's nothing unusual about this, because regardless of our actual intent it's extremely rare for anyone in our society to go directly to the point.

Politicians, home from the capital on fence-mending trips, never start the discussion by damning those rascals in the other party. They ask, rather, about your family. They express a deep concern over the health and fatness of your cows. Two people, who hope to become lovers, don't begin their relationship with conversations about the color of bed sheets—they discuss poetry.

Cultivated turkey hunters, reestablishing telephonic intelligence channels at the beginning of the waiting, never begin with an immediate discussion of turkeys. They're far too subtle. They wander down attractive bypaths. They talk around the point.

A normal and perfectly acceptable opening gambit is the Alabama River. The newspapers here publish river information on the weather page at least every other day. The information is a day old by the time it appears but it's still serviceable. It gives the river stage, which is the flood point; the gauge, which is the depth at the time in feet; the change from the previous day; and the precipitation. It's important information because the river swamp is so flat. When it's two feet above flood stage, the Alabama covers hundreds of acres. At four feet above flood it covers thousands. Even people who don't hunt along the Alabama enter into the discussion. A late river—when the rise comes after the turkeys have nested—floods that part of the clutch already laid and the nests must be abandoned and restarted.

All of these things, if a man has his heart in them, can be the subject of endless conversations. All of them are.

A turkey hunter's heart almost has to be in such discussions because he has very little choice. He cannot fill in any of the waiting with things like the care and cleaning of equipment. He can't because he doesn't use any equipment.

Fishermen have it easy during the period when they must wait for spring. It's entirely possible to spend three evenings cleaning out tackle boxes. If you resharpen all the hooks on the lures and oil the reels, you can spend a week. If you tie your own flies you can spend the winter. Duck hunters can busy themselves with decoys and their weights, as well as anchors, boats, motors, sacks, rigging; a duck hunter is very nearly a supply sergeant with a shotgun.

A turkey hunter has no such advantages. He can strip down his shotgun and oil it, but he did that when the fall season ended and he knows it cannot have gotten dirty in the case. He can open his aspirin box and look at his yelper, and put it back, and decide to get a new aspirin box for the spring. Hardly an evening's work. He can oil his boots; he can go look in the closet to make sure the shirt and pants he hunts in are on the proper hanger; he can open the shell box and see if the half-dozen shells he will carry through the season are still in there. And then he runs out. There's nothing left for him to do.

There's no point in sharpening his pocketknife; it's too early. If he has hunted for any length of time there's no point at all in practicing up on his yelping. After 15 or 20 years his yelping will have attained whatever level of competence God intended it to have and settled there. Practicing yelping is about like practicing charm or inspirational leadership. Either you got it or you ain't, and you can't fake it.

A turkey hunter is engaged in a pursuit that is almost wholly intellectual, and wholly intellectual exercises are very difficult to study for. He could, I suppose, do calculus or word problems, or compose sonnets, or work the Sunday acrostic puzzle in The New York Times, but I don't know anybody who does these things. Most of us just talk. Most of us compensate with the telephone.

As the waiting goes into the final two-week period, there comes a division in the ranks, a schism in the faith, as it were. The broad categories of those who scout and those who don't part company at this point and don't rejoin forces until the season opens.

I belong to the group that doesn't scout for a variety of reasons. Turkeys aren't like pine trees. Just because you have found them in one place on March 10 is no guarantee that you'll find them there again on March 20. There's some value in walking through an area you haven't seen before and looking at new terrain. But I've spent so much time in the places I hunt most regularly that scouting them would serve no purpose. I'm often invited to hunt in other areas. I value the invitations and almost invariably accept, but it would be socially unacceptable to ask a man if I could scout his land for two weeks before the season opens just so I would be familiar with his ground in case he invited me to hunt it. Besides being presumptuous, it would very likely cut down on the number of invitations.

Scouting takes a heck of a lot of time, has a limited value at best and has the principal disadvantage of lengthening the season. The very last thing any of us needs is a longer spring season.

For years and years the turkey season in Alabama began on March 20 and ended on April 15. Until I was nearly 40, I lived and worked in places where it was perfectly possible to hunt every morning and. unless dreadful weather or interfering corporate visitors precluded it, most afternoons. I, therefore, hunted turkeys nearly every day.

The first year the state extended the season to April 20, I was shocked. I went hunting every one of the extra five days, naturally, but it was an endurance contest. And when, three or fours years later, the state extended it again, to April 25, my shock turned to dismay. I understood for the first time the comment I'd heard from a hitchhiker, some years before, whom I'd picked up near the Barnett Cross Roads in Escambia County. I knew the man slightly, was on my way to visit a logging crew and stopped to give him a lift. After we had covered the weather and his crops and the recent election, I asked, simply to be polite, where he was going.

He answered, "I'm going to Brewton to get drunk, and God. I dread it."

