A painting of a marsh
Art by Tom Pohrt

Gooseberry Marsh

On love and hunting ducks

From the Orion archives: this piece was featured in Orion’s Winter 1996 issue. 

THIS FALL ON GOOSEBERRY MARSH the weather is warm and the water is high. As Craig and I load the canoe on the grassy shore of the marsh, the sky is turning from rosy-gold to gray-blue. The blackbirds that make their homes in the reeds are singing by the hundreds, a loud, high, rocks-in-a-bucket screeching. Above us, lines of geese cross the lightening sky.

This is the first fall of our not living with each other, of living apart: Craig in the big house, me in a small apartment. But we decided to hunt together any way, hanging onto this sure thing, hunting at Gooseberry Marsh, this thing we have shared for so many years.

We try in a polite and partly exhausted way to pretend that nothing is different, that we still love each other, but something subtle has shifted beneath us. It is more than the awkward and uneasy rearranging of our lives. In preparing for this trip, I bought our supplies with my money and brought the food to Craig’s house. When we get home from hunting I will unpack our decoys and our coolers full of wet birds, do my laundry, and then I will leave for my apartment. We both feel embarrassed and sad when we catch ourselves saying, “Next time we should wear waders,” for we both know there probably will be no next time.

But something more has changed. It is hard for me now even to reach out to hold his hand. The intimacy we had, the warm space between our bodies, has stretched so that it feels like nothing. Between us now is only this coolness, as we stand so close together on the shore of the marsh.

Even with the high water this year, we have to pull our canoe through the faint, watery channel between the forest of reeds that separates the two parts of the marsh. We both lean forward, grasp bunches of reeds in our fists and on three we pull.

“One, two, three, pull,” I call. “One, two, three, pull.” We inch along. This is maddening. I can’t steer the bow. Because Craig is pulling so hard in the stern and not watching, the canoe gets jammed nose first in the reeds. We have to back out and start over. I twist around in my seat in the bow and glare at Craig.

“Don’t pull unless I say so,” I say.

“Just shut up and do it,” he says, wearily, coldly. “This isn’t a big deal.”

A sourness rises up in me. The nape of my neck bristles. He has never said anything like this to me. Ever. He has hardly raised his voice to me in seven years, not even in the midst of my most dangerous rages. I am so startled I fall silent. As we move out of the reeds into the pond again, I say quietly, “You were a jerk. You should apologize.”

“Okay,” he says mockingly. “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”

On the far end of the pond we see frightened mallards and teal rise up, quacking. We know they will come back later. The sky around us now is a faint pink. The day is fast coming on. We open the green canvas packs in the middle of the canoe and one by one unravel the lead weights and string from around the necks of our plastic mallards and our plastic bluebills, placing the decoys carefully in a configuration we think will draw ducks close enough to shoot—one long line to the right of the place where we will hide in the reeds, a bunch to the left, and sets of three and four scattered about. I reach into the pocket of my canvas hunting jacket to feel the hard, cold wood of my duck call. It has always been my job to do the calling.

After our decoys are set and we have driven the canoe into the reeds, pulled reeds down over us, stretched a camouflage tarp over us, we wait. We hear sharp echoes from hunters shooting far off on other ponds. T h e first ducks to come to us are teal. They are small and tan, only as big as a grown man’s fist. They land on the water and we can see by the tinge of powdery blue on their wings that they are blue-winged teal. We have set some ethical guidelines to stick to, as we have every year. We will shoot no hens, and no birds sitting on the water. We don’t shoot the teal on the water, but I rise up to scare them into flight so that we can take a shot. We miss.

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The next birds are mallards and we shoot a hen. She falls into the water and flaps around, dipping her head in and out of the water, slapping her wings. T h e n she sits up, confused and frightened, and paddles toward the reeds. We know that if she gets into the reeds we will never find her again, that she will go in there and die, probably be eaten by a fox or a weasel, or, eventually, by the marsh itself. But I will still see our shooting her as a waste. My heart cramps up as we follow this bird in our canoe, paddling fast, trying to mark where she entered the reeds. We look for her for nearly an hour, straining our eyes for curls of soft breast feathers on the water among the reed stems. I engage in this search with a kind of desperation. But she is gone.

“If it’s still alive, it’ll come out,” Craig says. He is impatient to get back to our blind. While we have been looking, another flock flew over and flared off, seeing us plainly in the water.

I feel defeated and sad. We paddle back to our spot in the reeds, drive our canoe into the grass, pull the long reeds over us to hide again and wait. Half an hour passes. The sun is out now and I am sweating in all the wool and cotton underneath m y canvas hunting jacket. I doze off. I am bored. I take my duck call out of my pocket and practice making quacking noises.

