Spreading the wealth

Spreading the wealthBy offering gifts of fish, game, and other natural bounty, we can share with others the experience and heritage of our life outdoors. By Alan Charles

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
September–October 2002

I doubted that my new neighbor had ever crouched among decoys while clouds of clamoring Canada geese hovered above her. Nor had she likely ever dreamed of eating one of these delectable birds. But I knew she appreciated the notion of wild geese, because she'd once mentioned she liked to hear them calling during her morning walks.

So I gave her a gift, one neighbor to another—me, an old-time Montana goose hunter, and her, a "new" Montanan, freshly arrived from California and eager to learn about Big Sky Country.

A few days later, she told me that she'd feasted on a home-cooked meal of roast goose and wild rice while listening to a tape of wild goose calls and thumbing through a field guide that explained the natural history of North American waterfowl. She couldn't have thanked me better.

Ask any hunter, angler, hiker, or other outdoor enthusiast why he or she goes afield, and most likely the answer will have to do with the experience itself, the magical moments spent outdoors. We often relive those times outdoors by preparing a meal of wild game or fish, opening a jar of home-canned wild berry jelly, or dusting off a souvenir river agate or shed antler.

As good as those memories can be, they have even more meaning when shared with others. Giving someone a gift of nature's bounty offers an opportunity to pass on more than just a package of game meat or a jar of jelly. It's a chance to share the gathering experience itself, as well as some of the outdoor knowledge and heritage that we've acquired by spending time outdoors. The gift can say something not only about who we are, but also about why we do what we do.

But giving people gifts of game or other natural resources should involve more than just dropping a sack of meat on their front stoop. To do it right requires forethought and effort. For instance, when I presented my neighbor with a freshly plucked wild goose, I also gave her one of my favorite recipes, so that she would know how to prepare the bird. And I included a package of wild rice, two oranges, and a bottle of wine, so that she could properly complement the unfamiliar wild meat. I also gave her a tape that explained the different sounds geese make, and a book about waterfowl, so that she could learn more about these wild birds. Finally, I tucked in the basket a snapshot of my puppy retrieving a goose, to share with her a moment of the hunt itself.

The sharing tradition runs deep through the culture of hunters and gatherers. Nature's gifts have great value, partly because they are difficult to obtain but also because they are so often unique. Many people especially value gifts indigenous to a particular area. A western Montana hunter traveling to eastern Montana might bring jars of huckleberry jam as gifts for landowners who allow access, while an eastern Montana angler might pack jars of paddlefish caviar or smoked sturgeon in the camp box to share with friends on a western Montana trout fishing trip.

And the more care that goes into the gift, the more significance it imparts. A package of elk meat might be annotated with notes chronicling the annual life cycle of a bull elk, or complemented with elk hair trout flies tucked in the package along with suggestions on where and when to use the flies on a certain stream during times when nearby bull elk are bugling.

Maybe a basket of freshly gathered wild asparagus could contain a brief listing of all the various wild animals and birds seen while the asparagus was gathered, accompanied by a note about some historical or archeological event that occurred near the gathering area (May 11, 2002: East of Terry, Montana, junction of Powder River and Yellowstone River: Sturgeon rolling in rising muddy water, paddlefish being caught below Intake. Saw rooster pheasants crowing, first antelope doe with fawn, two white-tailed deer with fawns, numerous turkey gobblers and hens in the river bottom cottonwoods, beavers felling many trees along the Powder River. One of the Seventh Cavalry soldiers wounded in the Battle of the Bighorn, 1876, is buried here; location with historical note marked with a plaque.).

A jar of pickled fish might be cached in a fish-shaped basket that also contains a recipe, a brochure explaining the natural history of the fish species, and fishing tips (including sample lures) that describe how, where, and when to catch similar fish.

The possibilities are as endless as the abundance of Montana's natural bounty and the imagination and generosity of those giving the gifts.

While many anglers and hunters use nature's gifts to say thanks to landowners who open their gates, sharing the bounty is also an excellent way to interest a homebody in the outdoors. Maybe it's someone who grew up in a city and was never introduced to outdoors life. Or maybe it's someone who once enjoyed the outdoors but, due to age or other reasons, can no longer participate in those activities.

Tailoring the gift to the recipient is important. For instance, I would never offer a simple package of deer meat to someone I suspected had grown up on a steady diet of pan-fried venison. Instead, I might prepare some smoked venison, garnish it with a special homemade sauce, and add a list of little-known facts about deer that I thought the person might find interesting.

Or I might offer an elderly hunter a particularly choice cut of uncooked elk and package it with a favorite beverage, a souvenir from my hunt, and some notes about the history of elk in the area where I hunted.

Photographs compiled by a hiker might be parceled out with mementos gathered on the trip. Perhaps a package of dried morel mushrooms could include a scenic photo from the area where they were gathered, along with an explanation about how to identify wild mushrooms, tips for locating the best ones for eating, and ideas regarding proper preparation.

A jar of chokecherry jelly might be nestled in a box of autumn-tanned leaves and other vegetation unique to the area, with an image of a bear track traced on the top of the box and a note describing what it felt like to gather berries in the bear's backyard.

Sharing such intangibles of an outdoor experience is challenging, but the effort is worthwhile. Only someone who has closely seen a rooster pheasant, a wild turkey, a gaudy pintail duck, or a chunky little Hungarian partridge can truly appreciate the vivid colors and intricate patterns of these birds' plumages. Only those who have felt the flank of an antelope can know the unique touch and texture of this animal's hollow hair. These are the experiences we can share with others when we give gifts from nature. A goose quill ink pen, a turkey tail duster, ornamental feather hatpins, hand-tied lures, and homemade decorations are all ways to share not only nature's bounty but also our appreciation for nature's wonder.

Often it's the simple, unadorned things that are most evocative. A pair of pine cones, a sun-dried bone, a single feather, clumps of dried grass, river rocks smoothed by eons of current—these can add texture to a gift and help convey the experience of gathering it.

Our outdoor moments are unique, and our outdoor gifts can be equally so. Sharing the fruits of our recreation is one way we can share with others the magic of our moments spent hiking, hunting, and fishing in Montana's great outdoors. With a little imagination, we can weave into our gifts the sights and sounds of what we experienced, along with the outdoor knowledge and heritage that frame our moments afield.Bear bullet

Alan Charles coordinates landowner/sportsman relations for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks