Behold the Hunter

What is a man who in one week can be entranced by a Beethoven symphony, a Manet, a line of poetry, and in the next be equally caught up in following the trail of a wild animal through the snow-filled woods? An outdoorsman and writer offers this answer.

Outside the log cabin, dawn arrives reluctantly. The light snow that fell the day before has nearly disappeared in the overnight thaw, and a cold, gray mist shrouds the upper portions of the mountains that surround us.

One by one, my four deer-hunting companions depart. I am left alone and the only sound breaking the silence of our wilderness hideaway is the snapping of burning chunks of hardwood in the heavy cast-iron stove that once served the cook in a logging camp. Lighted anew each morning when we rise at 4:30, it soon makes the place so warm I am forced to remove my woolen shirt in order to be comfortable.

The stove’s efficiency delights me—one needs to stoke it only about every two hours—and over the years I have baked bread, pies, and biscuits in its capacious oven and have had many good soups and chowders simmering on its back corners. The odor of woodsmoke creeping from it, a sweet-sad aroma that evokes memories of good friends and good times in years past, also touches, I like to believe, something lurking in my genes from the time when my hunting forebears squatted on their haunches about an open fire.

In this place, the far reaches of northern New Hampshire, we hunt deer in the classic manner, each man moving through the woods alone, matching his stamina and powers of observation against those of the animal pursued. (I use the word “classic” in a limited sense, for it applies only to that period which began a few hundred years ago, when gunpowder and the musket or rifle enabled one man to hunt alone with a relatively high degree of success. Jn the beginning— when fruitand nut-eating man lost his forest habitat because of encroaching ice and cold weather and was forced to hunt on the open grasslands—there was no way he could succeed except by joining others in an effort not unlike today’s deer drive.) Here we do not indulge in the deer drives so common in the low country, where patches of woods surrounded by meadows or farmland lend themselves to such endeavors; where gangs of men move noisily—or at least with no attempt at stealth—through likely deer habitat, pushing the animals toward others waiting on stand. Even if we wished to stage a drive, we would need a regiment to do so in the wild country we hunt, for hardwoods and conifers stretch in unbroken ranks for mile upon mile through river valleys and across mountains dark in the distance.

Reluctant to tackle my notebook, 1 have wasted as much time as I can justify in feeding the fire and adjusting the damper, but am given a short reprieve when a snowshoe rabbit appears from under the hemlocks at a corner of the clearing outside. He has a rather disreputable appearance—like one who has clothed himself at a rummage sale—for this is the time of year when his brown pelt of summer begins to turn white. This shift, triggered by the shortening hours of daylight, will continue until he is almost pure white except for the tips of his ears. For a moment— thinking of a rabbit pie—I contemplate shooting him, but one varying hare would only be enough for two men.

Two hours later, my writing done, I pick up my muzzle-loading rifle and powder horn and leave for the mountain ridge east of camp. There are sometimes as many deer near the bottom of the ridge, but getting to the summit is a climb I enjoy.

I will never become a truly expert deer hunter—and I have been at it for thirty-five years—because 1 cannot shuck off the thoughts and images of the civilized world in which most of my life is spent, cannot become a total predator naked of any emotion save the desire to kill.

That day, the last mist-draped rocky height achieved, I was more preoccupied than usual and the urge to hunt was muted. I laid the rifle and the powder horn on a fallen, moss-covered log beside me and wondered why I had chosen to go forth with them rather than with the modern high-powered rifle complete with telescopic sight that I had also brought to the cabin. Was I merely engaging in a silly game that had no real meaning? Was the choice of the antique weapon, which certainly limited my chance of success, an indication that I did not really want to kill, or was I trying to make the hunt more real by using a rifle from an era when the hunter’s role was important to his family’s survival?

Was I a pathetic middle-aged man attempting to obscure with ritual an act that no longer had any validity?

The answer to these questions-after long deliberation during which I shared a bag of peanuts with a friendly chipmunk, and after many more contemplative hours in the next four days-was no, and following is some of the terrain I covered in my quest for self-understanding.

