On these spring days along the more remote shores of Puget Sound you can sometimes hear a drowsy, contented, mumbling and chuckling sound coming in with the tide. It is produced by a raft of black brant, feeding on eelgrass somewhere offshore before they take off for their nesting grounds in the delta between the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers in Alaska. Some experts say the sound is a cronk and others describe it as more of a grrr, but they agree that it is mellow, good-natured, pleasing and altogether unlike the sound produced by any other goose.
Sportsmen recently have come to consider the black brant the most important goose in the Sound region, which is something of a waterfowl paradise. A good part of this importance stems from the fact that little is known about the bird. There were never very many of them, even before the coming of the white man. This spring there are only 157,000 known to exist in the whole world. Hunters are still allowed to shoot them, but few are killed. The best-known black-brant hunter is Joshua Green, the dean of Seattle bankers, a venerated oldtimer in the Northwest, who epitomizes this tenacious, persistent, single-minded and dedicated hunting clan.
Not long ago Mr. Green was shooting at a duck club on Padilla Bay some 50 miles north of Seattle. There prevailing winds come down from the snowy Olympic Mountains in the west, kick up sizable waves and swoop up the snow-covered slopes of the Cascades, which you can see as a maze of alabaster peaks a few miles away in the east. Mr. Green made a perfect kill. His chauffeur rowed out after the bird. Then he had to fight the wind and waves for half an hour to get back to shore. Joshua Green downed another black brant and rowed out into the waves himself.
This would be fairly routine brant-shooting experience, except that Joshua Green is 96 years old. He has been hunting black brant on Puget Sound every year for 80 years. He goes to his office every morning at the People's National Bank on Fourth Avenue in Seattle, plays 18 holes of golf every week during the summer and is looking forward to taking his 28-gauge Schilling and going out when the black brant come back next fall. He is a ruddy-cheeked, long-featured man with thin white hair who speaks with a slight southern accent—he was born in Mississippi in 1869—and wears neatly tailored suits and high stand-up collars such as one sees in pictures of Charles G. Dawes. He makes you think of the characters Nash Buckingham wrote about in Game Bag or Mark Right or De Shootin'est Gent'man, and in fact Nash Buckingham is an old friend of his.
May 15, 1966
He is a little embarrassed about rowing for half an hour to bring in a black brant he shot. "A gentleman doesn't retrieve his own birds," he said, smiling, "but with the swell that rolls there, sometimes a dog just can't go in. And we have all kinds of dogs, of course. If it's a day when a dog can't go out, we use a flat-bottom skiff. Generally, if you go out, it's after a wounded bird. When you row out, you drift with the wind and then have to row against the wind to get back, and all this without a chance to rest. It can be a real strain."
When the committed black-brant hunters in the Pacific Northwest gather in their driftwood blinds they include judges, bankers, the presidents of colleges, the heads of department stores, many of the community benefactors who head fund-raising drives for worthy causes and many of Seattle's elder statesmen. Probably no bird in history has ever been shot at so exclusively by distinguished men in the upper-income brackets. The season runs into February and provides the only waterfowl hunting until the next fall. The black-brant hunters assemble with dignified heartiness at such places as the Swinomish Duck Club near Swinomish Slough or the San Juan Farm Association Duck Club at Dungeness Spit on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. If a flight of black brant does come in, every shot fired may come from someone in The Directory of Directors.
Not that they shoot very many. Last year the prominent sportsmen of the San Juan Farm Association Duck Club shot only nine black brant, though they accounted for 261 ducks. (In the past 15 years they have shot a total of 309 black brant, while they got 6,437 ducks in the same period.) Alert and suspicious when crossing land, the brant come in fast and low on quiet wings, giving no warning of their approach. They can fly faster than any other geese and have been clocked at speeds at 62 miles an hour. They are relished by gourmets, who have relatively few opportunities to savor the excellent flavor. The chance to hunt them serves as a sort of a day off for civic leaders from the burden of being respected, successful and distinguished.
Conversely, however, if anything happens to a black-brant hunting party it may take on the proportions of a community disaster. "You forget," said Joshua Green. "Part of the beauty of sport and the spontaneity of sport is in the self-forgetfulness that comes with it. It's a common thing to wing-chip a China pheasant and have it run and unconsciously run after it. I've seen many a man running along after a China pheasant, trying to keep up. They can run faster than you can. It is the same with brant. There's the excitement and the exercise, the excitement of the shot in itself and then your desire to get your bird, and it may all lead you to try to do more than you should do."
What was it like to hunt black brant on Puget Sound 80 years ago? Joshua grew somewhat pensive, as if he considered the question at a tangent from the real issues involved. He began hunting bobwhite quail with an old muzzle-loading scatter-gun in the ruined plantations around Jackson, Miss. after the Civil War. "When a boy finished with marbles, tops and kites," he said, "he began to shoot quail. It's the sport-ingest little bird in the world. Few birds will lie as close to a dog as a bobwhite quail."
