Wednesday, October 27, 2010

All Soul's March

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1994. All rights reserved.

In the crisp chill of October night costumed children toddle down darkened lanes, their tittering voices fending off silence.

They come dressed as ghouls and monsters, aliens of outer space and starship captains from the 25th century. Masked as heroes and demons, wild animals and crazed villains, our youth knocks upon the doors of strangers demanding treats.

In Ireland, once upon a time, it was the adults who dressed up as imps and fairies on All Hallow's Eve, painting their faces and shrouding their bodies.

This was the year's end, the close of summer, and the spirits of all who died of late were said to wander the night looking for some person or animal to inhabit on their way to the afterlife. It was possession the spirits were after and possession the Celtic people wanted to avoid.

Continued at... All Soul's March

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Out of the Past
Artwork: Halloween Boys

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Hippie Hoedads

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1997. All rights reserved.

Across the Northwest, from the Olympic Peninsula to the Bitteroots of Idaho, thousands of acres of young Douglas fir and white pine grow shoulder high on land clearcut a couple decades ago. These young forests are the legacy of men and women, the hippies of the 1960s, who fled "back to the land" during the early 1970s and found work as reforestation tree planters.

Like the Okies who headed west after the Dust Bowl years, or the settlers who crossed the continent along the Oregon Trail, the long-haired exodus north from California was fueled by idealistic dreams: unspoiled nature, cheap farmland, communal living, freedom from authority. They didn't anticipate depressed local economies, high unemployment, or antagonistic residents.

Continued at Hippie Hoedads
Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Artwork: Man Planting Pine Tree Seedlings by Hansel Miet

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Not Far Removed

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1998. All rights reserved.

Every day for three years I joined millions of people on a mass migration between home and work in the crowded urban corridor between the suburbs of New Jersey and the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan.

My wife was in graduate school at Rutgers University and I was working in an office halfway up the Empire State Building. My memories of those years are a succession of bus rides, train trips, taxi fares and street scenes; the smell of stale smoke, urine, fried meat and diesel exhaust is imprinted in every reflection.

Between the tunnels that fed us into the thick of midtown and the snarl of traffic circles, train stations and Turnpike toll booths that marked a steady succession of townships and cities, was a shock of open space: marshes, weeds, boggy dumps, mud flats, tall grasses and protruding boulders.

Like most other commuters, I presume, I looked out the window and thought "wasteland." Undoubtedly despoiled with toxins and polluted beyond repair, it was obviously a place without worth or it would have long since been developed.

Almost a dozen years later, I realized I missed something. New Jersey nature writer John Quinn produced a convincing study of the Hackensack Meadowlands showing that despite its poor reputation, the area supports a vital ecosystem of birds and fishes and lush plant life far more extensive than anyone would imagine.

Ducks of many species migrate through the Meadowlands; some even reside there. Striped bass are common in these waters, though folks are warned against catching them for the frying pan. Several species of frogs survive in the brackish waters and peregrine falcons have been nesting on factory smokestacks.

Titled "Fields of Sun and Grass," Quinn's skteches and observations of the Meadowlands reveal a rural place not far removed from the urban congestion of Times Square.

At one point, he climbs a graffiti-decorated rocky outcrop called Snake Hill that overlooks forests of chimneys and standpipes, marshy flatlands, and a convoluted tangle of roadways branching off the steady stream of the New Jersey Turnpike that fades into a horizon of hazy buildings.

"Sitting there in the November sun, assailed by the noise of a hundred thousand machines, the collective voices of perhaps a million people and a half a billion birds, I found my convictions as a naturalist challenged by the overwhelming visual and auditory assault," Quinn reports.

"I saw and heard this exultation not as a craven offense against nature but rather as a spectacular confirmation of it."

The Meadowlands is a toxic place, defiled by some of the worst byproducts of 20th century society, and yet it lives and thrives and, in some places, is being restored. It demonstrates how nature incorporates the works of man, however complex and intrusive, and pursues its own agenda.

I once believed that what we call "rural" and what we know as "urban" could be clearly separated. Now I'm not so certain. Even small towns are sporting espresso bars these days and the most remote ranch may be linked via the Internet to daily trading on Wall Street.

Meanwhile, there are crops being grown on rooftops in every major city and more urban dwellers are taking an interest in being frugal and self-reliant. And, as Quinn demonstrates, there remain pockets of open space near the most densely populated cities where a person can stretch out and, for a few moments at least, feel what it's like to be in the country.

