The Words We Use

“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.” – Benjamin Lee Whorf

We have come to refer to rivers and forests, trout and elk as “resources.” They have become units that inhabit still other units. We now frequently hear the act of hunting referred to as “harvesting” or “collection,” or other, similarly clinical terminology. We have abstracted and reduced one of the most real, visceral experiences we have left in this modern world to the language of the bureaucrat and the commercial extractor.

There has, of course, been necessity to this. In order to converse with the bureaucrat and the extractor, to be taken seriously and to have a seat at the table, it’s become necessary to adopt their language, for this is the language that gets things done in our time. But in this linguistic shift, I believe something at the heart of this whole thing is lost, stripped of greater significance, reduced to the soulless level normally reserved for inanimate product or commodity.

Wildlife managers, and some in the conservation profession, maintain that this is the required approach for science-based conservation, and in a broad, and regrettably bland and mechanical sense, they are absolutely correct. Management of wildlife, and wilderness, has largely become about numbers, stats, population counts, carrying capacities, “maximum sustainable yields” and the like. It is not my goal to naively criticize this work, for I fully recognize its importance, just as I do its limitations. As mentioned above, statistics and quantifiable figures are essential in our day and age, if only in order to demonstrate value to a wider audience who apparently can value nothing else as highly. I know that this work is both important and well-intentioned. I  support it as much as I possibly can, and am eternally grateful that there are those willing to fight the good fight on these stark terms.

Yet we also see this shift in language occur in yielding, consciously or otherwise, to societal pressures; to distance the dialogue surrounding hunting from being about something as disagreeable as “killing,” and even from it being something that involves living, breathing beings at all. I suspect that these modifications in terminology are not coincidentally linked with greater shifting views in our culture toward hunting. How much easier, and more palatable, and less disruptive to the casual atmosphere of the cocktail party it is to say, in the presence of a hunting critic, that you spent the day “harvesting a local resource,” than it is to say that you killed several quail or a deer? Pass the smoked salmon, would you?

“Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground”

– Noah Webster

Is the recently dead grouse, whose warmth I can still feel through the game bag in the back of my vest, merely a “resource?” Moments ago, it was an eruption of wing and feather and cackle and native life. It will also soon be cooked as part of a special meal, relished as it should be, with respect for the life it was. To consider a wild river, or an expanse of old, healthy forest, and the marvelous things that inhabit these places, as mere “resource,” or “unit” would mean a fundamental part of me has withered and died. I know these places, and their inhabitants, too intimately to do them that disservice.

As a hunter and angler, deeply involved in this wet, dirty and sometimes bloody process, I have to draw a line and distance myself from this linguistic trend. This terminology can stay where it should – in offices and negotiation rooms and urban environs. Words reflect how we perceive things, and I can’t let the sterility of agency-speak infiltrate my own word choices. I can’t consider the process of hunting and killing an animal as “resource collection,” and I’m at a loss for what to say to anyone who has come to view this sacred, ancient act as anything so sterile. I won’t distance myself from what this really is. It is hunting, and a part of hunting, at least sometimes, is taking a life. While this is far from the sole reason I am out here, neither is it a thing I take casually. Nor am I willing to trivialize or sanitize this act out of consideration for those who have become so removed from the fundamentals of natural processes, and the manner in which food arrives on their plates, that they can’t deal with it. That is their burden to philosophically dance around, not mine.

Do you prefer to detach yourself from the singular act of having to kill what you eat? Does the reality of it make you squeamish or offend you, yet you still crave your burger or breast or steak? Well then it’s easy – all too easy, really, and it comes in a plastic wrapped, styrofoam tray in the refrigerated section at your local grocery store. But don’t try to drag me down that frigid, flourescent-lit aisle with you.

Trapped

It  wasn’t a conscious decision; we had merely started moving in slightly different trajectories, and in this sort of country that means that before long we were almost a mile, and a deep gorge, away from each other. I look across the rim at the small figures, the even smaller brown and white dots that represented the dogs. Even at this distance it is obvious that they are covering ten times the amount of ground that the humans are.

I find reasonably stable footing amidst the slippery skateboards of sandstone talus piled atop each other, and look over the rim. Even in February, the creek flows assertively. Yes, people would have lived here, and probably would have done pretty well at it, considering the harshness that lay to the horizon beyond.

