I’m not much of a hunter.
Last year was my first season. I took the hunter safety course in the southern part of the state, a consequence of waiting until the last minute to sign up. But three days of spoon-feeding later — information distilled so simply failure wasn’t an option — I had state approval to walk the woods with a gun.
A hunting license, paired with no idea what I was doing. An old hand-me-down 20-gauge I’d been given in high school would serve as my long sword, and a few stops at the L.L. Bean outlet set me up in blaze orange. I was suddenly poised to kick around the woods with a loaded firearm, crisply dressed and legal but still far from lethal.
So, for my first day out I recruited an experienced friend to lead me in my pursuit of ruffed grouse, an appropriate-seeming challenge. We walked Jackson woods on overgrown logging trails waiting for an explosion of wings or the sound of their distinctive drumming, but we saw nothing. Instead of entering the arena of primordial provider, I took a pleasant afternoon stroll.
Lots of hunting days, my friend explained, are spent like this, more wandering through empty woods than shooting. The gun on those days is a hiking accessory.
Two days later, I was back, this time on my own. A grouse, I was determined, would find its way to my table. I drove the same dirt road looking for deciduous forests along sunny slopes, the sort of place a healthy grouse might opt to make roost. I parked at a pullout, donned my orange vest, loaded my shotgun, laced my boots and set off into the forest.
The explosion caught me off guard, barely five minutes in. A rustle catapulted a bird into the sky, and it streaked from left to right like a football bound for the endzone, wheeling around trees and darting out of sight.
My gun never came up. The lightning bolt erupted faster than I’d imagined, and I stood dumbfounded. This was going to be harder than I’d thought, I realized.
But I’d seen it, noted its general direction. It wouldn’t go far. This was its territory and it’d stick close. So, I followed it, tromping dead trees and downed limbs looking for wherever the football had landed.
Fifteen minutes later, my steps triggered another explosion, this time streaking back right. I’d found it, but again I was flat-footed. My gun hung across my thighs, never approached my shoulder. I didn’t have a chance. This bird was better equipped for survival than I was, and another hour of walking failed to scare it up for a third time. I walked back to my car with nothing but a shotgun in hand.
More wandering in the woods than shooting. It was proving true.
But the shooting was what drew me to the woods, what pushed me to hunt: Not the sport of it, but the killing. Like most of us, I am happy to eat a hamburger or chicken on my Caesar salad. But I have never killed a cow, never chopped the head off a hen. Our food does not demand such commitment. It’s easy to eat steak without ever coming face-to-face with a living, doe-eyed cow, much less having killed one. Our killing today, like so much in our economy, has been outsourced, and not just to the neighborhood butcher.
Not that I’m opposed to the killing. Every carnivore and omnivore does it, all without the guilt humans wrestle with. But our habit is to kill from a distance, to leave it to others while reaping the benefits. It’s a tendency that engenders complacency. Ignorance in the face of death lets things to get messy in dark corners.
Across Idaho, Utah and Kansas vast feedlots line the highway. Herds stand crowded into brown squares stripped bare of grass. Cows stained dark with mud and feces stand resigned to lives hemmed in on four sides, the bovine equivalent of cubicle-bound.
These are not happy cows. They live this way as a consequences of distance, the result of ordering the sandwich without having to raise the meat. It is a system built to maximize efficiency at the expense of humanity (or bovinity perhaps). Bullfights may be decried as cruel, but the ring offers more life than the feedlot, and everyone winds up hamburger by dinnertime.
The factory farm, however, lets us keep our hands clean. The bullfight, meanwhile, occurs center stage in blood red. How curious one is banned while the other is good business.
Hunting was my reckoning. I went into the woods to walk among feedlots, to take my part in the killing up close, a shotgun filling the space of captive bolt pistol, no more handing off the task at reduced rates.
But it didn’t happen. I didn’t even raise my gun, not that day nor any of the following. I wandered woods and watched birds streak like footballs through the foliage, but my reflexes were too slow, my gun never reached my shoulder.
Left to my own devices, I determined, I would starve. Ideas about ethics and ideology would play no part. The only meat would be store-bought, and questions about the veracity of my carnivorous spirit remain unanswered. The ferocious hunter I was not.
It is, however, that time of year again. Lucky for the birds I’m not much of a hunter.
This column appeared in Wednesday’s Conway Daily Sun.