November. Thanksgiving. America. 2018.
Framed by my desk window, three deer in the yard are nibbling on my Burning Bush, which has taken on its rose-red autumn color. It’s a pretty picture. And my ongoing question — Is this a friendly universe? – leans towards yes. But look a little longer, I can’t help but see that the deer are on a death danger alert, somewhere between frightened and terrified.
I heard them too – those cannon-like rifle shots at sunrise, ringing in hunting season. My first thought was, well, that ends my walks in the woods for a few weeks. My second thought was, poor fucking deer. Defenseless, except to hide the best they can until the woods go quiet again. But like the rest of us, a deer has to get out, stretch its legs, find something to eat.
I hate hunting season. Gratuitous killing. Adolescent man, who enjoys killing. (Nowadays often hand in hand with adolescent woman, not to be outdone.) Oh, I’m well aware that hunting is something that resides deep within human nature. I know, I know, that before this recent blip we call civilization, we were hunter/gatherers for 200,000 years, lived close to nature like the other animals, the deer, bear, fox, turkey, raccoon, just to name a few of my nearest neighbors who wander out of the woods on occasion to check out my fruit trees, my carrot patch, my Burning Bush.
They seem to understand that no one shoots at them here. What they don’t know – I barely know it myself – is that if came down to my survival or theirs, … well, my dad’s twelve gauge has been up in the attic gathering dust for years now…. A memento?… Why then the box of shells?
As a boy, I looked forward to hunting season. First pheasant and partridge in October, then deer in November. As is true of almost everything, the looking-forward-to part was usually better than the actual experience, in which you were frequently out in the cold for a long time, half hungry, a little disappointed, maybe all morning not seeing one deer. But then next fall you were looking forward to it again — carrying a gun; being in the woods with the men. It was the rite of passage thing. It was huge in a boy’s heart to become a man. You didn’t put those words around it. It just was.
For me, the firearms part started out with a relatively harmless .22; but by eleven years old I was toting a genuine deer rifle, a .410, the smallest rifle out there, but nonetheless it had little kick to it. It could kill a deer. Nothing like Dad’s 12 gauge, but slowly I was working my way up.
Even though I was raised in the relatively open spaces of a farmstead – not too shabby in itself, in terms of living close to nature — hunting was my introduction to the woods. The wild. Nature’s inner sanctum. Again, no such fancy words for it back then. It just was. Nor did I think about the woods as being connected to my own inner sanctum — or to say it less religiously, connected to this unmapped and so much more longstanding and fundamental part of myself.
And then there were skills involved — the skills of traditional manhood – which on the one hand were more simple than the skills of farming, but on the other hand ran much deeper. Learning to shoot was obviously a big one. Also learning to track. (This was before the day of the heated deerstand on the edge of a farmer’s field where “hunters” sit around with scoped high-powered rifles, drink beer, and wait for deer to wander within a couple hundred yards.)
Also becoming comfortable in a pathless woods, visually marking your route, this tree, that rock, so as to find your way back out — you had to learn that. You had to be taught by the example of your elders to walk quietly, to attune yourself to your surroundings, to not complain if you got hungry or cold.
Is patience a skill? Opening day was typically sunrise to sunset outdoors. Though hunting is called a sport, it’s is not exactly action packed, like competitive sports. Back then, most days you never got a shot. Even waiting for opening day to finally arrive required patience. The night before I could barely sleep. And by the crack of dawn, my father and I, and sometimes my grandfather and a couple uncles, had dropped back into a world that was far deeper in our genes than farm and town life. We even got lost a couple of times. Or maybe the men let me think so.
And then, as darkness fell, back to a warm house, Mom’s supper waiting for us. Some fun stories to tell.
. . .
Just writing this out shows me what a deep ambivalence I have towards hunting. Henry David Thoreau, the writer/thinker who has most influenced my life, expressed the same mixed feelings. In “The Maine Woods” he experiences profound dismay in being party to the killing and butchering of a magnificent moose. But in “Walden” he confesses that when mothers ask him if they should let their boys hunt, he says yes. “There is a period in the history of the individual, as of the race, when the hunters are called ‘the best men,’ as the Algonquians called them. We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected.”
