‘Bear’ly a Deer Hunter

My weekly column from The Stone County Leader:

“Black bears rarely attack. But here’s the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning, and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want. That doesn’t happen often, but – and here is the absolutely salient point – once would be enough.”

-Bill Bryson
A Walk in the Woods

There it was.

Unmistakable, though I’d never seen one in that context before.

Eyes don’t lie. And with a few buttons pushed here, and a few arrows pressed there, the number four slide on my partner’s game camera jumped out, commanding immediate attention.

She was on all four, big, black, with a massive and burly form that just looked onery. Must have been 400 pounds, and right there not more than a few yards from my hunting spot for this year. The one I’ve been so excited about as I take an all-new adventure into the world of deer hunting.

Immediately, my thoughts turned to the potential headline, likely one my boss would bury on page 5B of next week’s Leader.

Bear Eats News Reporter: Good While it Lasted, the inglorious news likely lining someone’s bird cage a week later.

Ah, the adventures of the great outdoors.

With most of my years spent in the heart of the Mississippi River Flyway, I’ve logged many more hours in a St. Francis River duck blind than in the deer woods. It’s an exciting prospect as opening day approaches this Saturday – my first major investment in pursuing the elusive giant buck. Those days growing up on the St. Francis produced some of the richest experiences a young boy can know, and some of the fondest memories I had with a father who wasn’t exactly Ward Cleaver. Here’s an excerpt from a recent writing about those good times:

•••

When he wasn’t in the duck blind, my dad would sit at a bedroom window for hours, binoculars pointed to the river just a mile and a half west. Duck hunters dream of that magical day when there are so many ducks you can’t keep them off your pond, and the steel of your gun barrel stays hot, no time between rounds.

In those days, you’d find dozens of pickup trucks scattered about Highbanks Landing and the more northerly Jackson’s Landing, hunters having gathered for boat launches oftentimes long before there was enough light to maneuver the tricky river runs. Most could navigate by memory, jumping one log after another and dodging brush along the way. Shooting hours began precisely at sun up, and mallards move early for the day’s first feeding. Run a boat to your blind late between prime shooting hours of six and nine in the morning and you might just find it unplugged and half sunk at the landing tomorrow morning. One of the first rules on the St. Francis River is respect for the other guy.

If you’ve never been there, if you’ve never felt the adrenaline rush that overpowers you when 25 mallard ducks decide they’re coming into your pond, it goes something like this:

Three hundred yards out, a spotter first sees them headed due north. The blind’s designated chief caller, oftentimes an old river veteran in his fifties or sixties, makes his way to the shooting window as he reaches into a camouflaged vest pocket for his long caller. The call, maybe a black P.S. Olt, or a smooth, synthetic Rich-N-Tone, is doubly secured around the caller’s neck with a lengthy cord adorned with duck bands from past hunts. These bands, likely placed around the bird’s leg in the northern nesting grounds, are a research and reporting tool effective only when the hunter harvests the duck and returns the band to the research organization. Many prefer wearing the bands like an Indian bead necklace, each representing the memories of a past hunt and signifying their place within the tribe.

The chief caller takes a deep breath bringing the mouthpiece to his lips and the hopeful long call begins. The long call has a rhythm. A series of loud duck-like calls that grow shorter and closer together as the caller manages his breath with as much perfection as a first- chair trombonist. Almost like a plea of sorts, the long call is loud and imprecise, designed only to get the attention of ducks moving at a distance. Get their attention, and maybe they’ll like what they see. They’ll assess the wind, the pond configuration, decoy pattern, water clarity, and other factors before moving on or breaking for a descent. If he gets their attention, the caller then has a “working” bunch of ducks. Things are serious now, and the beauty of a seasoned caller unfolds.

Instinctively, the mood changes. Hunters give a quick check to their Brownings, Winchesters, and Remingtons. Safety on. Chamber full. Locked and loaded.

There is anticipation in this critical moment when it’s important to read what’s happening outside the blind. It takes years to get really good at this. The chief caller and the spotters now work together watching the ducks work the pond, their necks twisting and turning out the shooting window. The calling changes, now more intentional, more precise, as the ducks assess everything around them and make a final decision about a water landing. This is the moment a seasoned duck caller shows his skill alternating between working calls. There are calls to get the ducks’ attention, others that lure them in, feeding chatters, and a “come back” call for those that want to move on. The pros give the ducks exactly what they want to hear. This can go on thirty minutes or more, and callers frequently become so short on breath they find themselves light-headed.

