Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Hunters Story

"I AM THE HUNTER!" I've heard that statement repeated in my mind countless times. It usually came into my head at the very beginning of a weekend adventure. I could almost imagine myself dressed in Buckskin and moccasins, my head covered by a Coonskin Cap, trusty, muzzle loading, Kentucky Squirrel Rifle in hand, standing straddle-legged atop a brush covered hill, proud, self sufficient and strong.
Piercing, dark eyes scanning my domain, senses sharp and alert, I would test the wind direction, process all the input born of experienced observations and strike out in a direction of travel which was most likely to bring success to the hunt.
Startled back to reality by the noise of a flushed, meadowlark, which I had surprised, truth came to visit and put me in my place. I was the modern-day version of my previous, mental image. Still, I did possess the same primitive instincts and drive of my predecessors. I could feel the influence of their pioneer spirit and my whole body seemed to tingle. I denied the possibility of that tingle being the shiver brought on by the chill of the crisp, morning air penetrating the layers of warm flannel and cotton clothing I wore.
I understood that the man of today is a much different creature than, let's say 50 to 100 years ago. He is usually more fragile, both physically and emotionally. A softer natured individual, due mainly to the comfortable surroundings he was reared in. Artificial climates, either cooled or warmed by the latest in technological advances, filtered atmospheres to breath and comfortable beds to rest in.
There is no need for man to depend upon his own abilities for survival. He buys what he needs to sustain him. If he is threatened at all, it is not by exposure to the elements or the predatory, wild creatures of woodland or field. He is the supreme predator with total dominion over his surroundings. Most of what he needs is there, within easy reach. He does not know the day to day struggle to survive as his ancestors did. So, why does man go out of his way to encounter nature?
I am 71 years old. Born in a sharecropper’s hovel located on a farm in Portland, Kentucky in October of 1940. Delivered, they tell me, by a country Doctor and local Mid-wife. The third child and first son of what would come to be a family with nine children, 5 girls and 4 boys. "Sturdy Stock" was about the best our Father could come up with in an attempt to describe our roots and lineage while telling us one of his home-spun tales. Lacking formal education, Dad and Mom were still very successful at passing on to us, the family's heritage.

Mountain people we were, predominantly Irish and Cherokee Indian by blood. Our family tree had many branches, introducing English and German blood into the mix. It was difficult for me to comprehend the influences that those roots brought to bear upon my own composition as a person. I lived my life by reacting to drives and impulses from within, giving no consideration to their origins.
My earliest memories go back to a time when I was around 5 years old. The pain caused me by a smallpox vaccination at the hand of a Doctor who made house calls was my first. Anything before that was only dim scraps of images, fragments of time and cognition. I was told that our family moved to "The Big City", Newport, Kentucky when I was little more than two years old.
Since I am writing about hunting here, I focused my efforts toward memories of events that involved the out-of-doors and nature. I have always been attracted by anything alive which was able to move and I have always loved being outside in the open air. It mattered not what the weather was like. The more skin I had exposed to the elements, the better I liked it. Possibly, I would have made a good "Nudist" during those days of my youth. A bath in a bathtub was undeserved torture, but a soaking, summer thunderstorm was a joy to experience, especially if I was out in it, drenched head to toe.
The chill of a winter's day was of little concern to me. No coat and a short-sleeved shirt were more than enough protection as I walked the three city blocks to school and back. There was a furnace inside me, fueled by youthful enthusiasm and energy that seemed boundless.
There was always some new discovery to hold my interest. An animal or insect I had never seen before. I remember picking up a grasshopper and studying it intently. I watched as its mouth parts moved ceaselessly, and I thought I saw my own reflection reproduced hundreds of times in its great, faceted eye lenses. I took note of how its body was constructed. A bony-hard, segmented assembly of intricate forms and shapes, joints with hidden hinges, over-sized, spurred hind legs which provided it with the ability to leap great distances. Wing casings that made an excellent place to grasp and hold it during the examination.
Then, I remembered someone saying, "If you capture a grasshopper, make it "Spit" before you release it." I held its mouth to the palm of my hand and the grasshopper obliged by depositing a small drop of what looked like, tobacco juice on it. So, as instructed, I did my part and let it go, unharmed. Still, I couldn't help but wonder, what was it about this small creature which allowed it know what was required of it in this unwritten agreement? To spit on command to receive its freedom. I was never satisfied with other people's explanations of why animals and insects did what they did, so any time I got a chance, I would read what I could find in books concerning them.