Joshua Green's father moved to Seattle for the least likely reason: the rains in the Northwest. He was a pioneer advocate of hydroelectric power and believed there would always be abundant waterpower there. At 17 young Joshua got a job as a purser on the Henry Bailey, a shallow-draft stern-wheeler. "I don't like to say too much about what it was like in the old days," he said. "It might give a wrong impression. But we were after meat." The Henry Bailey was especially built to go up the shallow, narrow sloughs to get loads of hay and oats from the farmers. "I had a 10-gauge Bonehill," Green said, "a breechloader, and I kept it in my room. We had to wait for the tide to get into the sloughs. If a wind was blowing, we had to wait before we could come out. In a hard wind we would stay in a slough all day through nearly a whole tide. And I would go down behind the dike and come up over the dike and shoot enough ducks to last our crew for several days. I don't like to say how many I shot. I don't think I ever shot more than 50 at any one time."
On Padilla Bay and Samish Bay and Fidalgo Bay the tide goes out a mile or more, and the floor of the bay becomes a level, shimmering, filmy glaze of water. "When the tide went out in places like that," he said, "the little clams and the little crabs and the little shrimp and all the marine worms would go under the mud to protect themselves and to keep wet. And when the tide came in the whole bay would become alive, just burst into life, the clams spouting and the shrimp moving and the crabs coming up. And the ducks would come in with the tide. They fed right along the waterline. You could see them for miles, right on the edge of the water, moving in steadily as the tide came in."
This spring the quiet cronk and grrr sounds of the northbound brant are perhaps more meaningful to Joshua Green than they have ever been in the eight decades since he first heard them. Mid-May, when the brant depart, is the scheduled time for the dedication of a fountain he has given the city of Seattle. The fountain, which is the biggest in the Northwest, is part of a waterfront beautification project and is located near his old steamship office. "Dum vivimus vivamus," said Mr. Green. "While we live, let us live." That is to be part of the inscription he has written to be placed on the fountain. In Seattle it is said that he has used this Latin phrase as the closing of his letters for the past 75 years, but he denies this. He has used it only on some letters.
One of the remarkable things about the black brant is that through all the changes that have taken place on Puget Sound in these past 80 years the birds' schedules have not changed at all.
After the first freeze-up in September they arrow across the north Pacific, flying with short, energetic wing strokes, flying so closely together their wingtips seem almost to touch. The line undulates, birds in the middle rising or descending, with the movement repeated along the line, like the wave of a pennant in the wind. They migrate in what amounts to three separate divisions, about half the total going to uninhabited coves in the wildest parts of Baja California.
Hunters soon began to draw practical conclusions from the signs of the black brant's powerful social instinct. Not only were they always gossiping, but a small flight seemed to be irresistibly attracted to a larger flight passing by. Even during a storm a small group would increase its speed to overtake a mass formation as much as half a mile ahead, driving with faster wingbeats and spurts of speed until the gap closed. Then it was learned that a small flight seemed to find it impossible to pass a larger number of decoys, though here innumerable factors entered: the height of the tide at which the brant just then were feeding, the arrangement of the stool of decoys and knowledge of the way in which the detached small flocks might fly.
Last year Arthur Einarsen, a Fish and Wildlife biologist, put together a lifetime of observation in Black Brant, Sea Goose of the Pacific Coast, the first book on the subject. He found a key to the brant's behavior in its "tenacious tie to its kind." If these fast-flying and low-flying birds veer at the sight of an ambush, they veer as a unit—which often enough these days brings them over a shooter in a second blind awaiting that maneuver. After one has been shot the others may still fly near, which has led some brant hunters to consider them stupid. Not so. Their talkativeness and their joining of flights in the air are aspects of an all-powerful social instinct still operating after the death as it operated to draw them to the blind.
Numerically brant are inconsequential. A few years ago the Washington State Game Department counted only 10,815 black brant out of a total of 1,123,077 mallards, pintails, Canadian geese and other waterfowl. But, traditionally, as part of the folklore and color of the region, they are powerful influences shaping the common impression of its wildlife. Rare as they are, you can see them often in the late spring, not long before they leave for the North, big black birds with brilliant white collars, riding high in the water, above the hell-divers and butterballs. Their speed as well as their voice makes them memorable. Along the shore, even near the city, a flock of half a dozen suddenly passes by no more than head-high above the water, racing in an explosive, purposeless sprint that has something exhilarating about it and makes the gulls and ducks and slow-moving birds appear to be stationary in the sky.
On May 18—so runs the folklore—the black brant leave for the North. The naturalists do not agree as to the exact date, but they agree that the brant is the last migrant to leave. They assemble in remote places such as Dungeness Bay. There is much travel talk—a confused and excited clamor, growing in volume. In the still of the evening the sound mounts to a roar and the flock rises. For a few moments the discordant crowd tumult continues, and then the birds settle to their powerful flight, wings beating four beats to the second, still whispering and murmuring with a sort of wild contentment as they fly.