There is not a memory from childhood more vivid than the clarity of my father’s eyes as he worked a bunch of mallard ducks on a freezing cold St. Francis River day. In those moments, all self-consciousness, issues of self-worth, all his imperfections vanished. Fluid, at ease, and seasoned with experience, he demonstrated complete control, perfect peace.

The call is reduced to the occasional soft chatter now. This is what separates the great duck callers from the good ones. A great duck caller knows when to call, and when to be quiet. Then, it’s in that quiet moment you first hear it. They’re coming in right over the blind. If Dad said it once in that thrilled whisper, he said it a million times. Grab your guns, boys. Get ’em on three …
You hear them before you see them, and the sound is unmistakable. Once a four-pound mallard duck commits to landing on water there is no turning back. With feet extended, body bowed, and wings cupped, the ducks flap wings violently for a soft landing. As they do, the wind whistles across long feathers in increasingly quick repetition. Shew-shew-shew-shew-shew. All movement in the blind ceases and you can hear a pin drop. Guns up. One, two, three!

The purest sportsmen will set their gun sights and pull triggers just before the ducks hit the water. Some prefer allowing the ducks to land, giving them even more time and accuracy for a maximum harvest. Either way, there’s not a moment more thrilling than the sound of wind over wings. It’s rare, but on the good days this scenario may play out six or seven times. They are the days you recount to your grandchildren.

•••

I’m hoping to share a few fireside chats with my own grandchildren from this deer hunting thing.

Here’s hoping not to be a mid-morning snack before a long, winter’s nap.

See you in next week’s newspaper.

(Steve Watkins is a reporter for The Stone County Leader. He is the author of two books, Pilgrim Strong, and The King of Highbanks Road.)

When the Dirt Speaks

Here’s my debut column for The Stone County Leader published this week. They decided to call it The Flatlander:

***

The local real estate agent maneuvered his pickup down and around the winding, increasingly narrowing road with almost no effort at all. Blind curves, perilously low-hanging tree limbs, we descended steadily like an airplane on final approach for almost eight miles. A single deer bounded across Herpel Road, and a couple of little varmints I’d never seen scurried to the safety of the roadside ditch.

“How do you even know where we’re going?” I asked, slipping my seat belt on and as I made dubious eye contact with my wife in the back seat.

“Oh, it’s a ways down here, but it sure is pretty,” he said.

The day began earlier at a lovely little quiet area called Cool Water on the Izard County side of el Rio Blanco. We discovered three available residential lots on a corner we could piece together for a nice tract of land where we could build a main lodge and some guest housing for family and friends. And the price was right.

We walked the grounds for almost 45 minutes as I waited for the dirt to speak. When the right caretaker comes along shopping for land, the dirt will speak. Call out to him, actually. Raised on fertile flatlands of the Mississippi River Delta, I know this. Dirt speaks to the soul. It is the sixth love language – a beautiful gift God shares between two of His favorite creations.

The words never came clear, but I’ve always been in too big a hurry, so I suggested we head back to town and sign a deal at the agent’s office. Dana and I were ready to make Mountain View, and this place called Cool Water, our second home.
But God was still waiting to have His say. We often forget that He works on His time, not ours.

“Now, I’ve got this other place, and it’s way down there and right on the river, and the price is good. I don’t care to take you down there,” the agent said, surprisingly not in a hurry to ink the deal.

“Well, what the heck. I’ll take a look,” I said, fighting off the anxiety to just get on with it.
Forty minutes later that November Sunday afternoon and at the end of the eight-mile meandering road, we turned the corner onto six acres of river frontage at a place with a name as original as finely aged moonshine. We were at Round Bottom Landing, he said.

I opened the truck door, took a few steps outward, and did a slow, 360-degree turn.
My jaw dropped and I couldn’t close my mouth.

This is it. You’re home.

The dirt spoke.

And it was with unmistakable clarity.

“I’ll take it,” I said to no one in particular, and not breaking view from what had just captured my soul.

It was like standing at the bottom of a beautiful bowl, the swift flowing mighty White rolling just below and to the northwest, and spectacular eastern bluffs amazingly highlighted with flecks of red and gold from the soft fall light sourced low in the southern hemisphere. There were four surrounding mountains each with its own distinctive character, all infused with poplar, birch, maple and more, and bursting with brilliant colors.

“What did you say?” the agent asked, confused.

“He said he’d take it.” My wife has been there, done that, before, and she knows when something happens in my heart that’s not about to get undone. She took a deep breath, and laughed at the same time, surely both exasperated and thrilled at the next new and completely unknown adventure ahead.

