Our Open Places: Last in a Continuing Series
It seems like yesterday I was planning long excursions after the working day to take advantage of those precious summer daylight hours. This has been a summer of hiking, paddle sports, fishing and finding the special places that are in Holliston and the surrounding community. The summer is now over and with that the inevitable change in daylight hours, temperatures, and wildlife behavior.
Throughout this summer, this publisher has been kind enough to publish some of my thoughts on enjoying the outdoors and exploring our “wild” places. “Wild” might be an exaggeration, as these lands have been heavily populated and changed by human hands for hundreds of years (or longer). Recently I was hiking near a spot cleared for a large warehouse and at first glance, it was shocking to see the entire forest removed. I noticed a series of stone walls moving through the huge plot, and thought it was interesting to see that at one time this was most likely pasture land, possibly farmland before that, for a while forest, and now currently ready for its next phase.
In today’s modern world, there is not much purpose to studying nature. You have to imagine for hundreds of thousands of years people studied the seasons, classified plants and animals, and noticed patterns in the stars. I can imagine to those people it is an endless puzzle. Humans have a fascination with puzzles and continuously trying to notice patterns; it’s that trait that has allowed us to cultivate plants, learn natural medicines, be aware of celestial patterns, and survive in a wild world. That natural knowledge was local and taught orally, later written down, and eventually published through print. Until recently, all of this knowledge was hidden on bookshelves. Today most of our knowledge is digitized and a keystroke away. My point is that so much information is available to us that it might appear as if the puzzle is solved and further investigation to be useless. I disagree with this assumption and think that the observation of nature and wildlife is a teacher full of lessons and experiences that can’t be digitized.
In considering topics for my final article in this series, I was thinking of the amazing places we have to visit in Holliston. I’ve visited so many and love to share my experiences. My original purpose of this series was to discuss in detail the various properties we have to enjoy because many people are unaware of our public lands. As I traveled to each spot, I came to the conclusion that the reason I appreciate them is because they are quiet and a great way to get away from the chaos of modern life. So rather than shine a hot spotlight on a special snowflake, I’d rather readers get out there and find your special places. It’s more rewarding to find your own patches of nature and today there are great resources to help you get there.
When I was a kid we spent a few weeks every summer along a lake near Cooperstown, NY. I remember these weeks well, as we were four siblings looking for things to do in a place with no heat and no television. The phone was a party line, so sometimes you’d pick it up and there were people talking. The highlight of most days for me was the evening fishing trip. The lake was at maximum 40 feet deep, and our boat was an aluminum row boat with an Evinrude motor.
The memory of getting enough walleye to bring home and fry up for dinner or lunch the next day is so vivid. It feels great to be a provider—the excitement of the planning, lure selection, the bite, landing the fish all go into the flavor and satisfaction of that meal. There’s something about wild fish that is special and delicious. It’s unlike anything you can find at the store. In addition to the superior taste and personal satisfaction, harvesting your own fish reduces the need for factory-farmed meat and all of the energy that’s needed to raise and transport animals. Providing your own food is an untapped way to a more sustainable future, but opportunities to harvest fish to eat are limited in Holliston. While we have stocked trout here (which are delicious,) the best fish around here are in the salt water.
Similarly, organizing a garden plot each year is a fun exercise in long-term planning and food production. For the past few years I’ve been enjoying salads, tomatoes, peas, beans, and more at the community garden on Rogers Road. Similar to fishing, creating your own food is very satisfying. It creates a unique connection with your meal. People must’ve felt this for many thousands of years before the current system of cargo ships and distribution. Certainly modern food production is an amazing advancement and preferable to struggling to provide food; however, being able to choose any food you want any time makes the experience somewhat sanitized. Also, there is the issue of flavor and taste. Food shipped in cold storage for hundreds of miles just is not as vibrant as a tomato plucked on a hot August day. If you’ve had black earth on your hands and nurtured your plants, you are filling the human need for “solving that natural puzzle” previously mentioned.
Fishing and gardening are healthy ways to source your own food. Each creates opportunities to enjoy the outdoors and get the satisfaction of creating a great meal. They greatly contribute to a stable and self-sufficient community. I’ve enjoyed these hobbies and the tasty trophy fish fries and tomatoes that go along with them for many years. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I considered hunting as not only a potential opportunity to spend more quality time outdoors but also as a way to harvest amazing food.
Growing up, I and no one in my family hunted and we didn’t look favorably on hunters. I never thought of myself as “a hunter,” but the more I found out about the sport, the more I realized most of my assumptions were not based in fact.
Most people probably have the same opinion of hunting as I did before I learned more about it. The opinions we hold are not newly formed, but most likely formed when we were younger and more impressionable.
Hunting and harvesting wild game was not regulated in North America for a very long time, and we are coming out of the dark days of American Wildlife. Most people of the older generation are still of the belief that hunting is bad for wildlife populations. Hunting and trapping historically were a means to support a community. In fact, historian James Truslow Adams writes that the two mainstays of the Plymouth Bay Colony were, “the Bible and the beaver.” Our Commonwealth was founded on this amazing natural resource.