Quack Quack Quack

Craig rolls his eyes. “Stop it. You might scare them away.”

I throw the call to him at the other end of the canoe. “You do it then,” I say, stuffing m y hands back in the deep pockets of my coat.

The next birds to come over are bluebills, and I shoot one as it is flying away over my right shoulder. The momentum of its flight carries it into the reeds behind me. Again we spend forty-five minutes looking for the bird. We don’t find the bluebill either. I want to keep looking. I insist we try again. Craig says, “We’ll never find it. Give it up.”

The next birds to come in are wood ducks, mostly males. We shoot at them just as they have set their wings and two fall in a mess of feathers and shot, the pellets dropping like hail on the water. We paddle out to pick them up. One is breast-down in the water and when I reach down with my bare hand and pull it up by the neck, I gasp. Its breast has been shot away. I shot away its breast. The white feathers are laid wide open, dark red breast meat split open, gaping, the heart smashed, the beak smashed, the head crushed. I swallow down something nasty rising in my throat. We pick up the other wood duck and head back into the reeds. I hold the broken wood duck on my lap. What is left of its blood is soaking through m y tan pants onto my long underwear. The warm heavy body lies across my knee. I am stroking this bird’s elaborate, feathery purple and orange and white crest, letting tears come up to the surface and roll down my wind-chapped face.

Craig says, “Let’s get the camouflage back on the boat, and then you can play.”

“Play?” I ask him. At this moment I hate him fiercely. I vow that I will never hunt with him again. I wonder why I ever did. Why I married him, stayed with him . Why I hunt at all. “I’m not playing,” I whisper hoarsely. Later, after we have been quiet for a time, I say to him, “Maybe you want to hunt with a man, someone who doesn’t cry.”

He doesn’t answer me.

Still later, when we are cleaning the ducks onshore and I reach my hand into the cavity of the ravaged wood duck, scraping my hand on the broken bones such that I bleed, I ask him ” What would a man hunter do about this bird? Would he cry?”

Craig says, “No, he would throw it away.” And there is a hardness in what he has said, so that I barely recognize his voice.

After the ducks are emptied of their hearts and livers and green, reeking, grass-filled crops, we line them up as before on the banks of the marsh and sprinkle cornmeal on them, in front of them, beside them, behind them. This time I complete the ritual with a sick resignation, as if there is nothing now that I can say or do that will make amends for this—for this hunting gone all wrong, for this hunting when the love between us has gone all wrong.

There is nothing I can do for this now, except take this wood duck home, save its skin, and give the lovely feathers to my father, who will make beautiful dry flies out of them to catch trout with in Montana. I will salvage what breast meat I can from this wreckage and make a soup or a stew; something good to eat, something hot and rich to share with my friends, or to eat alone.

Hunting with Craig has never been like this. My heart aches and I am afraid. I hate what we have done this year. It feels like murder. In the beginning, when Craig and I were first in love, everything was different. I wonder if I will ever hunt again. I wonder if I can make sense of what has happened here. I think now that hunting for us has every thing to do with love; with the way we feel about ourselves and each other. The heaviness or lightness of our hearts, our smallness or our generosity, shows in the way we hunt; in the way we treat the bluebills and mallards and teal that we shoot and eat; in the way we treat each other. I want to correct this imbalance between Craig and me and inside myself. I want to go on hunting, but not this way.

Painting by Tom Pohrt
 

PART OF WHAT HUNTING MEANT for us, when we were together, was feasting. It wasn’t the shooting that ever mattered, but what we did with this food we gathered: how we prepared the ducks to eat, how we shared them with friends, how we raised our glasses before we ate, at a long table lit by candles, covered with a lacy white cloth, and thanked the ducks for their lives. Several times a year, at Easter, at Thanksgiving and at Christmas, Craig and I prepared banquets for our friends. Nearly everything we cooked for our feasts was from our garden, or collected from the woods, or killed by us. This, I think now, was why I hunted and why I still want to. Because I want this kind of intimate relationship with the food I eat.

There were some things—flour, sugar, oranges, walnuts, chutney—that Craig and I served at our feasts that we could not grow or collect ourselves. For these items I would shop at our local grocery store. To get to the checkout counter in the store, I usually walked down the meat aisle. There was hardly ever a whole animal for sale, only parts. There were double-breasted cut-up fryers with giblets. Three-legged fryers and the budget packs—two split breasts with backs, two wings, two legs, two giblets, and two necks. There were boneless, skinless thighs; packages of only drumsticks; plastic containers of livers. There were breaded, skinless, boneless breasts in a thin box—microwavable, ninety-five percent fat free, shrink wrapped, “all natural” and farm fresh. The meat cases were cool, so cool I could hardly smell the meat, only a sanitary wateryness. The smell was different from the smell of wet ducks and blood in the bottom of our canoe. The smell was different from the smell of the warm gut-filled cavity I reached m y hand into when I cleaned a bird. The smell was different from the smell in the kitchen when we pulled out all the ducks’ feathers, piling them up in a soft mound on the kitchen table; different from the smell when we dipped the birds in warm wax, wax that we then let harden and pulled off in thick flakes along with the ducks’ pinfeathers.

