Red Lanterns

Oct 19, 2017

Have you let the red lanterns light your way this fall? In this episode of wildlife matters, the Masked Biologist shares some excerpts from an Aldo Leopold essay about grouse hunting in autumn.

It is October, and the red lanterns of autumn are lit. If you are not familiar with the red lanterns, it is a reference to one of Aldo Leopold’s essays in his book, Sand County Almanac.

Many respected naturalists from the early days of natural resource conservation were hunters. Their love of the nature sprang from their appreciation for everything it had to offer—not just huntable game, but the habitat and natural world surrounding their quarry as well. Aldo Leopold is a fitting example; widely accepted as the father of wildlife conservation, he loved to hunt and fish. In his writings, however, he tends to focus far more on the experience and his observations about the natural world than his prowess at harvesting game. In the red lanterns essay, Leopold combines hunting advice and his naturalist observations. It starts:

“One way to hunt partridge is to make a plan, based on logic and probabilities, of the terrain to be hunted. This will take you over the ground where the birds ought to be. Another way is to wander, quite aimlessly, from one red lantern to another. This will likely take you to where the birds actually are. The lanterns are blackberry leaves, red in the October sun.”

Leopold was focusing on hunting the central Wisconsin sands along the Wisconsin River, where he bought land where the famous shack still stands today. However, this essay about how to find grouse in October applies as well up here in north central Wisconsin as it does in Sauk County. He continues:

“Every woodcock and every partridge has his private solarium under these briars. Most hunters, not knowing this, wear themselves out in the briar-less scrub and, returning home, bird-less, leave the rest of us in peace. By ‘us’ I mean the birds, the stream, the dog, and myself. The stream is a lazy one; he winds through the alders as if he would rather stay here than reach the river. So would I. Every one of his hairpin hesitations means that much more stream bank where hillside briars adjoin dank beds of frozen ferns and jewelweeds on the boggy bottom. No partridge can long absent himself from such a place, nor can I. Partridge hunting, then, is a Creekside stroll, upwind, from one briar patch to another.”

Leopold, then, must have been a kindred spirit of mine. While I thoroughly enjoy hunting for the sport, I really value it for the time it immerses me in the natural world, with my dog taking the lead, directing me to where he thinks the birds are most likely to be. He goes on:

“A special problem arises where the belt of alders widens, and the dog disappears from view. Hurry at once to a knoll or point, where you stand stock-still, straining eye and ear to follow the dog. A sudden scattering of white throats may reveal his whereabouts. Again you may hear him breaking a twig, or splashing in a wet spot, or plopping into the creek.”

Now I know plenty of people who do not hunt for grouse, and that is really a shame. You don’t need camouflage, just a good pair of brush pants. There is no scent control, and you don’t need to sit motionless and silent. In fact, if you walk to silently, a grouse might decide to try to wait you out and let you pass. If you have the luxury of a grouse dog, you not only have a way to determine if you are hot or cold on a bird’s trail, but you have someone to talk to who only rarely disagrees. You get to take an enjoyable stroll in the beautiful autumn woods, with the smell of cured ferns and gun oil in your nostrils. You never know what kind of an encounter you might have on a brisk, breezy autumn day. Like Leopold himself said, “almost anything may happen between one red lantern and another.”

If you haven’t read Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, you should really check it out. His writing really gives you a chance to see Wisconsin’s natural resources in a whole new light.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the masked biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.