The Hunter Within

We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected…Such is oftenest the young man’s introduction to the forest, and the most original part of himself. He goes thither at first as a hunter and fisher, until at last, if he has the seeds of a better life in him, he distinguishes his proper objects, as a poet or naturalist it may be, and leaves the gun and fish-pole behind. (“Higher Laws,” Walden)

Ground Hog Day – a good day to look beneath the surface and see what stirs.

As a boy, I learned to shoot a rifle. It was a single-shot .22 caliber gun with a wooden stock, and its sighting was skewed to the right. But I learned to compensate, and I learned to quiet my breathing so that the barrel and I were still as I squeezed the trigger. Some fifty yards away, the old water-filled soda and beer cans I favored as targets, jumped with impact more often than not. A little later, a summer as a counselor’s aide provided my final training as I shot my way through various levels of targets courtesy of the NRA. When fully focused, I could punch the center out of my targets with a tightly-bunched cluster of shots. By August, I had won a clutch of patches and was a sharpshooter. But already, the lure of guns was waning; even as a fourteen-year-old I’d begun to see animals as fellow beings and not wild impulses to be “tamed” by lead.

Let’s go back to my twelfth year, where this began. I awaken early on a July day, and the slightest light seems to hang in the net of fog draped in this heavy New Hampshire air. I slip from the room without disturbing my brother and ease down the stairs, avoiding their creaky centers. It’s a little before 5:00 a.m.; I’ll eat when I get back.

From behind the living room door, I take the single-shot .22 that came with this old farmhouse my parents went into hock for two years ago. Already this mountain valley and its ridges are becoming foot familiar. And already I’ve learned that many animals are in motion during the hours that fringe these long summer days. I am hunting porcupine, which I’ve been told are tree-girdlers and general bad citizens; there is a fifty-cent bounty on them. My dog has already gotten two snoutfuls of quills. Clearly, he is a slow learner. Just as clearly, this valley needs “cleaning up.”

Some thirty minutes up the old, abandoned road that once went over the mountains to Hebron, I catch movement in my peripheral vision. There, some forty feet up in a maple is my quarry, a hunched shape against the rising light in the sky. I am elated and confused. I’ve found what I am hunting, a primal thrill; I must now hunt – aim and pull the trigger? I’ve never done this before. It feels vaguely worrying. Unused to such ambiguity, I do what a twelve-year-old boy does – I act. It takes four shots to bring the porcupine down, and even as he falls, I feel a flush of shame wash through me. Now what? I stand twenty feet away from his body for long minutes, unable to will myself forward. Finally, I settle on burial and digging and scraping with a stick take more long minutes; I become aware that I am crying. During the walk downroad and home, the whole forest feels sad.

That, having been spared service in a war, is the last time I aimed a rifle at a breathing being. Two years later, I shot a rifle at a target for the final time, and my NRA membership lapsed. Fifty years later, I sign petitions and watch debate and revulsion about guns swell in response to the serial horror spewed from their barrels. And I wonder: are not we meant to evolve, as Henry Thoreau proposes in his difficult chapter, “Higher Laws,” over a lifetime? Should not each life in some way mimic the long walk toward a brother-and-sisterhood with our world’s beings, a taming of the hunter, who first walked out of Africa long millennia ago?

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2 Responses to The Hunter Within

  1. Regarding the Thoreau quote that begins this post: I think Henry saw the rifle as merely a vehicle to get people (males, naturally, at the time) outside and looking more intently at the natural world around them. I don’t think he was EVER comfortable with the true hunt-to-kill mystique. Even though he at times succumbed to the act himself.

    On October 9, 1860, in the midst of having young Horace Mann Jr. bring him the bodies of dead animals to examine, Thoreau wrote in his journal: “This haste to kill a bird or quadruped and make a skeleton of it, which many young men and some old ones exhibit, reminds me of the fable of the man who killed the hen that laid the golden eggs, and so got no more gold. It is a perfectly parallel case. Such is the knowledge which you may get from the anatomy as compared with the knowledge you get from the living creature.” He must not have said as much to Horace, for the teen kept bringing dead treasures to him. Maybe Henry forgave Horace for his youthful exuberance.

    Going backwards in his journal, you can land upon the entry for August 18, 1854, and read of Thoreau’s remorse at having killed a turtle in order to study it “for the sake of science.” “I cannot excuse myself for this murder, and see that such actions are inconsistent with the poetic perception, however they may serve science, and will affect the quality of my observations. I pray that I may walk more innocently and serenely through nature. No reasoning whatever reconciles me to this act. It affects my day injuriously. I have lost some self-respect. I have a murderer’s experience in a degree.”

    I once went back further and found a similar sentiment in Henry’s journal, sometime during the 1840s, while he was living at Walden and writing about nature and life there. Can’t find it now. Maybe someone else can. But at the time I first read it, I thought, Wow, he must have felt that way all along. Good for him!

  2. Kathy Klos

    Well-done, thanks.

    I learned about The Woods and its creatures from my maternal grandfather, who had taken lives in WWI but had never spoken of it; we suspected he may have killed the fellow who originally owned the Luger brought home as a trophy. It was the only gun Grandad owned when I was a kid, and I don’t know that he ever shot it.

    Grandad “rehabbed” many wild animals while I was growing up. He kept a porcupine for a while and then released it. It was always an honor to get to know something wild first-hand. I understand he’d hunted as a boy and a young man– it was the custom, when he was growing up. Some thought the war changed his mind about that, but I feel he came to a decision similar to Henry Thoreau’s: he’d rather watch the wild things.

    It seems to me that in HDT’s time and in the time of my grandfather, folks didn’t venture into the woods without a purpose: they were hunting game or chopping firewood. Guns and fishing poles got them “into nature”; for some a door opened and they simply couldn’t kill anymore.

    The man with whom I spent the last ten years had also gone a-hunting as a young man. By the time I met him, he’d given up shooting with anything but a camera.

    I believe now, more than ever, that the war didn’t change my grandfather: he opened his eyes and his heart. He found a living creature to be of greater interest alive than dead… something that fed his soul became more important than food was to his body.

    Remember the story about HDT meeting a young woman toward the end of his life, and he makes the comment that he hadn’t met a woman so interested in nature? In those days, girls weren’t commonly forced out into the woods and onto the lakes with guns and fishing poles. So perhaps boys had an advantage in being exposed to whatever evolutionary process grips the mind when one converts from hunter to observer of wild creatures. Just a thought…

    I’m glad I had such a wonderful Grandad. I love him more now than ever. And because of him, I already half-knew what Henry was talking about.

    Thanks again for sharing.