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The End of Something at Cabela's

The End of Something

Author: Thomas McIntyre

To determine why hunters give up the sport, it is often important to examine why they began.

Thomas McIntyre is a lifelong hunter.

What's the expiration date on life's passions?

I began wondering about this after leaving L.A. some years ago. In Los Angeles, where much of what matters most in life somehow comes to be viewed through a glass, darkly, I was hardly ever surprised to hear from yet another friend that he had given up hunting. It was social pressure, or maybe just L.A.'s ability to blunt the human desire to hunt as easily as it subverted most people's innate affection for clean air, open space, and calm.

Then I moved to the heart of hunting country, and even here I found people--albeit not many--who after years of hunting had also given it up, for no better reason, it seemed, than that they just no longer cared for it, the love between them and hunting having died, to get perilously close to paraphrasing Evelyn Waugh.

Certainly, the long-range trend is toward a decline in the percentage of hunters; simple demographics explains that. As the overall population ages, so too does the hunting cohort: Knees give out, eyesight dims, reflexes slow, the hills become taller and steeper, and in the end, we die. Death makes non-hunters of us all. But that isn't what I'm talking about or what, frankly, troubles me.

What does trouble me is not hunters in their 60s or 70s who decide they've grown too old, but hunters who quit before they even turn 40. Why does someone, young and healthy, living in decent game country, give up hunting, especially when it is an activity he has seemingly enjoyed for many years, often since childhood? Conventional wisdom offers a variety of answers.

A lack of land to hunt on is said to be what compels many to quit. This is particularly true out in the once Wild West, where an awful lot of it has now metamorphosed into the Soccer-Mom West, sage supplanted by Bermuda grass, deer trails converted to bicycle paths. Every day more "posted" signs appear and more landowners want to be paid before they will forgive hunters their trespasses (something unheard of Out West not long ago). On the acres that do remain open, in the supposed words of Yogi Berra, nobody goes there anymore because they're too crowded.

Then there is a panoply of pop-psych reasons, enough for a week of talk shows: Single mothers unable to pass on a hunting tradition to their sons; a geometric expansion in sensitivity toward our fellow sentient beings brought about by the enlightenment of the animal-rights movement; the changing relationship between the sexes; blah-blah-blah. There may even be something to that last one. ("Hunting [is a form] of institutionalized escape," wrote Doug Stanton a while back in Esquire magazine, and as such allows men to light out for the territories without wrecking their marriages. Or at least it once did. "It's funny," he continued, "and maybe no coincidence that hunting has never seemed less reputable than it does today.") Hunting, an overwhelmingly male activity going back to the origin of the species, may now, for some, exemplify a man's disrespect for the partnership he has formed with the woman in his life by his purposely abandoning her, even if only for a matter of days. Yet when someone says he has given up hunting to be closer to his wife (to "spend more time" with his family), you do have to wonder exactly how sound that marriage is if she feels so threatened by his week or two in the woods each year, especially when you come to find out (usually after the divorce) that she never actually gave a damn about it, perhaps even welcoming his temporary absences--How, indeed, can I miss you if you won't go away?

Quail, regardless of a hunter's skill level, are still a game advesary.

Then we come to an extremely popular and fondly held theory, especially among animal-rightists and the general run of opinion makers--who do seem to listen attentively to animal-rightists when it comes to jumping to conclusions about hunters and hunting--that most experienced hunters finally "hang up their weapons because they have simply grown sick of killing." Although the "sick of killing" theme is one found extensively throughout popular fiction, films, television, etc. (as we shall see), it also strikes me as quite an odd state for any true hunter to find himself in. I do know some (very lucky) hunters who believe they have reached a personal quota when it comes to certain species or classes of game--usually very large, somewhat rare animals such as lion or even elk--concluding that they've killed their fair share. But in my own case, I recall the last bobwhite hunt I went on at the very end of the Kansas season: Five days and some 25 miles of muddy slogging for a personal bag of four quail, plus three misses.

Overall, much of my hunting--much of most everybody's "rough shooting" (as the British call it)--tallies up about like that. At approximately three-and-a-half miles per bird flushed, it was, I can assure you, not the killing that made me sick; it was the missing. So when I hear someone say he has killed enough, it strikes me as a case of what Ortega y Gasset labeled "the height of affected piety," a form of loathsome crypto-braggadocio (gosh, just no more worlds to conquer), or the lament of someone who's never done a lick of real hunting in his life.