The first settlers were few, and the wildlife inexhaustible—almost. It would take generations to deplete an area. As the frontier moved West there was a history of wildlife that was seemingly limitless – until it wasn’t. Stories tell of buffalo hunters waiting 25 years for the next herd to arrive and it never does.
By the beginning of the 1900s, the deer population decreased from about 45 million to about 1 million. Elk and buffalo were all but hunted out. The wild turkey, once in the millions, was depleted to a few hidden populations in the country estimated at under 100,000. American Pronghorn were down to 12,000 total. All of this was in the name of progress and settling the frontier. It also happened at a pace so slowly that it was hard to see it happening.
On the positive side, such a dramatic impact on our natural system caused a few sportsmen such as Teddy Roosevelt to take notice. Some who hunted and recreated in the wild saw their way of life and the wild American ecosystem disappearing forever. Hunting was unregulated, populations were near collapse, and the West was cut up by train tracks and barbed wire. Roosevelt and a few sportsmen such as Aldo Leopold banded together to save wildlife from ourselves. The North American model of conservation was born and is the envy of the world.
The North American model of conservation was developed to combat the irresponsible hunting of wildlife and the over development of the West. Through a system of National Parks and public lands, many of our wild places have been preserved with the foresight of conservation-minded law makers. While examining wildlife regulations may seem tedious, it is important to note how successful they are. Without hunters policing themselves and completely changing the laws regarding wildlife, we would not be enjoying nearly as much biodiversity as we are today. Here are the tenets of the American Wildlife Model:
- Wildlife is held in Public Trust
- Markets and Sale of Wild Game should be Eliminated
- Allocation of Wildlife is by Law
- Wildlife should only be killed for a legitimate purpose
- Wildlife is an international resource
- Science is the proper tool for discharge of Wildlife Policy
- Democracy of Hunting (should be enjoyed by all, not a select few.)
The success of this model was not instant. Populations continued to decline and wildlife habitat was developed. Eventually the populations started to rebound and today we enjoy a thriving wild ecosystem of diverse animals. This, right now, is a golden age in American Wildlife. Deer populations are back to the Columbus era levels. Turkeys, once down to 100,000 birds, are now at 7,000,000. The Pronghorn population is up to 1.1 million and ducks and waterfowl are thriving. These animal populations have benefited from passionate conservation-minded hunters who worked to increase their populations. It’s interesting to note a recent study claiming song bird and bird populations are down in the billions with only two increases: ducks and turkeys.
The modern hunter is very different from the market hunters of yesterday. With deer populations thriving, many towns such as Milford, Hopkinton, Upton and Mendon offer hunting opportunities on land owned by the townspeople with just a hunting license. More population-dense communities such as Dover, Sherborn, Weston, and Framingham offer highly regulated archery “permit only” hunting opportunities on land owned by the townspeople. The programs have been very successful with all hunting activities done with archery equipment from raised stands safely away from public trails. A typical hunter will be gone from the woods by the time anyone goes jogging or walks their dog and residents never know they are there. Hunters are coached to cover game while removing it from the woods to not upset residents. The resulting harvest benefits the hunter’s family with meals to last throughout the year!
These programs are typically set up in cooperation with a Mass Wildlife biologist and the Select Board. Mass Audubon, Trustees of Reservations, and other land trusts have implemented these bow hunting programs as a way to further connect with the community and offer superior biodiversity. A high population of deer can browse the forest so hard that ground-nesting birds and other small animals suffer from loss of natural habitat. Typically, Mass Wildlife biologists know the carrying capacity of a property and can help property owners achieve their forest management goals. While a target density is 8-10 deer per square mile, some areas of Eastern Massachusetts have up to 80 deer per square mile because of limited hunting opportunities.
If you are interested in learning more about sourcing your own meat in a sustainable way you can call Mass Wildlife at (508)389-6300. They offer free classes like “Basic Hunter Education” which are funded by Pittman-Robertson funds. These funds are collected from an 11% tax on the wholesale price of all hunting and shooting equipment. The money is used to purchase public land for all to enjoy with hunting access. It’s also used for education. There are other fascinating and free classes such as duck identification and more. Anyone can participate even if you’re not interested in hunting. I know “sustainability” is all the rage and towns want to offer programs that decrease energy consumption or creation of waste. Imagine all the fuel that could be saved if more people hunted and less pork and beef was trucked hundreds of miles to feed us?
I can tell you from personal experience that hunting is difficult. It’s also rewarding. It fills the void of “that natural puzzle” that our ancestors struggled to solve. There is something primal about it. It is very different from everything you’ve experienced in this modern life but immediately feels like natural instinct. Learning archery is a great challenge and physically demanding. Success in the field reminds me of my childhood fish fries and is much more rewarding than my garden harvest. Early in 2020 when meat plants were shut down there was talk of a meat shortage yet my freezer was full.
That’s a satisfying feeling. Such self-reliance is a strong part of being a New Englander.
I would like to thank this publishers for being kind enough to publish these thoughts over this summer. I’ve enjoyed writing about my passion for the outdoors and Holliston’s natural places. Please check out my previous articles in this series if this is your first article of mine you’ve read. I cover reasons you should enjoy the outdoors, how to get started, and also some cool ways you can find a property to explore. Please leave your comments below and get outside to enjoy our public lands!
Links to previous columns: