Saturday, March 5, 2011

Learning to hunt bass-ackwards

Sometimes it feels that I've gone about learning how to hunt all wrong.

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with my hunting. But last week when I was out on my weekly jaunt at the lake, it occurred to me that I'd gone about learning to hunt bass-ackwards.

I was following my deer trails for the third consecutive weekend and everything just started to click. When I crested the hill in my first major climb, there they were: three blacktail does, chewing on something lovely and green as they watched me. I'd been wondering when I'd finally see deer!

When I crested the next hill, I was treated to a comical duet sung by a loquacious hen mallard and a croaking frog, echoing up from the creek 100 feet below. I abandoned my path to stalk them for a while and see if I could figure out what had prompted this performance, but the qua-oaking stopped when I got too close.

No matter! It was a fun diversion anyway.

When I crested the next hill, I made my way through a verdant patch of miner's lettuce I'd remembered seeing on a cool north face, snacking as I went. And then dodged the poison oak that I'd been watching leaf out - I knew exactly where I needed to tread carefully.

I reveled in all of this. Instead of just barging through, I was seeing the land. It was becoming home. And it felt good. If I were allowed to hunt here, it would feel perfect.

That's when it hit me: If I were a proper hunter - and I mean that in an ancient, primal sense - I would've grown up walking these hillsides, and I would've learned every inch of them long before I was allowed to handle a weapon.

But that wasn't how I did it.

For a time during my childhood, I had that experience. I lived in the country, and I knew every square inch of my environs: five acres of our own that we let go wild, and a long network of agricultural irrigation ditches that were havens for all sorts of wild things.

But my family didn't hunt, so I never took the next step of becoming a full participant in that environment. I grew up and went away to college in a big city. I spent a couple decades living a pretty urban lifestyle.

And when Hank finally convinced me it was time to take up hunting, here's how I did it: I signed up for a hunter safety course, bought a shotgun, took a shooting lesson and went on my first hunt - for planted pheasants - in a field I'd never seen before.

(I did all of this, incidentally, based not on a lifetime of preparation, but because of one experience: a pig hunt with Hank in which I was astonished by the magnetic tug of hunting wild animals for your food.)

I took this process for granted, as do many who take up hunting as adults, or who hunt from a home base in a city. But the longer I hunt, the more I crave intimate knowledge of my hunting grounds. And the better I get to know my hunting grounds, the more I recognize that much of my hunting is such a far cry from what it should be.

Now, work with me here - I'm not being judgmental about any particular form of hunting.

What I'm saying is that one of the things that drives us to hunt, that makes us so passionate about what we do, is this profound need to connect with nature on an authentic level, not as a visitor to the zoo, but as a full-fledged member of the living community.

We hunt in part to escape the insane world that humanity has built for itself. Yet our hunting is defined and constrained by that world.

There are ducks in my neighborhood, but I can't hunt in the suburbs, so I drive 90 miles north, wait in line with other hunters, and head out to my spot where we're all sandwiched together as close as - and sometimes closer than - safety permits. I shoot as many ducks as I can because I know the season's days are numbered and I'll miss the hunting when it's over. And I check out when I leave, opening my car to inspection to prove I'm not going over my limit.

There is absolutely nothing natural about this process.

Don't get me wrong - I love duck hunting. I love how beautiful the marsh is. I love how clever and funny and elusive the ducks are. I love it when I make a good shot. I love it when the ducks thwart me and live to fly another day. I love it when the ducks make me laugh at myself, which they do often. And I love eating duck. I mean, eyes-rolling-back-into-my-head love it.

And I understand, accept and support the laws and rules regulating modern hunting, because I know those rules ensure the health of the species we hunt. If only the rules governing agriculture and construction were so considerate of wildlife.

Still, I can't help but feel a little sad that something so profoundly central to our existence for literally millions of years has been reduced to this ... this kabuki.

And this applies to pretty much every form of hunting I do. I drive anywhere from one to three hours to stalk deer. One place I hunt deer is crawling with hunters. Another is bordered by neighbors hostile to hunters, so God help me if a deer I shoot bolts in that direction.

Turkeys? Got 'em in spades five minutes from my house, but there's no hunting allowed on the American River Parkway, so I drive to Amador or Napa county whenever I'm lucky enough to get an invite from someone with land there.

