North Dakota Living

Farm, Family, Pheasants: The Fifth Season

In my family, the year is broken up into not four seasons, but five: Winter (also known as basketball season), planting season, summer break (pretty much the month of July), harvest, and hunting season. Each year pretty much follows this pattern. If you want to get married in this family, you can choose July, or risk having someone joke that they can’t make it because of harvest, a basketball tournament, or deer hunting. (I had the audacity to get married during deer hunting season, and some of my relatives really didn’t understand.)

Well, anyway, harvest wrapped up over a month ago, and we are officially in the throes of hunting season. I do love pheasant hunting! I love the crisp fall air; I love hiking around outside; I love camouflage and the smell of gunpowder and the crunch of dried grass underfoot. I love the way the last bit of color is stubbornly clinging on before winter rolls around:


I love those cozy fall nights when everyone piles into the house for dinner, and the sun has gone down, and we cook and eat and laugh together and everyone’s hair is matted to their heads from wearing hunting hats all day.

I love pheasant nuggets, too (I will share a little more about those with you later).


Just a few minutes ago, the last visiting family members drove away from our annual family pheasant hunting weekend to their other cities and their other lives. This year was a success, like always. Everyone except my oldest brother and his family made it out to the farm, and other than missing them in our big group, it was great: The other little ones had a lot of fun running around outside; we realized our little black lab mix, Scout, just might turn out to be a bird dog after all; and the freezers are now stocked with pheasant to use for some tasty meals over the winter months.


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Tonight I was reflecting on all the memories of countless pheasant hunts I have been on over the years. Several years ago, I quit carrying my little Mossberg shotgun and started carrying my Canon instead, and that suits me just fine. I still get the experience, the exercise, and the fresh air, but none of the guilt because let’s face it, I’m a little too tender (or weenie, however you interpret it) to actually feel good about shooting things myself. Anyway, today during one of our last hunts, I tagged along with my camera as usual. This time, though, I took a few minutes to just listen and observe what was happening around me. We were spread out around an abandoned farm yard close to our own farm. The sky was spread with thin gray clouds, and it was just cool enough to chill the tip of my nose. The air in the farmyard was still — there was no wind and little nearby traffic — but punctuated occasionally by flapping wings or squawks of fleeing pheasants, shouts of “Rooster!” or “Hen!” or “Abby, come! Scout, come!” and sporadic gunshots. A flash of blaze orange through the trees now and then, one of the black dogs bounding through the undergrowth, and pheasants fleeing out of the shelterbelts gave the normally quiet yard an electric feel. I was in the center of it all, just taking it in. I loved it. It reminded me of all those pheasant hunts before, from the time I was a little girl until now: each one with a slightly different group of people and each one in a slightly different time or place.

These same observations inspired a poem that I wrote years ago. I had just left a pheasant hunting weekend like this one and was headed back to college, and the words flooded in. I composed the whole thing in about 20 minutes. It just happens sometimes. Some things in my life just make the words pour out.

Maybe it will bring back memories for some of you, too:

A Gunpowder Morning

This morn to remember dawns cold in November
Far to the east are the lightening skies
And six drowsy hunters arise from their slumbers
To rub all the sleep from their eyes
And give birds unaware a surprise!

Up to the north noble pheasants come forth
Among quiet cattails, feeding their fill
Bold in their splendor, about to surrender
To knowledge that breaking the still
Will be hunters bound fiercely to kill!

The pheasants are snacking and white frost is cracking
Beauty runs deep on this day in the fall
The trees form a cage over green-scented sage
This natural haven is small –
But this day is dearer to all.

For off the horizon the sun’s further rising
Has painted the eastern sky soft glowing red
But then there’s a sound, an approaching dust cloud
And one rooster raises his head
He’s filled with a dull sinking dread!

The truck climbs the hill and moves closer still
Then slams to the stop at the edge of the brush
The men pile out; there’s a point and a shout –
Where moments before it was hush
Now there’s maddening rush!