I cannot, to begin with, forget the controversial television film of 1975, The Guns of Autumn. After a private screening of the film prior to its public release, I returned to my desk and wrote in the first two paragraphs of my Wood, Field and Stream column for the New York Times:

If one were planning to portray the glories of love between man and woman in a television documentary, then devoted the entire show to the antics of a drunken clod in a bordello, one would achieve the same level of truth realized in the CBS News 90-minute film, The Guns of Autumn.

Purporting to be a fair example of hunting in America, the show instead focused on the shooting of bears in a city dump, the hurly-burly of opening day at a public waterfowl hunting area, running a bear with hounds. Jeeps and two-way radios, then keeping the animal treed until the women and children can gather about to witness the kill, and the slaughter of exotic big game animals in a mile-square preserve on the outskirts of Detroit.

The show troubled me deeply because I had to believe that those who made it truly felt that they were offering an honest portrayal of hunting in the United States, and if they, as trained newsmen, could be so misled, what of the attitudes held by the public toward hunting?

I knew, of course, that of the estimated 20 million hunters in this country there are certainly a significant number whose hunting and shooting skills are virtually nonexistent, whose manner is boorish, and whose knowledge of the creatures they seek to kill, and of the natural world, is minimal.

I contrast the so-called hunting slobs with my aforementioned four hunting friends moving silently through the mountains and valleys observing everything, for they are excellent woodsmen. When they return to the cabin at dark, they will, whether successful or not, warm slowly to their stories of what they have seen and done. One evening one of them arrived an hour after sundown and it was not until he was halfway through his supper that we learned the reason for his tardiness: he had lost time dragging a deer three miles down the mountain to the bank of a river a mile from camp, from which spot the animal was retrieved the next day with the aid of a cartop boat.

Much of the anti-hunting sentiment in this country is directed against the deer hunter, probably because he and his slain quarry are highly visible. Also, deer are lovely, graceful creatures with whom everyone can empathize.

The annual whitetail and mule deer (the latter in the Midwest, West, and Far West) kill by hunters in recent years has averaged about 2,225,000 animals. In the East, Pennsylvania and New York are the leading whitetail states, with a respective average kill of about 140,000 and 100,000 animals each year. In New York, some 650,000 deer hunters went forth last year, including archers and those with muzzle-loading and modern firearms.

Although a few hunters may gain some gratification from displaying the evidence of their success, most, I believe, would rather get the deer home, butchered, and into the freezer with a minimum of public attention. But in many states the law requires that all or a portion of a deer be displayed during transportation. In the Northeast, only three states, Pennsylvania, Rhode island, and Vermont, allow hunters to conceal all of a deer during transportation. New York goes from one extreme to the other in this wise. Any deer taken on a regular license in New York may be completely out of sight while being moved. This kill usually accounts for about 55 percent of the total. The remaining 45 percent are those shot under the socalled deer management permits, and those animals must be carried completely outside the car or in the open bed of a pickup truck. In Connecticut, the law requiring slain deer to be visible does not apply to those taken under crop-protection permits. The basic argument for having deer visible during transportation is that it gives law enforcement officers a legitimate reason for stopping a car to check licenses and firearms. Such a law clearly exists for the protection of deer, but some fish and game officials-usually those not involved with law enforcement—feel that eliminating the anti-hunting sentiment generated by the parade of dead animals is more important than gaining assistance in apprehending lawbreakers.

Richard Cronin of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife tells of the woman who called him to say that while she had never been opposed to hunting, she had to report that driving along the highway behind a car bearing a dead deer had literally made her ill, given her nightmares that evening, and deeply disturbed the children riding with her.

I recall returning from a deer-hunting trip in New Hampshire with my brother a few years ago. That state’s law says that only a portion of the creature must be visible, so we put our deer in the back of my suburban wagon with only one hoof showing out the back window. That was enough, however, to cause a pretty girl driving a sports car to pull alongside us, sound her horn, and then salute us with the onefingered international gesture of disdain.