I don't recall the first time I took the life of some smaller creature. I don't know if I felt remorse about it either. More than likely though, it was a senseless killing, like stepping on a bug that I saw on the ground. Perhaps I was angry and upset about something that didn’t go my way, so I vented my wrath on it. One thing is for sure, at some time in my young life, I killed a lesser creature and over time, developed a mental attitude about doing so, which would justify the act. Without that kind of mind set, it would be impossible for anyone to hunt down and kill any animal.
My Father loved the out-of-doors too. Over the years, he was responsible for my first introduction to many male traditions and cultural rites that brought me to maturity with respect to hunting.
Yes! I remember the specifics of some of those experiences. He resorted to threatening me with a switch when I balked at participating in some activity that he considered necessary to my continued growth toward manhood.
There are wild creatures that have the ability to strike fear in the heart of inexperienced youth. A water snake, a snapping turtle, a crawfish, and a hellgrammite with its great pincher like mandibles and razor sharp hooks on its tail. It was able to injure a finger with either end. But there were techniques and methods one could be taught which made it possible to pick up and handle such creatures, it was only necessary to be brave and overcome one's fear. It was necessary to learn which ones were bluffing and which one were serious. Some creatures were pretenders, projecting a threat of harm but unable to inflict pain, while others were calm and gave no indication of their true potential, until it was too late and a novice adventurer learned this lesson, the hard way.
"Once bitten, shame on you; twice bitten, shame on me" my Father used to say. He had hundreds of those kinds of sayings to pass on. "Let a sleeping dog lie" he said. It was a lesson I learned quickly. Size didn't matter either. A small, nasty tempered lap dog could rip a finger with needle like teeth if you interrupted his nap. It didn't take long to learn that many creatures will defend themselves when threatened. "Nothing is more fierce than a cornered animal,” Dad said and I took it at face value. He didn't need to prove it to me.
For many years, it was just Dad and I. I was his only male offspring. There were five females and myself for a period of time before another son was born into the family. So, of course, I was the focal point for much of what he had to pass on to his children. We fished and hunted, repaired the car and fixed whatever needed fixing around the house.
But, it was our time together in the out-of-doors that came to mean the most to me. I was his shadow on weekends, never letting him out of my sight, lest he went out on an adventure without me. I couldn't accept that there were situations when my presence was an undesirable factor. He had adult friends and comrades, men he did more grown-up things with, Coon hunting and the like and then there were those times when he and they would get drunk and do man things which I could not share in. I could hardly wait to grow up.
I believe my own individual character as a hunter developed during the time we lived on a farm out in Indiana. I was a teenager then, on the verge of becoming an adult, eager to do things on my own, to put into practice, all which my Father had taught me. In his absence, I was "The Man around the House". He charged me with that responsibility one day as he prepared to leave in search of a job. From that day on, I automatically assumed the roll at any time he was not around. It was a serious responsibility, one I didn't take lightly. The world was filled with danger and implied threats. Snakes, spiders, lizards or who knows what kind of stinging insects could invade the house and what would those helpless women do if I weren't around to save them?
Dad was laid off from his job at the Lakeland Steel Plant and the only income we had was his unemployment, and that wasn't much. He supplemented that with money he earned doing odd jobs for others in the area. Trying to help where I could, I took to cutting cordwood.
I invested some of my income on better tools. A modern Bow saw and a new double bladed ax. My production increased and so did my income. Soon, Dad found a job as a service station attendant on the night shift. My responsibilities as the Man of the House increased with that development. I was in charge for five nights of the week and while he slept during the daytime.
There was plenty of opportunity to observe and learn as I went about doing my chores. There was a natural spring just a short distance from the front door of our house. On wash day, it was my job to build a fire under the tub outside and fill it with water. After my chores were done, I would spend hours watching the events that took place at that spring. Water Striders, like miniature, out-rigger canoes, would glide across the surface tension of the water. Whirligig Beetles would make endless circles in one area for a while and then streak off to some other, more interesting part of the spring only to continue where they had left off before.
