Do Boys Still Follow Men Afield?
It’s a classic late afternoon, autumn day. Men in tan jackets of canvas follow a pair of pointers working a brushy field. Absolute pure sunlight slants low across the land. Occasionally a gun reflects the light. The dogs methodically work the sage. Scenting birds, they edge forward, then freeze. Seconds later the covey explodes and shots ring out as brass and cherry-red shells flash in the gloaming. The dogs fetch two quail and the men compliment them on their fine work.
Fall’s arrival always got my blood racing as a boy. A bite in the air and red and yellow leaves edged with frost meant hunting season had arrived. How often I dreamed of bobwhite quail and whitetail bucks, but it was just a dream. The truth is I was better at reading about hunting more so than hunting itself. A book or magazine felt more comfortable in my hands than a gun did. And for sure it was safer.
I experienced hunting secondhand through the pages of Outdoor Life. That magazine brought outdoor adventure into my life. When I did go afield, deer, doves, and quail had nothing to fear. I was no tour de force when it came to hunting, but I tried for a while.
In particular, I wanted to know the joy of bagging a bird on the wing. It could have been a dove or a quail. Didn’t matter. Growing up, two paintings hung in our home. In the paintings, a pointer and an Irish setter work a field. How many times did I look at those paintings and imagine a nerve-jolting covey rise. I had read of this grand event in Outdoor Life and I wanted to share in the glory … a smooth swing, leading the bird, pulling the trigger, a puff of feathers …
“When you have shot one bird flying, you have shot all birds flying. They are all different and they fly in different ways but the sensation is the same and the last one is as good as the first.” Hemingway wrote that and I was eager to experience the sensation of my first bird on the wing.
When I was old enough to have a gun my parents gave me a Mossberg, bolt-action shotgun one Christmas. I loved oiling that gun and smelling the sharp cordite when I shot it. I loved the stock; the fine-grained wood glistened. And the gunmetal blue barrel felt as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. The slim shells felt perfect in my hand.
I dreamed about shooting birds and I tried. I was no good though. I recall the few times Dad and I went hunting. Once we went dove hunting. We shot nothing. Once we went quail hunting. We shot nothing. To become good at something you must do it over and over with some success. No one taught me to shoot on the wing and I often made a joke of my ineptness with a gun. “I couldn’t shoot a quail if it flew down my barrel,” I’d tell guys my age who bragged about their hunting prowess. They bragged about their mastery of the birds and bees too, but I knew they were liars.
We tend to stop doing those things we’re no good at. Any interest I had in guns and hunting faded as high school approached. And then one day I was fidgeting with the trigger when my shotgun went off and blasted a hole in the ground six inches in front of my right foot. Right then I fell out of love with the gun and any notions I had about hunting, but life had a surprise waiting for me. The college years came and went and one day I found myself working for a hunting and fishing agency. It wasn’t what I expected.
Instead of working with master sportsmen, by and large, I worked with master bureaucrats. Their approach to work boiled down to the public’s perception of them. “It not only has to be right, it has to look right.” That was their mantra.
I got the chance to hunt deer while working there as an outdoor writer. On a Southern plantation dripping with Spanish moss, I shot my first and only deer. The moment was light years from the boy that stalked the woods with a .410. The kill was anticlimactic, but it qualified me as a hunter I suppose. I never took up a gun again.
I came across none of the old Outdoor Life romance as a government writer of hook-and-bullet stuff. Too much politics. As political correctness crept onto the scene, game and fish agencies began renaming themselves. After all there are taxpayers who neither hunt nor fish. Game & Fish Departments became Departments of Natural Resources. I suppose that sounded more inclusive, and then we started changing things in the name of safety and environmentalism. Hunters had to wear blaze orange (a good thing but a blight to the eye). Duck hunters had to give up toxic lead pellets for steel shot (steel had nowhere the lethal power waterfowlers screamed).
And then labels got into the mix. Somewhere along the way, learned people broke peoples’ love for outdoor recreation into two categories. You could be a consumptive user of the outdoors. That meant you killed and caught things and ate them. You could be a non-consumptive user. That meant you hiked, watched birds, and camped among other activities that did not involve killing and eating. All this divisiveness was unknown to me when I was a boy walking through the hickories and oaks with my .410 across my shoulder. I was then, as today, a bit of an outlier.
True hunting is a legacy. A love for hunting, by and large, is something fathers pass on to their sons and to be fair, daughters too. I didn’t inherit that love, but I wasn’t alone. Somewhere along the trail, too many fathers lost their love for hunting. Too many fathers quit taking their sons (and daughters) afield. Too many guns stayed in the case.
