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The Last Leaf

The Last Leaf

If memory serves, my first "Bird Hunter's Diary" column appeared in 2002. That would mean I've written almost 50 of these for a total of somewhere around 70,000 words.

The author and Rascal share a contemplative moment.

Looking back now, every word has been worth the writing and some of them perhaps have been worth reading. With mixed feelings, I now turn the last leaf in a book that has gone tattered, because it has gone exposed into many a thorny place.

You have been good to me, so I feel that you are owed an explanation for my departure. That may seem like a funny thing to say, since we have not even been formally introduced. But more than a few of you have, over the years, contacted me by phone or letter to express compliments and gratitude. Some of you have invited me to hunt with you, and your invitations I still keep in a special drawer in my desk, even if I have not been able (yet) to take you up on the offers.

A few more have been less charitable, but at least they were honest. Anyway, I suspect that we may in fact have met without knowing it. If you've ever arrived to hunt on public land in Iowa or Minnesota, and got there just in time to see a skinny fellow walking away from a dented old Dodge Neon--parked in your favorite spot--with a little black dog in front of him, well, that was me. Sorry I got there first. If it's any consolation, I never took too many.

For several years I have made a little bit less than a living as an outdoor writer. Little bits can accumulate over time, however, eventually amounting to quite a bit. So there is a bare, pragmatic, financial reason for my departure, but that is not finally the deciding factor. (You don't need to worry about me, by the way; I recently landed a "real job.") John Lennon said, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

Time has crept up on Rascal and the author, and it has done so stealthily.

That's one of the few things he said that I agree with, and somewhere in those words is the reason I cannot write any more stories about hunting, at least for a while. About the time you read this, I'll wake up one morning and turn 40--not old, by any means, but older than I've ever been.

A week before that, my oldest daughters will become teenagers; the week after, Rascal will turn 77 in dog years. Nobody is quite sure what happened to the years between these momentous milestones and the time Rascal and I went dawn-to-dusk in steep, slippery, snowy country on six young legs. Some time has gone missing, and stealthily so.

Other changes too have come upon me unaware, riding as stowaways on the years. At age 12, I bought my first outdoor magazine at the IGA Foods store in Greenville, Kentucky, and read it cover to cover. From then on, an outdoor writer was all I ever wanted to be.

It still seems almost incredulous to me that I actually pulled it off, that there have been so many people willing to pay me to hunt, fish, and tell stories about hunting and fishing. Men who were my idols are now just a few pages away, to my left and to my right. They love what they do and I still admire them, but now I am surprised by a burning desire within myself to simply hunt, and not to hunt for a living. I want to walk the fields like you, without having to produce a tale or a picture.

A memorable hunt in Saskatchewan.

One of my favorite writers is an Oregonian named Ted Leeson. In his wonderful book of fly fishing essays, Jerusalem Creek, Leeson observes that he tends to re-evaluate life every 10 years or so, shaking things up and rearranging. So I was probably overdue last summer when I walked into an antique shop in Des Moines, just tagging along with my parents, and found my grandfather's hunting coat hanging on a peg.

Just like the one he had worn, it was made of stiff brown canvas with a soft flannel back liner and a corduroy collar. It had no tags and no logo, a relic from a less brand-conscious era when hunters were not walking billboards. Held shut by only three plastic buttons, it offered proof that there once was a time when hunters did not expect to be as comfortable outdoors as they are indoors. It was pristine, and a perfect fit. Even for an outdoor writer, it was an easy decision at only $15.

My grandfather never got paid to go hunting, but he did have a few hunting magazines around in his later years. He mined coal for almost 35 years. He hunted on his days off, or whenever he was laid off. He hunted rabbits, squirrels and quail, and he ate them. Generally he fried them. If he was feeling fancy, he made gravy to go with them. As long as I knew him, he shot everything with the same gun, a Remington Model 1100 Light 20.

After an aneurysm had taken my grandmother, he remarried to a widowed schoolteacher who had done well saving her money. She bought him the 1100 on their first anniversary. She died in 1993 and he followed several months later.

Late last fall, I sold all my shotguns except his. At some point he had carved his initials (L.M.) into the plastic butt plate with his pocketknife. My father bought a new stock for the gun two years ago, because Granddad beat hell out of the old one, taking it exposed through many a thorny place. But we kept the butt plate. Granddad's initials remain visible, and seem to us like the signature on a cheap card that comes with an expensive gift, but for some reason never gets thrown away.

All of that is to say that the old canvas coat has provoked some re-evaluation of life, and some rearranging. This year I'll be hunting less, and enjoying it more.

The author with Woody and Rascal and an Iowa ringneck.

My belief in the importance of this column has made it hard to quit even when I knew that I should. Besides practical information on bird hunting and the dogs that make it worth doing, this column offers at least occasional opportunit

ies for celebration, questioning, lament, laughter and protest. I've attempted to explore all of the above at one time or another, while trying to avoid self-righteousness. If I have failed, the fault is entirely mine. If I have succeeded, I cannot accept all the credit; I had good role models.

Hopefully the editor can find someone to take up this concept and continue writing about the things that occur to people when they are out hunting. As for me, I'll probably still jot a few things down and save them up.

Thank you, and good night.

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