Doubtless, by this point some of you are thinking, "Speak for yourself, girlie!" I'm talking to you incredibly lucky rural hunters who either own a lot of land or have access to a lot of land right outside your back door. Sure, you still have to follow the rules of modern hunting, but you get to develop and nurture your relationship with the land year-round.

Seriously, I envy you so much I could cry.

Not that this will ever stop me from hunting. Having restored my connection to the earth, there's no going back. I will cling tenaciously to anything that allows me to maintain or deepen that connection.

For now, that means taking walks in a park where I can get to know - but never consummate - my relationship with the land. It means driving all over California to hunt deer and pigs and turkeys even though I can find plenty of them closer to home. It means adhering to the elaborate modern rituals of duck hunting.

If I'm lucky, someday it'll mean getting some land in the country where we can walk out our back door and hunt, familiar with the land and what it holds, ever mindful of we can and can't take from it not because the law tells us so, but because we know it.

Is that too much to hope for?

© Holly A. Heyser 2011


Swamp Thing said...

Preaching to the choir! Our neighborhood is typical of the mid-atlantic - we have ducks, geese, deer, and fox wandering around most days, and the yard is routinely full of rabbits and doves. And of course, squirrels.

But my lease is 90 (country road) miles away.

One deal I made with myself was to take up archery hunting for deer, which I had never done prior to moving to Maryland. Now I have high quality (meat, not trophy) hunting opportunities less than 15 minutes from my door. I don't take advantage of them enough, because on a lot of days, I'd rather be 90 miles away, in the middle of nowhere, recalibrating my brain.

Ingrid said...

I will just take a bit of issue with idea that a relationship with one's environment can only be properly or satisfactorily "consummated" in a hunt or kill. Having read your blog for a long time now, Holly, I understand what you mean. You mean for yourself, for your own attainment and satisfaction. I realize my perspective as a non-hunter is different. But ... I can relate in one way, with respect to my photography.

I think there's an equally valid and alternative perspective when engaging the land as you are. Not as an "observer" which I know many hunters disdain (observing and not engaging the life cycle). I mean immersed without the need for any type of acquisition. I say this for myself as a photographer, as well. There's an exquisite and transcendent connection that develops when there is no need to do anything but "be" in that environment. I call it the "being" versus the "having."

Let's face it, whether it's my end goal of a photograph or your end goal of an animal in hand, it's still a drive for acquisition. And I think the most profound moments come when none of that drive is in play. You probably already have, but if you haven't, read John Muir for a truly exceptional understanding of this version of engagement. Just be aware that he grew progressively more troubled about hunting, the more he saw. That might be a turn off for many here. It's why I love him, though. ;)

I realize you could criticize the comparison of photography (inedible) versus hunting (meat). But let's face it, no one here is actually starving, best I know. I feel there is validity to my comparison, taking that into account.

Ingrid said...

p.s. "Let's face it" seems to be my phrase for the day. Wish there was a post-publish edit for the impulsive among us.

Mike at The Big Stick said...

Very interesting subject matter Holly and I can relate. I don't own any land of my own but I am very blessed with the public and private resources I get to use. I have access to two farms, one my uncle's and one a friend. I spend so much time on both that I feel a very intimiate connection to the land. I can only imagine how much stronger it would be if my name was on the lease.

I used to feel like a stranger on public land but I decided that rather than roam hundreds of acres I would select one small 10 acre section of our local WMA and hunt it almost exclusively. I've learned every ridge and hollow and it feels very natural to be there. A friend reminded me that as a taxpayer and a lifelong Kentucky resident that land IS my land. It's my birthright and my responsibility. Knowing that makes me feel very good when i'm there.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Swamp Thing, if I could hunt the land near me, I might feel the same way you do about getting further out. But I don't have the pleasure of knowing.

Ingrid, I really do feel that transcendence out there when I can't hunt. Even if I were allowed to hunt in these places, my experiences there would not always revolve around hunting.

But when I have to hold back a natural part of my life in a place, I have not completed my relationship with it.

Do you eat when you're out there in nature? Do you pick the yummy green things that are the best food on earth? Or do you deny your biological place in nature and abstain while you're there?

If you're content with a one-way relationship with nature, that's fine for you. I would never say that you need to hunt to be complete.

But I'm an omnivore. I do.

Mike, I'm going through the same process. I used to hunt ducks in many places, and this year I spent the majority of my time hunting in one small area, typically one of three tule patches. I don't have exclusive rights to this area, which is fine. But I feel a sense of investment in it.

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

I hear your longing loud and clear, Holly. And I know I'm one of those you envy. We only own a few acres, but there are hundreds and hundreds of acres of private timberland I can hunt, right here.

In thinking back on my first years of hunting (and in writing about them, as I work on my book), it's impossible to separate out my "hunting" from my long hikes, mapping the terrain in mind and on paper, slowly building a sense of how deer live and move here, in this place. I'm glad I got to know these places before succeeding in taking a deer here.

Hunt Like You're Hungry said...

"There is absolutely nothing natural about this process"
I could not agree more. This post hits a lot of points which makes hunting a very different sort of activity than in our primal days before modern conveniences changed how we obtain the food we consume. In times before Super Markets, a person HAD to hunt to feed their families, or they just bartered what they could. Hunting was natural because there were no laws streamlining it was necessary for survival.
Nowadays, we do hunt ass-backwards. At least I did. And before today, I never gave it a second thought. But you're right- I shot a gun, took a government-mandated safety course, bought a shotgun with the OK of the FBI, and hunted on land that was not mine. While I can say that hunting brings me closer to nature and my essential being as one who quasi-lives off the land, there was nothing natural about how I went about it.
This makes me mad but it is in the nature of our current condition. Government regulation of deer, duck, goose, etc. herds helps in extinction prevention but also natural instinct prevention. I can't stand a lot of the rules and regulations put against hunters. If I did not care about laws, I'd shoot the deer that live next to my house. But since Charlotte has no urban archery, I have to sit back and watch them go about their business.
Of course, this is all of what you have said, just in my words but you're right, Holly. In every respect. I just hope that a new generation of hunters can be born who are able to hunt where they please and when they please (Sundays included) in order to feed their families.

Great job.


NorCal Cazadora said...

Tovar, oh yeah I envy you! It's not just that being able to observe deer in a place regularly would make me a more effective hunter (though I'm sure it would); I just feel like that's what I'm supposed to be doing.

HLYH, I totally understand the need for these laws. They're a function of providing opportunity for hunters while maintaining the health of species.

But in a perfect world, there wouldn't be 7 billion of us humans mucking things up.

I think the law that bothers me most - though obviously I follow it - is the idea of seasons. If I were unfettered by law, there would definitely be seasons in which I would practice restraint, e.g., not shooting females when there's a high likelihood they're rearing offspring.

But I think having seasons does tend to feed a stockpile mentality. It's like stop signs: When I was a local government reporter, I covered a lot of debates about traffic control in residential neighborhoods.

Many residents wanted to see more stop signs, but cities were moving toward speed bumps and traffic circles because studies showed that when you have stop signs, people tend to speed between them to make up for lost time.

I know there's no way we can get rid of seasons. I know the North American Model of wildlife management is responsible for the success and health of the species we hunt.

I guess I just envy our ancestors for living in the time when we didn't need such things.

Bpaul said...

As often happens when I read your blog, it feels like I could have written almost the exact post. We share so much philosophy, but also experience of being a city dweller that needs to 'go out' to hunt. We are also both blessed with city living very near natural abundance.

And again I commend you for putting yourself out there and stating your philosophy and ethics for the world to see. Especially on the internet. I see that as a very brave thing to do, especially on a subject as 'hot button' as hunting.

Nothing but good can come of this -- as my Grandma liked to say.

Your Northern fan,


Bpaul said...

Gah, forgot to click "email comments" button.


SimplyOutdoors said...

Oh, Holly. How this whole post so hits home for me.

As I couldn't afford any acreage, we live in the city - but my soul belongs in the country. I live for the day when I have a decent slab of property, which would let me walk out my back door every morning, and be able to get to know the land, inside and out.

But will that day every come?

I don't know, but it's a great thing to think about. And, until then, I'll do whatever I can to enjoy those places I am allowed to walk through and hunt on occasion.

It's still not the same as if those places were my own, though.

