Feet on the GroundNov 01, 2021 08:00AM ● By Kerry Gyekis
I stood before a group of timberland owners. They’d asked me to do a timber sale for them and I had. What I saw while walking and driving through their vast holdings amazed me. Deer, often five to ten at a time, unafraid of humans, stood in home driveways eating flowers and shrubs. Were these whitetails? They looked like miniatures from an exotic game farm. The forests were mainly mature oak...nice red oak. The forest floor was completely open. There was no reproduction at all. No hunting was allowed on these 1,700 acres—not even controlled bow hunting.
Someone asked why I only marked three to four trees per acre for harvesting when there were more mature, harvestable trees. I told them there would be no reproduction of their oak forest. It would all be eaten by deer. Once these oak trees were cut, there would be no more oak trees.
Then I thought, what the hell, I’ll lighten the mood here. I said, “You know, where I come from, we eat deer.” No one laughed. Most of these folks were from large East Coast cities or their close environs.
I spoke to the forester of the mill that had been the high bidder on the timber. He clearly didn’t want to be there. One of the property owners complained about other logging activity across from his house. Loggers left limbs on the ground. He wanted a park. It was a lesson for me. I thought these folks read the information I’d given them. I assumed they had read the contract—and knew what it meant to own second homes in a large wooded area.
We seem to have an ever-larger segment of the population completely out of touch with fields and forests. Some time ago, after a meeting about pig barns in our area, I asked a farmer who had also attended what he thought of the whole affair. He answered, “Their feet go from carpet to cement to carpet.” Apt.
More than forty years ago I ran outdoor programs for delinquent kids from Pittsburgh. While we roped our way across a stream, one of the kids pointed at the boulders and yelled, “Look at those big bricks!” I’ll never forget that. Another asked me if they turned the water off at night. The kicker came when I was kidding around with them, as is my nature, and pointed to a metal arrowhead stuck in a tree, and said, “Indians!” Immediately three or four of the kids started to run down the trail. They were older teenagers then—they’re middle-aged adults now. Chances are their kids are even more removed.
Where we live, we have had events to get adults and kids living in the towns to visit farms to touch, feel, and taste. Maybe we need to broaden that education to our fields and forests?
If we wish to preserve our lifestyle, we must encourage visitors as well as our local population to appreciate the fields and forests near us. If we help landowners to learn about the plants and animals that actually inhabit their lands, they’ll know more about those fields and forests. What makes good deer and grouse habitat? What cover do songbirds need? What’s a high quality stream area? What does a blue heron rookery look like?
In another job as the Tioga County planner, just about every development proposed in the county came across my desk. I saw many older farmers selling off their land. Sometimes large acreage changed hands for hunting, a seasonal cabin, and other forms of outdoor recreation.
But as time passed, that was increasingly not the case. Instead, the land would be subdivided into small lots or sold to owners who would forbid hunting or trapping. Most of us have heard these stories.
Many planned developments felt disheartening.
I have met many people at different times of my life. I’ve lived with stone-age men in the jungles of Malaysia, experienced Western ranch culture, and helped indigenous Americans harvest timber on their land. I’ve traveled through South Vietnam, staying on U.S. Army bases and talking to G.I.s. I more recently found my lost family in a former Communist state and helped family members find their origins in yet another place.
In short, the experience of a variety of places and lifestyles showed me what we have right here is pretty special. I know people who are traditional hunters. I am close to folks who do not hunt or even eat any meat. Among my friends are those who advocate complete preservation as well as some who are pro-development. Most of my friends are as I am—somewhere in the vast middle.
Most of the people I know, or whom I’ve met through the years, care about the land whether they were born and raised here or are refugees like me. The land is the common denominator. Many who stayed did so because of the land—and the quality of life it offers us. It is a great common denominator. I believe that now, more than at any other time in our recent history, our society of hunters needs to find the common bonds. I’ve seen it work.
Wouldn’t it be fun to see hardcore hunters and trappers tagging along with little old ladies in tennis shoes who don’t eat meat and wouldn’t kill a flea? Or maybe with a kid who has never been around someone who actually kills and eats game, but thinks nothing of pigging out on Mickey D’s burgers? One thing I do know—it will produce bonds. That can only help.