Sunday, June 3, 2012

Fat of the Land

My first pig. 
Several weeks ago I had my Michael Pollan moment and shot my first wild pig. For those not familiar with him, he’s best known for food activism of sorts, and for his many books which include The Omnivore’s Dilemma (which was actually recommended to me by a vegan friend several years ago). In this book he chronicles his quest to prepare a completely foraged meal, in the course of which he shoots his first wild boar. Around that time I had become quite interested in the pursuit of such, and his blow-by-blow account of the hunt clinched the deal for me. Still, it took another year or two for me to get around to it, mostly because I’m usually too busy hunting ducks or fishing when I’m not indoors working. Hunting pigs is on another level entirely, and I quickly learned much about hunting and preparing bigger game and quite a few other things along the way.

My experience was quite different from Pollan's, maybe because I'm more familiar with hunting than he was, but in any case my hunt was by all accounts a supreme success: this had as much to do with the skill and experience of our guides as with my mental preparation and visualization. Before the hunt I spent quite a bit of time at the range with my rifle, a nice little 7mm short mag Winchester, a flat shooter. I knew that rifle shooting was very different from shotgunning, which I’m used to from hunting waterfowl and upland game. Different in one very good way at least, in that you have time to think about your shot, to zero in and really feel the target, which unlike most waterfowl is large and not moving in an unpredictable course above your head in the rain at 40-50 mph. Still I knew there would be unique challenges in finding and stalking a pig, getting off a shot, and making a clean kill.

My excellent friend Roy Howell had a spot open for me on a hunt with Rhinos Guide Service, an outfit with property up in the mountains west of Cloverdale in southern Mendocino County, south of Booneville, near Malliard Redwoods State Park. We met in Cloverdale for lunch on a Friday afternoon in late April, then caravanned out to the property, following logging roads for 30 or 40 miles into the remote backcountry, legendary for the cultivation of primo bud, and, as it turned out, pig hunting. After passing several locked gates and crossing some beautiful clear steelhead spawning streams, we arrived at the hunting camp, situated by a creek in a clearing in one of the many canyons that run through the property. Here we unloaded, camoed up, and prepped for the hunt, which would begin that afternoon.         
Kerry Griffith of Rhinos Guide Service
I met with our guide Kerry Griffith, the owner of Rhinos and a consummate outdoorsman. He gave us many invaluable pointers on stalking the pigs, staying quiet and upwind of your quarry, and optimal shot placement. Wild pigs have a highly developed sense of hearing, and an even more highly developed sense of smell, but they can’t see very well at all. This last deficiency turns out to be a good advantage when stalking them. Most of the time, the pigs are constantly moving, browsing and feeding. In the late spring, when the woods and meadows are filled with young delicious sprouting things, they’re gorging on things like wild oats, rattlesnake grass and clover. They basically live in a huge supermarket of free food, and they grow fat, prosper, and multiply. Kerry also explained that we were to carefully pick our pigs, and avoid shooting nursing (or wet) sows, as doing so would not only deprive several piglets of nourishment and condemn then to probable starvation but would create a messy field dressing situation.

One tasty item on the Pig menu- rattlesnake grass.
We teamed up three to a guide, on quads and ATVs, and I went with Roy, and his son David, who I’ve known since he was a baby. David, like me, was on his first pig hunt and was hoping to get a large boar. We drove along a gravel road at the bottom of a canyon, following the creek for a few miles upstream before heading north to climb a ridge, from which we would gradually work our way downhill back toward the creek on vehicles, then on foot, as we scouted for pigs. We stopped several times as we spotted them grouped up hundreds of yards off in the distance- the black, grey, or brown specks of the sows and boars and the piglets much smaller specks swarming around the wet sows.

Scouting for pigs.
We eventually got out of our ATV and headed downhill on foot, the evening light fading to dusk along the gently sloping, intermittently wooded slopes of the canyon, through fresh green meadows and stands of oak and buckeye and madrone. We knew we were likely to encounter groups of pigs in cover, and we did our best to tread lightly as we entered the oak glades. We heard a deep booming call coming from a stand of Oaks, and our guide stopped , puffed out his chest, and flapping his arms like a rooster, silently signaling “Blue Grouse.” I had heard this call before, but thought it might be a boar. The presence of game put us on alert, and we glanced down at our feet occasionally to avoid snapping twigs. 

Suddenly we spotted a large group of pigs browsing within range in a small open meadow between stands of oak. We stopped and waited, as we assessed the situation. Several pigs were in range, but we needed to get our shot (or more than one if we were very lucky) set up, which meant picking out an appropriate pig, then getting into position for a clear shot. I had brought a barrel mounted pair of shooting sticks to provide stability for my rifle-these were very good but were also designed to be used sitting down. I tried to sit and to move into position, scooting on my butt, trying to be quiet and get set up, but it wasn’t working. Roy and David were also trying to get a clear shot, and we wanted David to have the first shot, but he wasn’t quite ready to commit to a shot yet. Several times I would site in on a pig, only to have it wander behind a tree or boulder, or turn out to be a wet sow. It was a difficult, tense situation as we tried to stay quiet and set up a shot. At one point, one pig to our left stopped munching, lifted his head and stared right at us, sensing something. We all became statues, barely daring to breath, until he went back to grazing.