At that moment, Tranquility Base was born, and a flatlander from cotton country just stared at a landscape so beautiful he couldn’t even dream it. I’m sure it’s not the first time it happened.

Ten months later, here we are. I’m writing and reunited with a college friend, Lori Freeze, at the Stone County Leader. Dana is selling real estate with a local firm and loving it. And we’re both waking up most mornings in this place that with every new sunrise, every new fog formation across the valley and river, and every new sighting of some amazing wildlife, thankful for our new home in Stone County.

I think we’ll sit here a spell.

See you next week in the newspaper.

•••
Steve Watkins is a reporter for the Stone County Leader. He is the author of two books including Pilgrim Strong: Rewriting My Story on the Way of St. James and The King of Highbanks Road: Rediscovering Dad, Rural America, and Learning to Love Home Again.

Construction: Day 1

Today we kicked things off at Tranquility Base. While digging for a septic tank perk test isn’t very sexy, it’s something, and the sight of equipment and materials rolling onto our new property was exhilarating!

The trusses for Alissa’s Overlook arrived, and we used a chainsaw and Bobcat to clear brush and improve our river view for both the pavilion and the house. The view is SO much better! Monday, we begin pouring support pillars for Alissa’s Overlook.

A few visuals:

Trusses for Alissa’s Overlook.

Ten Things to Finish in My Fifties

•A world-class retreat center known for its hospitality and depth for writers learning the publishing business.

•Walk the Great River Road from Lake Itasca, MN to the Gulf of Mexico to raise money for AgriWellness, a non-profit that provides counseling to suicidal farmers, and studies rural American behavioral science.

•Have about five good books under my belt, and another five ahead.

•Be a more disciplined man in the areas of prayer and bible study.

•I’d love to run just one more marathon, even if it’s not pretty.

•Create some kind of center that provides hot meals for hungry people. The one thing I cannot tolerate in this world is hunger.

•Establish a sanctuary for bees and birds that would educate kids.

•Do some trail angel work on the AT.

•Syndicated newspaper/internet column.

•Know at 60 there were a few young men I had a positive impact on.

 

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The Task is Complete

Some time back around 2010 I was getting desperate. I hadn’t worked in two years and chronic depression had settled in, seeming it might never go away. Dana and I were still relatively newly married and I wondered why she even stuck around.

One morning my mom called and explained a potential opportunity with a family that owned one of those elder care businesses with several satellite offices across Arkansas. They needed two people for their Mountain Home office and they needed them soon. I drove up a few days later and they offered us the job on the spot. The emotions were mixed. The money would be a relief but leaving “home” never felt right. I made the decision that we’d make the move despite gut feelings that said it was wrong.

Time passed. Not only were the owners downright tyrants, they were an emotional bunch who lived out most aspects of their lives without discretion. Husband and wife arguments right there in the office, the kind of family dynamics that have no business in the workplace. These people were mean. Mean and depression don’t mix well. Dana and I were miserable at new depths. 

And I felt completely trapped. 

We’d made the move, though we’d not sold our house back home, and the money paid the bills. We weren’t being a burden to anyone, but the work experience made us so physically sick we came home every weekend, happy to spend time back in our house with no more than a couple of lawn chairs and a blow-up couch. One Monday morning before we made the three-hour drive back to work I had a complete spiritual meltdown, one of the lowest moments of my life.

As the weeks passed, the experience took its toll on us physically. Dana, strong, and typically full of energy became sick with a level 10 sinus infection. She stayed home from work that day, but the owners were relentless sending her email and calling her at home to carry on with her work.

Dana returned to work the following day, still sick but overwhelmed with so much work responsibility. Staying home was no relief. 

Looking back, it was also the day that we reclaimed our lives and started living again.

That entire morning, the owners, now working in an office several hours away, pounded Dana with work assignments via text, email, and phone call. Still sick and feverish, she handled it well. (Dana is MUCH better at this stuff than me.)

At the end of a command from one of the owners, Dana replied with a simple, “Gotcha.”

The owner’s reply?

“Never reply to me with a ‘gotcha.’ Your correct response is ‘the task is complete.’”

I’d never seen anything like it. The task is complete. That’s the response she commanded.

We finished the day and went for cheap fast food at a Hardees. As bad as the day had been, we feared tomorrow might get worse. And the next day, and the next.

Dana looked at me. I looked at her. 

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I asked.

“I think so.

“Let’s blow this joint.”

That evening, we dropped our keys in a business mailbox, went home, slept like babies, got up early and packed to go home. We never spoke another word to those maniacs. And we literally cheered and sang and celebrated the drive home.