Maybe someday. It doesn't hurt to dream, I guess.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

I feel your pain. We live in a densely populated part of the country (Cape Cod), which consists of residential areas insterspersed with small conservation areas that are huntable in season. I think the wildlife in those areas are skittish around humans. Despite hiking and running in these areas pretty regularly, the only wildlife I see regularly are turkeys and waterfowl.

Our plans for next deer season will focus around finding a place we can hunt that will increase our chances for getting a deer. It will necessarily be fairly far away, and we won't have the chance to get familiar with it.

It's hard to see how to avoid the situation, though. When there are lots of people around, I understand the need to tightly regulate hunting. The only answer is to go rural. That, or cozy up to Tovar and hope for an invitation.

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

That was deft, Tamar. ;-) And I'm sure it would be a hoot to hunt with you and Kevin sometime.

The funny thing is, I figure my chances of getting a deer may be higher in southeastern Massachusetts than here. The deer densities are higher down there and antlerless permits are available for the main gun season. Then again, I don't know the terrain there any better than you know it here...

Phillip said...

Haven't read all the comments yet, because I've gotta get going back to downtown Oakland and a desk job after a weekend in paradise (Tejon Ranch), but I do love this post.

What you've captured here, Holly, is 100% of the reason I'm heading for Texas as fast as I can responsibly go (maybe a little faster). The hunting experience for urban dwellers and suburbanites becomes so compressed, or encapsulated, it kind of loses some of the magic. When you have to drive two or three hours to do a hunt, you end up completely goal oriented. There's no time to stop and smell the flowers, literally, because you've only got a day or two to find game.

I can't wait to know my hunting grounds the way I know the local park where I ride the horses. I can't wait to have a piece of land to improve and restore for wildlife, where I can know the place and the animals on it as more than just a destination and targets.

Damn, good post, Holly. Thanks!

Al Cambronne said...

My situation is enviable, but not perfect. The reality doesn't always live up to the ideal.

My wife and I live in a sparesely populated area of northern Wisconsin. We only have a couple acres, but we have lots of public land nearby. Other land is paper company land--public for all practical purposes.

Although I usually drive elsewhere to hunt, I do sometimes walk from home. A couple times I've been lucky enough to get a deer within a mile or so of home. When I did, I still walked home to get a vehicle so I could drive back out and pick up the deer. Here in Wisconsin, we're required toregister deer at a check-in station. So that kind of breaks the spell. Were it not for that, it would be a special experience to drag the deer back home, butcher in the garage, and put the packages straight into the freezer.

I guess a couple times I have gone grouse hunting from home and somehow managed to hit one. Living on a lake, we also get to fish from home, clean the fish out in the front yard, and enjoy very fresh fish. That's something we don't take for granted.

The less enviable part is that everyone else wants to come fish and hunt here, too. Our lake gets fished hard, and that affects the size and number of what fish remain.

And even though the deer populations are much denser downstate in farm country, hunters want to come up here so they feel like they're up in the north woods. Not to sound selfish or posessive, but it does get kind of crowded around here during deer season. Everyone from all over two states wants to come here. Since so many "hunters" bait these days, there's also a lot of corn out in the woods. When hunters bait, they get possessive and think that bit of public land belongs to them. Sometimes things don't feel so natural out here anymore, either.

It's too bad we're not into duck hunting like you and Hank are. You might or might not envy this... We live in on a shallow body of water that's good for waterfowling. In September and October we rarely bother with alarm clocks--especially on the weekends. Just as the sun is rising, we're nearly always awakened by gunfire.

Hmmm... I wonder what Jeff Foxworthy would say about that?

NorCal Cazadora said...

Bpaul: Uh oh, did I say something brave???

Simply: Hey, don't you have a lease? I mean, a lease is sorta your own, albeit not right out your back door. I don't even care about legal ownership - the ownership I care about is knowledge (and of course, access).

Tamar: See? You're in the same boat. Gotta drive. Bummer!

Tovar: Ain't she slick???

Phillip: THANK YOU! I struggled so much when I wrote this post, because I not only had to find the right words, but I had to really understand what's going on in my head (which isn't always easy).

