MORE men — and women too — go a-hunting nowadays than for many generations. More men — and women too — look upon those who do go a-hunting as people who, if they have any humane vision, have a big blind spot in it. A few friends sat around the table a while ago eating wild goose and black duck, the gains of my gun. " When we have finished.”said one,”suppose we read ‘Lines to a Waterfowl.’ ” He was a good friend and it was a fair enough fling.
Nor did it cause me much surprise. I knew my friends to be those to whom the hunter, who was otherwise a decent sort of a man, was more or less inexplicable. Ever since the larger part of our human family have been able to leave the “ meat trail ” and get from others, through the intermediary of the professional, that which beforetimes they must needs get for themselves, there have been more and more of them to whom the word “ sport ” is connected with things coarse and hard, because so many use it when they mean hunting — and fishing, for that, matter. The man who uses the gun may not avoid the unpleasant consciousness of their feeling by simply avoiding a certain kind of reading, of which there is much in modern pen-work, where there is preaching against gun-using, usually under the text of some fine lines of poesy; for not a few of the poets, who have written beautifully of the hunter in mo ments of red blood and tender sentiment, have at other moments drawn heaven’s curses on those who are hunters by election. The reproach is nearer home, and those who from time to time slip away from the haunts of man, with a fowlingpiece in hand and in the company of a beloved dog, must be prepared to meet as they return to their own society the puzzled look, and to feel the touch sarcastic One may not seek to make his friend’s thoughts uncomfortable within him, but it is almost against nature that a man who does not use a gun should talk long with a man who does, concerning the outdoor or the wild, without some word or act that shows at least that he cannot at all understand. It is quite the way of most women of good heart to feel wonderment and even resentment about the matter, and to speak it with a woman’s frankness; for the modern woman who goes a-hunting is not yet in large company.
One who thinks about this matter seriously, and who can even in a measure take the point of view of those who consider the way of the hunter with abhorrence, must admit, if he is honest, that at not a few times he is himself on trial by himself, as to this business. I have sometimes pounded ray way through a beautiful piece of woodland on what John Ridd would call, “ man’s chief errand, destruction,” and have there disturbed, with calling to my dog or the report of my gun, some gentle soul, wandering through that same lovely corner of nature’s do main — wandering because he loves it for itself, and with all kinds of affection for everything alive in it; perhaps beginning to think that he had already thrown the spell of peace and understanding between himself, the overlord, and his various subjects, who from the inheritance of ten thousand generations had learned to fear him. At such a time I have chosen to believe there was better hunting up another branch of the stream, or perhaps have with suddenness decided to break again into the open and look once more for some certain, but really most uncertain, flock of quail. For a time after such deviation my thought may not be altogether on the chase. I can easily wander, both with my legs and in my thoughts, long enough to lose my dog, and then, hunting for him and finding him at point, perhaps regain my balance. But it is too clear that the thoughts of that rudely shaken, nature-loving wanderer are towards me anything but those of friendship. If he is a real nature-lover, and therefore a person of sweet charity, he cannot be indignant, but, much the worse, will be full of pity concerning any of his fellow humans who are so lost to fine and high feeling, as must be this rough-clad carrier of arms into Nature’s kingdom; and if the hunter is one who thinks well of his fellow man and well likes his goodwill, to know of such sentiments towards him must disturb his soul.
And if this hunter, coming home at the end of that day and talking it over very frankly, should tell a friend just how he felt about it all, he would show no defiant spirit; neither would his tone be that of apology; least of all would he seek to convert. To one who did not think well of his calling, what he had to say might be taken as confession; to one who understood more, it would be a plain tale, having only such interest as may attach to anything which shows human motive, and the particular window out of which any human heart looks upon the world, its own place and work and needs in it. If there is anything in this paper, that is all there is in it; for the writer will not make a brief of it, or quote, or argue. Some day all may be said by some Isaak Walton of the gun and the dog; for I believe that a good man who had the mind might ripen into such a character. To those who are hunters and yet have hearts and consciences — and there are such — there is, in the pursuit of game, nothing inconsistent with the high serenity of the Compleat Angler, in whose quiet sea of contemplation and observation float and swim and have their natural habitat, trout, minnows, heaven, George Herbert, the Apostles, castingflies, pike, grayling, saints, and prayerbook, each seeming as much as any other to be in a native element.
Because many cannot see that there may be associations or suggestions of things that are good and valuable for contemplation in the life of the hunter, there has not been any real change in the faith of the brotherhood of right-minded hunters. But because there are without many who neither inveigh against them nor scorn them, but rather are in some doubt; and because even among hunters there is sometimes a questioning, very plain talking on points little understood and less agreed upon may not be out of order. We shall consider chiefly the hunting of game-birds, for that is the more common and serves all purposes of discussion.
