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McKean Minute: The Butcher Bird and My Jerky

I was just turning a batch of elk jerky in my smoker, flipping each succulent strip in order to dry uniformly, when I noticed movement over my shoulder.

I keep my Camp Chef in the barn, where its beautiful work won’t stink up my house or deck. When I was a kid, our only source of heat was a wood-burning stove, and all my clothes smelled like wood smoke. I didn’t think anything of it when I was younger, but when I was in 8th grade, a girl told me I smelled like bacon. The way she said it made me think she didn’t like bacon. I’ve been sensitive about the topic ever sense. Hence, the smoker in the barn.

It turns out the movement I saw was the swoop of a bird, and as I emerged from the barn, I studied the critter. It was a northern shrike, a blocky grey-and-black bird about the size of a robin, perched on the tongue of an idle disc. We don’t see shrikes very often, so I paid special attention to this specimen, its curved beak and black-streaked head looking coolly around. Like a robin, shrikes are classified as songbirds, but they behave more like raptors. They hunt insects like grasshoppers or even small mammals and birds, often flushing them out of hiding by flapping their wings just above the ground.

But shrikes are sometimes called “butcher birds” for another curious carnivorous habit. They will impale their prey on thorns of trees or the barbs of wire fences, saving them in what biologists call their “pantries” until they’re ready to consume them. Some ornithologists think that female shrikes select mates based on the size and variety of his pantry. Apparently, these girl shrikes don’t care if their mates smell like meat.

I returned to my jerky, puttering in the plumes of rich smoke, preparing snacks that I’d add to my pantry and feed my family all week long. When I emerged from the barn, the shrike was gone.

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McKean Minute: Independence Day

I’m a recovering redneck. I have purged my vocabulary of the term “warshed,” which I grew up saying to mean “washed,” as in “I haven’t warshed my clothes in a month.” But I still say “crick” for creek and “ruf” to mean roof.

I still carry a pocketknife most every day. I know how to tamp a post and castrate a hog. I can make a fishing rig out of baling twine and a green sapling.

I have a college degree and I like good wine, even if I can’t always pronounce its appellation. I can tie a Windsor knot in a necktie. But I can also trap a muskrat and call a turkey. I know which fork to use for my salad. And I can skin a squirrel and run a chainsaw.

I mention all these “talents” because they’re fundamental to who I am, and I suspect many of you possess the same traits. You won’t want to hear this any more than I want to say it, but they’re disappearing from our culture, as we become a nation of suburbs and fast food and, frankly, dependence. I mention them now because I’m writing this on Independence Day, and all those redneck skills are essential to remaining independent.

I don’t mean that knowing how to clean a carburetor will keep the communists from taking our government. Just as I don’t mean that my ability to gig a frog will liberate any political prisoner. But knowing how to remain comfortable without electricity and how to find food in the woods and how to be okay with self-reliance are all skills and mindsets that will allow you to exercise independence, even if it’s a weekend camping trip with the family.

In many ways, I left my redneck past. I grew up burning wood as our family’s only heat source. I’m glad to have moved away from that. As a kid, my family never bought meat in the store, since we had our own pork, chicken, beef, and deer. I’m happy to indulge every now and again on restaurant wings.

But the other day I heard the Hank Williams, Jr. anthem “Country Boys Can Survive,” and it took me back to cane poles and rabbit hunting and maybe just a little bit of cheap beer and Beechnut.

Hank Junior made his song a political anthem: “You can’t stomp us out and you can’t make us run. ‘Cause we’re them old boys raised on shotguns…” I celebrate my heritage not in opposition to anyone, but as a proud, capable, fundamentally independent redneck. And what’s more American than that?

McKean Minute – Independence DayYe-Haw!