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Not Far Removed
Artwork: The Marshes of the Meadowlands Glitter with Sunlight
Fields of Sun and Grass

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Bite Most Deadly

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1996. All rights reserved.

Some folks are afraid of spiders, others snakes. Lightning puts the fear of God in many of us, and so do earthquakes, tornadoes and dark moonless nights. Living in the country presents many special worries, like the threat of wildfire or the potential for flash floods. More cars collide with wild animals on rural roads than city lanes and the chances of eating a poisonous mushroom or contracting the deadly hantavirus are much greater off the beaten path. But there is no threat so terrifying in rural places, or as fatally serious as rabies.

Growing up, I learned to keep a wary eye on grape arbors and tall, dark hedges of lilacs lest some crazed bat should emerge, grab hold of my hair, bite my scalp and infect me with rabies. Older cousins planted a terror of rabies in my pre school mind with accounts of the terrible vaccination shots in the belly that bat bite victims had to endure and how, more often than not, the bitten person went crazy and was committed to an asylum, ranting and raving and foaming at the mouth.

Like most horror stories, and like that nightmarish movie Cujo, there is a kernel of truth at the center of the exaggeration.

Bats are a major carrier of the rabies virus along with skunks, raccoons, squirrels and dogs. Treatment of an infected person does involve a series of shots (rabies immune globulin and human diploid cell rabies vaccine) that must begin immediately after infection. But the shots are now given in the arm, not the belly, and amount to six shots over 28 days. If administered promptly, the vaccine is almost always effective. Untreated victims, or those who get their shots too late, become irritable and feverish, they experience double vision and vomitting. Eventually they'll probably succumb to spasms, convulsions, delirium and death.

Only one person has survived the rabies virus without receiving a preventative vaccine -- a 15-year-old girl bitten by a rabid bat she picked up outside her church in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. According to a report in Scientific American, she didn't display signs of rabies until three weeks later, when it was too late for the antirabies vaccine.

"Instead of giving her up for dead, the doctors decided to 'shut the brain down and wait for the cavalry to come' by inducing a coma to give her own immune system time to build up antibodies against the virus," the report stated. Rodney Willoughby, an infectious disease specialist at the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, devised the treatment credited with saving the girl, which has since become known as "the Milwaukee protocol."

Since 1980, there have been 36 human deaths from rabies in the U.S., but in 12 of those cases the infection occurred outside the U.S. More than half of the victims were infected by the kind of rabies associated with bats, but only one had actually been bitten by a bat.

The rabies disease, known as hydrophobia, is transmitted through the saliva of a warm blooded or fur bearing mammal, including man. You do not have to be bitten to get rabies. Most often, it infects people who handle wild animals or have pets that come in contact with wild animals. The virus can travel from a dog's saliva into the human bloodstream through an opening as small as a hangnail or the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose or mouth.

In the 1950s, rabies was infecting U.S. dogs in nearly epidemic proportions. A household pet could be carrying rabies for weeks or months without showing symptoms? Widespread pet vaccinations and licensing helped curb the number of infections. There were 6,949 confirmed rabies cases in dogs in 1947; there were 111 in 1996.

Lately, though, rabies is spreading again, this time in skunks and raccoons. Some states have controlled the advance by feeding their wildlife a bait loaded with a rabies vaccine; others have found this technique too expensive. The best ways to avoid rabies are pretty simple:

Vaccinate the pets. Stay away from wild animals. Deter wild animals away from the house and pets as much as possible. Avoid and report animals acting strangely. Keep pets indoors at night. If bitten by an animal, capture it if possible. Wash the bite with soap and water for 15 minutes. Go immediately to a doctor or hospital. Only by monitoring or dissecting the animal culprit can health officials determine whether it has rabies. And only by starting the series of vaccination shots -- a five-shot series of minute amounts of the dead rabies virus and a shot of immunoglobulin -- immediately can a person be assured of surviving the encounter.

I don't fear bats like I once did, and I'm relieved to know the belly shots are a thing of the past, but I still move quickly through the grape arbor and try to keep my hair under a hat.

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
A Bite Most Deadly

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Flavor of the Basque

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1996. All rights reserved.

There is a story told by Idaho's Basque sheepherders about Basa Faun, a gigantic hairy ogre that resides in mountain caves and feeds on human flesh. A handful of salt in one's pocket will keep the beast away, they say, but one poor shepherd was careless and got caught unawares.