In the distance, the rooftops and glass reflections of a border gambling town can be seen. I am less than an hour hike from the road, but I know that no one has likely stood where I am in a long time. They come in vehicles of sealed, conditioned air, never leaving pavement, and head straight to the dim cacaphony of casinos where it could be any time of night or day. Indeed, this lack of any reference to time of day is the deliberate strategy from the casino’s point of view. And then, broke, satiated, guilty, elated, hungover or maybe even lucky, they get back in their cars and move on, their feet likely never touching real soil, their menthol-pickled lungs taking in as little fresh air as possible throughout the entire endeavor.

I drop below the band of rimrock and continue to parallel the ridge, the creek now audible below. Here and there are concentrations of tiny obsidian flakes on the ground, doubtless in the very same spot where they initially fell, as someone ages before fashioned a tool or killing instrument of some sort. I continue on, lost in various thoughts of the people who used to live here, losing recollection of the quarry I came here to find, not even sure exactly where my dog is. It feels good to be alone in this place, walking, consumed by the moment, surrounded by scatterings of human evidence, reminded that I am but one in a long chain that stretches way back. Something incongruous catches my eye and I bend down. A tiny chert arrowhead, perfectly formed.

I move on, still deep in thought, looking down as I pick my way along, only half-heartedly still in the hunt. Hank pops over the rim above to check on me and then disappears again.

And then suddenly, there it is.

I stand there stunned as everything around me slows and focuses in the middle, on what lies in front of me, blurred around the edges, like an old tintype. Despite the mid-day temps hovering around freezing, it is clear that the cat hasn’t been dead for long. It is also clear that this had not been a quick death; that nothing dies quickly this way. There would have been hours, if not days, of struggle, of life slowly ebbing, of creeping cold, until this. Wind moves the soft fur, and I can’t resist – I kneel down and run my fingers through it. There is this brief, purely sensory moment where my thinking, judgmental mind is as numb as the carcass before me. This incredibly soft coat. I want to continue running my hand through it and not think about anything, but thoughts begin to creep back. I stand up and wonder if the trapper is watching me from somewhere in the distance. This is easy country to remain undetected in.

I try to get it back, but the rest of the day is not the same. The usual burning desire to continue hunting and covering country has been dimmed to a flicker and all I want to do is put the gun and the rest of it all away and go sit somewhere with a flask of whiskey and a good view and not think about anything but the biting February wind chafing my face and the little chert arrowhead, smooth between my fingers.

– Smithhammer

Begin Anew

It begins with hearing the creak of the stove door opening, with someone throwing a few sticks on the coals from last night. Before long, you hear a little crackling and periscope one eye toward the still tightly drawn opening of your sleeping bag to find a greyish hint of daylight. No one really moves much, but a gradual, collective realization that morning has arrived seems to pervade. Before long, it’s almost too warm in the wall tent to stay inside the bag, and a restlessness follows and people start to emerge. A dog stretches before curling up and laying down again, a little closer to the heat source.

Photo by Ty Traxler

Muscles are stiff, and there’s the faint remnant of retribution from last night’s whiskey, preventing much conversation. Or coordination, for that matter. An empty bottle or two get knocked over in an effort to get the coffee pot on the stove. Someone throws on boots and trips over the tent door, cursing, on a relief mission.

Presently, frying garlic and onions awake what is left of dormant senses and the mental fog begins to lift. Sausage and peppers get added to the mix and take it to a new level. Something which probably wouldn’t be funny in an otherwise full state of consciousness cracks all of you up. Soon glorious caffeine is infusing the body with fresh fire. Yesterday’s beatdown, traversing steep cliffs, slipping and falling on greasy rock, and the ensuing aches, forgotten. Tails start to wag and a cup of coffee goes over. So the day begins anew and nothing else really matters in high, windswept country where humans and dogs and chukar sometimes cross paths.

– Smithhammer

Bullet Points

There were long hours behind the wheel. There was more snow than we’d expected. There were roads that could have stuck our vehicle for days. Roads we turned back from. There were blown shots on what should have been easy covey flushes. There was a jaw-dropping running point by a setter that has taken her craft to the level of artistry. There was cold, biting, open country wind that leaves you feeling ragged and still slightly on edge when you finally get out of it. There were practical jokes, which some found funnier than others. There was setting up camp in the dark, in the snow. There were deep discussions about the relative virtues of one cheap beer over another. There was forgotten dog food (yours truly…). There were, at the end of 3 days with the combined effort of 3 guns and 6 dogs, half a dozen chukar in the cooler.

But then, there were also moments like this:

Basin and Range. Have some.

– Smithhammer

MOF Luxury Tours Now Accepting Reservations!

The team at Mouthful of Feathers is proud and excited to announce our new “Luxury Tours” division!