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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Oysters

Grab a lawn chair and pop a top America – we’re about to shed some light on one of the coolest pieces of American history (and likely something your high school history teacher forgot to tell you):

It’s the early 19th century. An apple-pie eating, beer drinking, American man by the name of Mr. Waddell heads into the New Jersey surf with aspirations of harvesting some oysters. Meanwhile, Mr. Martin (a real prick of a fella with ties to European nobility) finds out about Waddell and throws a fit. This European yahoo takes our patriotic brother to court on grounds that the oysters harvested, in water that adjoined Martin’s property line, were Martin’s property. Thus, Waddell is accused of being a no good, dirty rotten, thief.

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McKean Minute: The Exponential Power of Multiple Mentors

My longtime friend Bud came through town the other day, on his way home with an 8-week-old pointer riding shotgun. We greeted the pup like a new member of our extended family, which in many ways he is, and will become.

As I visited with Bud, talk turned to all the other dogs that have shared our lives, and I was a little surprised to recall all the firsts that occurred in Bud’s company: my first tundra swan; my first successive limits of Hungarian partridges; my first hunting dog, a rescue Lab cross who hid under my bed the first time she saw a gun but developed into a talented retriever of anything with wings and a cackle, thanks in part to Bud’s encouragement.

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McKean Minute: The Ultimate Future-Proof Tool

This is graduation season in my world. Not only do I have a pair of strapping sons who matriculated from their high school in the past weeks, but I’ve received dozens of graduation announcements from departing collegians, high-schoolers, and even a couple of audacious middle-schoolers.

Most of my replies are of the free-advice variety, offering good wishes, profound wisdom (write home, brush your teeth, pay your bills) for future citizens, and challenges (take chances, sleep outside, don’t brush your teeth). But a few special recipients get an additional tool to carry into their future: a pocket knife.

Inspiration for the bladed gift is the outsized role that knives have played in my life. We have a rule in my family: on the 10th birthday of a McKean, you get a bicycle and a pocket knife. If you wreck your bike or you lose your knife, the second (and third, and fourth) ones are on you. Since my own 10th birthday, I’ve disabled plenty of bikes, and I’ve lost more knives than I care to admit. But I’ve never not had a knife in my life.

I’m looking at my current pocket pal now. It’s a scarred and abused and well-loved folding lock-back. It’s made by Ka-Bar, has hand-worn orange scales, would have had a 3-inch drop-point blade had the terminal ¼ inch not been broken off prying a stuck pellet out of the breech of a pellet gun, and it wears the marks of a good decade in my company. I’ve gutted countless fish, grouse, and deer with that knife, which holds an edge longer than I’ve held many jobs.

It’s sharpened sticks for campfire meat, sliced steak at fine restaurants, cleaned my toenails, and cut cheese, rope, baling twine, and apples for my kids. The thing about this knife -and all good knives – is that it’s just as capable of doing all those things for the next decade.

So, for those kids who are elevated in my esteem, they get pocket knives this season. Some of their future friends will come and go. They may take jobs that don’t last. They will wreck bicycles and cars. But a good knife will take them a long way into the future. And even if it cuts Spam instead of steak, it will link them to the past and whatever is next.

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McKean Minute: Making sense of a fatherless Father’s Day

Andrew McKean wrote this for Father’s Day 2010, the first without his dad, Mike, who died the preceding August.

To say I lost my father is a form of linguistic denial, like saying I misplaced him, or that I’ll find him like a favorite pocketknife in an old pair of jeans.

My father is not lost. He is dead. I learned as a newspaper obituary writer to avoid euphemistic references to this most final fact. He did not “pass away” or “expire.” He did not “go to his reward” or “depart this life” or “go to meet his Maker.”

He died. And this is the first Father’s Day I haven’t had what I now realize is the exquisite luxury of calling him, both of us pretending that I was phoning to discuss the weather, or calf prices, neither of us once mentioning what he considered a cynical holiday engineered to sell greeting cards and cheap tools.

My father didn’t suffer what he considered mass-market frivolity. He would have been baffled, and even a little offended, if I gifted him a Father’s Day tie or an electric razor.