The purpose of those aquatic acrobats was a complete mystery to me. Why did they do what they did and what was the purpose for their existence? Mud-daubers would come to the spring to get materials for building their nests. Their tails were constantly moving in an up and down bobbing motion, while they used their heads like tiny Bulldozers, pushing and working the mud until it was the perfect consistency. I often wondered what power gave them the ability to make such a judgement?
Then they would form the mud into a ball that was much too large for them to fly with, I thought, but fly they did and I was always amazed by their strength and flying skills. I've ran after them, following to their construction site, where they worked that soft mud into the free hand shape of what would soon be the future home of their offspring and storage space for the countless, stunned spiders which would feed them.
Small Frogs made that spring their home too. They had chosen a good place to live. There was plenty of food in the form of insects that visited the pool for any number of reasons. There were hundreds of "Wigglers" I called them, in the water. They would hang suspended, just below the surface, with their little snorkel tubes reaching up through the surface to the vital air above. A Water Strider would come gliding by, touch one of their snorkels and it would send them into a wriggling frenzy, darting down and sideways to escape some phantom predator.
An air rifle is a weapon of low muzzle velocity, it has very little power at a distance, but close up, it is an effective weapon for small animals and it furnished many a meal for us when other kinds of meat were not to be had. There are groups of people today, who resent men that hunt. They believe that all hunters kill animals for the sake of killing and leave them lay where they fall. I will be the first to admit; there are such men involved in this activity. I try not to call hunting "A Sport."
The Dictionary gives a very lengthy group of definitions for the word "Sport", none of them pertaining to hunting. That fact seems to back me up in my opinion on the matter. What I did find was the word "Sportsman". It is defined as "One who pursues field sports, especially hunting and fishing." Also, "One who abides by a code of fair play."
Those who are called "Animal Rights Activists" would say there is nothing "Fair" about modern hunting or its methods. Wild animals don't stand much of a chance against a determined Hunter with today's very accurate, high-powered weaponry. But hunting today involves all kinds of weapons, from compound and crossbows to rifles of many different types, with or without telescopic sights. Hunters use their weapon of choice for various reasons. Some do so in the name of "Fairness", some do so to demonstrate their personal skill levels with all types of weapons and stalking techniques or tracking skills.
Reduced to its basic roots, hunting was a means of survival. The taking of an animal's life to sustain human life by devouring the animal's flesh or even using the fur of that same animal to protect the human body from the elements. In a time of great need, man will use whatever weapon is at hand and take the life of any other animal to sustain his own life and the lives of his family members. That's hunting in a nutshell.
In my youth, with the only weapon I had available, an air rifle, I provided my own family with Bullfrogs, Ground Squirrels and various kinds of edible Birds. Seldom was an animal's life sacrificed with any other thought in mind than the fact it would be meat for our table. As our finances improved, we purchased better weapons, 22 Caliber Rifles and 12 Gauge Shotguns. We also purchased and raised some domestic stock, purely as a food source, such animals as Chickens, Ducks, Geese and Pigs.
Poor families eke out a living. It is a necessary part of life. The meat on their table is often whatever is available. Any kind of wild meat is acceptable so long at it can be eaten. Better weapons expand the range of animal types that can be taken. Desperate times keep people from rejecting most kinds of animal flesh, of course, there are exceptions to any rule. But my family ate Rabbit, Squirrel, Groundhog, Opossum and even Raccoon.
Some families develop a "Taste" for certain kinds of animal flesh. Even in the best of times, an occasional meal of Wild Rabbit or Squirrel is a treat, so, even when circumstances didn't demand that we resort to wild meat, the Hunters in the family would venture out into the fields and forest to hunt and provide that preference of taste.
There are other aspects of the hunt which participants find enjoyable. There is a release from the stress of daily life, and contentment in the solitude of a wooded hillside. We often call such activities "Unwinding" or relaxation. There are some women who have crossed over into these activities. They work every day, side by side with men, know the same stresses of the job and do not limit themselves to what society has classified as appropriate means for relieving stress.
