With a final grunting thrust, the pole pushed up through the bottom. The debris rained down as we jumped back, not wanting our hair and shirts to be filled with twigs, leaves, dust, and debris, but mostly, not with the ugly little bodies of the newly hatched crows. This was not easy work, but was great entertainment for a Saturday afternoon. The low bush of the Saskatchewan prairie made sure the nests of the hated birds were not so high that we could not reach them with a downed sapling. There was a bounty on crows and that was all the justification we needed.
We sifted through the underbrush and the remains of the nest to find the young while the frantic parents were screeching at us from the tree tops. Not hatched more than a day or two before, they were ugly pink/blue creatures, with bulging eyes, not yet open, and only hair where there should have been a covering of black feathers. Grabbed by their tiny feet, we collected them and wondered how we would kill them. Killing nature was natural in those days. Killing for killing’s sake. The bounty on a set of crow’s feet was secondary. It hardened us, made us man/boys, tough, and a force to be reckoned with. They call it macho.
We were near an abandoned farm house, a skeleton from days of old, the chimney having fallen in a heap near the back door. The bricks would do just fine, as we placed each hatchling on a brick and smashed another brick onto it. “Crow Sandwich” we chortled.
Hayward’s pasture was perfect. The cattle had cropped the grass short enough and there was a ready source of water in the middle of it. But the best thing was the proliferation of gophers. There were holes everywhere and movement around them was abundant. Armed with pails, clubs, and .22’s, we marched onto the killing field. Where a hapless creature would dart down his hole, a full pail of water followed and the back entrance, a few feet away, would soon produce a slick, wet gopher, looking for dry safety. We would be ready, and soon, another tail was in the collection sack. I remember being relieved that although they were cute dry, they were ugly wet, like small rats, and that was justification enough. The bounty was secondary.
There was a slough behind my friend Vern’s house. With spring run-off waters to sustain them, it was home to toads, frogs, lizards, salamanders, newts, and other horrible amphibians that were loathed by all and most likely transmitted warts. It seemed incumbent upon us, as young boys, to rid the slough of these creatures. Vern was particularly adept when it came to capturing these crawling creatures.
It was a hot early summer evening when I was wandering down the alley behind Vern’s house when the flames caught my attention. The fire was built in the middle of the lane between two rows of poplars, where his dirty deeds would be hidden from the eyes of civilized folks. It was a small fire, maybe a foot across at the base. “Watch this” he called out when he saw me coming. Vern had an evil streak in him, regardless of, or maybe because of, his strict upbringing. He had cooked up a successful scheme to steal chocolate chips from my dad’s grocery store, and did it right under my eyes. I had witnessed him doing several unmentionable things in the few years I had known him, and so the “Watch this” should have been a clear warning for me to walk away. I didn’t. As I approached his back, which was turned to me and hunched over, I thought he was having a wiener roast in the lane, but it did not look like a wiener, that thing on the stick. As I got nearer, I saw with great clarity that the ‘thing’ was a live salamander writhing and twisting in agony as it was being roasted alive. The silent scream of that creature has haunted me since. I pushed Vern away from the fire and yelled at him that what he was doing was cruel and God was going “get him”.
Moments from having uttered those words, one of those freak prairie storms roiled in from the west. The lightening flashed and thunder rolled across the slough. Without warning, the flames, sparks, and burning brands of the sacrificial fire were swirling in the air and down the lane as wind that came out of nowhere, gusted and eddied. It was too late for the dead salamander, but as for me, I ran home as fast as my legs would carry me. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw the silhouette of Vern against the dying light of the day, shoulders shaking, whether from crying or laughing I do not know.
Lying prone in the bush, only a few feet away from an established rabbit trail, sprinkled with fresh droppings, I wait. Had I not read books about snipers and deer hunters, I would not have realised that patience was the key to success. My Cooey .22 was loaded with a single shot ‘long’, the bolt pulled back, and my finger was tickling the trigger. There it was, that slight movement in the grass, and then the rabbit was in plain view. Had I been farther away I would just shot for a ‘hit’, but I was close enough to target the heart. I did, and I was surprised at the way the animal leapt straight up in the air and fell back down, lifeless. I was at once exhilarated and sorrowful. I cut the feet off and left the carcass. It would have been nice to have my buddies there to cheer me on with a slap on the back or a called out “Good shot”. Clutching the rifle and my rabbit’s feet on the way home, I felt a change coming over me.
It was one of those warm bright summer days, where the blue in the sky would almost hurt your eyes, had it not been for the isolated cumulous clouds, brilliant white in their upward billowing. The word was out that there was a Wood Duck’s nest near the little grove of Willow trees on the corner where the road to Gunther’s farm turns off the highway. The Mallards of the lakes and sloughs were familiar to us but a Wood Duck? Now that is worth an adventure. To what end, I did not know. We slowly approached the Willows, watching carefully to see where the duck would be flushed. It would be the key to finding the nest.
On a weathered and split fencepost nearby, there sat a Meadowlark. His melody had always been my favourite, and I could not help but stop and listen. A low wind was pushing the grass to the earth in waves, making a hissing sound. The notes of the bird came in waves as the heat and the wind distorted a clear hearing of it. My friends were ahead of me, and I was glad for it, as a sudden flutter in the grass drew my attention and there was the mate of the singing bird, floundering in the high grass, making distressing calls, and convincing me that her wing was broken. Naturally, I began to follow, hoping I could capture one of these beautiful birds. She led me away. Away from where? It suddenly dawned on me that I was being suckered and at that point I tried to recollect where I had first seen her fluttering deceit. It was near the cluster of Brown eyed Susans, I was sure of it. I walked, carefully, in that direction, and by the hysterics of both Meadow Larks now, I knew I was on the right path. And then I found it. The ingenious structure of the nest, the way the grass was pulled over in a teepee like manner, the camouflage of it, the deception of the mother, the clutch of tiny speckled eggs, the blue sky, the soft wind, the cotton clouds, everything, hit me hard.
Having failed in the search for the Wood Ducks, my friends wandered to my place of reverence and soon discovered what I was marvelling at. I defended that nest despite protestations. I loved Meadowlarks from that moment on and if I defended the nest, there would be more Meadow Larks, and that would be an excellent thing, an enduring goodness.
I have since thought often of how that incident changed the mindset of a prairie boy raised in a culture of exploitation and destruction of so many beautiful things. It changed my perspective, in a lasting way. The appreciation of beauty in nature requires only a moment of sincere and maybe intense observation, and a thinking and enquiring mind.