Deer hunters themselves are often very visible, and when they reach high concentrations they can be disturbing to the eye and the sensibilities. During deer week on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, where I live, the woods are filled with yelping, howling men driving deer. Shotguns boom throughout the day and the slugs from them snap and whine through the scrub oaks and pitch pines. Nearly every roadside has its platoons of unkempt men, each wearing a fluorescent orange vest and usually a hat of the same color. This clownlike garb, which adds a strident note to the whole enterprise, is distasteful to many hunters, myself among them, but it is required by law in a number of states, including Massachusetts, and even where it is not mandatory hunters often wear it for self-protection. Fluorescent orange, which shows up at incredible distances in the woods even in bad light, has proved effective in preventing hunters from shooting each other.

Until quite recently, I thought that most of the resistance to hunting came from those who believed that certain species were being endangered or those who could not stomach the idea that anyone could gain pleasure from a pursuit in which the ultimate goal is the killing of some bird or animal.

But a recent survey by Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn, Inc. of New York City for the National Shooting Sports Foundation seems to reveal that the average non-hunter is not opposed to the killing of wild game per se, but feels 1) that too many hunters are so inept that they wound birds or animals which later die an agonizing death; 2) that because many hunters are untrained they are dangerous to protected species, including men; and 3) that many hunters discard the trappings of civilization when afield, trespassing, destroying property, and, in general, behaving like boors.

Most informed observers of the hunting scene in the United States would probably agree that almost without exception no species of bird or animal threatened with extinction is being hunted. Game management techniques and the laws that implement them have the situation in hand.

Near the end of the last century in New York State, for example, the whitetail deer herd in the Catskills was nonexistent, and the same was nearly true of the Adirondack herd. The unprotected animals had been pushed out or eliminated by early farmers who not only cleared land and destroyed deer habitat but also relied heavily on the animals for meat. In the Adirondacks, logging camp operators used the whitetail as a major source of food. In 1912, a New York Stale law making it illegal to shoot does was passed, and, with certain exceptions (including the aforementioned management permits), has been in effect ever since.

Clearly, the recent average annual kill of about 100,000 deer in New York indicates the validity of management techniques and demonstrates also that the species is not endangered.

Why not, some argue, simply stop hunting deer? This could be done. The herds throughout the nation would double almost overnight, and then, having exceeded the capacity of the range to sustain them, millions of animals would die of starvation. Eventually, deer populations would dwindle to what the damaged habitat could sustain. The deer would also, for many years, be smaller and less healthy than they are at the present time.

Some dedicated anti-hunters suggest that we simply hire professional hunters to kill the excess deer and turn the meat over to needy people. But the hunter feels that members of his fraternity have contributed-through, among other things, license fees, taxes on sporting arms and ammunition, membership in conservation groups, purchase of federal duck stamps, and gifts to Ducks Unlimited-more than any other single group to the cause of the creatures he pursues. He also feels that he probably has a better understanding of the natural world and a greater love for it than does the average non-hunter. Therefore he reacts in various ways to the attack launched against him by such groups as the Fund for Animals and the Friends of Animals. Some lash out angrily, some retreat into silence, others attempt a reasoned explanation of their sport.

Most American hunters come from rural backgrounds wherein going afield with gun and dog was as natural to them as haunting the neighborhood pool hall was to their urban counterparts. But even the man who is steeped in the tradition of hunting sometimes, particularly as he grows older, becomes less interested in a full game bag than in the mystique of the hunt. It may be that when the first Hush of young manhood is over, when the body begins its inevitable decline, one gains a new sense of the fragility of life. Or it may also happen that some personal experience, perhaps shooting an animal that escapes to die a lingering death, makes a man curtail or end his hunting.

During World War II, while recuperating in a hospital in Wales after taking a machine gun bullet through the chest a few days after my parachute infantry regiment dropped into Normandy, I resolved that I would never again pull the trigger on a living thing, man or beast. But between that June and that September body and spirit partially mended. I left the hospital just in time to make the jump into Holland, and when I went home after the war I returned to hunting.

I would be dissembling if I said that shooting a bird or an animal brings me pure pleasure, and many hunters experience a twinge of uneasiness at the sight of a dying or dead animal. With the hoped-for culmination comes a feeling of regret, sometimes even a vague fear that something is wrong. But all meateating men, hunters or not, are caught in this enigma, and it seems absurd to suggest that the man who buys his meat or fowl at the market and thereby avoids the ultimate encounter—the death of the creature he consumes—is a more honorable or sensitive fellow than one who slaughters his own pigs or shoots his own game.

