Settin' still as statues, the squirrel hunters wait.
They wait for a tree limb to shake. For a hickory nut to fall. For squirrel teeth to squeak on an acorn.
They wait. The silence becomes physical, like spongy earplugs. Gurglings in the lower intestinal tract, usually masked by nearby noise, now whine loudly and awkwardly. When a single leaf finally drifts into view, pirouetting toward the ground, it's cause to marvel -- an event.
"It's kind of boring," confesses Steve Lanham, the zen master of this squirrel hunt, whispering under the protective groan of an early flight from BWI, "till you actually see one."
It's kind of enlightening, too. So this is how it happens: how even the more passive and peaceful among us can begin to root, urgently, for a kill.
"There's one way in that tree over there," Lanham leans forward and whispers to his acolyte, 12-year-old Brandon Powell. "See him?" He points to an oak out of range. "The tree limb's moving."
The hunt begins. Coming down the hill, stepping into the cushiony silence of downed, rotting trees, avoiding the crackling treachery of sticks and dried leaves, Lanham and Brandon evoke the ancient ritual of Homo sapiens doing exactly this: stalking then slaughtering their dinner. They have not TiVoed this experience. They are not reading about it. This is real.
Lanham leads the way, decked out in camo -- camo hat, shirt, pants, suspenders and belt -- his Marlin .22 rifle slung over his shoulder, a walking stick in his fist, ready to knock down cobwebs. Brandon follows right behind, holding with both hands his Remington 870 12-gauge pump shotgun. The whole scene is very Jedi-master, mentor-mentee here on this 270-acre farm in south Anne Arundel County, where the closest commotion comes from distant, barking dogs and the murmuring buzz of nearby power lines.
(At this hour of the morning, Lanham points out, the power lines merely hum, "but by 7 or 8 a.m., them wires are singing. And by 9, it's quiet again." He notices lots of stuff out here, "just settin' " in these woods, waiting for squirrels to wander by. He is a rifle-bearing naturalist, a plain-talking poet. On his last hunting trip, he watched "ants harvesting leaves." They "looked like little sailboats coming down the tree." This farm is his Walden, and even when the forest quiets down and he's killed enough squirrel for a meal, he's content to stay hidden in the hills, a gun on his lap. "This is what I call recharging my batteries," he says. "It's really low-key. I don't have to be in a hurry. I don't have a deadline.")
Brandon stops. His arm shoots up, pointing. There's the squirrel. The kid ducks low, inches forward, then looks back and Lanham motions him to the left. Disappearing into a tangled grove of trees, he's gone for a few minutes, then finally reappears, cupping something in his hand. A squirrel? That can't be true -- there was no shot. But the contagious, breathless thirst for blood and prey is now outpacing logic: It can't be a squirrel . . . can it?
"I found it lying on the ground," Brandon begins and opens his hands. Inside is a tiny, yellowish bird, breathing fast. "Some kind of a little -- ." He looks at Lanham looking at him, then mumbles, "I'll just put him right here." Brandon tries planting the wobbly bird on a twiggy branch, but immediately it falls to the ground.
"He ain't holding on so good," Lanham says darkly and starts walking away.
Brandon dallies behind to check, one last time, on the bird. Lanham warns, in the stern voice adults use for life's unfortunate lessons, "If he doesn't get himself together, he might become a meal. It's nature's way."
A Squirrelly Existence
Nature's way. That's why they're here, and why, on the dashboard of Lanham's faded, silvery-blue Ram Charger back by the farmhouse, lies a small, spiral-bound book titled "HOW TO COOK WILD GAME," subtitled, helpfully, "First -- Get the Game."
Inside is a recipe for Fried Squirrel. It begins, "Dress squirrel. Wash thoroughly. Cut in pieces for servings." Several steps later, it ends, "Serve squirrel garnished with lemon slices and parsley."
Brandon is a seventh-grader at Southern Middle who prefers, as Lanham puts it, "running and gunning. . . . He's got youth and energy. He wants to go out and get lots of game."