It would not be possible for one to hunt at all if he could really believe that which many good people believe, that in an invasion of the quiet wood and field he ruthlessly forces into the life of bird and animal a new element of dread, shadowing their very existence and taking from it most if not all of the joy of living. Quite plainly true is it that the gun is a signal of danger; that the gun dog is an animal to be feared by those whom he loves to hunt; that the approach of man is the approach of a possible enemy. Man and dog and gun are signs to the bird that it is well to fly and to seek some other less disturbed resting-place. This is not a pleasant thing for the bird; it is often very inconvenient: but that it means hysteria of fear and cataclysm of feeling is beyond my understanding. Watching birds when the game is on, gives me no ground for believing that the disturbance of what they may possess in the way of feeling is anything more than momentary, or more than one experience out of thousands which come into their lives every season and against which by nature they are forearmed.
A covey of quail suffers a thinning of its ranks without any evidence of shock or lessened joy on the part of those who are left. They become simply more wary of certain signs, just as they are on guard when warned of the near approach of other members of the animal kingdom who are on their trail for meat, day and night, in all seasons of the year. It would be a good thing for those who find discomfort and unrest in this thought of the spreading of terror by the hunter in the animal kingdom, if they could compare the action of this same bird before a fierce fusillade of fowling-pieces and before the approach of their natural enemies. It has been the frequent experience of one unscientific hunter of my intimate acquaintance, to discharge both barrels of his gun at a single quail, with no injurious effect apparent upon either the body or the nerves of the fleeing bird. Bob-white may have slightly accelerated his flight and covered a greater distance than he would have, had the hunter but walked near him without either gun or dog. That is all. Things were different when both this hunter and a chickenhawk happened to be pursuing the same flock of quail. There had been some shooting near by and the dog was very busily working in the brush close to where the quail lay; but all was yet quiet, when, suddenly, one of the birds was seized with a realization that a chicken-hawk was near and intending him for his evening meal. He was not only off and away, though yet far from dog or man and farther still from hawk, but his rise was more like a rocket than the whirring rush. The speed seemed faster than an arrow and there was a continuous succession of piercing cries such as one hears at no other time from this bird. Fear and even horror had overtaken him, and his flight, then in October, was beyond all ordinary lengths, even in the late season, when birds are in full feather and wing and may be wild.
It occurs to one here to think not only of the difference between the action of the bird before a hunter and before a chickenhawk, but of the fact that this quiet, unharming member of the animal kingdom lives more or less in the presence and in the fear of this dread persecutor, the hawk, all his days; and that it has not only been allowed that he should thus live, but that his actions show that even in such fears and dreads he does live in a way which is altogether normal and, for all one can see, entirely happy, save only when the chase of life and death is on. If one can believe writers of a certain school, all the Bob-whites in such a state, for example, as Connecticut must long ago have evidenced hopeless nervous prostration. If these men told truths there could not be any quail, except in some transformed existence, where they had foregone the happy whistle, where they had left the open road, where they no longer approached the cornfield or came in view of the habitat of man, where they flew only when they could not run, their lives spent like rats, in stone walls and on lonely ledges.
It should be one’s wish in talking of these things to keep away as far as possible from unpleasant scenes and to take advantage of no gruesome analogy. But one must wonder, as he thinks about the things that are said to be true, where was made the observation on which they rested. To many eyes which are wont to see the things within their range of vision, there seems generally little difference between the action of a flock of quail, or even of geese and of ducks, when some of their number have gone into the gamebag, and the undisturbed, matter-of-fact action of our friends of the barnyard, after an operation, never too delicate, has started a pair of their brothers towards the broiler. It may be that many impressive experiences of another sort have met the eyes of those who have more widely viewed the animal creation, and with eyes more keen and sympathetic. It would add to the writer’s interest in the contemplation of this subject to know of such. This is, be it remembered, only a report of that which has been seen.
It is said of hunters that they are and must be cruel men, because it is not to be denied that in the trail of the day’s chase, of bird or animal, it is not unlikely that they leave the suffering wounded. Venator may not lightly wave into silence such demurrers to his calling. He knows, as they know, that not only do the rough and brutal and the unfeeling thus mark and mar their hunting, but that it is at times beyond the power of the man with the tenderest of consciences, the most painstaking care, and the most persistent spirit of search, to make absolutely sure that he has either bagged or missed his game. But yet it is so rare that one offends in this matter, who seriously determines that he will not, that the calling of the gun and the dog need not therefore be given the deaf ear. There is nothing perfect, and the right charge in his fowling-piece and the right retriever for a dog will so greatly aid the hunter of conscience as to well-nigh take away the reproach.
