Saturday, November 30, 2013

Some of the Hardest Lessons

I sit here tonight glaring at my computer screen with a heavy feeling on my chest. Today, early this morning, I trudged afield at 5:30 to my deer stand for the opening day of modern firearm season here in Maryland. By 9:00 I was following a blood trail that ultimately led to a dead end, a 200 acre bean field where there were no deer in sight. It was obvious that my shot had not been immediately fatal, and that I had lost an animal. 

I am not a deer hunter in the purest sense. I spend at most four days a year in the woods going after the whitetail deer, all with a firearm. I do not own a bow. I am not a trophy hunter. I deer hunt for no other reason than to put wholesome, truly free-range, and sustainable meat on my family's dinner table. But regardless, I like to think of myself as an extremely ethical hunter, one with a respect for the animals I pursue that verges on reverence.  Killing an animal has always been a very emotional experience for me, which may sound weird to the non-hunter.

But a last-second jolt by a deer whose shoulder was in my cross-hairs likely sent my shot further aft than I intended. Today I was, for at most a minute, an impatient hunter. I returned to the farm where I hunt this afternoon for a complete scouring of the woods. I left no stone unturned until the blood trail ran cold. For someone who takes responsible hunting as seriously as I do, and for someone who insists on a clean and quick kill above all else, I find myself ashamed tonight. A powerful emotion.

Perhaps I am being too hard on myself. But it is through this reflection, and self-flagellation, that I ensure this never happens again. But in hunting, the lessons learned for next time, can be incredibly difficult this time. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Kline Online's Annual Thanksgiving Post 2013

Man what a year. I was promoted at work, sold my first ever speech for real money, shot ducks in Arkansas, caught speckled trout in Louisiana, had another record year for blog hits (despite being about half as productive, blog-wise, as 2012), got my Masters Degree from Johns Hopkins University and most fantastically, I became a dad. Its pretty incredible when you stop and think about it that, in the space of a year, you go from thinking kids are a possibility some time in the future, to two of them being a a very real and very loud reality. For all of these reasons, and a bunch of others, 2013 has been a very cool year.

There is obviously lots to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, close family, good friends, a warm home in a beautiful place, but I would be remiss if I didn't thank the one person who makes my life as good as it is, my wife Kim. She is an amazing human being, with reserves of patience that are just astounding. When the kids are screaming, often in unison, and often at 3 in the morning, it is enough to drive even the most centered person around the bend; but Kim hangs in, rocking and soothing Alex and Emily understandingly. She lives a life these days that is never more than a minute away from complete meltdown, times two, of course, and she does it with an aplomb that causes a more mortal person, like myself, to pause in wonderment.

This summer, when we were talking about ways of cutting back on the family budget to prepare for the arrival of Alex and Emily, I mentioned giving up my hunting leases, not insignificant (nor wholly necessary) expenditures. Kim wouldn't hear of the idea, and in the process of telling me to keep my leases, uttered the words that every hunter in all of the world hopes to hear from their significant other, "I want you to hunt." Maybe this was her way of having me out of the house on Saturday mornings from November through the end of January, but I suspect it was her completely selfless desire to let me continue doing something that made me happy. What it has succeeded in doing, is making me think of her every time I look out over a decoy spread.

As I sit here writing this, a superfluous undertaking if there ever was one, my wife has managed to bake several batches of cookies; the children are generally content; the house is almost done being decorated for the holidays. I have only managed to sneak a dollop of cookie dough from the bowl. I can't help but think this is what Martha Stewart would be like if she were a real person. Meanwhile, it takes all the energy I can muster to get up and load the woodstove. I am not entirely sure that I have ever done anything to deserve having this kind of woman in my life, but I am sure glad that I do have her. If our kids turn out to be functioning and contributing members of society, that society will have their mother to thank. If they know the ins and outs of Richard Nixon's environmental policies, well, then you can thank me. Or blame me, whichever you prefer.    

I am also thankful for my sister, Jenn, who has always been a huge part of my life, and has become a huge part of the life of my kids. She decided not to have her own, but she has fallen in love with Alex and Emily in a way that is extraordinarily special to watch. I could not believe any more strongly that ties to family are essential in life, and it is so important to me to have family involved in the lives of Alex and Emily. Aside from Kim, Aunt Jenny is my best friend, and she's the most genuine person you could know. Like her younger brother, you don't have to wonder what she's thinking...she'll let you know.

