Saturday, January 23, 2021

The rabbit that fell prey to a hawk and a literary device

Semantic syllepsis, you may or may not recall from your most recent course in rhetoric or literature, refers to the use of a single word which takes on two different shades of meaning when applied to two different parts of the same sentence: for example, "I will weigh my hawk and then my options," in which the verb "weigh" is used first literally and then figuratively.

I certainly didn't. Recall, that is. But when I uttered the example sentence above several days ago, Jessa brightened and said, "There's a word for that!" Unfortunately, however, she couldn't recall the word either, and so today we began the task of tracking it down. As it turns out, the word she was thinking of was "zeugma", but there is a fair bit of ambiguity as to the definition and application of that word, and so I have gone with the hopefully more precise two-word phrase "semantic syllepsis".

But this is a blog about hawking, not rhetoric, isn't it? (Isn't it? I asked a rhetorical question, damn it, answer me!) Okay, some context then. Our usual pattern is that the season starts off slowly, with intermittent success; then, about the time of the NAFA meet in late November (whether or not we're in attendance), Stekoa begins to catch fire, and is seemingly invincible through December—then, shortly into January, the rabbits abruptly become both more scarce and more difficult to catch. This year, though—and I write this with trepidation, not wishing to tempt the Fates or incur a jinx—his hot streak has continued unabated. 

The trouble is that success can carry within itself the seeds of failure, if a certain amount of discipline is not exercised. Matt Mullenix put it well in his book In Season, adapted from his daily journals:

It's time to get serious about not hunting. Naturally, I've been putting this off.

One inevitable result [of consistent success and the resultant feeding of the hawk] is that his weight spirals quickly upward, then holds at a comfortable cruising altitude. The cost comes not so much from the first day flying over weight, but from the second.

For this and other reasons, I generally skip at least one day after a successful hunt. Stekoa caught a cottontail yesterday at the Platte River, so today I'm writing, Googling literary devices, and taking walks with Jessa in the snow; I'll fly Stekoa again tomorrow. But when skipping a day isn't quite enough, the thought process often goes like this (again, voiced by Matt):

I need not hunt. I should not hunt.

I will probably hunt.

We start the season with Stekoa tipping the scale at 32 or 33 ounces; by February, I've flown him as high as 40. And he's caught rabbits at that weight—but not consistently, and not without causing me a great deal of frustration, and sometimes genuine worry, in the meantime. These are the days when he's unwilling to follow, and sits in a tree—or worse, I end up following him, as he forsakes the field I've selected to hunt along a busy road instead. Then, of course, calling him down to the fist is out of the question, and all too often these days end only when game is finally flushed and taken—which of course means the hawk has to be fed again...

Preventing this sort of spiral is much, much easier than correcting it once it happens—a fat redtail can seemingly gain weight by dreaming about food—and I've been better about it in recent years. Better about it, and rewarded for it. So when Jessa asked me earlier in the week about my plans for the day—I had pre-arranged for several hours off work in anticipation of going hawking, and weather conditions were perfect—I nevertheless responded with a semantic syllepsis: "I'll weigh my hawk and then my options." He was up again. Despite all temptation to the contrary, I decided not to fly. Call it time off for (future) good behaviour.

Yesterday, he followed well, responded instantly when I flushed a bunny from a stand of dried sunflower and goldenrod, tracked the rabbit into the woods, and continued tracking it long after I would have lost it. Finally he took the rabbit in a fantastic stoop from a perch high in a cottonwood tree on the sandy banks of the Platte. I think the extra day off was instrumental, in which case this rabbit (an elusive January rabbit with excellent survival skills) fell prey not only to Stekoa but also to a good decision expressed as a literary device.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Future snakes

The traditional time to take down a Christmas tree, so the experts say, is Twelfth Night, the 5th of January. As I begin this post, it's early on New Year's Day, and I can promise the Farrell-Churchills will not be observing that particular tradition. For one thing, ours is a Yule tree, an even older tradition, so what's Twelfth Night to us?

Besides, there are other traditions to be upheld. My dad, never especially punctual about anything—he was known to friends and family as "the late Mr. Churchill" well before he was the late Mr. Churchill—used to joke about trying to get the tree down by Groundhog Day, and we've turned that into trying to keep the tree up until Groundhog Day. We've finally invested in LED lights, but in the incandescent years I sometimes worried that we might not make it to the 2nd without the drying Fraser fir becoming kindling for the fire that would finally leave us homeless. Obviously, we've been lucky.

Of course, by the time our trees do come down—we usually have two, one in the "formal" front room upstairs, and the other in the basement sitting room where we spend more of our time—we've missed the tree-recycling opportunities provided by the local council. No worries; we have a space at the back of our lot, down by the alley, where old Yule trees are the foundation of a pretty respectable brush pile. As a rabbit-hawker—and I'm happy to report that Stekoa has been catching them with clockwork regularity of late, December being kind to us as usual—I've always been glad to provide a modicum of shelter for the neighbourhood bunnies.

But just now, with nearly a foot of snow on the ground, I'm thinking of snakes. 

Our little patch of ground in the city has always been home to eastern garter snakes; we occasionally see them sunning themselves in the prairie garden out front, but they are most reliably found anywhere the leaf litter from our backyard oak and sumacs has piled up: along the fences, next to the garage, and along the foundation of the house. (Also in the compost bin, where they seem to make a good living on insects attracted to kitchen waste.) We're always happy to see them, unless Anya (an inveterate snake killer) has found them first; I suppose our little serpent population is a bit safer now that she's gone, but I still miss my puppy girl...

Last spring, on one of the first warm, sunny days, Jessa was clearing dried Echinacea and Rudbeckia and Monarda to make way for new growth, and when she took her cuttings back to the alley to throw them on the brushpile, there was Thamnophis: a dozen or so glittering little garters, recently emerged from hibernation, draped over the branches of our former Yule trees like so many ornaments, enjoying the same sunshine that had induced my bride into clearing the garden.

I didn't myself see the tree of snakes—I was likely off fishing, or let's say at work, for I do work occasionally—but Jessa's description was sufficiently vivid that I can almost remember seeing them. And I can see them now, a few months into the future, on one of the first warm, sunny days of spring, when the lovely green tree now before me has gone dry and brown, but finds itself once again decorated and beautiful.