Light is just beginning to open up the world outside the windows. In a matter of minutes, I'll see the lake that lies just beneath the hill below. Somebody, somewhere down the bay just took a single shot with a shotgun--duck hunters.
I've done it myself--put out a bunch of decoys and tried to call in lake ducks that were barely edible. I've hunted deer only once or twice, but pheasants often. Some of the most beloved moments of my childhood took place while my friends and I were marching through the long, wet grass of a river bank checking our old steel traps by shining our flashlights down to the river's edge and looking for beady eyes in the water, a muskrat--or even more a blessing, a mink.
I was born in Wisconsin, where, during my first year of teaching, I had half a class on the weekend of the deer opener, where cheeseheads get pulled on for Packer games, but camo caps and hats are otherwise a nearly permanent fixture. I know that thinning the herd is a requirement these days, almost everywhere. In Iowa, where I live now, there are more white-tail deer per square mile than there were 200 years ago, when the Yankton Sioux still ruled the turf. Of course, back then we were all grass; today, hybrid corn is twelve feet high and fruit-luscious. What I'm saying is that hunting is almost a requirement. Last year, both my son-in-law and I hit deer with our cars; there's nothing bloodless about death-by-automobile.
I don't hunt. In fact, I've got a sweet 20-gauge pump for sale, if any one's interested. I'm not saying I wouldn't hunt again--I probably would. But I haven't for years.
(Four shots just now, from down the bay. The skies are brightening.)
But this Sunday morning, from within the confines of lake house high up on a hill, those shotgun blasts almost curdle the soul. I've seen the waterfowl on the lake--they're skittish, nervous. If I get any too close with the camera, they're off. But they're beautiful. Their wings seem almost to squeak when they fly over the dock, and the thought of them being shot down out of the sky, right now, not far away, is somehow almost obscene.
But I know this too--those hunters in their camo boats are knowing and loving the natural world in ways limousine liberals never, ever do. I learned to love nature--God's nature--by watching it unfold in the golden rays of dawn, and I saw it--all the glory--because I was hunting, because I was trapping muskrats. Hunters kill, but hunters--most of them--know very well the sheer beauty that creates the awe early morning ushers in.
Somewhere in Walden (four more shots), Thoreau says every boy (forgive him--he was writing in the 1850s) ought to go hunting when he's a kid, but then give it up when he becomes a man. It's a line that's stuck with me, whether or not it's true.
Or how about this? The neighbor who gave me the best lesson in reading the outdoors was an avid hunter. Yesterday, on a walk in the woods, my wife pointed out what she thought was an oddity, a very cabbage-like plant right along the path. I didn't know it's name, but I flashed back to the days when my neighbor used to walk through the woods and point out every last plant and flower he'd see--buttercups to dutchman's britches, poison ivy to jack-in-the pulpits.
Every fall, this neighbor of mine would dutifully buy his deer-hunting licence, pin it to the back of his red wool coat, and lug his old pump shotgun down to the lake woods he knew like the back of his hand. All year long, he'd walked the trails in those woods; the man knew better than anyone where the deer were.
Every fall on deer opener he was out there, but he never came home with a deer. Amazing.