I have even felt squeamish when the cold, taut body of a lovely trout shudders in my hand after I rap its head with a stick. But this never-ending cycle of birth and dying, of one species providing food for another, is inescapable. To live, I must consume something that was once alive, and to live fully, I must, at present, continue to hunt.

I eat everything 1 kill, or, if I am far from home and cannot get the game back, give it to someone who will. For most of us, however, hunting for food is not a reasonable justification for the pursuit. We would do much better, from an economic point of view, to go to the corner market.

What is a man who in one week can be entranced bv a Beethoven symphony, a Manet, a line of poetry, and in the next be equally caught up in following the trail of a wild animal through the snow-filled woods? The mind reels at trying to embrace this. Vague images form, re-form, and dissolve, and what finally comes to us, if we are fortunate, is a creature wisdom that allows us to live with what we can only dimly comprehend.

In some of us the primal urge for the chase survives, and it is not the result of a disordered psyche or repressed sexuality. (A woman wrote me after one ot my hunting columns appeared: “Good luck, big boy! You’re another of those little men running through the woods with the only gun in your hand that will ever go off!”)

As I look back on my deer-hunting of last season, it seems clear that I was not consumed by lust of any description. I carried my muzzle-loading rifle with me through eight days of hunting in southwestern New Hampshire and another five days in the northern part of the state, and during that time I had only one glimpse of an animal, at which I did not fire because one has to be certain of a clean kill with only one shot at his disposal. After that, I took part in the last two days of the Massachusetts muzzle-loading deer season with equal lack of success. (Many states, including Massachusetts, have a muzzle-loading, or primitive weapon, deer season in addition to the one in which modern firearms may be used.)

The first creature to fall to my muzzle-loader this year was a varying hare in Vermont. With the hare— and two more given me by my hunting companions of that day—I journeyed to my married daughter’s apartment in Amherst, Massachusetts, and while her husband was at work and she at her classes, I prepared them a rice and hasenpfeffer supper with panfried smelts, also from Vermont, as the first course. Both were well received, and that candlelit meal, for me at least, brought the wheel of life full circle.

Once celebrated in saga and song, often the most important man in the village, one upon whom many relied for sustenance and whom all young men strove to emulate, the hunter in America, now besieged by a vocal and often intelligent army of detractors, must, if he is at all sensitive, wonder if he is indeed an anachronism possessed by some madness that others have managed to throw off. And yet, he should also realize that over the centuries, the hunter has been more in tune with the natural world than most of his contemporaries.

In his remarkable book The Hunting Hypothesis, Robert Ardrey notes that man has been hunting for at least three million years, or 99 percent of his time on earth, and observes that “throughout that time natural selection accepted or discarded individuals or groups in terms of a single standard, our capacity to survive as hunters. Are we to believe, as so many victims of fashionable thought will assert, that such selection left no mark on us?”

Ardrey’s postulate—which will disturb many readers-is that the basic elements of our nature, “which we regard as so nobly our own . . . sharing, cooperation, responsibility, courage, self-sacrifice, loyalty,” came into being because “we were meat-eating hunters.”

Man’s ability to use tools, to store information in writing, to stockpile food, and to manipulate his environment is at once his glory and his despair, for when he shifted from a hunter society to the agriculturalindustrial age he began to insulate himself from this planet and to inflict damage on it. The leisure time gained gave birth to scientists, philosophers, painters, composers, musicians, and poets whose work certainly represents the rarest blend of intellect and soul, but with it came a despoiling industrial fury that has continued unabated.

Now the challenge for us (all arrogance and belief that science and technology can solve everything shed away) is to recognize that we only share Earth with other living things and that its resources are finite.

Hunting, properly done, is not an outworn cruelty but rather a manifestation of man’s desire to reestablish or maintain a union with the natural world. There are various paths to this marriage, and those who wish to achieve it—whether hunters, naturalists, or bird watchers—should join hands to preserve that which they seek to enter. □