Yet another hypothesis for why some quit has to do with a change in mental status. "Because hunters have trouble articulating and defending their motives, non-hunters often conclude that they are simply crazy," proclaims one anthropologist with an animal-rights axe to grind--never mind that much of the trouble may lie with the way non-hunters have been schooled to listen to what hunters articulate. And if not crazed, then hunting is considered an immature, or perhaps even infantile, activity.

In the first instance, the consensus seems to be that those who give up hunting have finally regained their sanity; while in the latter, hunting is reckoned something that rational individuals eventually mature out of. (Peter Matthiessen, in The Tree where Man Was Born, even proposes an average age for when such transformations occur, quoting a Tanzanian parks official to the effect that 35 is "the age when most men outgrow hunting big animals.") These, and that mal de massacre thing, are served up lavishly in our popular culture as reasons why people choose no longer to hunt, creating a definite public sentiment that venerates quitting.

Throughout popular culture, the former (or "reformed," or maybe it's even "recovered") hunter is held in far greater esteem than the unreconstructed one. Atticus Finch in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird is laudable not for being "the deadest shot in Maycomb County," but rather for not having fired a shot at an animal in 30 years. Robert DeNiro's character in The Deer Hunter finally "gets it" when he lays down his rifle and chooses not to kill that buck (when did Pennsylvania acquire 11,000-foot mountain peaks and European red deer, by the way?--you had to see the movie). Walt Disney, of course, made sure that Davy Crockett apologized for all them b'ar he kilt once upon a time, even though the historical Crockett did so primarily to salt away meat for his family and neighbors to enable them to survive the frontier winter, for which no apology would seem to be in order. Even Hemingway, in his posthumous novel The Garden of Eden, has a young boy repeatedly curse elephant hunting as a sign of his having gained the knowledge of good and evil.

Yet for all the customary reasons put forth for why people quit hunting, I'm afraid that none ring true, at least none for me. They do not because they all, at their root, seem to depend on an acceptance of there being something essentially corrupt about hunting. Now, we can hunt well, or we can hunt badly, but neither is a reflection upon the nature of hunting itself, just as the behavior of sinners or saints (being fallibly human) has, ultimately, nothing to do with the ultimate nature of faith. There's no question, though, that people do quit hunting, and the real reason for that, I believe, has far more to do with the real reason they began.

Quality time spent afield (for the hunter) is often as important as the hunt itself.

There is nothing that prevents people from becoming hunters for any number of extremely shallow reasons: parental coercion, social conformity, an intense sense of competitiveness, a desperate need to assert their masculinity, etc. Those are also the people who seem most likely to quit hunting. When someone says he once loved, or even enjoyed hunting, but has now lost his taste for it, I wonder what it is he has in fact lost his taste for.

To be sick of killing, to come to one's senses, or to "grow out of it" is not what becomes of the true hunter, the one who was drawn to hunting because he found in it something--in the way it let him bind with the wild, exercise senses and instincts that had lain in hibernation too long, and put on the skin of his brother animal as he went in pursuit of him--that he could find nowhere else. Hunting is not something that can be "taken up" like court games or golf, or so easily laid aside. The only reason the true hunter has for hunting is that it is what he loves--and in a sense, is what he is. How do we quit being what we are?

So I would contend that when people stop hunting, hunting is not what they are stopping at all. For them, "hunting" is about something else all together, about pastimes and conventionalisms and compulsions that involve only transitorily the mystery of wild animals and the chase, and in the name of something whose meaning is far less than the sum of its parts. With only superficial motives to justify it, the death of any animal would appear an obscenity. Who, in his right mind, would not be sickened, feel he has risked his sanity, or put away childish things after sufficient exposure to such a killing joke?

In the end I would hold that those who quit hunting outright never knew what true hunting was all about, and never genuinely came to love it. It's like the way we forget. When we forget something, it is not because we have lost our cherished memory of it. We forget only what we never really knew to begin with.

Author Thomas McIntyre
Thomas McIntyre has written for Sports Afield magazine for nearly a quarter century. He is the author of four books on hunting and fishing, including the critically acclaimed "Dreaming the Lion", published by Down East Books. His newest book, "Seasons & Days: 25 Years of Hunting Stories", will be published next year by The Lyons Press. Tom lives with his wife and son in northern Wyoming.

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