When my sister and I were young, Mom pulled us in our toy wagon to the woods so she could hunt. What a workout she got tugging us over plowed cornfields and through waist-high grass. She’d be on the lookout for a springy tree curved like a fly rod hauling in a catfish.
Then Mom set down her 20-gauge shotgun, the one with the modified stock to fit her short arms, and she’d climb the tree to demonstrate the fun of bouncing on the limb or swinging upside down. As soon as we got the hang of it, she’d grab her gun, call to her beagles and head as far away from us noisy kids as possible.
Sometimes Mom left us with instructions to pick hickory nuts, apples, mulberries or blackberries while she hunted. Or, we caught frogs and crayfish for supper. Mom always silently reappeared from the wilderness with her daily limit of rabbits and squirrels stashed in her canvas vest pockets.
Dad favored hunting pheasant, ruff grouse, duck, geese and partridge. Game bird meat of any kind tasted great, but spitting out tiny BBs as we ate bugged me.
We also had at least one deer every year, sometimes two. We didn’t process venison ourselves, but took it to town to be made into sausage, steaks, roasts and burger. One monstrous Wisconsin whitetail buck lasted us all winter.
My mother cooked every wild animal except possum and she got even better through the years. A regional favorite, although not with me, was coon stew, cooked like chicken until the bones dissolved. I preferred fried rabbit and squirrel soup with fresh veggies.
To prepare snapping turtle, Mom hung it from the clothesline overnight to drain the blood. Then she simmered the entire turtle, shell and all, in her canning kettle until the shell fell easily apart, exposing the meat.
We spent unnecessary time removing fish scales until a neighbor taught Mom to make boneless fillets by pulling the meat from the backbone. Mom traded him squirrel tails to make fishing flies in exchange for smallmouth bass. A good deal, eh?
My absolute favorite time in the woods was during coon season. On school nights I got very little sleep, but no one seemed to mind. After dark, when it was finally time to go, the dogs would be yelping and jumping out of their skin with excitement.
When Dad opened the dog pen, away those crazy hounds bounded. Dad and I whispered or used hand signals as we walked over frozen corn stubble after the dogs. We would walk a bit, and then sit on a log or rock and listen for the dogs. I don’t recall being cold or bored, even though we sometimes waited hours for the dogs to “strike” on a scent.
Raccoons are intelligent and will leap through treetops, swim upstream or backtrack to fool the dogs. In time, I could distinguish the dogs’ barks as they worked. When we heard them bawl at a tree we’d hurry through the dark woods, pushing aside brambles and jumping over fallen trees.
Dad wore a metal miner’s hat with a flame that smelled like sulfur, but wouldn’t light it until we reached the tree. Nights were brighter with snow or a full moon, but I loved the thrill. My very important job was to shine the flashlight up in the tree for Dad to get a clean shot. We’d get home very late and I’d slip off to bed while Mom skinned the three or four coon we’d gotten.
I missed wild game after joining the military and once brought a bag of my mom’s frozen rabbit with me from a trip home. I crammed the meat into the plane’s overhead compartment for the four-hour DC-10 flight to San Diego. Somewhere over Utah, the passenger seated in front of me shrieked, “The plane is leaking!”
A stewardess opened the overhead compartment as other travelers turned to see the commotion. There she discovered the source of cold, pink dripping water. When I told her about the meat, the gracious stewardess rounded up a sturdier plastic bag for my wild game. Flight attendants must be trained for any situation.
Mom gave up hunting at age 60, switching instead to store-bought beef and pork. My mother, who used to tromp five miles through deep snow to bag a single rabbit, now has high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
I realize her lifestyle is different, but so is her diet.
My husband, Darren, on the other hand, was raised in the city and ate store-bought meat and packaged food all his life. By age 40 he had high blood pressure and cholesterol and a whole host of medical problems. Instead of taking the prescribed medication, Darren read about the hazards of processed industrialized foods.
He began shopping at health food stores for locally-raised, organically-grown meat and produce. He also began growing some vegetables. As months passed, Darren gradually became healthy and lost weight, and has remained that way. He can now hand pump 1,000 gallons of water a day, split gigantic piles of firewood and work like he did 20 years ago.
Looking back on my family’s years of hunting and gathering, I am certain we stayed fit and healthy because we ate from the land. Our groceries were not sprayed with chemicals, wrapped in plastic, injected with hormones or genetically modified. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but I sustained perfect attendance from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Darren and I don’t wade through creeks to catch frogs or hike miles for squirrels as my mother did, but we grow as much organic food as possible all year and do many chores here with human muscle.
For us, good health is among the most important aspects of self-reliance. To read more and see more photos, visit our blog.
Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid with human power, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.