And as for the case between the hunter and the hunted, the man of equity will not forbear to consider the good that comes to the one because the other cares for him. Did not the hunter love to hunt, the hunted would be without their best friend; for the estate of birds and animals who are counted in the family of game is so vastly better, if we take the year round, than it was before men used their guns in such number as now, and deliberately undertook to preserve the hunted, that the one condition is hardly to be compared with the other. Were the eye and arm of huntsmen removed from the protection of the hunted, so many more and worse enemies would prey upon the creatures of the wild, in all seasons and without the restraint and consideration of even very ordinary hunters, that their present estate would seem in comparison a very happy one.
But as for the hunter; what happens to him ? Some one whom I do not now recall has of late asked this question, and has answered it in such manner that it must be with both boldness and blushes that one of the condemned should speak. But if of the company of the lost, it will at least be permitted to us to say that with some of those called hunters we have no fellowship, since in fact they are not hunters, but only killers; and if our sometime friends think of us as all together and one, it is a pleasant duty none the less to observe that they think not rightly. If we all love chiefly the score, strive mainly to make a record, are pleased to talk of “ slaughter,” when the birds have been lying or flying well; then let us be counted lost and treated as governable only by statutes and wardens and justice courts. But if there are those who are otherwise-minded and who are drawn to the open, with a gun, but with thoughts and aims uppermost other than making many “ kills,” the hunter will, if the writer understands him, meditate on the well-being of his own soul somewhat after this fashion: —
“Hunting is not of the state of spiritual perfection. Neither has been, or is now, the course of any of the rest of us who feed on meat and wear skins, either in robes and coats or in shoes and belts. The hunter does not seem to feel quite at home when his mind contemplates the delightsome gathering in the holy mountain of which Isaiah sings — neither wolf nor leopard nor young lion nor bear, nor the partridge on the mountain, did he chance to be of the company, would give him welcome to their love feast. Neither would any of the rest of us be thought personœ gratœ by lamb, kid, cow, or calf. They would all leave their lord and master, ‘ the little child,’ if the little child’s master came around, wore he either canvas coat or the doth.
“ But since it seems to some a necessity to eat meat and clothe themselves in whole or in part with that which was formerly the clothing of another animal, even though very excellent health-masters say they are in error, shall I, the hunter, the less condemn myself, because by choice I ‘ take the meat-trail ’ and hunt and destroy ? Is it not for me to go ahead as far as I can, and hope that the line will move towards where I am and so advance the bloodless day of peace and goodwill ?
“ Yes, it were better, if I could do this and still do ‘ next things’ of every day, as well as or better than now. So I say of my hunting; so I say of my meat-eating. But for some reason or other neither of these things seems to be true. Wise men, as to things of the body and things of the spirit, have, times without number, considered the habit carnivorous and said it was altogether unspiritual, and yet immensely gainful in the doing of the day’s hard works; in the making of private and public means for better living; in the building and the saving of the state. Some day, if we do now the things we clearly can, as well as we know how, and think and feel and pray ourselves along as much farther as is possible, we may yet follow the very simple life, eating only things that live in vegetable ways.
“ But until these days are upon us, I shall eat meat, if it be within my means, and so get the coarse fuel for my hard work. And also until these and still in other ways different days are on us, I shall go a-hunting, and for reasons which are the same as for meat-eating, and for other and for better reasons.
“ For I must away. The ‘ medicine ’ of the red gods is making, even only a township or two away, in a very ancient commonwealth, thick-haunted of men, but often with the open near the door. And as I enter the fields of ‘ proved delight ' there come, winging faster than birds in flight, memories and instincts and passions, under whose ministries and spurs I slip the leash of natural feeling, fling the wrinkled rolls of care and convention to free airs, and open smoky corners of hesitation and doubt to bright, clear lights. Some day, perhaps, I shall wander through these fields and woods of delight with only wild flowers for the reward of the chase, and without a beloved dog to divide companionship of beloved tree and my brothers, the field and the sky. But now it is the trail that draws me, and I go more willingly and gladly on it than on any other quest. Some day the bruising, hard fellow within me, who harks back to days of spear and bow, may put off his hardness and unsling his gun and ask for no dog. But until he does I must go with him, when I may. I shall try to be decent about it. If I cannot find the charge that may reasonably be counted on either to miss or finish, I shall leave the pursuit of that kind of game. If I think first or much of filling the pockets or the meat-room, — when necessity is not present, — then I shall know it is all leading me far afield. If I grow harder, more willing to see the dumb creation suffer, or more inured to the keener suffering of higher lives, I hope I shall have it in my heart to give it up altogether.
“ But since and so long as it acts upon me in ways quite the opposite, and since the big, hard game of the every day and the world seems the easier because of this holiday game of the hunt; and so long as I can keep a few friends who understand and a few others who forget the things they don’t understand, I have made up my mind to keep at it. I have gone over the question now and again these last twenty-five years and my talk about it with myself is over. I shall still go a-hunting.”