Waiting for my commuter bus one morning, outside, and not far away from the boat launch at Kent Narrows (yes, I pick up my bus in a rather scenic locale), blustery winds and a sharp chill were in the air. I looked around at my fellow commuters, grimacing and bundled up tight, and thought, these poor, timid, souls, have never watched as a group of diver ducks skirt the decoys, wings cupped. They've never watched a group of ten Canada Geese circle over a field decoy spread, twice, three times, four times, growing ever-lower, until they finally commit, feet down, wings locked, right into the hole. They've never watched the woods come to life sitting in a tree stand. I was the only idiot in the group who, full face exposed to the cold, took a deep breath and smiled. This will get those birds moving, I thought, perhaps out loud. "You like this weather??" came from a scarfed legal secretary. "No, I don't like it, I love it, it will get the birds moving." She looked at me like I was a bird. 

I am thankful that I get to live in this special place, where the seasons are marked by outdoor pursuits, the folks in my neighborhood know my name, and wave to me when they walk or drive by. I did not grow up on the Eastern Shore, but I am thankful that I will have the opportunity to raise my kids in this place, that they can learn the ways of the world at a slower pace than they might in other places, maybe take a little longer to grow up. 

The fire is aglow in the woodstove, my glass is full of bourbon, my wife is in the rocking chair beside me reading, and the kids are upstairs snoring. In these few moments of peace and quiet, it is nice to reflect on the immense blessings that life has given me this year, and many years past. In a world of serial complainers, I can sit in these moments and think that the best we can ever hope to do, is find contentment in that which is most common, the warm and joyous blessings of the everyday. 

Friday, November 08, 2013

The Pheasant Hunting Exploits of Senator Ted Cruz

A piece I wrote that was published in The Hill newspaper.

Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, lately key architect and strategist of the federal government shutdown, and champion of slashing spending of all kinds, had the good fortune to spend the opening day of Iowa’s 2013 pheasant hunting season at a premier western Iowa hunting lodge, whose best acres are conserved with a big assist from federal Farm Bill conservation programs.

Photos indicate that the senator’s hunt was successful. Good for him. Amidst the smiles and photographs, Cruz might have left the lodge thinking 2013 is a great time to be an American sportsman. But across the rest of the state, pheasant hunters are dealing with a far different reality – and much less shooting.    

During the Iowa pheasant openers of years past, tens of thousands of resident hunters across the state kenneled countless varieties of birddogs – German shorthaired pointers, English setters and Labrador retrievers – placed guns behind their seats and set out for prime pheasant country. They didn’t have to drive far. This was the way things were in autumn in Iowa back then. It was as sure a sign of the season as the harvest.

When birds and hunters were plentiful, permission to hunt was often as simple as knocking on a landowner’s door. On the best of the good old days, hunters could limit out on pheasant roosters faster than they might want to, jumping eight to 10 coveys of bobwhite quail in the process, a good harbinger of upland wildlife habitat health.

These days, you’d be lucky to move one covey.

The decline in pheasants and in pheasant hunting in Iowa has been alarmingly precipitous. Every August, in the humid Iowa summer, Department of Natural Resource biologists set out on what they call “roadside population surveys,” salt-of-the-earth wildlife professionals driving around in 30-mile segments counting the pheasants they see along the side of the road. The state has been using this method to collect population estimates for pheasants for half a century, and these windshield counts are amazingly accurate. Across the state, biologists log 6,000 miles in search of birds.

In 1995, the roadside count averaged about 45 bird sightings per 30 miles of driving. That year hunters harvested 1.4 million pheasant roosters. It would have been one of those years, like so many before it, when blaze orange filled the fields, the hotels, and the restaurants of the region, supporting a powerful rural economic engine.

But the same roadside surveys conducted in 2010 produced an average of 11 birds per 30 miles, and the harvest was just 238,000 that year, a record low at the time. The most recent surveys, conducted in August of 2013, turned up an alarming 6.5 birds per 30 miles; this year’s harvest might not even top 100,000 birds.
Of course, as the birds go, so go the hunters. In 1997, 200,000 hunters chased pheasants in Iowa. By 2010, that number fell to about 60,000 hunters. As pheasants have become rarer, landowners have become less likely to grant hunters access to their land; to counter this, some hunters have begun to offer money for hunting rights, something that could fundamentally alter the hunting landscape.

The Conservation Reserve Program in the Farm Bill serves as the bulwark for upland bird habitat. CRP is a voluntary program that’s been in place since 1985.  Farmers once enrolled in CRP in droves as a way to ensure that that their agriculturally unproductive acres would generate some annual income. But in the last decade or so, as crop prices have skyrocketed, no acre is deemed unworthy for planting. Farmers have understandably responded to the commodity market, taking acres out of CRP as quickly as they once enrolled them. In some cases, the CRP payment a landowner might expect is only half what that same landowner could receive for renting the land for farming; as a result, between 2003 and 2012, Iowa has lost 1200 square miles of pheasant habitat. Nationally, CRP enrollment has fallen to levels unseen since the 1980s, when the program was just ramping up; we are seeing the steep downward trend of a 25-year enrollment bell curve.

