HOME RANGE: Notes on Literature, Nature, Working Dogs, History, Martial Arts, Other Obsessions and Sundry Annoyances by Henry Chappell
July 2, 2017
Back in the 1980s, when I joined the Isaac Walton League, I received as a new member gift a paperback copy of A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. The volume also contains several additional essays, most notably "Wilderness," and "The Land Eithic." Leopold is often called "the father of modern wildlife management." Like most hunters and anglers, I had heard of him, but, in by my late twenties, hadn't gotten around to reading him. I read the book in two or three sittings, and have read it through at least half a dozen times since. My old copy is marked up and falling apart, but I still reach for it, even after the good folks at The Sand County Foundation sent me a beautiful new hardcover edition a few years back.
Though written prior to 1948, this passage addresses our primary environmental issue. I cannot see how any current environmental concern can be uncoupled from the issue of human population. We lack a politics to deal with the issue. During the decades following publication of Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, the pro business and pro-natal Right scoffed at the issue of over population. Mathus's predictions hadn't come to pass and Ehrlich hadn't accounted for agricultural advances, therefore, human population was a non-issue. Republican leaders, many of them philistine by nature and forever concerned about economic growth, still don't care about the issue. What has changed is that the environmentalist Left, blinded, cowed, and silenced by ideological commitments, can no longer be counted on to sound the alarm. Population growth in the United States is almost completely driven by immigration, therefore it must be a net good, and, in any case, so the reasoning goes, we can no longer afford to be so provincial as to worry about our own country, let alone our own back yards. But buy locally while supporting global initiatives.
But here's the great Aldo Leopold:
"The combined evidence of history and ecology seems to support one general deduction: the less violent the man-made changes, the greater the probablility of successful readjustment in the pyramid. Violence in turn, varies with human population density; a dense population requires a more violent conversion. In this respect, North America has a better chance for permanence than Europe, if she can contrive to limit her density.
"This deduction runs counter to our current philosophy, which assumes that because a small increase in density enriched human life, that an indefinite increase will enrich it indefinitely. Ecology knows of no density relationship that holds for indefinitely wide limits. All gains from density are subject to a law of diminishing returns."
Not surprisingly, as early as the 1980s, Leopold was accused of "Enrivonmental Fascism," because the ideas expressed in "The Land Ethic" might lead to the submergance of the individual by collective glorification of nation or region.
I'm not optimistic, even though Aldo Leopold would be amazed by the enviromental progress made since he wrote "The Land Ethic." Certainly, we hunters enjoy more game than I could've imagined as a teenager. Likewise adaptive species sometimes reach nuisance levels in suburbs across the country. Yet, when J. and I moved to Plano, in 1983, quail, meadowlarks, roadrunners, and harriers were common. One of my most treasured memories is of Dad sitting on our little back porch, whistling to a bobwhite cock perched on our backyard fence. In the late 1980s, I trained a bird dog pup on wild bobwhites that eked out a living in the strips of cover in a neighborhood park and the surrounding pastures. You rarely see meadowlarks or roadrunners or harriers nowadays. I haven't heard a bobwhite call in Collin County in nearly 20 years. They don't exactly thrive in subdivisions. Oh, we have raccoons and coyotes and bobcats aplenty, but they don't quite make up for the loss of those grassland birds.
How many times can the process be replicated? Perhaps I'm a hypocrite for asking; after all, J. And I moved from Kentucky to North Texas. But I'll ask anyway.
June 28, 2017
My grandson Cade, who's staying with J. and me this summer, surfs in water frequented by great white sharks, but the first time we fished a small North Texas lake, he worried about cottonmouth water moccasins. Of course he forgot about snakes as soon as he started catching fish. Before long, he was finning his float tube into the snakiest looking backwater he could find, working his fly over lily pads and around brush and stumps.
I told him that when he meets a cottonmouth, he should just back up while keeping an eye on it. Likely, it will hold its ground or try to chase him out of the area. Don't be stupid. It doesn't want to bite you; it wants you to leave.
Sure enough, just before sundown last night we were fishing the upper end of a small lake, when Cade said, "Grandpap, there's a cottonmouth." A nice, big one actually, about thirty feet away, but swimming toward him. I suspect the splat of the popping bug brought the snake out to investigate. I told Cade to back up. He did. The snake stopped. Cade kept backing up.
Thus ended the lesson. Nobody hurt. We fished until dark. The snake encounter didn't even come up on the drive home. Another southern fly fisherman has learned to take cottonmouth water moccasins in stride.
June 20, 2017
For a couple months now, my grandson Cade and I have trained in Krav Maga, an Israeli fighting style. I chose this style over traditional martial arts because it has been developed and refined to be useful to ordinary people over a wide range of ages. I’ll turn 57 in a few days. Although I still live an active life, and have kept in decent shape, I've missed the window for learning Bruce Lee moves.
