While I'm now weathering the vicissitudes of aging into my mid-forties, with at least some of the attendant nascent wisdom and identity-churning insanity that mark those middle years for many, over the past year I have been quickly evolving into a brand new upland bird hunter. Scratch that, I will most likely be a future upland bird hunter. It must be stated that I haven't yet actually pulled a trigger to bring down a bird. However, I am a new (and first-time) dog owner. Just under a year ago, my wife and I thrilled at the first pics of the litter of what looked like large, floppy, squirming, drugged-up gerbils out of which our boy would come. Eight weeks later we were trucking across the country to pick him up from Dogwood Brittanys in Peoria, Illinois to bring him to his new home. That story is for another day, but it is one that changed our lives in so many ways and, even with so many things competing for the distinction, getting our boy is one of the very best things we've ever done together in our 20+ year marriage.
At this particular stage of the journey, during days spent in foundational training of my bird dog and my boy's very first experiences of crisply trotting over fallen leaves of crimson, rust, and gold on our early morning walks under the sun rising into clear blue October skies, I'm thinking a lot about the killing to come, helped along by this excellent essay on the messy ethics and moralities of catch and release fishing vs. catching and killing fish to eat. The murmuring whispers of the mortality of all things of course grow more audible this time of year for all of us, but the prospect of hunting for me fills in some additional mournful and pensive notes as I behold this year's growing autumnal splendor. Long story short, I didn't get a dog to become a hunter. My wife and I fell in love with the Brittany breed. We took a "what breed is right for you?" test when we first thought about adopting a dog into our family which led to our fascination with the breed, at first only because it was recommended as the top choice for both of us, separately. With more reading and viewing and meeting a few Brittanys that knocked our socks off with "this is your Platonic Ideal of a dog!" we were absolutely hooked. We then fell head over heals with a very specific Brittany, our boy, Lincoln, who most certainly was bred to hunt. While Brittanys make excellent and very affectionate pet dogs, given - and this is important and verified by our experience - sufficient opportunities to exhaust their incredible bird dog energy, most Brittany breeders and Brittany breed lovers would say when pressed that it would be a real shame to not hunt them, their genetic fire and desire for pursuing prey is just that strong.
But I have never hunted a single living thing, never shot and killed so much as a squirrel or sparrow and would be, if pressed, to call my sensibilities mostly Buddhist when it comes to the question of causing other beings suffering. To further confess, as a former but now non-vegetarian, I have really only blanched at the immediacy of killing animals myself. Understanding that more fully now makes me blush at my years of hypocrisy of not really admitting into my consciousness the full realization of the enormous pain and suffering that the factory meat industry inflicts upon animals. Such suffering surely makes pale in comparison any infliction of pain that a wild animal receives at the hands of a hunter (or any other natural predator) after days, weeks, months or even a life of freedom in the wild. But having animals factory-style raised for you and killed for you to eat and killing them yourself are of course two entirely different things and the latter is not something I've ever before felt compelled to do.
And yet ... I love this wickedly intelligent little bird dog with my whole heart and I can feel long dormant parts of myself and perhaps the blood of my ancestors quicken at the thought of putting Lincoln on birds as I carry behind him a breaking gun for the chance to bag the quarry he points. Childhood memories of both of my grandfathers' paintings and etchings of birds in the field or on a string knock around in the deep recesses of my mind. Tales of my paternal grandfather breeding beagles bump around in there too as do tales of my maternal grandfather hunting rabbits and other small game. And, while I have never hunted, I grew up around guns. I learned to shoot under my father's tutelage and continued to learn at Boy Scout camps and with friends with older brothers. I became something of a marksman with an air rifle during my childhood and adolescence and misspent countless hours shooting every toy figurine, bottle, and tin can I could get my hands on in a clearing across from my childhood home. Absent the bloodsport of actual hunting, shooting was a pastime that colors many of my fondest memories of growing up in a small town in Southwest Virginia. And, while I have never hunted, I am a long-time trout angler of the fly variety and I have occasionally taken a VDGIF trout from streams where it’s legal (and encouraged) to take them to kill, clean, and eat them. Those trout took their star turns in some of my most memorable meals, and ones that stirred my blood in very similar ways as the prospect of hunting with Lincoln does now.
So, it seems perhaps that all of the component parts have been way down there, somewhere in my being, and this long unrealized side of myself now aches to be born. But, I know it most certainly won't do so without birth pangs and not a little struggle. I’m going to take a guess that most hunters wrestle at least a little with this question of killing the animals that many grow to appreciate deeply and quite intimately somewhere along their pursuit of them as prey, in their later years, if not before, even if they ultimately resolve for themselves the ethics of it all, perhaps in much the same ways I think I am only beginning to resolve. I was a little surprised and then gratified by the self-recognition it inspired to read recently no less a patron saint of bird hunting than George Bird Evans himself suggesting his own struggle:
"If I could shoot a game bird and still not hurt it, the way I can take a trout on a fly and release it, I doubt if I would kill another one. This is a strange statement coming from a man whose life is dedicated to shooting and gun dogs. For me, there is almost no moment more sublime than when I pull the trigger and see a grouse fall. Yet, as the bird is retrieved I feel a sense of remorse for taking a courageous life. About the time I passed fifty I noticed this conflict becoming more pronounced." - George Bird Evans, The Upland Shooting Life
Perhaps that's how most hunters get to such a place - by aging themselves, becoming more cognizant of their own mortality and therefore more acquainted with what it means to take a life, any life. Me? I seem to be going the other way, coming from the opposite direction, from long resisting taking life myself to growing into the strength necessary to see the contradictions that live within my own individual being and within the genetics of my species as a homo sapien, an evolved and omnivorous hunter-gatherer; from closing my eyes to what it means to eat meat in absence of hunting for it myself to becoming a fully conscious participant in being the one to dispatch the life that once animated flesh.
As I navigate this journey afoot and in the field, with my trusty bird-dog at my side, I'll pray to all that is holy that the path before me leads me more deeply into these questions, to discover and appreciate and enter into a deeper gratitude for the winged animals I encounter and to discover more of myself, both as a hunter pursuing prey and as prey myself, pursued by my own mortality. No doubt long-time hunters and dog lovers will note moments of naiveté and ignorance and I hope you'll forgive it just like you might the boy I feel like I actually am, encountering within a blooming love of these things for the first time. I'll endeavor to keep you posted as I go, but say a little prayer for me to your object of ultimate concern that I find the right ways through these forest thickets and avoid the lurking temptations of growing numb to the idea of taking life for its meat and likewise avoid the hidden snares of ever not feeling grateful for being alive and healthy and conscious enough to engage in its pursuit.