We reflect on it as one of the pivotal moments in our marriage. Solid. Together. One.

Sometimes you have to follow your gut.

The Power of Just Walking Away

“Boys, the best thing you can do with death is ride off from it.” ~ Capt. Woodrow F. Call from the movie, Lonesome  Dove

Dr. Robert Lewis was teaching pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock for many years. I lived three hours away and wasn’t a member of his church, but Dr. Lewis taught me lots of things.

Like many men, I spent considerable time in my early thirties searching for an identity, a purpose, and God’s plan for my life. Clarity on those bigger things isn’t always easy when you’re simply trying to earn enough money to pay for diapers, formula, and day care. The thirties aren’t easy.

Across the country there were rave reviews in the early 90s about Dr. Lewis’ curriculum called The Quest for Authentic Manhood. Thousands of churches taught the curriculum. Dr. Lewis led the effort at his home church, and for many weeks I left home at 3 a.m., drove to Little Rock, sat in on the session, and returned to Jonesboro for work by mid morning. Quest reinforced four basic tenets for a man’s life:

•Reject passivity.

•Accept responsibility.

•Lead courageously.

•And, expect a greater reward.

For 23 years, these four ideas have guided everything I do. There were moments of failure, yes, but fewer than there otherwise might have been without them, I suspect.

One of the most important things I learned from this comprehensive study on manhood was posed by a simple question that catches many of us off guard.

When does a man become a man? At bar mitzvah? When he completes his Selective Service registration? When he first votes? What is this moment in time when a male transitions from boy to man? How does he know?

It all emphasizes the important need for things like ceremony and symbols.

How do we mark a marriage? A ceremony and symbols. How do we mark milestone anniversaries? Ceremony and symbols. In the Christian life, how do we mark the milestone of our most important decision? Ceremony and symbol.

We need these things in our life as an important way of both marking growth, and leaving things behind. Sometimes we underestimate the power of leaving things behind.

***

About two-thirds through their five-hundred mile walk, modern-day pilgrims representing dozens of nationalities encounter a special place on the pilgrimage known as northern Spain’s Camino de Santiago.

It’s really nothing more than an iron cross atop big pile of rocks, but many consider it holy ground. 

For more than a millennia, tradition has encouraged pilgrims on The Way of St. James to carry a small object from their home (most carry a small stone) and as they walk. The object represents the pilgrim’s burden, or her sin, or regrets, however they may wish to characterize it. Upon arrival at this special location known as Cruz de Ferro in the Cambrian Mountains, the pilgrim places the object on the hill at the foot of the cross, offers a prayer, and walks away.

The symbolism of marking such a moment in time is a powerful milestone representing the heart of the gospel truth.

Some say that upon our repentance of sin God cannot remember our wrongdoing. The more accurate and amazing truth is not that he can’t, but that God chooses with a holy intention NOT to recall the past. Through the power of Jesus’ blood shed on a different cross nearly two thousand years ago, we need not wallow in the shame and regret of sin.

You may not walk a five-hundred mile pilgrimage, but you can surely mark a moment representing your repentance of sin.

•Write your regrets on a piece of paper, light a match, and watch your past mistakes go up in smoke. 

•Construct a simple cross and nail your paper list to the symbol of Christ’s crucifixion.

•Next Sunday, leave an object representing your shortcomings at your church altar, say a prayer, and walk away.

Remember, God has a purpose for every person, and His work is too important for us to remain bogged down in the past. 

That’s why He sent Jesus. For your freedom!

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Ask Yourself: What Can I Unlearn Today?

“Intelligence is what we learn. Wisdom is what we unlearn.” 

~ J.R. Rim

 

Never stop learning! Always be a rookie at something! The older the wiser!

The cliches about learning are almost unending.

We’re a society that values learning. And indeed, there’s not much substitute for education and life experience. Wisdom brings a certain peace that Jesus desired for all those who walk his Way.

But could it be that our deepest wisdom comes from the things we once believed as true somewhere back on the path, but no longer find true today?

Jesus spoke of this in the way he taught and told stories.  He begins with “you have heard it said…”, then continues with “but I tell you…”  The pattern is repeated in Matthew 5 starting in verse 21.  It was not enough for Jesus to give new information.  He needed to correct the wrong beliefs that lead people astray.

American pastor and author Mark Batterson says, “Unfortunately, unlearning is twice as hard as learning.  It’s like missing your exit on the freeway – you have to drive to the next exit and then double back.  Every mile you go in the wrong direction is really a two-mile error.”

