Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Tribute From a Friend

(Ed. note: This post is not written by Lou, but by a friend of the family. It is from a book of memoirs entitled "A Thin Slice of Sky." The author is Thomas L. Burnett)

He was part Jeremiah Johnson, part Audubon, and part soldier of fortune. Lou rented the old cabin while we spent two years in Whitewater. He holed up with his books, guns, letters, and botany collections to outlast the winters.

Bundles of dried peppermint hung from his ceiling. A burlap bag of venison jerky slumped against one of the support posts, like a laborer on siesta. The cabin was dark and warm. His bed had no pillow. "Bad for your back and neck", he asserted. He stretched and tacked animal pelts to the outside of the cabin. Crammed into the north wall, serving as cheap insulation, were envelopes from women around the world.

Dad admired Lou for living life so easily. Dad coveted his powers of observation. Lou saw the natural world acutely. Ever ready, a botanist's magnifying glass hung around his neck.  He frequently flicked it open to examine rocks or plant parts.I was entranced by his jolly yodeling and tricky whistling.

Lou's mountain prowess was legendary, at least in our family. He was a real live hero, stamped from the mold of Pecos Mill and Daniel Boone. One day he squinted and gestured southwards to the bony ridge. "Biggest buck I ever saw lives up there." he said. "I was sitting up there quietly one day, when down below me what looked like a cherry tree started to move. That was no tree, that was his antlers. Never saw him when I had a gun."

In all my figure hunting, I kept a lookout for this monster, believing all the time that a mule deer pf such grandeur could really exist.

He told of meeting a bear face-to-face coming around a corner of a trail. He was alarmed but determined not to show it. "I just growled at him", he said.

The bear decided he had met his match. Ursus turned and padded away. Even now, when I hike quietly on paths paved with moist leaves, I imagine meeting a bear and wonder if my courage would ever match Lou's.

A walk with Lou was an education in ecology; he knew and told how plants, soil and climate fit together. He named the conifers, grasses, dicots and ferns. He explained the mutual lechery of algae and fungus within lichen. Stopping at a swiped anthill, a black mudhole, or a rotten log that had been ripped open, he estimated how much time had elapsed since the bear had visited. He spotted a tuft of cinnamon-bear hair on a barb or fence wire. No one else was as observant.

"This is what the ruffed grouse eats in the winter."

"A porcupine likes aspen--one's almost girdled this sapling."

"A bull elk has used this tree to scrape the velvet off his antlers."

He was a walking plant identification guide, a lecturer without a podium. Though he never attained his doctorate, due to personality clashes, he said, no professor stirred my interest in nature the way Lou did.

He suggested we gather Morel mushrooms one summer evening. It had been raining for two days. We walked through O'Connell's place, across an aged logging bridge and into a young stand of lodgepole pine. On the forest floor was a buildup of needles, springy under foot. Two or three times each year we'd make this fifteen minute hike and harvest a couple of pounds, to be sauteed with dear stakes or scrambled into eggs and bacon.

Like a playground drug pusher, Lou got my father hooked on puffballs. Compared toe Morels, one could really make some volume with puffballs as they grew to the size of grapefruit or cantaloupe. Dad would spot these freebies in the pastures of the Church Farm and bring them home, like a Viking proudly bearing his plunder from the Anglo-Saxons. Slabbed and fried in butter, their tofu-like flesh was supposedly edible, though I don't think the kids ever found out. Even mother, who normally loved any food that was free, was lukewarm about puffballs. Perhaps Dad ate them just to be macho--not to be outdone by Lou.

My own male ego was also exploited once when, with Lou we were hunting atop the Bald Mountain. We had shot a young buck and had dressed it out. Being the inordinate distance from one mile from the house, we though it best if we took some nourishment before attempting the return.

Eight inches of old snow patchily covered the ground. Near a big fir tree, where there was no snow, we built a small fire. Lou divided the liver into three pieces. We roasted them on sticks, as if roasting marshmallows. Camp Robbers hung close by in the trees. When the meat was black on the outside, we tried to eat it. It was rare inside. Lou ate his; Dad ate some of his. I tried, but after a few feeble attempts, the men said I didn't have to eat any more if I didn't want to. The troops of Napoleon retreating from Moscow didn't have it any tougher.

Another foolishness Lou forced upon my father was bathing in the creek. A thick growth of willows offered privacy from the country road. Bathing here was not a leisurely affair, even for hardy Lou. Ninety seconds usually sufficed. The procedure was as follows; yell; soap very lightly ; yell; rinse; yell; dry off. Actually, yelling was fairly uniform throughout. I tried it once as a teenager. A bath in 29 degree water sounds like a manly challenge. It sounds invigorating until you are naked and standing with one foot on a sharp rock, the other on a mossy, slippery one. The air temperature had dropped from it's afternoon high of 89 degrees to 59, and the only mosquito in 300 yards is biting the back of your thigh. At that moment, being a mountain man like Lou loses it's appeal.

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