At least hunting would get the boys out into the woods.
Thoreau goes on to say that after living out this stage, he trusted that boys would naturally develop past it. “No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature, which holds its life by the same tenure as he does. The hare in its extremity cries like a child.”
Even the meat-eating part of hunting he predicts we will eventually let go of. “I have no doubt that it is part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as sure as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.
“No doubt,” he says. Did he this one time get caught up in the programmed Enlightenment thought of his times. “No doubt” we’re going to gradually evolve into more sensitive beings. Hmm.
Would he still say “no doubt” a hundred and seventy years later? Paul Shepard, a more contemporary writer who has profoundly disturbed conventional Enlightenment thinking, suggests that Enlightenment faith in gradual progress is a load of bullshit. He goes exactly the other way, to say that the very best days of the human being go back not only to pre-enlightenment but to pre-civilization. He saw civilization – these last 6000 years of our 200,000 year run as human beings, as the culprit in our rapidly “developing” insensitivity. In a quick snapshot of what he means, it was the “Indians” whom civilization crushed who were the sensitive ones. To live at one with nature was the very essence of sensitivity.
But even Shepard, who died in 1996, could not have anticipated the distance from sensitivity our disconnect from nature has enlarged into in the last 22 years. No need to go into a thousand examples, but it says something that Abe Lincoln was the president at the time of Thoreau’s death, as compared the president we have currently elected to represent us. The American portion of the human race – we like to think of ourselves the last great hope for mankind – has especially fallen down on the job, it seems, in terms of evolving into more sensitive beings.
What would Thoreau say if he could see us nowadays. The masses gathered at Walmart entrances on black Friday; the phone/computer now evolved into part of the human hand; the shit level of TV programming/advertising; even the size of the TV itself. To any remaining sharp set of eyes, the civilized human race, this unchallenged master race of the planet, finds itself in an ever steeper and – we’ll have to face it sooner or later — irreversible decline.
This final severing of contemporary humankind from its former human nature has happened within a couple of lifetimes, the last of which corresponded to my own three score and ten. I most clearly see it in our deadened relationship to our brother animals. The degeneration of hunting into something ugly is one manifestation of it, though it is 100 times less ugly than what is going on the current high-density farms and in the slaughter houses.
Turkey day we sometimes call Thanksgiving nowadays, in reference to the concentration camp life and assembly line slaughtered turkey that adorns the typical Thanksgiving table. Driving to my ex-wife’s house on my way to dinner with her, our two children, one-daughter-in-law, one grandson, I pass by a country church with one of those clever sayings on its roadside sign: “Thanksgiving. It’s not just a day; it’s a way of life.”
I can go along with that. In the human struggle to reach ever new levels of sensitivity, there have been some great lives. Some profoundly great human beings. And many many good ones. Almost everybody I know is a good person, to the point that I’m dumbfounded how this irreversible decline has slipped up upon us so seemingly suddenly.
We got too materialistic, that’s all I can think. Too far removed from nature. Our lives cluttered up with things, until there was no wilderness space left within them. What animal in all of creation, besides us, owns even one thing?
The positive thinkers, the new-agers out there, don’t think that it’s over. They like to say that ten or twelve individuals who overcome the mesmerism of consumerism is equal in power to millions who are accumulating and hoarding fool’s gold, as if it were wealth.
That’s the one hope left, it seems. Something mystical. Some isolated rise in a few people’s consciousness and sensitivity that mysteriously lifts everyone up with it. That’s hard for me to see, but I don’t want to rule it out. “There’s more things in heaven and earth than our dreamt of in your philosophy,” Hamlet tells Horatio.
But if we have simply run our course, our demise is good in one sense. The rest of the animal world will breathe more easily without us.