He doesn't, though, really like cooking. He's not even sure he likes squirrel. "It's tough," he says. "Tastes kind of like chicken, but it's tough."
"I love squirrel," Lanham disagrees. "I cook it in a slow-cooker till the meat falls off," then he serves it in soups and stews.
Once upon a time, the 1964 "Joy of Cooking" offered readers a three-sketch illustration on how to skin a squirrel and prepare it for roasting, braising or stewing. One of the steps showed a lace-up boot stepping on the squirrel's tail and gloved hands pulling the animal out of its skin. Those same sketches appear as recently as 1988, but in current editions, the index doesn't even include "squirrel."
For Lanham, this oldtime taste is one acquired over decades of harvesting the varmints: Now 52, Lanham grew up on a cattle and hog farm in Upper Marlboro, back when he could awaken early on a midweek morning and take his gun to the wooded edges of the pasturefield. "I could kill six of 'em," he says, "and be ready for school at 8." He's now teaching the finer points of squirrel hunting -- safety, patience, habitat and aim; it's a "good starting point for deer hunting," he says -- to Brandon, who lives across the road from the farm where Lanham now hunts.
Lanham isn't a farmer. He works at a marina, on Anne Arundel's waterfront, delivering boats for a living, so on weekends and periodic autumn, midweek mornings -- just like when he was a kid -- he heads inland for a respite. "At work, they know if I'm not there by 8 a.m., I've got a deer," he says.
He's one of the stalwarts holding steady among a dwindling number of hunters. In 1991, Maryland's Department of Natural Resources sold about 99,000 "resident consolidated" hunting licenses, compared with about 12,000 fewer such licenses last year. Devoted hobbyists like Lanham are no longer being followed by younger hunters -- a decline that helps explain why DNR moved up the squirrel-hunting season from October to September last year, hoping to get more kids like Brandon hooked on the sport of bagging bushytails.
Which means that hard-core hunters like 71-year-old Raymond Norton -- who kills enough game to keep his family in meat all year -- are themselves becoming something of an endangered species.
Norton is a tall and remarkably broad-shouldered man holding court at his home at the end of the "hard-top road." Retired, he sometimes spends more time during the week hunting than not, and even tonight, looking freshly showered and relaxed, he's wearing pressed olive chinos, a clean camo shirt and a camo belt.
Norton loves squirrel. He loves hunting squirrel. He loves eating squirrel. His is a life lived off the land -- skills perfected to the point where he and his wife visit the grocery to buy milk, flour, bread and butter, and that's about it. He puts up enough food each year to fill four freezers.
At his home in Severn, a few dozen miles north of Lanham's, in the garage that is also a shed and also, many evenings, the family den, he is surrounded by a smattering of antlers from deer he has killed: These nine were gotten with a crossbow, those seven came down with a muzzleloader, and the five over there were shot with a rifle.
He grew up on a cotton-and-corn farm in Alabama -- although "most of my people were from Georgia, to tell you the dad-gummed truth about it" -- but has spent his adult life in Maryland, where he and his wife, Anna, now live in north Anne Arundel County. They keep a vast vegetable garden here, and every year they freeze 800 to 1,000 quart bags of peppers, tomatoes, shelled beans, okra, ears of corn, turnips and kale, and they fill their shelves with canned green beans, pickle relish, grape and peach jellies, and sour cherry and fig preserves. He hunts most weekends, bagging squirrels, deer, turkey and partridges. When he's not shooting, he's fishing with one of the 22 poles that hang from the ceiling of his garage.
Yet out of everything Norton kills or grows, his favorite, by far, is the squirrels. The former maintenance guy who spent his career painting walls for Westinghouse will score 50 to 60 in a season, and once they're skinned and cooked, he eats nearly all the meat. His wife eats nearly none.
"Tastes soapy," Anna Norton says, wrinkling her nose. "I'd rather have rabbit."
Raymond Norton shakes his head. Squirrels, he says, taste "real sweet" when they're young.
