That western-style hat on the top shelf of the bureau is a magical storybook. I need only put it on to be spun into the memories of a dozen bird and deer hunts across the high plains of Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota.
The affection we feel for treasured possessions is an aberrant emotion. What is it about these prized (though often worthless) items that sparks a flash of fond remembrance every time we see or handle them?
Battered felt hats, worn out pocket knives, ragged hunting vests and coats, shiny-toed leather boots, dog whistles that are cracked or rusted, rifles and shotguns with stocks scuffed and bruised and barrels gleaming silver where the bluing has worn away – just a motley collection of inanimate objects that can see nothing and yet have seen it all, can say nothing and yet tell every story in which we have played a part.
Unlike our dogs that delight in our attention and return a full measure of love and devotion, we get no requited affection from any of this keepsake stuff that clutters our closets, dens and basements. Still, taking a certain hat from the top shelf and wiping a strand of cobweb from its stained brim can elicit that surge of dizzy, lighted-headed warmth that is a universal symptom of first love. It is just an old canvas hat, but it owns a corner of my heart and soul because of the memories I have vested in it.
While not meaning to be overly analytical or philosophical, I have given some thought to this phenomenon and have come to believe a hunter’s emotional attachment to a particular piece of equipment, clothing or gear, is based on one or more of four basic reasons. We hold these keepsakes dear because they are representations of our family heritage, our personal history, our life-affirming experiences, or our appreciation of pure artistic and aesthetic beauty.
The first and most obvious reason is our family’s history. A shotgun or a rifle that belonged to our grandfather or great-grandfather is a better genealogical record than a yellowed newspaper clipping of his obituary, which reports only the dry, dull, and formulaic dates and events of his life and reveals nothing of his character or personality. The crack in the gunstock’s wrist tells the story about a November duck hunt that went awry when his brother-in-law assured him that the ice was thick enough to venture out a few more steps. And the broken-and-soldered trigger guard on the .22 rifle brings to life the tale of a 1935 deer poaching incident that “went public” when the unconscious eight-point buck came back to life in a small garage.
Similarly, our own personal history with a keepsake item can make it valuable far beyond its monetary price. That western-style hat on the top shelf of the bureau, for example, is a magical storybook. I need only put it on to be spun into the memories of a dozen bird and deer hunts across the high plains of Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota. I remember clambering up the slope of a low hill to take a long shot at a running whitetail buck, stumbling upon a herd of pronghorn antelope that stood steaming and snorting less than 10 yards below me as I crested a sharp ridge on a windy morning, shooting a left-right double on prairie chickens that flushed in a wild clutter from a bowl in the Sandhills… Well, no need to tell my stories; you have your own magical hat.
Other keepsakes, as simple as three paper shotshell cases standing in a row atop the gun safe, are important because they are symbols of a life-changing or life-affirming event. Feeling lost and maudlin one Thanksgiving weekend the year my father died, I loaded my bird dog into the pickup and set off for a nearby wildlife conservation area with the Ithaca Model 37 shotgun and a box of paper-hull shotshells that he had left me. It was a foggy morning, and I knew the wildlife area held few pheasants, but I needed to get away. A half hour into the hunt Sasha put up a pair of roosters, and I, the world’s worst wing shooter with a pump gun, dropped both of them. I picked up the ejected hulls, brought them to my nose to smell that wonderful burnt powder aroma that only paper shotshells produce, and realized the cycle of life goes on and the world was still a wonderful place.
We also cherish some of our hunting possession for their artistic and aesthetic beauty. It is all in the eye of the beholder, some say, so a Mossberg pump gun can be as graceful to one man as a custom Holland & Holland double gun is to another. But I disagree. There is a difference between functionality and beauty. Whether or not you are a devoted bird hunter, you can admire a fine double gun’s elegant lines, the grain of its select walnut stock, the precision of the metal work, and the artistry of its engraving.
Bird hunting with a fine gun, or deer hunting with a hand-checkered wood stocked rifle, is not a game harvest; it is a spiritual and mystical communion with the wild and a connection to our heritage. We have this same sort of appreciation for an elegant hand-made canoe, a custom-made knife, hand-carved waterfowl decoys, and all the other hunting gear that is created by a craftsman’s clever imagination and skilled hands, rather than a computer program and a soulless robot. Wood stocked rifles meld beauty and tradition; injection molded plastic stocks are horrendously ugly. Beauty combined with utility is harder and harder to find, and that is what makes these artisan’s pieces special to us.
Whatever the proximate reason, all our keepsakes are ultimately treasured because they are symbolic of the outdoor sports that are part of our persona. We would be lesser men, and certainly more shallow and less thoughtful and contemplative men, if we had not had to good fortune to spend many days afield, and we would also have missed one of the most valuable things in life: the friendship and the companionship of those with whom we share the hunter’s world and culture.
Today, I will toss my battered hat back onto the top shelf (some keepsakes, like some friendships, are best when they are handled roughly), but I look forward to the next autumn day I will wear again with purpose as well as remembrance.
More stories about hunting, bird dogs, bird guns, and life in the North Country are published in my two collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot and Old Coots Never Forget, and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.