I knew I had to make a supreme effort to relax, but as all hunters know this is a real challenge when you’re on game- the adrenaline is pumping and you have to find your Zen moment and focus on your breathing, as this affects your aim, especially with rifles. I was laser focused, clearly visualizing my shot, in a state of hyper awareness, thinking about the delicious meals I would be putting on the table in the future. In a corner of my mind I also begin to contemplate death in a strange way, and I thought about the scene in the Clint Eastwood movie Unforgiven (one of my all time favorite films) where the trio of hired guns is stalking their prey and is hiding behind some boulders in a gully, just as we were. It’s a supremely un-heroic moment, and to me perfectly captured the prosaic, squalid, bumbling way in which we kill with guns. I knew I was about to take the life of a fairly large animal with a very powerful weapon, but beyond that, there was not much to think about. Kill animal, eat. All good. It’s not accurate to say I don’t feel remorse, I do feel something for the game I kill, and my own particular reverence for life does not preclude taking it when appropriate. When hunting I experience the full clarity of focus and purpose: it’s liberating and calming and thoroughly normal all at the same time. I could say it’s hard to describe, but I just did, so there you are.

After perhaps 20 minutes of our trying to set up shots on several different pigs, our guide finally pointed out a young non-wet sow and whispered to me “you can shoot that pig.” I agreed and was just barely able to get her in my scope- I think her head was behind a tree, but I had a clear shot at the point just behind the right shoulder that is the ideal spot for the bullet to enter. I got up on my knees, and aimed without any extra support on my gun. My aim was steady, and as I have learned to do, just felt the connection with the target somehow- I knew when the moment to pull the trigger was right. My gun flashed fire in the twilight, the pigs all started running, and as the smoke cleared I saw my pig sprint for about 20 feet and then roll over dead. A near perfect shot, clean kill.

Pigs constantly root for food, regularly tearing up
large swaths of the landscape.
After the shot, our guide immediately gave a startlingly realistic pig call. To my amazement, the fleeing pigs all stopped in their tracks, giving us potentially another shot. But David and Roy were unable to get one set up, and eventually set off to follow another group of pigs just beyond us in the next glade after the current group eventually dispersed. (David eventually got his Monster Hawg-see below) our guide and I went down into the clearing to look at my pig. She was a black, sleek young sow of about 125 pounds, perfect for eating. our guide showed me how to gut the pig, lightly scorng the skin on the belly, opening it up and removing the innards. Her stomach was about the size and color of a soccer ball, firmly stuffed with wild grasses and clover. Our guide finished the field dressing, saving the heart for me. I would have saved the liver and kidneys, but it was getting dark and we needed to get back to camp and I didn’t have any plastic bags to carry them in. He showed me how to slit the pig’s tendons above the ankles to make a hole for rope to go through so he could drag the pig by its hind legs to the road, where he would pick it up later in the ATV.

We met up with David and Roy, who weren’t able to get another shot at pigs. We hiked along the stream at the bottom of the canyon in the soft darkness of early evening. As we came to a bend in the stream, Kerry suddenly stopped and pointed with his flashlight to a large group of pigs across the stream in a flat meadow- there must have been 40 or 50 of them, boars, sows and piglets, happily feeding. They moved off slowly from our flashlights but didn’t seem overly concerned. Our guide began talking to them in pig talk, and they gradually approached us again, grunting and chattering away. We stood in the darkness there for 20 minutes or so, chattering away with them before moving on and hiking back to camp.

Hanging the carcass.
Back in camp we hung the pig up by the hind legs and began to skin it, starting at the hind legs and working our way down. After the pig was skinned, we let the carcass cool overnight in the crisp night air of the canyon. Around the campfire, Kerry told the story of Cookie, his pet wild boar, from whom he learned Pig Talk. Cookie, orphaned as a piglet on a hunt one day last year, was rescued by Kerry, who fed her a mixture of cookies and milk, which she hovered up right out of his palm- hence the name. He took her home and raised her in a pen. He said that after being around her for enough time he learned to imitate her sounds, and that he eventually was able to have extended conversations with her. As I experienced firsthand, Pig Talk comes in quite handy in the field. Kerry also demonstrated a masterful ability to imitate many other animals both domestic and wild- a skill I’ve always considered to be essential and worth practicing at any opportunity.

The next day, after tagging along with Roy and David in the morning hunt, we quartered my pig and packed it in ice and plastic bags, helpfully provided by Roy and his friend Bruce. I thanked my friends and the guides, and drove home with a cooler full of top quality pig meat. Along the way I stopped to pick a few large handfuls of fragrant wild fennel that I knew I would use to cook up the first taste of boar over the barbecue.

