Thursday, October 27, 2011

I Need to Go Hunting Again

Growing up, my father was much more of a hunting enthusiast than I was. Each year, just prior to deer season, he'd get "the fever," and his mind would begin racing on all the necessary preparations for hunting. On the other hand, I paid it very little attention until the day we left. For the most post, I found it a lot of unnecessary work to simply enjoy the outdoors and have more meat in our freezer. The whole experience seemed almost spoiled by having to lug around a heavy rifle, or having to paint my face camouflage colors for bowhunting season. My heart just wasn't into it. My father, however, was the consummate hunter, and ascribed profound importance to all aspects of it. As I look back to those years, I've come to appreciate what a "conductor of life lessons" it was that I simply didn't value at the time; not unlike how different metals are often shown to be a better conductor of sound or heat than others are.

When the term "hunting" is invoked, it often brings one thing to mind: killing. However, the actually slaying of an animal in the wild is a small minority of the entire process, and frequently is absent from the outing altogether (I went on SO many hunts and came back with nothing). But regarding the killing of big game, I don't begrudge people their aversion to performing this act. It's not for everyone. I do, however, think that those who are "anti-hunting" should also be vegetarians for consistency's sake; for every human carnivore, whether eating a fast food burger or jerky made from a proud Mule deer, is consuming a creature which as once alive, but was slain for their sustenance. Nevertheless, I've come to consider it an important virtue to participate in the ecosystem as a responsible hunter does. Note how the term "responsible" excludes poachers that ignore government regulations concerning management of game populations, or, in my opinion, those that hunt game they have no intention of consuming. I disagree with exotic hunts that seek to "bag" a rare animal for mere trophy's sake. That's not being the "ecological participant" that my father taught me to be.

Having said that, the actual harvest of the animal (i.e. killing), is something that cannot be divorced from the mystique of hunting. The marksmanship necessary to ensure that the animal is, in fact, slain (not merely sent of into the woods wounded, to die providing no benefit to the human "predator") requires preparation that precedes the outing by weeks or months. The hunter must educate themselves on the various regulations specific to the region so that they are compliant with game management and (during rifle season) firearm safety laws in every way. They must outfit themselves with the needed gear and accessories for the safety and comfort of their party. In my case, my father saw to my care and comfort, all the while teaching me to be more self-reliant through the process. I cannot speak for all hunters, but I was imbued with a striking appreciation for nature through this process; it's beauty, artistry and fragility. "Pick up after yourself," "police your brass," "minimal residual impact" were the frequent commands. Woodsmanship and ecological responsibility were the lessons and the wilderness was the classroom... and "class" was ALWAYS in session whether or not we saw any deer.

I remember killing my first buck. I was young. I fired three accurate shots that all contributed to the deer's quick expiration. It appeared to suffer as little as possible - if at all. This was important to me. As we approached the downed animal, my father began giving me instructions on how to "gut" it right then. Thoroughly grossed out, I resisted, hoping my dad would just do it for me. He became indignant that I might even think of slaying an animal this majestic and then seek to escape taking responsibility for the entire process. "No son of MINE is going to cheapen life that way by just killing an animal, but then not cleaning it too." Needless to say, I learned everything about the insides of a Black-tailed deer that morning. It was a messy and sobering ritual that had begun months before at the target range, and would later culminate with the integration of venison into family meals. At dinner, whenever some on my deer was included, the round of thanks for providing it was uniquely mine to receive. It was profound. That connection with not only the animal, but with the entire process, would wash over me anew with each successive morsel. Something primitive and timeless had been handed to me, and the singular pride that came from engaging it remains to this day.

Over the years, as I no longer lived near my father, hunting became less and less a personal pursuit. Eventually I sold my deer rifle to pay for college books, and seemed to lose all interest in perform all that work. I eventually got another buck again 20 years after the first one during another outing, of course, with my father (I've gotten just two in my lifetime). Even then, though, I was more pleased that my dad was pleased with my buck than I was elated for getting it. I'm just not a hunter as a matter of instinct.

Recently though, I've been thinking differently about it. Because the entire process, from sighting in your rifle at the range to enjoying your harvest at the dinner table, is seemingly such a powerful conductor of life lessons... I've felt like I should pursue it for my sons' sake, and for mine. The task is daunting. Re-acquiring the "tools" necessary to undertake this venture are varied and expensive (i.e. firearms, bullets [or bows and arrows], camping gear, licenses, deer tags, etc.). Learning and selecting the places to hunt is no small task either. I don't live in the same region I grew up in. Texas hunting is a very different "animal" (pun intended) from that of northern California. It's intimidating to be so unfamiliar with local customs and access areas for hunting... to say nothing of the expense of actually taking the trip. All of this could be an effective deterrent from attempting it at all, but the lessons conveyed from one generation to the next through hunting were so important as to make all the trouble seem necessary and valuable.

I'll keep learning what I need to and perhaps I may soon be out there with my boys, teaching them some of what my father taught me.

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