Archive for Sunday, January 5, 2003

Rural life changes perspective on poaching

January 5, 2003


Private property is supposed to be the foundation of good citizenship, the instructor of personal responsibility, a stimulus to industry as well as the key to golden prosperity.

But the problem with property is that it can become an obsession. You can never have enough of it. It turns you and your fellow man into adversaries. It torments you with fears of liabilities. Property can end up owning you. The possessor becomes the possessed.

Robert Frost gave considerable thought to the subject. In his beloved poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," he takes comfort in the fact that the landowner lives in town and "will not see me stopping here to watch his woods fill up with snow" -- as if merely looking at another man's property were a kind of theft.

"Good fences make good neighbors," he wrote, quoting his neighbor. To which his own response was, "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out ... Something there is that doesn't love a wall."

I moved to the country to escape responsibilities and cares. I sought a bucolic, Thoreau-like existence. I envisioned myself communing with Nature, peacefully meditating on eternal verities. But I found myself hemmed in by my property lines, constantly worrying about my implements, my barn, my fences, my shed. I was forever chasing trespassers, tormented by thoughts of poachers helping themselves to my timber, my fish, my quail, my deer. All that was mine, mine, mine seemed up for grabs.

The "Keep Off" signs I posted were soon filled with bullet holes. I found skulls and other parts of deer scattered in the pasture along with empty beer cans -- the work of those noble hunters who work with flashlights at night.

I surprised four lads brazenly carrying a row boat down to my pond.

"Who are you and what do you think you're doing?" I asked.

"Jim Somebody said we could fish here." Who was Jim? They were a little fuzzy on the subject. Just a generous guy who gave them permission to fish on someone else's pond.

I discovered some folks loading my stone fence into their truck. Somebody had told them I "wouldn't mind," the rock rustlers said. A pox on Jim, the phantom permission giver, and his numberless kin.

One day, my daughter was sneaking up on some ducks when she saw a rusted-out car edging across the field toward her. Four ragged-looking desperadoes climbed out. She asked them what their business was.

"My father owns this place," one of them boldly claimed. She advised him he was mistaken and made sure he saw her gun.

I surprised two kids one afternoon camped out at pond side watching their bobbers -- you'd have thought they owned the place. They had the usual alibi -- Jim or Ray or Nebuchadnezzar said they could.

"The rule is that you have to ask the owner," I said, triumphantly adding, "That's me." And I ordered them off. One of them hauled in his stringer ruefully. At the end of it was a crappie the size of a porpoise. A three-and-a-half pounder at least.

"I'm going to have to ask you to release it," I said. You've never seen a look of such sadness -- or a young man move so slow. He wanted the moment of possession to last forever. He'd dreamed of having his crappie stuffed and mounted on his bedroom wall.

"Oh, all right, keep it," I said. Perhaps I wasn't cut out to be Lord of the Manor. Perhaps the communists were right. After all, "Property is theft," according to some sage.

Poaching, by the way, has a venerable history. William the Conquerer and his Normans imposed game laws to keep common folk off their hunting preserves in England a thousand years ago. Penalties for poaching ranged from beheading to castration. From this injustice arose Robin Hood and thus began the cat and mouse minuet between royal game-keepers and wily poachers.

I was running the dogs one day when I came upon a party of fishermen enjoying the bounty of my pond. I must have been tired and irritable because something in me snapped. I strode toward them in a towering rage, bellowing like a madman. They looked at me with bewildered faces, identified themselves as neighbors and told me that they'd been fishing the pond for 20 years. The former owner had given them permission. They thought it was OK.

I was mortified. These were people I had hoped to cultivate as friends, neighbors whose help I might need in an emergency some day. I wrote them a note of abject apology and begged them to fish the pond whenever they wished.

Was this what I moved to the country for -- to be turned into a monster by a warranty deed ?

On a recent pheasant hunt, my friends and I wandered out of bounds. I knew we were in trouble when I saw a white pickup barreling angrily down the gravel road, stirring up a rooster tail of dust. It lurched across a culvert and came to a rocking stop. The driver jumped out and marched toward us, red in the face. We greeted him cheerfully.

"And you are?" he barked.

"Friends of Nimrod." Oh, he'd heard that one before. And so had I.

"This isn't Nimrod's land." We made copious apologies, the same kind of phony platitudes I'd heard poachers on my own land dish out. "We thought we knew where we were," I said lamely.

"Thinking doesn't cut it," he said. "Saddle up and ride out, cowboy."

I knew him. I had delivered the same kind of lines, marched the same march, exploded with the same self-righteous fury. He was in the right -- as I had been. But from the other side of the fence he looked like a small-minded jerk to me.

On a walk one day, without premeditation or criminal intent, we crossed over our own fence and drifted onto a neighbor's property, drawn mysteriously to his woods. It was one of those lovely spring days when all of nature was turning green. The air was filled with mating songs, the May apples were in bloom. We looked down and discovered to our delight that the ground was covered with morel mushrooms. We filled our pockets, took them home, sauteed and devoured them, without once thinking that they belonged to someone else.

Only later did it occur to me that I was a common poacher, no better than any who'd taken a lunker bass out of my pond.

Well, the Bible tells farmers not to reap all the way to the edges of their fields. Leave something for the poor. Seasons passed. My neighbor and I were shooting clay pigeons one day. Overwhelmed with a sense of guilt, I blurted out my confession. His response was exemplary.

"Help yourself any time. Just let me have the first pick."

-- George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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