I have always been unapologetically physical. The rougher a sport, the more I like it. Football was my thing. I would have loved boxing and wrestling had they been available at my high school. I don’t have an equalitarian bone in my body. I consider physical strength, grace, courage, properly ordered aggression, and beauty virtues, and rank them only slightly below intelligence, prudence, honesty, and kindness. Although I’m obnoxiously competitive, the reality that these qualities are unevenly distributed, and that billions of people have possessed, do posses and will posses them to a much greater degree than I do bothers me none at all.
(For the record, I do not consider hunting and fishing sports. They are passions, restorative and closely tied to my creative life, such as it is. I hope my writing is more graceful than my casting and shotgunning.)
But why this, and why now? I’ve never been one to worry about self defense. I got through my share of boyhood fisticuffs in good shape. Since my early twenties, I have never felt threatened or vulnerable. I go about my affairs, usually alone, assuming nobody will bother me. Furthermore, I pay for and sweat through Krav Maga instruction hoping and assuming I’ll never need the skills.
I’ve been thinking about martial arts since my thirties when I worked with a guy who had a black belt in a Japanese fighting style that emphasizes low kicks and straight punches instead of the flashy high spinning kicks. The training he described sounded fun, especially the sparring: two buddies punching and kicking each other in a mock fight. What’s not to like? But I had a demanding job, two daughters at home, bird dogs to train, and a wife with a few reasonable expectations.
So, for thirty years, “workout” meant a few pushups and crunches followed by a four or five mile walk. (Two back surgeries ended my running.) I knew that my reflexes and balance were degrading, but remained satisfied that I could still walk all day, portage a canoe, split firewood and occasionally backpack up and down mountain trails. Last fall, while standing in my office looking at a shelfful of books of nature writing, I decided that I should look into martial arts again before I got too old, assuming I wasn't already. Naturally, I did nothing of the sort while feeling bad about it.
This spring, when I learned that Cade would be spending the summer with J. and me, I conducted an exhaustive search for the ideal Krav Maga facility (noticed an accredited school next to my favorite Italian restaurant) and signed us up.
Cade was thrilled. I tried to temper his expectations with predictions that the first few lessons would be slow, with a lot of watching and careful imitation. We showed up on a Monday night. The owner and chief instructor, Eric, who is a head shorter than me but surely able to deadlift a cement truck, spent 45 seconds showing us the “neutral stance” and the “fighting stance,” then shoved us into a drill in which we blocked outside punches thrown by young men who’d been training there for months. Every minute or so, he’d yell, “Down! Give me 10 pushups!” First time, no problem. Second time, “damn my arms are getting tired.” Third time, “I don’t think I can get up.” Now that we were “warm,” time to stretch.
Of course I knew how to punch. Everybody knows how to punch. Well, no. Quick demo, then “Pair up and grab a striking pad. Henry and Cade, you can’t be partners tonight.” I ended up with another Eric, a young man of about twenty, who has been at Krav Maga for several years. He held the striking bag and called for crosses, jabs and combos. For a long time. Until I couldn’t lift my arms. Then we newbies learned to divert straight punches. Eric threw jabs and crosses at my face. I diverted. My nose and teeth depended on it. I hadn’t been this tired since I hung my shoulder pads up. I had forgotten that I could be so tired.
We stumbled out to the parking lot soaked in sweat and laughing. This is my kind of place. No uniforms. No belts displayed. No endless rehearsal of precise sequences of moves handed down for centuries. You show up in workout clothes and start punching kicking and grappling under the close eye of the instructors.
I’ve never been flexible. I struggled with torn and pulled hamstrings throughout my years of high school and college football. After that first workout, I admitted to one of the instructors, Catherine, that I worried about being incapable of the required kicks. She waved dismissively and said, “Oh, we’ll fix that.”
I have no delusions of regaining youth or of becoming a badass. When I look ahead to what’s required of experts, I suspect that a year from now, or two years, I’ll have to admit that I’ve hit a wall. That I’m too old to move to the next level. But I’m not sure. The physical challenge feels like a blessing.
My balance, flexibility and footwork have improved. I can snap off a series of pretty decent front kicks. The roundhouse kick is ... well ... coming around. The kinds of explosive movements I hadn’t done since my twenties come easy now. Still …
Last night, we learned to defend against headlocks from the side. Properly performed, the technique works well. Cade and I had paired up. He’s six-feet tall and weighs about 175 pounds. Strong as a mule and rough. After we’d gone through the move at half-speed he came down with a sure enough headlock. Of course I “knew” that I was in no danger. But I didn’t feel that way. Rather, I felt a powerful young man tying to tear my head off. As I executed the pivot and fake groin strike, and struggled to get my left hand between my face and his, to jerk back on his septum and force his head up, he bore down, and I remembered the feel of desperate exertion and felt sharp pain in my lower back and neck. Yet, up came his head, and back and down he went, landing perfectly, hands and kicking leg up, laughing. I staggered back into my fighting stance.
As we drove home, and I wondered whether three or four Advil were in order, I thought about how a second or two of pain and near panic on a padded floor, under controlled conditions, can clear up illusions.
But I feel fine today.