ON THE DRIVE to the North Shore of Lake Superior for a few days of ruffed grouse and woodcock hunting I came to the realization that the pallet of colors with which I tint my life is becoming more and more limited. This should distress me, I suppose, since no longer can I consider dipping the brush into daubs of garish paints and slapping onto the canvas a bight smear of hang gliding in the Rockies, running the bulls in Pamplona, schussing down icy ski slopes in the Alps, or even surfing the towering waves of Oahu. But strangely, the opposite is true. Narrowing the focus of my life grants me far more satisfaction than would broadening its scope.
This may be because, as the pundit claims, “The so-called wisdom we achieve in our mature years directly corresponds to our loss of energy and abilities.” Perhaps, but mature wisdom also corresponds to our delight and gratification in the lifelong pursuit of hunting and fishing: the depth of our knowledge and understanding, the level of our proficiency and expertise, the intensity of our incessant passion, and our appreciation for the nuances of its arts and sciences. A more narrow focus, yes, but a focus with a much deeper and an abiding devotion.
The great mystery, the conundrum that I have tried and failed to unravel, is the force that keeps us blood sports types so profoundly captivated through the years, the decades, a lifetime. For want of a better descriptor, I call this force “witnessing the continuing presence,” the ongoing, unending manifestations of the natural world, the incessant, unpredictable happenings. These can be ordinary or exotic, bizarre or mundane, exciting or monotonous, dramatic or insipid, extraordinary or commonplace, painful or pleasurable, foul or fair. But we witness always the interplay of the relentless drive and striving for life in the wild places of the Earth. A force so powerful that we are overawed, humbled, enthralled, and entranced.
For me, nothing can emulate days spent in these wild places. Manmade entertainments and amusements are mere flashfire obsessions. Cars, boats, snowmobiles, ATVs, dirt bikes – all the other dozens of flings with devices and pastimes that blast a spurt of adrenaline into the brain – these are the mechanical-amphetamines of our age, all producing a diminishing thrill with each consumption, all with increasingly predictable highs, all eventually disappointing in their ability to amaze and astonish (or even amuse) the primordial animal we harbor inside us. A false wild. I see it every day: the sports car up for sale, the speed boat on blocks in the yard, the jet skis, snowmobiles, ATVs and dirt bikes stashed away and rusting in the shed. All failures.
Even more distressing is the increasing addiction of hunters and fishers to these mechanical-amphetamines: rangefinders, semi-automatic rifles with scopes the size of beer bottles (or even night vision scopes), amplified sound systems for varmint calls, trail cameras, fish finders, and sonars to name but a few. Instead of learning and developing proficiencies in the blood sports, people purchase these devices to acquire instant skills they have not invested the necessary time and energy and devotion to master.
Example one: on a Western bird hunt, I encountered a coyote hunter who was irked because he had left his remote-controlled, battery-powered, CD recorded varmint caller at his home 100 miles away. I asked if he wanted to borrow my mouth call. “Nah,” he said. “Those things are no good, and I don’t know how to use one anyway.”
Example two: overheard in a north woods diner during deer season: “I couldn’t see him real good through all that brush, but I could see he had horns so I opened up on him with my AR.”
I want to blame this erosion of the concept of fair chase on the separation of ever-greater numbers of hunters from the land and its wildlife – urbanization, if you will – but the collapse of hunter ethic can be attributed to many more caustic influences: “hunting” programs on television and DVDs that promote the use of mechanical-amphetamines in the slaughter of game animals, outdoor magazines that glorify the killing of trophies, hunting preserves and lodges and guides that guarantee bag limits of captive or pen-raised game, the film industry’s portrayal of some animals as “good” and some as “evil.” This combination of factors, and many more misguided ideas about the blood sports, has created a generation of outdoorsmen who are arrogantly ignorant slobs.
Because I see so many of these slobs riding around in behemoth pickup trucks and land-rover type vehicles decked out with insignias of collegiate and professional sports teams, especially football teams, I surmise there is connection between their concept of hunting ethic and athletic games, made more evident by their language – blasting a deer, hammering a pheasant – as though game animals were an opponent to defeat, humiliate, and destroy. But then the worship of athletic teams and games has always been beyond my comprehension, even though it seems to have been ingrained in the human psyche since the beginning of civilization, a madness that dates back before the Bread and Circuses era of Rome’s gladiators.
It is more than a little frightening to observe how hundreds of thousands of besotted fans of collegiate and professional sports teams pack themselves into crowded stadiums and voluntarily engage in mass hysteria for a rush of surrogate excitement. They have no actual involvement in these games, and their only reward is an empty bottle and a deserted playfield the very next day. But I console myself with the compensation that it keeps them out of the wild places where they would be an even greater menace to those of us who witness the continuing presence that spiritually nourishes us in a way that no imaginary connection with something as ephemeral as a sports team possibly can.
There is an abiding truth in the idea that the beauty of the things we most love and revere has powers that comfort a troubled mind, repair a weary body, and restore a crippled spirit. I am content to narrow the focus of my life on these beautiful things and allow their continuing presence to carry me toward healing.
To read more stories about life in the North Country, visit the Author Page where my books are listed for sale in paperback and e-book formats.