Basa Faun grabbed the trembling shepherd and said, "If you state three irrefutable facts I shall not feast on your flesh today."

The shepherd thought a moment, then told Basa Faun, "Some say that when the moon is full, night is as clear as day. That's not true.

"Some say corn bread is as good as wheat bread. But that's not true.

"I say, had I known you were going to be here I wouldn't have come. And that's true!"

Basa Faun kept his word and spared the shepherd, who never again left his sheepherder's wagon without salt in his pocket.

Idaho author Darcy Williamson included this story in her collection of recipes and stories, "Basque Cooking and Lore" (Caxton Press). A veteran cook with a half dozen cookbooks to her credit, she tested and refined all 107 recipes included in the Basque cookbook.

The meals prepared and the tall tales told by Basques in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon are not the same as those in Europe, Williamson explained. The environment of the Rockies, its food sources, and the experiences of Basque immigrants and their children in this country has changed the native culture. "Their recipes are founded on traditional dishes, but they are also uniquely different," Williamson noted.

Chukar and steelhead, for instance, are not found in the Basque homeland. But in the Rockies Basque-style chukar roasted with strips of bacon and garnished with grape leaves is based on old country poultry menus, and steelhead baked with onions and peppers is influenced by traditional seafood cuisine.

Dishes featured in the book include chick-pea and fresh mint soup, berza (cabbage with short ribs), blood sausages, chorizos, chimbos (small game birds with garlic and parsley sauce), boletus custard and tongue with wild mushroom sauce.

Though she is not Basque herself, Williamson grew up among Basques in McCall and was interested in the people and their culture. "Most of my recipes came from men," Williamson pointed out. "In the old country the men prided themselves on their culinary skills."

The Basque men were also more eager to share stories than were the women Williamson met. One acquaintance led to another as the author traveled throughout Oregon, Idaho and Nevada, and she kept a growing file of stories and recipes stashed away until she was ready to write her book.

One story she heard in Nevada told of a young man named Jose who immigrated from the Euzkadi region of northern Spain in the fall of 1922. A strict immigration quota had been set in 1921, but because of a labor shortage on sheep ranches Idaho and Nevada congressmen got special legislation approved making visas available to sheepherders.

Jose and Alejo, another Basque fresh from the Old Country, were instructed to trail a band of 750 sheep over a mountain range to winter pasture. On the second day of their journey they woke to find their camp blanketed with snow and not a sheep in sight.

"Where are the sheep?" shouted Jose.

"You tell me! You're the sheepherder!" Alejo shouted back.

"Not I," said Jose. "I'm a fisherman."

"And I am an innkeeper," Alejo said.
After staring at each other in disbelief, the pair went off in search of the missing flock, which they found winding its way down the mountain towards winter pasture.

The Basque people, according to Williamson, are generally down-to-earth and conservative. Like Jose and Alejo, their interests and occupations extended far beyond sheepherding. Basque cookery, like the people, is hearty, straightforward and moderately spiced.

Williamson's personal favorite among the dishes profiled in "Basque Cooking and Lore" is Basque-style paella. The paella is made with baked chicken, shrimp, clams, and green olives. These ingredients are cooked in a chicken broth with garlic, onion, green peppers, tomatoes and rice, and seasoned with coriander, salt, pepper and a sprinkle of sherry.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Real Cowboy Hats

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1995. All rights reserved.

Real cowboy hats don't have feather bands, nor do they come in mink fur or shades of mauve. The real thing, like the Stetsons and Resistols of old, is 100 percent fur felt. It's sturdy enough to weather gully-washers and to withstand horse's hooves, and it comes only in basic colors: good-guy white, bad-guy black and wrangler tan.

It used to be, a hundred or so years ago, you could tell where a cowpoke hailed from by the style of his hat. High Plains horsemen wore hats with wide brims to shade them from the glaring sun. Backcountry packers and riders in wooded areas favored hats that were narrower, to avoid tree limbs, and more bowed, to keep rain off their necks.

Nowadays mass production of cowboy hats has messed things up, but there are still some distinctions among real-life working cowboys. Your Texas cattleman, for instance, still wears a conservative rancher-style hat with a crease down the center of a six-inch crown and a dent along each side.

Most Nevada buckaroos, on the other hand, seek out the scruffiest, most old-fashioned hat imaginable and wear it with great pride.

And only bankers and other city dudes wear those black, short-brimmed bowlers.