The birds in the store were pared down and down and down so that what was left had no relationship to what these animals were alive. They were birds pared down and down and down, cut and sliced until all that was left were grotesque combinations of named parts. It always felt obscene to me. What were these birds like whole? It was hard, standing amid the dry coolness rising up from the meat cases, to imagine any life; hard to construct a picture of these birds flying, walking, making morning noise, pecking for insects in the grass, fighting over corn, laying eggs. Hard to imagine them in any way but stacked in their airless cages.

 

THE RUSSIAN PHILOSPHER and critic Mikhail Bakhtin tells us that the ritual of feasting serves as a way to bridge humans’ most basic fear—fear of what Bakhtin calls “the other,” fear of that which is not subject to human control, fear of nature. In his writing about banquets and feasting in the novels of sixteenth-century French author Francois Rabelais, Bakhtin says that in the act of eating, as in the act of drinking, of making love, of giving birth, the beginning and the end of life are linked and interwoven. In Rabelais’s novels, eating celebrates these joyful crossings or joinings, at the same time that it celebrates the destruction of the powerful other. In feasting, the mysterious unknown is taken into the human body, it is consumed.

I think now that hunting for us has every thing to do with love; with the way we feel about ourselves and each other.

 

ONE YEAR, TWO WEEKS before Christmas, Craig and I invited twelve of our friends to our house for a feast. We spent all day preparing for this meal. I sliced through the dense brilliant layers of three red cabbages and set the purple shreds to simmer in a pot with honey. I stuffed our ducks with apples, oranges, onions, and raisins, spread the slippery pale breasts with butter and garlic, sprinkling on thyme and rosemary. We took handfuls of dried morel mushrooms from a coffee can above the refrigerator, plumped them again with white wine, sauteed them in butter.

Craig scooped out the insides of a pumpkin from the garden for a pie. He walked to the freezer on the porch and brought back a jar of frozen blueberries. Another pie. He took from the same freezer a jar of cut-up frozen rhubarb. Another pie. The squash from the garden was piled in a cardboard box in the basement. I walked down the stairs into the dark cool, collected four acorn squash, carried them upstairs into the steamy kitchen, peeled off their tough green and orange skins, chopped them, added butter and onions and carrots, cooked the mixture, and pureed it for soup.

We were drinking wine and dancing as we cooked. We were full of joy. We felt generous. To feed all of these people, our friends, with food that we knew in some intimate way, food we had grown or animals we had killed ourselves, was a kind of miracle. The meal we concocted was nearly perverse in its abundance.

Appetizer: venison liver pate and hot spiced wine.

First course: acorn squash soup sprinkled with fresh ground nutmeg.

Second course: spinach and beet green salad with chutney dressing.

Third course: barbecued venison steaks, wild rice, morel mushrooms, buttered beets, and honeyed carrots.

Fourth course: roast duck with plum gravy, new potatoes in butter and parsley sauce and sweet-and-sour red cabbage with honey, vinegar, and caraway seeds.

Dessert: rhubarb pie, blueberry pie, pumpkin pie. Ice cream.

Then brandy. Coffee. Tea. As we sat and talked, we ate tart, green and red, thinly sliced apples, slivers of pear, and cheese and grapes.

In eating these foods—these ducks that we shot out of the sky, that fell, tumbling wing over head, with loud splashes into the cold pond beside our canoe; pumpkin pie that came from a pumpkin that grew all summer long in our backyard garden, surviving three weeks of me cutting open its stalk, scraping out squash borers with the tip of a paring knife; these mushrooms, collected over April and May in the just-leafing-out Minnesota woods full of cardinals, scarlet tanagers, bloodroot, new violets, nesting grouse, and baby rabbits; this venison, from a big-shouldered, spreading-antlered, randy buck Craig killed in November, which we tracked by following the bloody trail it left on bushes and dried grass and leaves-—in eating these foods, in this passing of lives into ours, this passing of other blood and muscle into our own blood and muscle, into our own tongues and hearts; in this bridging we were taking up not only food for our bodies, but something that is wild that we wanted for ourselves. Perhaps it was our own power we were eating. Perhaps it was our own ability to grow, to shoot, to find food for ourselves, that we were eating; our ability to engage creatively with the world. We were eating what we wanted so much. We were eating life.