It makes me so sad that Texas is where you want to go to find that piece of Eden, though. Not that there's anything wrong with Texas, except that I won't get to hunt with you nearly as much. But more than I ever have before, I understand what's driving you.

Sadly, we are WAY upside down on our house and we're gonna be tied down here for a long time, so I'm gonna be stuck with driving long distances to hunt for a while. Sigh.

Al, I see the downsides of your situation, for sure. (And funny, in California, we don't have check-in stations, but we're actually supposed to drive around and find someone with a badge to counter-sign our tags - seriously, like I'm going to parade around with a deer and try to flag down cops.)

Of course, the un-written Part II of my post is, "This version of Eden would be possible if we didn't have so many humans filthing up the planet." And that is a problem I doubt we will ever solve - I'm pretty sure Nature will solve it for us at some point.

Anonymous said...

A short post is all I have time for here.

The place I hunt is a cattle ranch leased by the hunting club I belong to. It is 65 miles and 2 to 2 1/2 hours from my door.
When my mother died, I went there and the land held my tears for me. It has given me pigs and rabbits and miners lettuce and pine nuts and chuffas. I have been fooled and laughed at and laughed with. The land has my love.
Some day, the people who run the hunting club may decide this piece of land does not produce the results for the price they pay. Then I would lose access to a place that holds my heart.


NorCal Cazadora said...

What a horrible thought, losing that, because your description is my idea of a perfect relationship with the land.

It's actually sad that we have to think of land in terms of ownership at all, but it's the only guarantee we have.

Anonymous said...

It points of a drawback to the system I am using. Wish I had more time on this as I much enjoy your post.

I hope you find what feeds your soul.


Josh said...

A very interesting post. As you know, I'm a rural fellow what's been urbanized, and I understand your situation a bit. I do believe that hunting societies have always had restrictions, either through religious practices or conservation, but the extent to which we must do so today is extreme.

This is my favorite of your lines, which I will use (w/reference) from now on:

"If only the rules governing agriculture and construction were so considerate of wildlife."

NorCal Cazadora said...

Thanks, Josh.

This weekend I took my next step in reconnecting the way I had begun living as a rural child. But that'll be the subject of a new post - and you know what it's going to be about!

Ingrid said...

Holly said, If you're content with a one-way relationship with nature, that's fine for you.

Yes, how I interact is fine with me, and often as profound as what you describe through hunting. But I don't consider it lesser or "one way." That particular characterization is a very limited way to view the connection I'm talking about. It suggests that only through recreational consumption are we truly integrated with our environment. I don't believe that for an instant. And it's inaccurate to say that because I'm not exploiting every possible resource around me, that I'm somehow limited in my relationship to my home on this planet. Hunters don't own "complete" unity with nature by consuming a downed animal. Some would argue the precise opposite, even though I'm not doing that here. Just saying that "one-way" in no way describes my experience. If you're familiar at all with the discussions around Unified Field theory, that's more of what I'm getting at.

Josh said...

I sure do!

Hey, I wanted to mention that I'd done some thinking about this, and I don't know if your way of learning to hunt necessarily came backwards. I thought about cats, and how they hunt first, and learn their land because they hunt, not the other way around.

Maybe, you are just a cat.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Ingrid, who says my consumption is recreational??? What I do is a way of life in which I'm trying - in whatever ways I can - to get closer to the harmonious relationship we had with nature before we invented agriculture and soothed our shame by declaring it was God's will for us to have dominion over animals.

And I don't think you have to "exploit every possible resource" while you're in nature to have a relationship with it. But I do think if you occasionally picked and ate a mushroom or some miner's lettuce or some blackberries, you might appreciate the relationship I'm talking about - it's recognizing the transcendent beauty of a system that is designed to sustain us without our absurd interventions.

And I'm sorry you keep getting stuck in my spam filter! I wish it would give me a way to automatically clear you.

Josh: I actually meant to mention cats in the post I wrote yesterday, but I forgot. The huntress of our little pride, Harlequin, constantly "plays" to stay sharp for the real thing. She loves her toys - balls of chocolate bar foil, pheasant feathers, windup mouse toy. And she is wicked sharp with them.

But me, a cat? I'd be flattered if they didn't have that insufferable habit of playing with their food before killing it. I know it's just their nature, but it's not my cup of tea.