As the federal investment in these essential private lands has evaporated, bird populations have dwindled. In Iowa, the loss of CRP acreage has pushed pheasants onto shrinking parcels of quality habitat. To access that habitat, hunters should pack their wallets. Hunters still can experience the good old days of traditional pheasant hunting success by visiting one of the state’s many hunting lodges, but these hunts are expensive. For the hunter who can afford the experience, the ease of filling the game vest may be deceptive. 
Enter Sen. Cruz, who would do well to remember that those acres he hunted last weekend, while privately owned, have been conserved with the support of federal taxpayer dollars – exactly the same dollars he seeks to cut. Cruz should join sportsmen-conservationists to make sure that the opportunity to enjoy productive hunts isn’t just the purview of the fortunate few but remains broadly accessible to all sportsmen and women. He can help ensure this by joining lodge owners, guides and countless American hunters in supporting CRP in the Farm Bill.   

The hotels and restaurants in many rural communities are empty these days come pheasant season. But if history is any indication, if the birds come back, the hunters will, too.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Of twins and time and blogs.

Well, they are here. Soon-to-be-six-weeks-old Alexander Benson and Emily Grace Kline. We have them solidly on the Harvard track, reading them articles from the journal Science at bed time, and soothing them with Bach's various cello concertos at low volumes throughout the day. Their eyes no longer cross when we whisper the coefficient of kinetic friction into their ears, which we think is fine progress indeed. We are going to sit down with Ivy League admissions counselors over the holiday break to "plot a course to admissions success." They say you can tell a person's net annual income prospects when they are just a month old simply by the way they grunt when they poop, we feel they will both be solidly in the upper tax bracket.

It would be goofy for me to sit here and say I don't have time to blog. This blog is not titled "Exploring the Obvious with your host, Steve Kline" for a reason. I had off for a month, during which time, I had lost the concept of time. I had no idea what day it was, no sense of the hour. When you exist in three hour shifts (roughly the time between feedings), the notion of time becomes suspended in a cloud of Gerber Good Start formula dust.

This experience has not been emotionally revolutionary for me or for my wife; at least not yet. When I first saw the babies, I did not fall head over heels in love, nor did I feel the tectonic plates of my life shift profoundly and immediately. I am sure they will over time, as I learn more about my babies and they learn more about me, and our bond strengthens. I look forward to that with warm anticipation. I am pumped to be a dad. But right now, being a dad means feeding, burping, changing, and soothing. And trying to keep my wife, who is a wonderful stay at home mom with a mountain of patience, reasonably sane. Predictably, the babies have been a mix of frustrating and awesome, I suspect this will continue for, oh, about the rest of my life.

The road to Hell is littered with good intentions. That is my one line reflection on my wife's pregnancy and child birth and the six weeks since. And I don't mean that about the kids, but about advice and the commentary that people feel compelled to share. Everyone has an opinion about literally everything, and they want to share it with you, really, really badly. Of course, like most other opinions, opinions about childcare can be ill-informed gut feelings delivered emotionally and usually by people who haven't raised kids in decades.  Some of that stuff is valuable, and based on real life trial and error, but so much of it is also judgmental and self-righteous. You grin and bear it, mostly because you have to, but sometimes you have to live on the knife-edge of your own patience.

And there are of course those people who feel the need to tell you that your life is about to change in ways that you can't even begin to comprehend! Really? Huh. I didn't think adding two infant lives to my household would be more than a slight speed bump in the story of my life, so thanks for the  heads-up, sport.

This is not going to become a daddy blog, a phrase and an idea that I find patently ridiculous. I didn't know what a daddy blog even was until a few weeks ago, when I was forwarded a link to one. It was almost impossible to read because the sanctimony was turned way up, but I find the idea that me writing about raising kids may be interesting to anyone else but me and three other people to be absurd.  I started to get a little twitchy when I discovered that an entire genre of daddy blogs actually exist. Being a parent is not profound, billions of people have done it throughout history. It is important to you, and to those kids, but the fact that you are doing it now, in the age of easily accessible online blog hosting, doesn't make it something worth sharing with the rest of the world. Do that world a favor, and stop trying to attach universal importance to your personal experiences as a father and attempting to draw attention to yourself and pay more attention to your kids.

Speaking of which...