A painting of a metal bowl of blueberries
Painting by Tom Pohrt
 

AUDRE LORDE HAS WRITTEN about the erotic and its potential to help us redefine our relationships with ourselves, with each other, and with the world. Lorde, who died from cancer in 1992, wrote about the erotic as a way of knowing the world, as a source of power that is unlike any other source of power.

“We live in a racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society,” Lorde wrote in Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. “We live in a pornographic society that insists on the separation of so many inseparable things; that insists on ways of thinking that separate the body from the world, the body from the mind, nature from culture, men from women, black from white; a society that insists on bounded categories of difference.”

But we can use erotic power to resist those splitting forces. The erotic is the sensual bridge that connects the spiritual and the political. It has to do with love. The word itself comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspects—born of chaos and personifying creative power and harmony. Eros is a nonrational power. Eros is awareness. Eros is not about what we do but about how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing, says Lorde. Its opposite, the pornographic, emphasizes sensation without feeling. Pornographic relationships are those that are born not of human erotic feeling and desire, not of a love of life and a love of the body, but those relationships, those ideas, born of a fear of bodily knowledge and a desire to silence the erotic.

Everything we have ever learned in our lives tells us to suspect feeling. To doubt feeling. To doubt the power of the erotic and to confuse it, conflate it with the pornographic. But the two are at opposite ends of the world. One is about parts, not wholes. One numbs us to the irrationality, the comedy, of eating animals that are strangers to us, who come to us as perverse combinations of wings and breasts.

I understand the horror among some people I know over my shooting and eating a duck. But while I have become accustomed to hunting and eating wild duck, they are accustomed to buying and eating chicken from the store. Our actions are somehow similar yet also fundamentally different. Buying and eating a shrink-wrapped fryer feels to me like eating reduced to the necessities of time, convenience, cleanliness.

Lorde asks when we will be able, in our relationships with one another and with the world, to risk sharing the erotic’s electric charge without having to look away, and without distorting the enormously powerful and creative nature of that exchange. Embracing the erotic means accepting our own mortality, our own bodiedness. Embracing the erotic means not looking away from our relationship with what we eat. And that can turn hunting into a relationship of love; at least not something brutal.

A painting of the reeds
Painting by Tom Pohrt
 

ONE SPRING I WAS WALKING AROUND Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis with a friend. We were walking fast, dressed in sweatpants and tennis shoes. She would rather have run, but because I was recovering from knee surgery, I could only walk. We took long strides and when I stretched out my leg I could feel the scars there, the manufacturing of new tissue that gave me a strong knee.

We were talking about nothing in particular. About her job as an editor with an agricultural magazine, about running, about lifting weights, about books we had read. Suddenly I shouted, interrupting her. “Look at that.”

She looked to where I was pointing and turned back to me to see what it was I was so excited about.

“Look at the ducks,” I said. “All those ducks.” As we came upon a gaggle of mallards, we stopped to stare. I was fascinated by the greenheads, how when they moved their heads turned violet and emerald in the light. How there was one duck there with a broken bill and a goose with only one foot. There was one female among the group of males. Two of the males were chasing her. It was mating season.

My friend and I moved on. She talked to me about her lover who teaches writing and literature at a local college. We stopped again because I’d seen a wake in the water, a silvery “V” streaming out behind a fast-moving muskrat. “Where?” She squinted.

“There” I said, pointing.

“What is it?”

“A muskrat,” I said, watching it as it moved toward a small island, its whiskered nose in the air.

I hear geese honking outside my window in the middle of the city. I used to track the garter snake in our garden from its sunny place in the bean bed to its home under the house, its entryway a piece of bent-up siding. I watch squirrels in the trash cans at the university. I pay attention to spider webs.

Can I call this love? Can I say that I love the swimming greenheads in Lake of the Isles, when every fall I make an adventure out of killing them? Does killing have anything to do with love? What kind of language allows this paradox? This tragic conflation of violence and love is part of what I try to resist in the world, yet here I am, in the midst of it.

How is my love for the greenheads, the swimming muskrat, the Canada goose different from the feelings other hunters have for the animals they kill? Can I have a relationship with these animals alive? Or is the killing, the eating, that magical bridging, a crucial part of my love, part of my relationship with these animals, with the world? What does it mean, that in my body, helping to keep me alive, to make me joyful, to share joy with people I love, is the breast of a green-head mallard that I shot down on a cool autumn day and scooped from the cold water with my hand?

This story was part of Orion’s Winter 1996 issue. 

 

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