Roy and David scouting for pigs.
When I got home, I was faced with the task of breaking down the carcass of a medium sized pig- it was a somewhat daunting task, but I took stock of my tools, got some fresh hacksaw blades, and set to it with my filet knife and hack saw. I’m familiar with dressing waterfowl, fish, and rabbits, as well as chickens, upland birds, and other crittters, but pigs are simply on a different scale. I generally cut as close to the bones as I could, looking for what seemed like logical cuts, and keeping the meat in large clumps as much as possible. I sawed the ribs in half lengthwise, then separated them from the spine, creating four sets of rib cuts. I kept the shoulders and hams whole, thinking I would perhaps make a lonzino or cured ham, or at least a larger roast or two at some point. I sawed the hooves off the shank bones, knowing I would braise the shanks for a long time in a Dutch oven for a wild boar osso buco style dish, Parts that ended up smaller and scrap like, I vacuum packed together, as I knew I would be embarking soon on an extended sausage making binge. The leftover spine and neck bones I sawed into short pieces for stews and stock.

I did not do a perfect job of butchering, far from it, but when I was finished I ended up with quite a respectable pile of excellent meat. I did not use any of the head or skin, for obvious reasons- too difficult to deal with in the field. I had originally intended to take everything to a butcher, but I’m glad now I jumped right in and did it all myself. I will definitely study butchering more thoroughly before I shoot another pig and break it down, but it wasn’t that hard really, and I really enjoyed learning about the pig anatomy and about breaking down carcasses. Grilling up the first cuts of pig produced a tasty preview of many fine feasts to come.

Morning light in the canyon.

The entire experience of the hunt involved very much thinking and learning about what the pigs are eating, understanding their habitat, movements, behavior, and even language, and gave me a much deeper appreciation for how we connect with animals in an environment where we don’t intervene much- how they find and consume food, and how we find and consume both similar food and the animals who do this work for us. The Mendocino mountains in late spring are an exquisite landscape that is filled with things to eat for opportunistic, highly adaptable, wily species like pigs, who are a prime example of what I call a “revolving door” species- they go in and out of domestication repeatedly, and have for thousands of years. We have co-evolved with them and many other species in a deeply interconnected way. Tasting the wild oats and rattlesnake grass, I could understand why the pigs gorge on it. Sometimes when I’m fly fishing on a river I eat the bugs that the trout are feeding on to get a more complete idea of what they’re going after.

Mr. David Howell with his trophy boar, one of two he shot.
Killing larger game also has changed my attitude about hunting. When you hunt it’s very common to be competitive with your fellow hunters- in fact if you’re not, something’s wrong. This natural tendency, plus the practices both of catch and release and trophy hunting, contribute to a concept of hunting as something we do not do primarily for food. I specifically chose a smaller pig because I knew it would be tastier, but I also wanted a bigger one, well…just because. I still practice catch and release fishing, but am increasingly conflicted about it, especially after I learned that it’s banned in Germany and Switzerland and can often do a lot more damage to fish than we realized.

As my friends and family know, I dearly love to cook, and hunting and fishing have a deeper meaning for me than simply sport- since I do it so often, I’m basically filling my freezer as appropriate with hormone-free high quality meat and fish. Michael Pollan certainly has influenced me in my thinking about food in general, but the guy who has really turned me on to wild game cooking is Hank Shaw. I met his girlfriend Holly Heitzer last winter duck hunting at Delevan, but at the time I didn’t realize it was she who has been Hank’s partner in crime for so many years. Hank’s book Hunt Gather Cook came out in the last year- I highly recommend it. His website Hunter Gardner Angler Cook is an awesome achievement and something I refer to frequently for some of my favorite recipes. Although I’ve never met him, he’s like my soul brother in his passion for hunting fishing and cooking, and he has done it all and taken it to a completely new level.

The more I learn about hunting and foraging the more I realize that there’s food everywhere for the taking, all you have to do is keep your eyes open. When it comes to certain species like deer, turkeys, and pigs, hunting is actually a crucial part of the ecological management. These species are all experiencing population booms, and controlled harvesting of this wild game can only be a good thing in my mind. Hunting is not an atavistic artifact of pre-industrial society, it’s a vital way for us to be in touch and in balance with our environment. Unfortunately because of the prevalence of the industrial food supply chain and the increasing urbanization of society, we’ve lost touch with it as a way of life-overly politicizing gun issues isn’t helping either.

For me harvesting wild food has become much more than a hobby or purely sporting or recreational pursuit, it’s kind of a holistic practice because it involves ensuring that I collect and process by myself the highest quality food I can find. I love nothing better than to share my game with friends and family in a big feast, where some may be tasting wild game for the first time, ideally complimented with some foraged greens or other treats. To those who don’t understand our connection with wild animals and wild food, this is the best way to begin an explanation.

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