Instead, he preferred to simply talk, about too much or not enough rain, about his grandchildren, my job and when I was coming home on my next visit. I didn’t get to make that last trip. Dad died in late August, sudden as a thunderclap. The news reached me as I was hitching a tractor to a brush cutter, like I had helped him do so many times as a child.

I’ll call this Father’s Day to the abandoned farmhouse where I grew up. I’ll dial the number to the old rotary phone on the wall of the kitchen where my father died. And I’ll wait with a disbelieving suspension for him to answer, for his rich voice to fill the crackling void, before the sharp metallic jag of the automated operator jars me from my fantasy: “You have reached a number that has been disconnected…”

My father is not disconnected, just as he isn’t lost. But it’s small moments like today when he is found, however fleetingly.

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McKean Minute: Picking a Mentor? Look Behind to Look Ahead

When most of us think of a mentor, we picture an elder. Maybe not a white-bearded sensi, but someone older and more experienced than we are. That’s natural. We hope to gain knowledge by synthesizing the experiences of those who have passed this way before.

But not all experience is linear, or can be counted by years. As you are considering mentors in your life, don’t just look forward to those with more experience, but also sideways to those who have other types of experiences from your own. And don’t hesitate to look behind, to mentors who are younger and have a different take on life and how to live it.

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McKean Minute: Out of the Fold, Out of the Field

It’s graduation season for families across America, mine included. It’s a time to celebrate accomplishments accrued during the first mandatory stages of school, to recognize the milestone that separates children from adults, and to prepare for what comes next, whether that’s college or a full-time job.

But there’s another passage that’s worth recognizing this season: the departure of young hunters and anglers from the field sports that may have defined their early years.

It’s a trend that demographers have noted for at least two generations: that participation in hunting and angling declines or even stops during the college years. There are lots of reasons for the drop-out: involvement with school and collegiate priorities, residence away from home (sometimes out of state) and traditional access to the outdoors, difficulty possessing guns and sporting goods on campus, and involvement with peers who may not have a similar background in the field sports.

I’ve been reporting on these trends for years, but now that my twin boys have graduated high school and are looking forward to starting college in the fall, the departure from the field traditions that defined much of our time together is suddenly personal. And it grieves me, almost like losing a member of the family.

The bruise started a couple months ago, as the deadline to apply for special moose, sheep, and mountain goat licenses loomed here in Montana. What if one of my boys drew one of these coveted tags, but wasn’t able to go hunting because of collegiate responsibilities? Instead of risking it, I’m purchasing preference points this year, in the hopes that they’ll take up hunting where they left off once they earn college degrees.

Then I consulted Merlin’s schedule at the University of Michigan, where he’ll enter as a freshman in the fall. He gets only 4 days for Thanksgiving break. That’s not enough time to travel home to Montana, hunt deer during our traditional holiday hunt, and get back to school. So I’m looking at the first season in a decade without my buddy to plan, hike, and make meat with.

His brother, Ellis, will be a little closer to home. He’s attending the University of Montana. But he’s on the Grizzly cross country and track teams, which means he won’t have a ton of time to return home for hunting openers.

Will my boys slide into that morass of used-to-be hunters? Will hunting become a cherished memory of their youth? Or will they take a pause from the field sports for a year or two, only to return to them with renewed intensity, as I did after I graduated college? I don’t know. But I know that I’ll be looking for places for Merlin to hunt around Ann Arbor, and encouraging Ellis to meet fellow hunters on his track team. I’ll keep their guns oiled and their knives sharp. I’ll keep buying them hunting and fishing licenses, and looking down the road for their approach, steady young men who are good shots, keen woodsmen, and who may be eager for fresh venison to balance their cafeteria diet.

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McKean Minute: Measuring Mentees

Another title for this piece might be “Assessing Apprentices,” but either way, the idea is that every good mentor has more business than he or she can handle. If you are serious about and good at mentoring (whether it’s hunting or weaving or photography), then you will have more apprentices than you can adequately teach.

We’ve previously described mentoring as a handmade relationship, and the more people you cram into the experience, the more diluted and unsustainable the outcome.

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