In the interest of fairness let me point out that a lot of women hunt and have hunted. I am a bit of a traditionalist, though, and I naturally associate men with hunting. We are programmed to think certain ways whether we like it or not. A riddle makes my point. A man gets his boy ready for school. He feeds him, grabs his boy’s backpack, and drives him to school. Along the way, they suffer a head-on collision. The dad is killed outright. The boy is rushed to the hospital for surgery. The surgeon takes one look and says, “I can’t operate on this boy. He’s my son.”
So, who is the surgeon?
The surgeon, of course, is the boy’s mother. When it comes to hunting and men, it’s a stereotypical thing with me. Perhaps you think that way too.
Do little boys still follow men into fields and forests? Well I didn’t. I hunted alone mostly. My prey were the ever-present gray squirrels in the woods back home. Ubiquitous tree rats. Easy to shoot. Terrible to eat. Fried squirrel was a bit like eating pan-fried leather, penance for taking the life of one of God’s creatures.
I take my place in the father-son vanguard that heralded hunting’s decline. Dad and I didn’t hunt much together. We hunted rabbit just once. We never hunted deer together. We had no rifles other than the Japanese infantryman’s rifle Dad brought back from Hiroshima. We hunted turkey some and he took me quail hunting a time or two, but there seemed to be a big drop off in hunting from my granddad’s time to Dad’s time. Why?
I can’t explain the loss of interest. Maybe World War II sickened a generation of men of guns. Maybe it became too much bother and expense to hunt when starting a family and paying bills. People smarter than me have studied this decline and they answer the subhead floating at the top of this column.
Boys don’t follow men into fields and forests anymore. Their dads are not around like before and besides more and more boys live in the city. A feature in The Christian Science Monitor lays out the reality.
“A love for hunting appears to be a pastime slowly on the wane in many parts of the country. As fewer fathers take youngsters out into the woods and more suburbanites balk at a sport they see as both dangerous and cruel, some observers predict the number of hunters in the United States could fall by as much as 50 percent in the next 20 years … Conservation officials in Georgia predict a 50 percent decline in the number of hunters by 2026.”
The hunter is now an endangered species. So what you say. Well, this is what. Drive with alertness. Your chance of hitting a deer will rise. Get ready for new taxes. Monies hunters spend earmarked for conservation will fall. Expect bad behavior. More boys may become delinquents as this responsible father-son ritual dies out. “Maybe” becomes “probably” when you understand that more and more single mothers now raise boys.
In a culture that’s increasingly anti-hunting, I am not an anti-hunter. I’ve written about hunting, but I don’t hunt. I don’t know anyone who raises hunting dogs. I can’t recall the last time I ate venison. Nonetheless, I believe hunting has its place in the modern world. It’s part of our heritage, it helps keep game populations in check, and it provides great outdoor recreation for sportsmen. It does much to fund the preservation of woods and fields as well. But the times they are a’changing. As the old saying goes, “Your hunter today is not your grandfather’s hunter.”
So, who is your typical hunter today? He’s a 42-year-old white guy. He lives in a land where suburbs consume forests and fields and a lot of people disapprove of his hobby.
Animal rights activists have their crosshairs on him. Sitting there, chewing on a chicken leg, they deplore the killing of deer for food. Moreover, becoming a gun owner grows more and more difficult as is finding a place to hunt.
Hunting’s long, slow demise continues, with hunting becoming unavailable to the common man. Now it lives here and there on plantations and is more of a business than a tradition. And so the South loses more of its charm and character as Norman Rockwell-like images of hunters afield fade to black.
Deep in my treasure chest of memories is a golden fall afternoon in the late 1950s. I want to say it is 1959. It’s late afternoon, a cold day. In the west, the sky throws a tincture of gold light over a blood-red horizon. Ahead of me walk three men: Granddad Poland, Joe Blonsky, and Lang Steed. Their breath hangs in the air like smoke. A shotgun rests comfortably over each man’s shoulder. They have been hunting quail on the farm. Two dogs lead the way back to the farmhouse, which sends a fragrant plume of woodsmoke into the sky.
I tagged along to share that fine sensation Hemingway described. That was more than half a century ago. For the life of me I cannot recall if they found birds, and that tells me a lot. Hunting is not so much about the kill as it is the experience, and that experience seems old fashioned and unnecessary to people well fed on fast food. And it is not appealing to boys who shoot digital guns at Earth-invading monsters, nor is it appealing to city boys who’d rather shoot pool.
The old hunters are dying out. Their sons do not take up arms. And hunting’s long, slow demise continues. God forbid we lose our modern contraptions and the electricity they depend on. When that day arrives, people will lament the loss of hunting like never before.