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?