So they are part of the enduring image that the country projects on the imagination—that and something more. Black brant figure constantly in tales of misadventures. Last year a group of hunters got to their duck club on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where their blinds were on a crescent-shaped causeway of gravel only a few feet wide, reaching nearly a quarter of a mile into a bay. In the party were such men as Dr. Henry Schmitz, aged 72, president emeritus of the University of Washington, and his brother, Dietrich Schmitz, chairman of the board of the Washington Mutual Savings Bank, long Joshua Green's regular hunting companion, and Walter Straley, now vice-president of American Telephone and Telegraph.
In the blinds they waited for an hour while the seas built up steadily and the wind rose to a 50-mile-an-hour gale. About noontime Dietrich Schmitz had had enough and he said he was going back to the clubhouse. One by one the shooters gave up and followed Dietrich's lead—among them Joseph McCarthy, the dean of the University of Washington graduate school, and William Street, the retired president of Frederick Nelson department store. Walter Straley decided to stay. Dr. Schmitz said, "I'll wait awhile and see if some brant won't come along."
None did. The wind increased. It was building up the water on one side of the spit and creating what was in effect an accidental dam, with the broken place its spillway. Dr. Schmitz began to wade with a dog across the broken place that had suddenly widened, with the water racing through four feet deep. The dog was swept away. Dr. Schmitz, about halfway across, began to sink to his knees in exhaustion and slid from the gravel into deep water. Walter Straley went in after him. He got Dr. Schmitz's head above water, but they were both swept half a mile out to sea. The men in the clubhouse got a boat out, but the wind carried them past the struggling swimmers. A Coast Guard plane managed to come down in time to rescue Straley, who was still holding Dr. Schmitz's head above water, but Dr. Schmitz was dead of exhaustion. And so another tragedy was added to black-brant folklore, like something out of Old World legends, except that in the Northwest such incidents are on the front pages of newspapers and involve the leading citizens.
So this spring Joshua Green does not like to talk about black-brant hunting as much as in the past. He likes to talk of such things as the Seattle waterfront and Puget Sound and the fountain he has given the city. It is being placed where it is for reasons that tell a great deal about the appeal of the region to people who, like Joshua Green, are profoundly familiar with it. In his 80 years on Puget Sound Joshua Green has come to know every inlet on the Sound. What happened was that while still an 18-year-old purser on the Henry Bailey he talked the captain, mate and engineer into joining with him to buy a boat of their own, and hypnotized a Seattle banker into loaning him $1,250 for his share of the $5,000 purchase price. He then persuaded his fellow owners to elect him president of the La Conner Trading and Transportation Company. Doubling as deckhands, they prowled the sloughs and inlets of Puget Sound and carried their cargoes as far as they could up the rivers into the mountains, where the loggers worked with horses and oxen. In the meantime they lived frugally on the duck and black brant that their president provided for them.
With their profits they bought more steamboats. In 1901 Joshua Green, who had in the meantime married a girl from Mississippi, merged the La Conner Trading and Transportation Company with the Puget Sound Navigation Company, the largest steamship operator in the region, and became president of the new combine. This firm had steamboats that tied up at almost every fishing village, farm town and summer resort big enough to have a wharf. As purser, captain, engineer, mate, pilot, deckhand or whatever other position was open, Green learned all that a waterfowler needed to know about the 3,000 beautiful square miles of Puget Sound.
Banking never provided him with so many chances to observe the ways of birds. In 1927, while playing golf at the Seattle Golf Club, he heard that a small Seattle bank could be purchased for $200,000. He bought it, and during his 40 years as president (and now honorary chairman) of the People's National Bank of Washington its deposits have increased from $2.5 million to more than $292 million, and it is now the third largest commercial bank in Washington and the 151st largest in the nation. This record impresses him not at all. "Banking is cold," he said. "I love the waterfront. You know, the life on a ship is closer than any other working relationship there is. Everybody is your shipmate. Take that word, mate. Think what it means. First you have playmates. Then you have schoolmates. Then you have a helpmate. And on a ship you have shipmates, almost as close to you as your playmates as a child.
"But you don't have any bankmates. There's no such thing. I don't want to run down banking, but banks are cold." He paused somewhat self-consciously, as if he had made an important discovery of a weakness in the capitalist system and it somewhat surprised him. So his mind turned again to the waterfront and waterfowl—a gallant and tireless figure trying to sum up what it was like to hunt for 80 years on Puget Sound. He had finished his inscription to be placed on the fountain, which expressed something of his feeling, dedicated to the city and its waterfront
I WORKED SO LONG
ENJOYED SO MUCH
AND LOVED SO WELL
DUM VIVIMUS VIVAMUS