The earliest cowboy hats were self-made fashion statements the likes of which won't be found in any store. Hat-makers started off by digging a hole in the ground the size of a man's head. Then a piece of wet rawhide was stretched over the hole and nailed down.

Into the middle of the wet skin the cowboy would stuff several handfuls of grass and shape the crown from the inside with his fingers. The brim was tamped down and cut to whatever width the maker desired.

Once the rawhide dried, it was smoked and heated over a campfire for waterproofing.

Such hats, which date back to the early 1800s, did not last long. Their brims wore like corrugated cardboard, according to historical accounts, and broke apart in chunks after a few months.

Not many cowboys make their own hats these days unless they are professional haber-dashers like Tom Hirt in Colorado. Hirt uses early-century techniques to custom-craft hats from a dense Beaver fut felt. He cuts and shapes the hat by hand, but instead of using a hole in the ground he forms the crown using antique wooden blocks, or "lasts," to get the head shape he wants.

Hirt then works the brim on a heat press to create the sloping dip of a Wyoming cowhand's hat or the "pencil-roll" lip of a riverboat gambler's. After sanding and oiling the fabric to a smooth finish, he ties a simple leather cord or a colored ribbon around the brim.

No feathers, no buckles, no flags on these hats. Real cowboys, their character molded by austere landscapes and a frugal lifestyle, disdain such adornments. The only concession to vanity may be found in gold lettering along the two-inch-wide leather sweatband inside the crown: the cowboy's name.

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Real Cowboy Hats

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 2007. All rights reserved.

In a quarter century of driving I figure I've put more than a million miles on various cars and trucks, most of it on rural two-lanes, gravel drives and dirt roads. This includes several cross-country migrations through 36 states and one Canadian province, across prairies, along riverbanks and up over mountain passes.

In all this time, across all those miles, I have not run over a single skunk (knock on wood) or collided with a big game animal (knock on wood twice). Nor has my driving claimed the life of any dogs, cats, rabbits, snakes or tortoises. My only roadkills have been a few birds, mice and a mess of frogs that covered the road in a Kansas thunderstorm one August night.

I mention this not to boast, but to explain why I don't understand roadkills. Drive a few miles some morning along almost any state highway, especially those that cross some rural area, and you will likely find carnage littering the roadway.

How does this happen? Is there so much traffic on these roads that the law of averages catches up with so many cats? Or are there really folks out there who deliberately try to run over skunks so their car can wear the animal's lovely fragrance for the next six weeks?

Is it truckers making late-night runs in loaded-down rigs that can't stop or maneuver quickly that make most roadkills? Or are equal numbers of non-professional drivers out there clipping deer and dogs and doves as they speed along with a cellular phone in one ear?

Just as mysterious to me is what becomes of all those roadkills. By mid-afternoon, I've noticed, most of the morning's carnage has vanished. Gobbled up by scavengers? Scooped up by litter patrols? Broiled away to nothing in the hot sun? I'm not sure.

A small and rather obscene literary tradition has emerged to explain roadkills. There's the comic field guide by Roger M. Knutson, "Flattened Fauna" for naturalists who want to identify roadkills and the culinary classic, "Road Kill Cookbook" by B.R. "Buck" Peterson that helps explain disappearing roadkills.

Most astonishing is John McPhee's journalistic "Travels in Georgia" from his 1976 anthology "Pieces of the Frame," in which he describes a couple of wildlife enthusiasts who pull off the road whenever they see a D.O.R. (dead on the road) and often carry roadkill home with them.

Carol (this is a real person) talks to McPhee as she skins a roadkill squirrel:

"I lived on squirrel last winter. Every time you'd come to a turn in the road, there was another squirrel. I stopped buying meat."

Carol holds up the skinned squirrel.

"Isn't he in perfect shape? He was hardly touched. You really lose your orientation when you start to skin an animal that's been run over by a Mack truck. People don't make sense. They hunt squirrels, but they wouldn't consider eating a squirrel killed on the road."

She sniffs at the carcass.

"M-m-m-m... It has a wild odor. You know it's not cow. The first time I had bear, people said, 'Cut the fat off. That's where the bad taste is.' I did, and the bear tasted just like cow. The next bear, I left the fat on. How do you like your squirrel cooked? Rare or well-done?"

What becomes of roadkills? Maybe I don't want to know.

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Artwork: The Bloodied Roadkill of a Male Koala Alongside a Country Road, Australia