I am no longer 40, though I wish I was, and I still weigh the same as I did at 20 (you can't put weight on scrub cows), but the season still lasts till April 25. I couldn't go every day now even if I clipped coupons for a living, but I go often enough. To tack an additional 10 days of scouting on the front end of the season would be simply more than flesh and blood could bear.

Turkey hunting may be an intellectual exercise but it's not an exercise conducted from your armchair. It's conducted in the woods, at distances varying from an hour to an hour and a half by car and on foot from the house, and you have to complete the drive and do the walking into the woods in the black dark. It's absolutely mandatory that at daylight you be at the point from which you intend to listen.

Daylight hereabout comes at five minutes to six on opening day. It comes earlier and earlier as the season runs its course, and by April 25 it's daylight at 10 minutes to five. Unless you retire from the human race it's nearly impossible to get to bed much before 11. The circle thus closes and you get less and less sleep as you grow progressively more worn out. If you take a day off your conscience troubles you so badly that you can't sleep anyway. Nobody needs to lengthen such a period by 10 days if he doesn't have to.

About March 10 or thereabout it becomes proper to discuss turkeys openly for the first time, and during these last 10 days the conversations concern themselves largely with the size of the hatch.

The sports pages of the local newspapers publish reports from unpaid correspondents who issue learned opinions on population levels in their various counties. These pontifications are a splendid example of the blind leading the blind.

A man who runs a hardware store may very properly be consulted on the price of hammers. The fact that he lives closer to the woods than I do doesn't make his opinion on turkeys any more valuable than mine—especially if he spends no more time out of his hardware store than I do out of my office. An individual working in the woods is a horse of another color. Loggers, timber cruisers and tugboat captains working on the river can have valid comments to make. They work among turkeys; they see turkeys from time to time; and their sphere of operation is out there where the action is.

Newspapers, for some reason, never talk to timber cruisers. Barbers, sporting-goods store owners, druggists and village ne'er-do-wells are the authorities commonly quoted as expert witnesses on the coming season, and these constitute a very frail reed indeed on which to lean.

Some of the scouting fraternity would have useful intelligence to bring to light if they chose, but they all become secretive and evasive at this time and I can't say I blame them. If I were getting up every morning and driving to the woods before daylight to listen for early gobbling and then staying out there till 9:30 a.m. looking for turkey tracks, I would be damned if I would pass this information on to newspaper reporters so they could print the results of my efforts for every lazy ribbon clerk in the state to take advantage of. In such matters nice guys not only finish last, but they also end up eating turkeys bought across the meat counter of the A&P.

It helps to take an afternoon or two to look at roads. I do this in conjunction with normal visits conducted for other purposes, and I do it simply to fix some time and distance factors in my mind. You can walk a mile in 15 minutes if you lean on it and are on a level road and it's daylight. In the dark, through mudholes, while carrying a shotgun, your time suffers. There are always three or four places you do well to go look at, to see how far into the woods you can drive, so that you can calculate the walking times beforehand. Walking time, added to driving time, coffee time and poking-around time, fixes the hour you set on the alarm clock the night before.

When you get more than 60 inches of rain a year, like we do, on a generally sandy soil, waist-deep gullies can appear in what were perfectly decent logging roads the year before. Not knowing these conditions before the fact can turn the walk from the car into a quarter-mile dash with shotgun, an athletic event I would just as soon not enter.

The waiting never seems to end in a crescendo of activity. It just drifts away, collapses inward upon itself, and expires. During the last two or three days even the telephone grows quiet. There may be a call or two wanting to know if the locks have been changed on such and such a gate or if the water is over the road in such and such a section, but little else. Even the nonscouters have come to some conclusion or other by now and have made up their minds as to where they want to go. The decision may be based upon good data or bad, upon carefully reasoned decision or caprice, but it's set. Nearly everybody stands mute.

It never seems to me that the drive to the woods on the first morning is part of the season. I consider it to be the last part of the waiting. I go out of the house with my mind left carefully blank. It's my purpose to leave reason and logic at home and operate on a combination of instinct, visceral reaction and voodoo superstition. I will have an idea of the broad location in which I will hunt, but I will faithfully avoid anything specific till I get there.

Something inside my head will pick a ridge for me. Something will tell me how far to walk and what tree to stop under. I will halt, for no good reason, at the particular spot and wait. I will wait and listen there because it feels right.

The owls won't count. Owls hoot all night long just for the hell of it anyway and cannot be depended on. The very early cheeps and peeps made by unknown warblers won't count either, nor will the harsh croaking of the thrashers just before daylight. The waiting ends with the call of the first cardinal.

The first cardinal means that daylight is finally coming. The first cardinal means that the waiting, which began six weeks before with the appearance of the first alder catkin, is ended.

With the sound of that first cardinal I am no longer in a state of anticipation—I am in a state of being.

I have lived to see it happen, one more time.

I can now devote myself to the business before me.





As the season continues, earlier sunrises take their toll on the hunter.



Alder catkins signal the start of the phone calls.



Expectancy grows when willow leaves show.