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“I really didn’t know what to expect when I booked my first trip with MOF Luxury Tours. I had done classic driven shooting at castles in England, amassed thousands of doves per day in Argentina, and even hunted elusive guinea fowl driven by natives on the plains of South Africa. My standards and expectations were high, but I was ready for something different. That’s when I came across the full page ad for MOF Luxury Tours in Gray’s Sporting Journal. I was intrigued, and decided to give it a try. After that first life-changing experience, I immediately booked for next year and can’t wait!”

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Hard to Argue With

The sign on the diner read, “If You Don’t Stop We’ll Both Starve.”

Hard to argue with, so we did.

And over cheeseburgers and home made fries we basked in all that days on end of hunting new country, on foot and horseback, with friends old and new, can do for the soul. Meanwhile, tired dogs curled up and slept in the way that only hard-working, contented bird dogs can – satiated, and I like to think, already dreaming of being afield again. By the time the pie arrived, there was more right with the world than seemed possible.

Though the hunting may be behind, the trip isn’t over till it’s over, and all these other details are still relevant – almost as important as watching a covey of Huns explode. Almost.

– Smithhammer

In Praise of Working Guns

It is the gun I take into harsh, unforgiving, devil bird country without thinking twice. The gun that gets grabbed to ride in a scabbard lashed to the side of a saddle. It has broken my fall, more than once. It has taken doubles on wild chukar in near vertical terrain. It has been carried on in the pouring rain without thought of turning back. It doesn’t get cleaned much, but then again, it really doesn’t seem to need it, either. It doesn’t shrink from dirt and dust, it seeks it. It is, in short, a working gun – one who’s sheer, stripped-down functionality is it’s primary virtue.

There is a part of me that would love to be so resolutely practical as to own only this one gun, and in many ways, I’d probably be all the better for it. As the saying goes, “Beware the man with one gun, he probably knows how to use it.” But the truth is, I own others; guns which are nicer, though stop well short of aristocratic – a line that my pocketbook and my ego are loathe to cross. But this simple, unadorned pump has a well-earned place in the gun closet. Perhaps a place disproportionate to its cost given the company it keeps, or more likely a direct result of it.

And while I’ll probably never be self-disciplined enough to limit myself to this one gun, I’ve developed my own, similar adage – “Beware the man who doesn’t have a simple, working gun in the gun closet at all – something’s not right.”

– Smithhammer

Waiting For Godot (Upland Version)

 

Scene:

Late October, overcast. Two hunters are conversing in an SUV, driving through CRP fields somewhere in Idaho. Though it is 35 degrees out, windows are partially rolled down in defense against persistent dog flatulence. As a result, wind turbulence fades in and out in the background throughout the conversation. Both hunters have hardly worked at all for the last month in order to devote more time to chasing birds. Hunter #2, in particular, has hunted something like the last 25 days in a row…

Curtain Rises:

Hunter #1: Talked to Q last night. She said she’s taking tomorrow off.

Hunter #2. Cool.

Hunter #1: She said she’s got some stuff to do in the morning, but it sounds like she’s psyched to hunt the rest of the day.

Hunter #2: I thought you said she was taking the day off?

Hunter #1: Yeah, I did. She’s taking the day off.

Hunter #2: But….you just said she’s going hunting.

Hunter #1: Yeah. She is. She’s taking the day off.

Hunter #2: But…how can she be taking the day off if she’s going hunting?

Hunter #1: (Turning to look at Hunter #2) What? Yeah, she’s taking the day off – taking the day off from work. She has a job.

Hunter #2: Oh….from work….taking the day off from work…gotcha.

(Scene ends with both hunters now quiet and staring ahead at the road, dangling on the precipice of self-examination. Sandhill cranes are heard in the distance.)

Curtain Closes.

 

– Smithhammer

This.

There is just this. Windswept cheatgrass and sage, gradually ascending, wrinkled and folded in places like a well-used blanket. In the distance, steep rock and dark forest and blue grouse and elk and cougar all move under cover, but out here it is only the sheer vastness that aides concealment.

The steady gait of a horse, covering time and distance you’re unaccustomed to on foot; a horse that exudes the sort of disposition you want to take to the horizon. The rhythmic creak of saddle leather mixing with the wind and gurgle of ravens, trading precedence with your thoughts.

Dogs, possessed of incomprehensible drive, vacuuming the arid ground for scent before you. A sudden point – the kind of full speed to a stop that makes you think the dog is going to flip ass over tea kettle with the abruptness of it. Men, horses and dogs all stop in honor. A quick dismount, a few steps forward, a release command. A bird gets up and then tumbles over the knoll.

You can make more of it, if you’re so inclined, but really, sometimes, it is far better when it is just this.

– Smithhammer

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