Winter Woes

Good thing I dug out my rugged hunting boots with the aggressive tread for a Wednesday-morning trek with the dogs. Icy and treacherous underfoot, I|couldn’t even walk my regular path. Nope. Had to trudge along the edge, crossing the path several times, previous days’ footprints glare ice after overnight rain, the ice getting harder and slipperier by the second. But, hey, it’s winter. At least I can still get to out-of-the-way spots that were inaccessible in January last year, when, with four-foot snow banks lining the roads, there was nowhere to park.

Not sure where I’m headed today. Probably stream-of-consciousness ramblings about cordwood and cougars, beavers and ballots, maybe even idle thoughts stirred by flatpicker Jorma Koukonen, the old Jefferson Airplane guitarist and current Hot Tuna frontman. Just this morning in the truck, I was listening to Jorma’s version of “Breadline Blues,” a Depression-era tune about downtrodden workers and corrupt government. It took me off to another place, mind wandering. My salient thought was that the smart folks weren’t standing in breadlines or sitting in soup kitchens back then. No sir. They were making moonshine in the basement or scheming to rob a bank. But that’s just my twisted way of thinking, I guess. You know how it is. Some kids grow up rooting for the cops, some root for the robbers. Out of those two schools of thought come conservatives and liberals. Me, well, let’s just say I’m no law-and-order man and leave it at that. But let us not digress. How about beavers? Yeah, beavers. I’ve been waiting to throw in my two cents’ worth ever since reading a couple of scholarly books about the 17th century Massachusetts economy, which initially relied heavily upon valuable beaver pelts.

Oh, before I continue, here it is getting cold and windy again and, sure enough, outside my window, the bluebirds are back. Just saw one perched on the electrical wires to my left. They’re here for the rose hips and bayberries. I do look forward to their visits, like sparrows in bright, happy colors. Which reminds me: I’m also expecting a visit from another bird of sorts: firewood vendor Blue Sky. Good thing the snow’s not deep and he can still get his dump-truck to the woodshed out in the backyard alcove. Otherwise I’d have issues I’d promised myself never again to endure. No, I hope I never in a pinch have to throw wood in the carriage shed out front, right in everyone’s freakin’ face, including my own. I probably should have never gotten to this point, but it wasn’t entirely my fault. Because Blue Sky was busy cleaning up tree damage left in the wake of that weird October snowstorm, he apparently fell behind in his cordwood duties. But now, thanks to an unusual winter with minimal snowcover, I’m going to sidestep a major inconvenience. Whew! But, again, let’s not get distracted. Back to the beavers, which have been multiplying and creating quite a mess in these parts ever since leg-hold trapping was outlawed almost 20 years ago. What an idiotic measure that was. If you don’t believe it, ask the landowners. They’ll tell you straight up that the laws are insane. If only the government would listen. The majority of voters, who, of course, had never seen a beaver dam anywhere but in a wildlife sanctuary or a movie before the vote, sent a message loud and clear that trapping was cruel and unacceptable in our modern, dignified Commonwealth. And while it’s true that trapping can be ugly business, it’s also true that trappers played a key wildlife-management role. Well, those days are apparently forever gone.

Here’s what irks me most. History tells us beavers are easy to control, and they were, indeed, indiscreetly managed by trappers for centuries before the ivory-tower animal lovers intervened to greet the new millennium. Back in the mid 1630s, when William Pynchon and son John were building Springfield into New England’s No. 1 beaver-trading outpost, the black, furry rodents were the most marketable New World commodity in England, and easy to come by. Beaver pelts made the Pynchons wealthy men overnight. But then, less than three decades later, the beavers were gone. Because the critters are slow reproducers and do not migrate, they were soon wiped out of primeval wetlands on both sides of the Connecticut and Hudson rivers. Here today, gone tomorrow. That fast. No lie.

So now, as I monitor the unfortunate souls trying to manage a beaver problem along the periphery of a riverside meadow I visit often, and learn in discussion of the annoying rules interfering with their task, I wonder how such foolish laws could have ever been adopted. Then I wonder how they have managed to stay in place for two long decades. It’s unbelievable. An old trapper friend of mine told me last week that he could solve the problem down in that meadow in two weeks, tops; that beavers are easy to trap. Yet the poor souls trying to work by the letter of the law have no chance, no matter how many times they demolish dams (illegal), install corrugated pipes for drainage, hire an expensive wildlife exterminator (probably also illegal), or erect chain-link fences, all of which accomplish only short-term solutions.

Back when trappers were working their trap-lines, few people were aware of their presence, and beavers were isolated in the wilderness, where they bothered no one. Now they’re back in the bottomland meadows of civilization, where they multiply as privileged nuisances laying waste to landowners’ property and wallets. Who can blame the folks who shoot and trap them illegally? Some laws are made to be broken, and game wardens with a conscience know it. Sad, indeed, the problems a misguided ballot initiative with overwhelming support can create. But enough of that. Let’s move to cougars.

Yes, the email feedback just keeps on coming. I hope it never stops, even if the experts do think I’m irresponsible for writing about cougars. Remember, they tried to silence me about the doomed Connecticut River Atlantic salmon-restoration project, too, to no avail. Included in my cougar correspondence were comments from people who had reported previous local sightings and felt vindicated by the Edward Caron sighting in Leyden, another from an Orange man who was stunned to see a cougar cross the road in front of him early one morning a couple of weeks ago in Windsor while traveling Route 9 to Pittsfield, and — get this — one from an editor/reporter working on a national
story about Northeastern cougar sightings. He said he’d been all through my blog, read about the many sightings I’ve reported and wants to interview me and some of my sources for a story about an “extinct” wildcat that keeps showing up in unlikely places. Imagine that! I told him it’s a good thing he didn’t work for Fox-News, because I would not have answered his query. I have no tolerance for that right-wing propaganda machine, to me a black mark on our so-called democracy. We’ll see what comes of this gig. I intend to cooperate.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. Blue Sky’s come and gone, he’s paid and I have a pile of wood to throw in. Can’t say I’m looking forward to it. Not only that but a shallow, five-foot pile of snow came off the slate, carriage-shed roof overnight and is frozen solid to the driveway I cleaned Tuesday morning with a snowblower. Oh well, I guess it’ll either melt away or soften up enough for later removal, because I’m not going to put my snowblower through that stressful chore today. I may just have to live with that annoying pile and other winter irritants until the crocuses push through in March.

In the meantime, I’m wondering where I’m going to find time to feed and walk the dogs and fix something to eat before heading to work.

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