For more than 30 years, a group of us has been celebrating the opening of pheasant season in north central Kansas. The drive west on a Friday in early November presents a succession of indelible images: the afternoon sun washing tall grasses with gold and copper light, mountains of milo and corn overflowing the grain elevators in small town co-ops, long-shadowed hay bales strewn across fields like the monoliths of Easter Island, colossal grain elevators rising up like temples on the level horizon, pickup trucks on Interstate 70 bearing kennels with pointers and retrievers who've lived through the tedium of summer in eager anticipation of this annual adventure.
The familiarity of these scenes makes individual weekends blend into one long, seamless hunt, creating a sense of timelessness that seems to become more important as we age. Over the years we've honed our routine to a ritual. We stop at the same filling station in Manhattan for gas. We let the dogs out to stretch at the same rest stop. We make the once-a-year purchase of a package of barbecued corn nuts, which we consume for good luck. We pass the sign that boasts about how many people a Kansas farmer feeds. Every year the numbers change, but the sign remains.
Of course, the impression of constancy is illusory. Since we began, the number of hunters has dwindled. Young men are more inclined to spend their weekends on the Internet. Fathers are less inspired to, "Take your boy hunting instead of hunting your boy." Out-of-state hunters have leased up farm lands that were once open to hunters who'd stop and ask permission. The diner that used to be crowded at 5:30 in the morning with representatives of three generations has closed.
With a swiftness that seems not only unreal but unfair, we who started out as eager youths have been transformed to grizzled Senior Citizens. At the breakfast provided by the Lutheran Church, we exchanged tales about our various infirmities. One emptied his pouch of variegated pills on the table like a kid showing off his precious collection of marbles.
The most disturbing change has been the decline of quail and pheasant. Opening day marked a record low for us since we started hunting. I doubt if we sighted more than a dozen birds. We consoled ourselves with half-hearted expressions of the rewards of camaraderie, the joys being outdoors. But futility hung in the air. Even our dogs seemed discouraged. And there was some grumbling among us about hanging up the enterprise for good.
Theories abound to explain the decline of game birds. The extraordinary comeback of wild turkeys, which some say out-compete quail. Loss of habitat because of aggressive farming practices. Increase in predators because of a falling off of trapping. No-till farming, good from the viewpoint of soil conservation, bad from the viewpoint of nesting cover. A farmer who stopped on the road offered a new hypothesis. The area was a "pool" of West Nile Virus, he said. Several people had caught it. Song birds had disappeared. Perhaps it had spread to the pheasant.
But nature is inscrutable and offers compensations. Along with turkeys, the deer population has soared. Never have I seen so many trophy bucks. Once, in the woods, I heard the approach of heavy breathing and turned to encounter a magnificent specimen the size of a horse. The success of the deer ought to be a cause for cheer. But on returning home, I discovered that rutting bucks had scraped the bark off my recently planted maples, destroying them perhaps. Suddenly, these emblems of grandeur became varmints in my sight. Such are the conflicts between nature and culture.
Kansas itself seemed a state of paradoxes as we drove west. Crop prices are up, but so is the price of land, making prospects of a return on investment dim. The farmer we visit foresees the day when the entire county is owned by three or four huge farming operations. The price of oil has provoked a frenzy of drilling. Derricks pump wealth into dying Kansas communities - even as their source of water is drying up. For every blessing, a curse.
A farmer's wife who'd come to Kansas from the West coast confessed that she lives through the growing season in a state of perpetual anxiety. Will it rain too much or not enough? Will a bumper crop knock the bottom out of the market, or must there be a crop failure to drive prices up? Her native Kansas neighbors, inured to disappointment and disaster, counsel her that everything will work out in the end. Kansas is teaching her to persist. Last winter, her family went without electricity for 13 days.
Ad astra per aspera, without a doubt. Bitter harvests, glorious hardships, constant flux. To the stars - or some other place - it remains to be seen.