As we study God’s truth, we may also have an awareness of certain things not so true.  Sometimes they are easily spotted, and other times they’re ingrained so deeply that it’s not so easy.  We need to work toward being Christ-like, while also rejecting the things that are not of God.

What is something you were taught, or once believed, that the Holy Spirit is now suggesting you reconsider?

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” ~ Romans 12:2

Be Teachable

You wouldn’t think it would be the case for someone who’s completed five decades and entered a sixth, but one of the most important lessons I continue learning is the value of being ‘teachable.”

It’s been especially true with writing — ironically the one thing I’ve always done with some confidence, and the only thing I ever considered a natural talent. Especially true in recent years, I’ve learned to maintain a spirit that is teachable.

Most of my livelihood has been based in the written word. Ten years in the newspaper business, another eight in the magazine trade. As a higher education fundraiser, and a political press secretary I made a living informing people and persuading them about certain things. It all came fairly naturally. Not all, but so much of this is about gut instinct and understanding people. That’s what I do. It’s art. And it’s science.

So it stood to reason way back in 2012 when I first decided to write a book that I came into the process with a fairly confident (arrogant) attitude. I’d interviewed 15,000 people. Written miles of copy. I’d sat with tattoo artists, strippers, men dying of AIDS, ambassadors, and presidents. A book was only a longer, more drawn out process, right? More story, right? Wrong.

That first book manuscript still sits in a file, crumpled, wrinkled, and dusty. I remember when it came back from my editor that first time. It was humbling. There was obviously an incredible amount to unlearn and relearn, so much so, it was almost overwhelming. 

But I didn’t quit. I read, studied, researched, found mentors, attended conferences, chased agents and publishers, and practically gave my life to the pursuit. If you’ve given up on a dream forgive me, but chances are you didn’t want it as much as you thought. If you want something, you’ll find a way.

In the meantime, I have published a book based on an incredible experience and a story that I thought deserved to be told. The story was as much about healing as it was about walking a very long distance. That process took more than three years.

Today, I’m closing in on the second book. It’s about a year in the making so far, and quite possibly, has involved more learning than all the years leading from 2012 until now. This is a LONG process. That’s another thing for the learning. Endurance.

You have to learn to listen to people. You have to learn not to listen to people. You have to learn who those people are. You have to learn the hard lesson that really good writing is not necessarily a great story. You have to learn how a reader’s mind processes a story. You have to learn that even when you believe so strongly in your gut that you’re right, you may be wrong. And you have to learn when to stand your ground. But you have to remain teachable. We never stop learning.

Whether you’re writing a book, or raising a family, pursuing a new career, or seeking some great truth, it’s the most important thing. Being teachable.

What will you learn today?

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Some Work Thoughts on Labor Day

 

•There is nothing worse than waking up each morning dreading where you’re about to go and spend time for the next eight hours. It’s not likely that you’ll land your dream job right out of high school or college, but you’ll get there. Don’t quit until you do.

•When you are considering a career in your young adult years, ask yourself this question: What stirs my heart?

•College is not for everyone. Don’t go to college as a default choice. Personally, I wish I knew more about skilled trades.

•Don’t be scared to take risks during your career. The greatest rewards often come with the highest risks. This is especially true for those who want to branch out into self employment. Remember, there is almost no decision that can’t be undone. Embrace risk.

•Seek out career mentors. Most professionals older and wiser are happy to share their experience for your benefit, and  you can fast forward your career track by learning from the mistakes of others.

•Have a side gig. This is especially important for those times when you may not be perfectly suited to the job that’s making you money and paying the bills. Maybe it’s a booth at a flea market, or maybe you make cinnamon rolls each Saturday for the farmer’s market. Professionally, side gigs can be a great breath of fresh air. I’d still like to have a food truck in my life, and probably will one day. I find that cooking and writing go well together.

•Don’t let people treat you badly. At least two to three occasions in my life I’ve found myself alongside toxic people in the workplace. Don’t be afraid to just walk away. One of the best decisions I ever made was dropping a key in the workplace mailbox one night, walking away, and never looking back.

•When you find that thing that stirs your heart, try to remember that everything you do is not for you. It probably stirs your heart for a reason, and the reason might be is that you were meant to have a passion for this thing and use it for the greater good. i.e. helping others.

•Understand there may be seasons to what stirs your heart. You may have a passion for something (and a capacity for) in your sixties, that you never imagined in your thirties.  You can always be a rookie at something.

•When you find that thing, and when you’ve spent some years gaining wisdom doing that thing, always be available for younger people trying to find their way. Be a mentor.

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