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On the hunt for bushy tail

Dear Uma: The production of animals for food now occupies 70 per cent of all agricultural land and the environmental damage is horrendous, as is the effect on our health and well being.

Dear Uma:

The production of animals for food now occupies 70 per cent of all agricultural land and the environmental damage is horrendous, as is the effect on our health and well being. The world’s population is not only growing, but getting richer, making the demand for animal protein grow along with it.

What food source provides the same protein, calories and fibre as animals and not only does no damage to the environment but actually contributes to its health? They produce no dung, with the attendant methane gas; in fact, they remove the dung of animals as well as pollinating crops and controlling crop pests. There are six million species, compared to only a few hundred animals, and a thousand of those species are already being eaten worldwide.

These creatures are the most distantly related to us, which means less transferable diseases as well as no emotional connection.

In case you haven’t guessed, the answer is - insects. They have already been a source of food in many countries for many years and now western countries are experimenting with making them an acceptable food in our culture. The best way of doing this is to make them desired by rich folks; make the dishes featuring insects expensive and exotic - at first. This is being done, mostly in Europe, by featuring marvellously beautiful food made with bugs being eaten by marvellously beautiful people in stunning surroundings.

Having tea with Cee one morning, I was sharing this information about the food of the future, adding that unbeknownst to most of us, we are already eating bugs. If you eat canned tomato soup, peanut butter, chocolate, or drink fruit juice in cans, you are ingesting insects. If you wear lipstick and chew it off, you are ingesting bugs. Many processed foods common on our shelves contain a red dye called cochineal made from a South American beetle.

From this fascinating bit of information, the conversation quite naturally stayed on the subject of food, as it so often does as Christmas nears, that time for gustatory delights. Cee gifted me with another moose roast, and a reminder that I had once said I would myself go hunting. I reminded her of the circumstances surrounding that statement; it’d been a Happy Hour, and the understanding is no one will ever be held to anything said at any HH at any time. However, I told her loftily, I would actually be interested in going on a hunt sometime, as an observer only, whereupon she told me of an opportunity to hunt some protein that very afternoon.

Cee can be relentless sometimes in her desire for a follow-through on something one has casually mentioned in passing, and combined with my need to be regarded as a sourdough in the making, I found myself agreeing to go hunting with a fellow she knew who was going out that very afternoon. Knowing that the season for hunting moose or caribou was safely over, I thought I could probably handle the small deaths of ptarmigan or grouse, and the promise of a demonstration of how to prepare, cook, and eat whatever was bagged clinched the deal. I have plucked, and survived the experience; I knew I could handle it.

Jerry, a small and taciturn man of advanced middle age, picked me up that afternoon, getting out of his truck to come around and open the door for me to get in. His dog, an enormous, smelly Chesapeake sat next to him on the bench seat, leaving me a narrow place tight against the door. After introducing himself and the dog - her name was Yvonne - and informing me she was not friendly but would not bite, Jerry had silently devoted himself to the short drive.

He parked his truck by the side of the road and the three of us walked a short way down a well-packed snowmobile trail. He carried a rifle that resembled one my brother had when he was 10; it didn’t look very serious as a weapon unless Jerry meant to use it as a club. I devoutly hoped this would not turn out to be the case, and in an effort to establish the nature of our quest, I asked him outright what he intended to kill on this fine and sunny afternoon.

He looked at me in amazement, an expression so obviously foreign to his features, that it caused them to screw up tight, making his face look like a fist.

“Squirrel” was all he said before turning his back on me to walk down the trail, but he said it kindly, I thought.

I like squirrels; there are a few that hang about in our yard in the summer months and provide me with a great deal of entertainment, especially when Amisi ventures outdoors. She is terrified of them, and I think they are aware of this and enjoy tormenting her. I wondered if Jerry knew, as I did, that squirrels hibernate in the winter and that there would be no blood in the snow today.

Well, apparently some foolish squirrels do not sleep the cold months away and in no time at all Yvonne left the trail to indicate to Jerry she’d found one. Jerry neatly shot it, Yvonne fetched it, and I carried it, not daring to refuse what was clearly my role in this expedition. In less than half an hour there were four little furry bodies hanging from my mittened hands and while I was sad they were dead, at the same time I couldn’t help but be proud of my sang froid and my active participation in the hunt.

We drove back to Jerry’s cabin where he would demonstrate step two in the process of hunting protein. There was an old wooden table in his covered porch and he had me toss the squirrels onto it. It was marked with stains that immediately had me imagining where, what and how they came to be there, but before I could get aboard this train of thought, Jerry took a knife and skinned all four squirrels so quickly and neatly that I didn’t have a chance to do more than avert my eyes. Actually, I averted my entire body.

I didn’t want to hear any sounds that might be happening as the fur left the skin, so I kept up a running series of questions, some admittedly unrelated, like the one about Jerry’s favourite colour, or whether or not he had whiskey in the cabin. The only one he answered was the last, plunking a half-empty bottle of Golden Wedding rye on the window sill in front of me and saying, “go ahead, miss.” There was no glass on offer, but I gratefully swigged from the bottle, passing it behind me to Jerry.

The liquor loosed his power of speech and although he talked non-stop as he washed the corpses, his talk was all directed at Yvonne. Clearly, this was a man who had found all the companionship he needed with his dog, though much of what he had to say could be interpreted to be meant for me as well.

When I heard a hissing noise, I turned from the window to see him firing up a blow torch which he then applied to the naked squirrels, all of which had been skewered on a long metal rod and suspended over a tin tub. The bodies quickly turned black, and that was the last thing I remember.

Jerry dropped me off at Cee’s house, muttering under his breath to her before stomping back to his truck.

When Cee was able to stop laughing (god! I hate northerners) she told me Jerry was, despite appearances, a good-natured man who’d enjoyed our time together, appreciated my interest, and happily shared his whiskey. What he really could not tolerate or forgive, however, was the fact I had vomited on Yvonne.


Cheechako Heather

Heather Bennett is a writer who lives in Watson Lake.