Wolf Tree: A ‘sweat-equity’ link to the natural world

  • Jay Rasku stands at his home in Ashfield with a bow he is making in Way of the Hunt, one of several classes offered by Wolf Tree Programs in Montague. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jay Rasku stands at his home in Ashfield with a bow he is making as part of a Wolf Tree three-year course called Way of the Hunt. The class teaches its students to become, as its website says, “holistic hunters.” Students learn how to track and read animals so intimately that they can get close enough to strike with a bow and arrow. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jay Rasku stands at his home in Ashfield with a bow he is making as part of a Wolf Tree three-year course called Way of the Hunt. The course teaches its students to become, as its website says, “holistic hunters.” Students learn how to track and read animals so intimately that they can get close enough to strike with a bow and arrow. Above is a closeup of Rasku’s bow. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jay Rasku stands at his home in Ashfield with a bow he is making as part of a Wolf Tree three-year course called Way of the Hunt. The course teaches its students to become, as its website says, “holistic hunters.” Students learn how to track and read animals so intimately that they can get close enough to strike with a bow and arrow. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jay Rasku stands at his home in Ashfield with a bow he is making through the Wolf Tree class he is taking. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Published: 10/18/2020 1:47:05 PM

One thing I envy about my husband, Steve, and my two kids, is that they belong to rural New England in a way that I probably never will, despite having lived in Massachusetts for most of my adult life.

There’s a specificity to the seasons here that’s almost magical to a child of arid Western suburban sprawl, as if, in growing up, I have somehow climbed into a children’s book of pumpkins and hayrides and geese flying south for the winter. Consequently I may go a little overboard with the seasonal activities, like an expat who gets a little too into the local culture.

Is it the first day of fall? C’mon kids, let’s go apple picking! Dec. 21? Time to build a bonfire! I felt a visceral sorrow when Steve bought a leaf blower, because jumping in a pile of leaves blown together by gas-powered machines is not the same thing as jumping into a pile of leaves that have been artisanally raked by hand. The kids always check the weather report for rain, because they know I’m a sucker and I will suggest hot chocolate and board games whenever the temperature allows.

But behind all the fuss about fall festivals and decorative corn, I am acutely aware that my connection to the seasons is manmade — heavily dependent on a complicated jumble of childhood storybooks and advertising. For that reason, people who have a real sweat-equity link to the natural world have always interested me.

When I lived in Greenfield, we had a lot of friends who lived in much closer proximity to the weather and the earth, growing most of their own food or raising chickens (before raising chickens was trendy), turning their front yards into small-scale farms. I used to think I could emulate them, but experience and a good number of frustrated attempts at canning, making preserves, yogurt making, and sustenance gardening have taught me that I lack the patience and ground motivation to become a really committed pioneer.

Recently I met up with one of my Greenfield friends, Jay Rasku, whom I admire for his whole-hearted dedication to the outdoors. Jay actually lives in Ashfield now, but even when we all lived in Greenfield, his steep, narrow backyard was like a wild ravine. He hacked steps into the steep hillside and blazed a trail through the towering columns of goldenrod and wild mustard; he chopped and stacked enormous amounts of wood. The swing he hung from a crazy high branch had ropes so long that when you swung, it felt like you were skimming over a forest floor.

Wolf Tree

Jay is currently enrolled in his second year of a class called the Way of the Hunt, a three-year course at Wolf Tree in Montague that teaches its students to become, as its website says, “holistic hunters.” No guns: Wolf Tree teaches its hunters to track and read animals so intimately that they can get close enough to strike with a bow and arrow.

In other words, this is not jam-making. You spend a weekend a month from March to January learning to track deer and wild turkey, among other things; how to scout and set up hunting locations; how to skin and butcher.

I admired this level of dedication and commitment, too, but until I met up with Jay and his colleague in the Montague woods, the actual draw of learning to hunt with a compound bow was theoretical rather than felt. Why go into the woods to hunt and track? Why not just go, say, camping, or backpacking, or hiking?

I’m sure the answer varies by hunter, but when I asked, Jay made a very thoughtful and compelling case for the value of a relationship born of close reading. Even your average dude hunter, he explained, has a much different sense of the land than other people; they can see and read things in the landscape that the layman will miss.

That expansive relationship is what he’s after: a relationship with nature, an understanding of the animal you’re potentially eating, of the environment that shaped your quarry — relationships as a way of pushing back against the role of mindless consumer that most of us adopt out of seeming necessity.

