Mud Dust Smoke & SnowBy Patrick McGann

I have not been a hunter as long as I’ve been a writer, but I’ve been a hunter as much as I’ve been a writer. For me, they are very much related. And for most of my career, I’ve written about hunting (and other outdoor pursuits).

I started hunting young, definitely before I could drive. I started hunting with a bow. It was a neighbor’s recurve. If I could draw it back then, it couldn’t have been that much of a bow, but it was enough to kill cottontails in the back yards of the small Illinois town I grew up in.

I learned on my own that if I put the little blue suction cups from toy arrows over the top of the field points, it was much more effective. (And humane, a concept I was unfamiliar with at the time, however.)

A year or maybe two later, Dad introduced us (my younger brother and me) to guns. Way better. We both became relentless small game hunters. I often went by myself on foot because I was still too young to drive.

This was in a Midwest town of 4,000 people, with a 14-year-old walking down the sidewalk carrying a single shot .410 shotgun broken open over his shoulder, heading out of town. Times have changed, huh?

It took a long time for me to understand what hunting meant to me. A big help was a book. (Of course.) It was Wandering Gods by Morris Berman, a dense academic tome on cultural anthropology about the rise (or descent maybe?) of civilization from hunter/gatherer societies.

Berman argues that the further we get from hunting and gathering, the further we get from living in the present, and the further we get from living in the present, the further we get from … everything. It’s a fascinating book, the sort of thing that gives you headaches and makes you go, “wow.” For example, he thinks humans didn’t increase in population because of agriculture; rather, we developed agriculture because we increased in population.

At any rate, after three or four decades of thinking about it, I have lived with the conclusion that for me, hunting is about connection. Wholeness. Being in the present, as in relaxed and alert at the same time, each moment coming and going and taking me along with it.

When you hunt, every step is a new experience. Anything can happen and at any time. But it doesn’t happen all the time. You just have to take what happens when it happens and you have to be ready for it, but not too ready or you won’t be ready. You simply have to be.

That’s important, I think. As is mindfulness, that is, being aware of yourself and your surroundings and what is happening and what is not happening and why you’re doing what you’re doing. Like the old joke: Two young fish are hanging out and an old fish swims by and says, “How’s the water, boys? Ha-ha!” And the young fish watch him pass and one says to the other, “What’s water?”

And so it was the other day that I was hunting grouse and something suddenly changed. I killed a bird. It was perfect. Like an old dog, I knew where it was going. When it came out from behind the firs, I was locked on in space and time.

But weirdly, it didn’t make me happy. I was happy, ecstatic in fact, right up to the instant the bird crumpled and fell. I was whole, but not jumping up and down. I wasn’t sad, but there was no woo-hoo! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to take up turkfoo or something similarly nutty. It was just that the act was over the very instant I saw my shot impact.

I think it is my age. A friend of mine did a great research article years ago on the experience/emotion dynamics of hunters, how young men start out with itchy trigger fingers, then they adapt to the rules, customs and traditions. Then they are successful and begin to want a better experience, and however they define that – bigger antlers or more isolation or better cooperation with a dog – they pursue it.

And then something happens and they start becoming more insightful about their hunting. It’s not age so much as experience. I think that’s what’s happening with me. I love to hunt. More than that, I think I need to hunt. But it’s not the killing I need. Don’t misunderstand; it’s not hunting without killing, but it is the hunting, the act of being present, alert, relaxed and then acting when the unexpected suddenly happens, connected with the dirt and rocks and blood and stuff, a part of it all.

Maybe you just have to be old enough to realize things like that, the importance, and the importance of not living a life without those things. And that’s autumn, I think. In more ways than one.


Patrick McGann lives in Twisp.