For as long as I can remember, I have known a strange excitement that swells within me at the approach of "Opening Day" for the annual hunting season. The anticipation of events that may take place gives place to remembering the experiences of hunts from the past. If there is a gathering of friends who have known the shared adventure of other hunts, the evening prior to another hunt will be filled with tall tales and good natured taunting of one another's lack of hunting skills. They make jokes and laugh, remembering accidents and mistakes or some clumsy pratfall or nasty spill which occurred to someone other than themselves.
A close friend will be the first to recall a time when some one's aim was off and make critical judgments concerning that person's ability to hit the broad side of a barn with a shotgun, all in good natured fun. There is a special kind of "Bonding" which only fellow Hunters can know. Relationships are formed by that bonding which will last a lifetime and unrelated men become Brothers in spirit and soul.
On the evening before a scheduled hunting trip, grown men lay in their beds, wide-eyed with expectations. Sleep is slow to come when closing one's eyes in search of sleep is greeted by images of old, long standing, Hickory groves; their leaves already changing into their autumn colors. The images are so vivid; the crispness of the chilled air can be felt in the lungs as the individual draws deep breaths in their mind. The warmth of the morning sun can be felt on cold, damp shoulders as it filters through the treetops and washes the forest floor with light.
The senses seem more alive; the vision seems clearer, sharper and more appreciative of nature's beauty. Nothing is overlooked or taken for granted. A soft cushion of thick moss was placed on top of that fallen log just to form a comfortable place to sit for some weary Hunter. The forest floor has been carpeted with a thick layer of fallen leaves in preparation for your passing that way. The birds and Ground Squirrels seem to have staged a special performance just for you to observe this day. The birds are more vocal, the Ground Squirrels are more energetic than normal and Mother Nature herself has arranged a display of beauty on this day, which no other man has ever seen before.
As you sit on a fallen log, the seat that nature prepared for you, there is a sudden gust of wind, it swirls through the tree tops and a descending veil of leaves, so thick, it blocks out the sun, comes floating to the forest floor. The breeze is scented with the pungent odor of decaying leaves, tinged with the acidic aroma of damp tree bark. There is a hint of freshly mown hayfields on the same breeze and wood smoke from a distant fireplace. It is such a special day, you know that it may never happen again. You are in no hurry to exit from this place. It is a time of rare events and you allow every impression to flow through you, to leave an indelible mark upon your soul. This day will become a treasure for future years. You store it away, close and lock the door, behind which the experience will remain until you have need of it again.
Certainly, you are blessed above all other men. Mother Nature comes to sit beside you, placing her arm upon your shoulder, nudging you to come to a place just over the next rise, around the next bend in the creek which winds through a wooded valley. She has so much to share with you; how can you not go? With every step you take, the scene changes, before and behind you. Progress is slow and methodical, for you fear you will miss out on another treasure. Life is all around you, its power surges over and through you. You feel invigorated and strong; soaking up the energy which is all around.
Standing on a small rise, you take in the scene before you. Fingers of sunlight radiate through the trees, looking like a great fan of sparkling gemstones. They splash upon the forest floor and illuminate the darkness. Squirrels frolic around the roots of a great Oak and then climb in a serpentine coil around the massive trunk. You should be stalking them, but you tell yourself "There is plenty of time for dying", but life is a vapor and the joy of it is shared by all creatures.
As if to reward your thoughts, from the edge of the woods, a young male Deer comes on the scene. His antlers still covered with velvet; he pauses in one of the fingers of sunlight and strikes a majestic pose. His muscular, young body tenses with alertness. He raises his head to sample the air, sniffs it deeply and exhales. A billowing cloud of vapor drifts out from his nostrils and spreads out into a vanishing mist, luminescent in the sunlight, rising into the darkness just above the his head and is gone.
His tucked tail is suddenly erect, his skin jerks and twitches over his flank and his head turns in my direction. Has he caught my scent? His actions seem to say he has. I remain motionless, but his gaze is locked onto my position. He senses that something is there which should not be, something alien and possibly a threat to him. Caution is his friend and hurried flight his defense. He explodes into action and with several great leaps; he was out of my sight. I can only stand and be in awe of his power and strength. But he has not escaped, for I have captured him in my memory. He will remain with me so long as I have life.

Copyright 2011, Clarence Bowles
All rights reserved. Reproductions without the author's express permission are prohibited.


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