October 27, 2002

The Thrill of the Hunt

Confession being good for the soul and such, I will admit to my two serious shortcomings as a paragon of manhood; I do not watch or attend auto racing or work on cars, and worst of all, I don't deer hunt. It's not that I haven't tried to immerse myself in these manly things in my past. I have tried. They simply have not found fertile soil in me.

And now, here we are with deer hunting season upon us, and my deficiencies are staring me in the face once again. My neighbors hunt. I stay inside and read for the several weeks of deer season. Already, the camoflaged in pick-up trucks are cruising slowly down our gravel road plotting their strategy against things in the woods. Soon, Ann and I will be wearing our blaze-orange accessories every time we go out to get the mail. The dog will get orange and florescent yellow surveyors tape tied on his collar so as to appear a bit less deer-like. I'd kinda like to be out there with this season's hunters, just for the camaraderie; but not enough to suit up and go kill a deer when time comes 'round.

I read recently that sons of fathers who hunt, hunt. Mine didn't. Hunting is one of a large number of physical things I didn't learn from my father. Reflecting back, there is only one clear memory of my father passing down the torch of knowledge, transmitting to me that one manual thing that he knew how to do, because his father never passed along anything to him but the butterbeans. I remember the day I learned everything he had to teach me. He summoned me down to our basement on the night of this memory. In a somber tone, he alluded to the fact that he would not always be around to handle male responsibilities such as this, and someday, I would be the man of the house. And, with ceremonial solemnity, he showed me how to relight the pilot on the furnace. And that is my legacy. And that, perhaps, is at least part of the reason why I'm not a hunter.

As a boy, I felt certain that one day I should be a hunter. It's the cowboy way. I fished. Why shouldn't I hunt? The issue of gun use, however, was complicated by the fact that my mother's father was killed in a hunting accident when she was a child. Guns were looked upon with suspicion, but I begged for a gun from the time I was 10 years old, finally getting a BB rifle when I was twelve. I was going to be a hunter at last.

That first week in my back yard, I shot a dove from some distance. Hitting it was innocuous in the way cartoon dynamite or dropped anvils are, without much real effect...no lasting injury done, a few feathers fluttered down and the dove flew away. Say! This was fun! I was becoming a hunter at last!

A few days later, I shot a small yellow bird sitting on a telephone line. This time, there was no cartoon comic relief. The tiny bird's feet remained clutched to the wire while its body pitched forward. It hung there upside-down for what seemed like many terrible minutes before dropping dead to the ground. A large bloody spot marked where its eye used to be, red against wonderful yellow and black feathers...the most beautiful, terrible thing my eyes had ever seen. There were greater consequences to this hunting than I had understood, until that moment. I could take a life, but I could not give it back.

Yet, life feeds on life. I would not be here if the death of other creatures did not sustain me. But maybe I do not need to hunt for the reason that my neighbors would give. It is true that many a family eats venison to supplement their diet for nutrition or for financial reasons. But the truth of the matter is, to my way of thinking, many hunters may be drawn with such enthusiasm to the woods and fields because hunting gives them a purpose to be out in nature in a way that grown men, and especially city men find difficult to do any other way.

Perhaps the thrill of hunting is in the stillness in the chill dawn air. Maybe a hunter feels there in the woods like he feels nowhere else: part of the whole of things, vital, integral to the economy of nature. Alert and watchful, every nerve cell, every one of the senses is focused fully on slight nuance of shadow and light, the smell of rich earth, the faint rasp of a beetle under bark, the sound that a leaf makes when it falls to the ground. There with intent to kill, the hunter may never feel more alive, and think, perhaps, that it is the potential of a deer meat that causes that exhilaration.

I feel the same rush of adrenalin, senses sharp, not separate from tree and rock and sky, sitting in our woods still and quiet under lavender clouds at sunrise. I sometimes go there under the pretense of hunting with my camera, but mostly I know it is not even about bringing back images, other than in memory. The pleasure is merely in my presense there, and this alone can be my purpose and my bounty.

Hunters, good fortune to you. And may you carry away more than venison from the woods in your hunt this year.

This opinion piece aired on WVTF in Roanoke on Friday, October 25.

Posted by fred1st at October 27, 2002 09:11 PM

Fred, how can you claim to be from the south and not participate in that most venerated southern tradition: getting drunk and watching NASCAR races on the teevee? Really, you're within spittin' distance of Carolina (and you even lived there once, no?), you should own at least 7 or 8 (hundred) pieces of Wallace, Earnhardt or Gordon-emblazoned paraphernalia. Shame, shame. It's how I could tell I was getting close to home as I drove south on 95--every gas station south of Richmond wants you to know that they are race fans, too.

Posted by: Sarah from San Francisco at October 28, 2002 03:39 PM

Bravo to you. I too understand the appeal hunting has to others, but don't participate myself. For me, hunting is defined as "taking your rifle for a walk," with the prospect (if successful) of several hours of hard and gory labor at the end.

I may be wimping out, but I'd rather pay someone else for my meat. When it comes to guns, I prefer a firing range.

Posted by: Kevin Baker at October 31, 2002 01:03 PM

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