The pheasants are fleeing; one’s flying, not seeing
His fatal mistake on this mad morning run
A shot, then one louder; the smell of gunpowder –
This pheasant is only but one:
Another fall hunt has begun!

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Don’t Forget the Trees

Sometimes, I get so busy in the throes of teaching — handing out papers, collecting assignments, turning on projectors and turning off lights, picking up gum off the floor, repeating what page we are on, helping students remember passwords and telling them for the 17th time what size font to use in MLA style, and ordering them to get out writing utensils, to sit down, to stop poking their neighbors — that I miss out on my very favorite part of teaching: Getting to know the students not as students, but as actual human beings. Humans with stories and lives and experiences and dreams that, unless I do some digging, I might know nothing about.

It’s as if the metaphorical thick and tangled forest of teaching is so dense that sometimes, despite my best efforts, I just can’t see the trees. But those trees are what I’m here for, and every once in a while I get a precious few minutes to focus on one “tree” at a time.

So I get a little break from teaching last week when the senior class is on a class outing for the morning. To my surprise, one lone student shows up to second period senior English. I inquire why she isn’t with her classmates, she gives me a reasonable answer, and we spend the rest of the period working on our various projects in comfortable silence, broken here and there by amiable conversation. I had liked this girl from the first day of school, but she is in a large class of almost 30 seniors and the truth is, I just haven’t had the chance to talk to her much one-on-one. This particular student is one of our oil field transplants, here from Louisiana. I’ve never been to Louisiana, I tell her, but I would like to visit someday. She tells me I should visit New Orleans, but not during Mardi Gras, and Baton Rouge is nice anytime of year. She loves to read; so do I, and the hour passes quickly as we talk about books and music and her other classes.

Sometime during this conversation, I ask about her family. She moved here a little over a year ago with her older brother and his wife. In a matter-of-fact manner, she tells me that both her parents died of cancer — her mom when she was 7, and her dad when she was 11. As she tells me this, her sweet but straightforward voice is broken by  the tiniest trace of sadness.

I am ashamed in this moment, and sad. Sadder than I expect to be. In fact, I need to excuse myself for a few minutes (to the copy machine, because where else does a teacher get a minute to herself?) as I feel tears welling up in my eyes. How have I had this student in my class for almost two months and not known the heartbreak of this young girl’s life? She has experienced more heartbreak than I have, and more heartbreak than any young girl on the brink of womanhood should have to.

Should I blame it on the fact that I have almost 150 students this year, and really, how would I have known this? Six groups of 20 to 30 students rotate through my room every day, 50 minutes at a time. We have 50 minutes to get settled, open books, take notes, cover sentence structure or the Anglo-Saxons or the life of Edgar Allen Poe; to get ready for standards and standardized tests and ACTs and college and careers; to do an assignment, put away books, clean up, and move on to the next 50 minutes. The few rowdy students in each class demand more than their fair share of my attention, and sweet girls like little Louisiana, while I’m so grateful to have them in my classes, sometimes get less. Furthermore, a big classroom full of one’s sometimes judgmental teenage peers is not always the greatest place to share real thoughts, troubles, anxieties, past experiences, and dreams for the future. At least not out loud. Sometimes I get a glimpse of it in my students’ writing.

But it doesn’t matter. I can’t let the craziness of teaching make me forget why I’m here in the first place.

She lives with her brother and his wife, she says, because it is a better option than living with her other brother and his wife, and besides them, there is no one else, nowhere else for her to go. When they moved to North Dakota for her brother’s work last year, she moved too. When they move back to Louisiana this November, she will move too to finish her senior year.

I’m going to miss her when she leaves. I will think about her and wonder how my little student from Louisiana is doing. Where will her life take her? I will most likely never know. I hope with all my being that she succeeds wherever she ends up. And I hope, secretly, that she remembers that senior English teacher she had once when she lived in North Dakota.

I am grateful for the reminder she gave me, yet again, that no matter how thick and tangled and dense that forest of teaching gets, no matter how overwhelmed I feel during the daily grind or how much I feel some days that I am getting absolutely nowhere, that I can’t afford NOT to see the trees.

The trees are why I’m here.