A hunting lesson

This was on a sunny afternoon in early September, when the weather was just tipping toward fall. Grace Martenson, a Wolf Tree instructor who is diminutive but powerful, and at 21 can already get within 30 yards of a deer to shoot, was barefoot, and the sun through the trees had that beautiful melancholy gold that means it’s getting late.

I had come vaguely expecting some tips on how to spot deer tracks, but quickly discovered that hunting requires a whole reconsideration of what you think you know about animals. I generally think of deer as being mildly stupid, for instance — maybe because the only time I really encounter them is in the headlights in the middle of the road at night? Similarly with wild turkeys.

But after an hour with Grace and Jay, I understood that deer have a primal, finely-honed intelligence that allows them to know, despite all best efforts, where danger is hidden; to change track with clear intention; to protect their strike zones by keeping the trees between themselves and hunters.

Hunting wild turkey requires the stratagems of a chess player; their eyesight is so acute that you have to paint your face entirely to blend in with the landscape and keep your distance, luring the males out by imitating a female turkey with enough precision that they will be intrigued but not spooked.

Other things I learned: bucks roam far, but does stay relatively local, sleeping in communities with their fawns. Rutting season is best for hunting bucks, as their interest in sex muddies their survival instincts.

Deer see best in low light. The rare deer that isn’t killed by disease or predators will eventually die of starvation when its teeth wear down. If you kneel down and sight for shadows along the ground, the dark track of a hoof trail might emerge for you to follow.

‘Feels like a dream’

All this was so far from the dreary treadmill of COVID-related updates and political news that in retrospect the entire afternoon feels like a dream — like I was briefly returned to a world where things behaved according to a natural order, a little merciless, perhaps, but elegant and simple.

A long time ago, I saw an exhibit at a museum in San Francisco called “Soul of a New Machine,” which examined art inspired by the Industrial Revolution. Room after room showed paintings of wide, flat concrete spaces or train yards with tiny human figures like specks in the background, or off the side, while stark black locomotives and steel engines dominated the frames.

But the very last room of the exhibit was suddenly filled with paintings of fields and woods, and abandoned barns in the moonlight with flowers twining up through the slats. I forget exactly how the museum described the art in that room, but it’s not hard to see what the artists of the time were doing: both mourning the loss of Eden, and retreating from the excesses of a world forged by human invention.

The telltale sign of a deer bed, Grace told me as we examined the matted leaves in a still alcove of the forest, is the hairs the doe leaves behind. She pointed.

At first I saw nothing but pine needles, but then, as I kept looking, the coarse white hair of a deer stood out. Picking it up was a marvel, like holding an artifact from ancient Egypt — a link to a world and a consciousness both interwoven with ours and yet completely alien.

That connection was deeply addictive; once home, I found myself thinking of the watery light in the woods, and of Grace’s story about a deer who lost her fawn and spent the rest of the season sleeping apart from the rest of the does. Do deer grieve? Did the other does push her out of their community for being fawn-less? Have I ever even been in the woods without following a set trail?

Less than an hour on unmarked land provoked a whole slew of questions. The next session of Way of the Hunt begins in March. By then I might be ready to commit to a new, more thoughtful kind of pursuit, more philosophical than jam-making, less tedious than canning — a chance to escape the digital hell we’ve built for ourselves and become, briefly, a natural creature again.

Wolf Tree has outdoor programs for youth and adults. Information can be found here: wolftreema.com.

Francie Lin is an editor and writer who has a complicated relationship with domestic life. She lives in Florence.

Grace Martenson’s Venison Stew

This method is best done with a bone-in cut, like a shoulder.

■Take your cut of meat and sear it in a pan.

■Deglaze the pan with red wine.

■Place meat, wine, bone broth and vegetables of your choosing. (I typically go with potatoes, onions, garlic, and carrots, with mushrooms and peas added towards the end) into a slow cooker. The meat and vegetables should be covered with liquid.

■Slow cook until the meat falls off the bone (This can vary greatly depending on the slow cooker and type of meat, and usually isn’t anything less than four hours.)

Grace’s notes: I enjoy seasoning the stew with bay leaf, oregano, salt, pepper, rosemary, and red pepper flakes. I’m not really sure about amounts, I just do it by feel. I don’t think there is anything you could really mess up by adding too much of, besides salt of course.




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