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Inside the Outdoors: So much to do, so little time

The expression in the title above has almost certainly been overworked. I'm sure I've "worked it" myself more than once. But that's because it is so fitting, and so true. For some it's a complaint that at this season there are too many pressing chores; keeping up with falling leaves, last-minute painting while temperatures allow or putting gardens to bed. For others it's a lament that there are so many attractive choices — so many things we'd like to do — that it's impossible to do justice to them all.

Those who both fish and hunt are among the more anguished by this unsolvable dilemma. Do I sit in a deer stand with a bow and arrows? Will I spend time on the lake now that the walleyes or crappies may be more accessible in shallow water? Haunt the overgrown logging roads for ruffed grouse, or the swamp-bordering alders for woodcock? Wade a stream that flows into Lake Superior in hopes of catching pink salmon or steelhead? Sit immobile on the seat of a duck boat, waiting for ringnecks or redheads to come slashing over the decoys? Hurl kitten-size lures for muskies? Follow a Labrador through cattails and along weed-grown fencerows to flush a tight-sitting cock pheasant? These and other things compete for our limited autumn time and attention.

How we solve the dilemma is an individual thing; individual both in the priorities each of us has, and in how fully and aggressively we use the time that's allotted to us. Time's scarcity and value are reflected in quotable quotes like these: "time is of the essence;" or "time waits for no one;" or "don't put off 'til tomorrow what you can do today."

Time's value was a recurring theme in the writing of one of my favorite authors, Gordon MacQuarrie, who wrote of his adventures and misadventures in the outdoors for the Milwaukee Journal daily newspaper, and several national magazines. To many whose favorite avocations take them into the out-of-doors, MacQuarrie was a poet laureate; not merely because of his favorite subjects, but because of the masterful way he wrote about them, with insight and craft that would be worthy of a novelist.

In one especially moving essay he shared details of a three-week retreat to his cabin in Northwest Wisconsin. He had just lost his closest angling and hunting companion, his wife's father, though he never reveals this directly. His loss focused his attention on the fleeting nature of life, and the need to not squander opportunities. When it was sunny and warm, he tucked a sandwich and apples in a vest and went looking for grouse. He discovered rotting pine logs left behind after a lumbering-era log drive, and collected bushels of pine knots to burn in his fireplace. In the evening he and a "local" would dip-net ciscoes for smoking. When the temperature dropped and an icy northwest wind blew, he arose early for a morning of duck shooting. "I used each day for what it was best suited," said MacQuarrie. "Who can do better?"

MacQuarrie, too, felt the conflicted urgency of this time of year. "I thought how fine it would be, if — throughout the year — this season would hang on dead-center, as it often does ... in late October and early November. Then one may expect a little of everything, a bit of summer, a time of falling leaves and finally that initial climatic threat of winter to quicken the heart of a hunter, namely me. To be sure, these are mere dreams of perpetual paradise, but we all do it."

Time proved to be of the essence for MacQuarrie in another way, too, one that he apparently did not anticipate. The acclaimed Milwaukee Journal columnist died of a heart attack at the age of 56, an untimely passing for a talented writer who had been instrumental in raising awareness of environmental issues and hunting and fishing ethics, long before either were fashionable.

Poet Carl Sandburg, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and for a biography of Abraham Lincoln, had ideas of his own about time and how we use it; which is inevitably tied to time as a measure of mortality. "Time is the coin of your life," said Sandburg. "It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you."

Sandburg's advice may sound selfish. He would probably disagree, and say that how we spend our time — selfishly or generously, wisely or foolishly, dutifully or in fun — should be by our own choices.

Just don't waste time; particularly now, for it's as perishable as frost on a sunny October morning.