(Which suggests the question: How do you tell if they're young? Norton stops. "I don't want to get dirty," he starts, cautiously, then pauses again. "You can tell," he finally says, "by the testicles." Anna clarifies, "By the size." This isn't the only time Norton worries about his colorful language: When describing how he has a "knack" for hunting, he says, "A lot of people, they just go wild as heck -- excuse my language." Anna nods: "They run the game off before they start.")
Finishing his rhapsody in squirrel, Norton adds two final thoughts: "There's a lot of meat on a squirrel," he says, and, "I won't throw a head on a squirrel away. I love squirrel brains. I really do."
Observes Anna, "It ain't made him no smarter."
Back on the farm, Lanham and Brandon are thrashing through cobwebs, heading back to the car. The morning has passed with no squirrels, no kills, nothing to fry.
"We've found more spiders than squirrels." Brandon frowns.
"That's why they call it hunting," Lanham says, "and not killing."
In the Woods
A few weeks later, on another Saturday morning just before dawn, Lanham and Brandon are out again. With multiple layers of camo -- Brandon says he's wearing three jackets and four pairs of pants -- covered with vests of hunter orange, the guys head into the woods again.
"SQUIRREL!" Brandon whisper-shouts before they're even halfway down the first hill. "SQUIRREL!" He pumps the shotgun and leans into it, looking like a plastic Army action figure, his legs stretched apart, his arms shoulder-high and BANG! The noise is a stunning, ear-splitting detonation that makes Lanham's later rifle shots sound like bunny farts.
" 'Dja get him?" Lanham asks. "Yeah?" He laughs. "Now you gotta walk all the way down that hill."
Brandon scurries down a shortcut, sliding through the mud and hopping across the creek. The air smells burnt. "I think he's over there . . . on the other side," he says. "I hope I can find it."
Minutes later, Lanham comes around on the logging road and looks at the base of a big oak. "I think you missed, buddy."
"He fell," Brandon insists.
"I think you scared him, and he jumped off." They circle a few more times, then Lanham says, "Chalk one up for experience there, little buddy."
Crossing the creek again, they sit with their backs against two adolescent tree trunks, looking up at the oaks and hickories, waiting for leaves to rustle. Their legs stretch before them. The guns lie across their laps. The silence descends, again, and then -- "Steve!" Brandon's eyes go wide. "Steve!" He starts to raise his gun.
"Brandon," Lanham cautions. "Hold on. Make sure you can get it."
"He's right there. Big one, too." Brandon raises his gun. Then lowers it. Then raises, lowers, then, "There he is! There he is!" Brandon's up and splashing through the creek. He freezes, then the gun comes up, shoulder-height, and BAM.
Lanham hustles up. Just beyond the big oak tree, white stomach facing up, lies the squirrel.
"One more to make squirrel dumplings," Brandon says.
"You need two of 'em?" Lanham asks.
"Yep," Brandon answers. He's not much for cooking, but the recipe gives him a goal -- and something to talk about until the squirrel dies. The critter's eyes are blinking and he's still breathing, slowly. Patiently, Brandon and Lanham wait because out here, the line between life and death is much fuzzier, much more indistinct, than shoppers who purchase clean, cellophane-wrapped meat from Safeway might otherwise imagine -- or hope. Finally Lanham picks up the squirrel by the tail. "This is sort of the gruesome part," he says and swings the animal's head into the tree, twice. It goes limp. The ribs stop moving. Brandon stuffs it into his front jacket pocket, and the guys head for another hill, where they set and wait, again.
"There's an old saying about this," Lanham whispers at one point. "Two hours of boredom followed by 20 seconds of sheer excitement."
By 11 a.m., they've captured 40 seconds of excitement and skinned both squirrels, exactly like the illustration from "Joy of Cooking." The coats peel easily, like pairs of furry pajamas, and when they head up the hill, back to Lanham's Dodge SUV, Brandon swaggers. On his boot are two bright red drops of blood, and up his right arm are another few smudges.
Swinging in his left hand are two bushy tails.