Like the seasons my interests are constantly changing, morphing from one to another. Like the tides my obsessions come and go.
At one time, fishing was my primary (for lack of a better word) hobby. Since then I have made a hobby of collecting hobbies. Some were fleeting and some have persisted.
Although our Winter persists, the calendar and sprouts of green announce the arrival of Spring. Time to get outside; time for fishing, kayaking, hiking, foraging, growing, and getting dirty.
For a short time in 2014 I was a hunter. I dressed in camo, carried a gun and went into the woods to find, kill, and eat animals. I believed– and still believe– hunting wild animals is the most ethical way to eat meat. I am no longer a hunter but the experience I had in the woods forever changed my perspective on my relationship with food, with animals, and with nature.
So I return the woods, the fields, the rivers, the ponds often. I take long hikes through the marvelous Michigan woods. I paddle my kayak, exploring the numerous bodies of water within a half hour drive. I watch the deer, turkeys, squirrels, birds, groundhogs, and other creatures through our windows and from our deck.
As I learn more about evolution and biology my desire to interact with other life on Earth intensifies. When “Cosmos” shares the fact that humans share DNA with trees my heart swells with joy and familial pride; we truly are all connected. The more I ponder these connections, our common ancestors, our rearrangements of proteins, our common material of “star stuff,” the more I desire to interact with my distant cousins: trees, animals, insects, flowers, bacteria, fungi. That we all come from a common ancestor (no, not Adam and Eve) makes the tremendous variety of life on Earth all the more impressive.
In a way, we are the universe examining itself. I mean this from a completely non-spiritual perspective; we are literally sentient pieces of stars with evolved self-awareness.
That’s all a fancy way of saying it’s time to get back outside and partake in fellowship with fellow carbon-based lifeforms.
Although my time as a hunter was exceedingly short, the experience left with me many nuggets of knowledge that stick with me. Hunting introduced to me an extremely purposeful walk through the woods. Hunting is not hiking; hunting is assuming the role of a predator, explicitly participating in the ecosystem. So is fishing, but even while wading in a river we are still outsiders to the hidden depths of the water. In the woods we are yet another mammal looking for a meal.
So as our region begrudgingly warms and hints of green appear out our windows, I consider how I can once again partake in the meditation-like act of hunting without necessarily killing anything. Orgeta y Gassett said a hunter must kill to have hunted, but perhaps that is not true.
The thrill of locating, tracking, and stalking an animal in the woods– directly interacting with it– is a huge part of what attracted me to hunting in the first place. The knowledge and skill needed to accomplish this is an additional bonus. I especially enjoy activities that reward research and practice. Surely my main goal was food, but my secondary focus was this reclamation of my role in the food web. What might be another way to experience this closeness to nature?
What if instead of a gun I carried a camera?
If this sounds like tree-hugging socialist lefty back-to-earth rhetoric, well, perhaps it is. I am a tree-hugging socialist lefty back-to-earth kind of person.
Now I embark on what could be a new obsession: hunting with a camera. Photography has always been on the fringe of my interests; indeed, when I first started fishing, the photos I took were a big part of the experience. I was brand new to the outdoors and had an incessant need to share the experiences in a visual way.
Perhaps nothing has changed, except my willingness to learn what an “f stop” is, how different “ISO” settings can affect an image, and what shutter speed has to do with blurry photos.
It was about time for a new hobby anyway.
So I spent Sunday morning stalking the woods, my (very generous) mother-in-law’s fancy DLSR Nikon hanging around my neck, hunting for images. Specifically I wanted to find and shoot a wild turkey.
I arrived at a familiar stretch of woods about an hour before sunrise. This was the woods where I’d spent hours learning the terrain: the trails, the location of nut-bearing trees, animal sign, the wind, which berries were where, and more. This was the woods where I’d shot many squirrels, the woods where I sat motionless for 20 minutes while a deer foraged not 20 feet away, the woods where I snuck up a wild turkey (so close I could have touched it with my hand). I knew these woods well enough to navigate in the dark– which of course I had done many times.
I jumped out of the truck, put on my pack, and began the hunt.
The weather was uncooperative: for most of the morning, small white bullets continuously rained down on me, bouncing off my jacket with a “tick tick tick.” I sat under a tree for 30-45 minutes waiting for the animals to resume their business, but they seemed to be holed up in their homes. I wondered if they had the right idea.
I was “hunting” primarily where the woods turned into a large field. I know from reading and experience that many animals can be found in the transitional areas from one type of terrain to another. This is as true in the water as it is on land. I also know that in the Spring and Fall, turkeys like to emerge from the woods and strut in the fields.
While I slowly moved through the woods I also snapped images of the woods itself; bits of green, branches I found interesting, trash left by humans, scat, bones. There are so many beautiful and ugly things in nature; I found myself desiring to capture them all to share with others.
Just as I was about to turn back to the truck and begin my hike back, I heard a sound. I wasn’t sure I had actually heard what I thought I heard through my thick knit cap. I turned up the sides over my ears and stood motionless for two minutes before I heard it again.
A turkey gobble!
I still couldn’t tell from what direction it came, so I continued standing motionless, my exposed ears starting to freeze. I thought about the ear-rotating abilities of our mammal cousins, and about the inept muscle that still exists in our own heads for this purpose.
Finally, after another three or four minutes, the turkey gobbled again, and I knew its direction. It was coming from the woods, and based on the sound it was coming toward me!
I slowly– so slowly– moved through the woods, taking a few careful steps, then pausing for a count to 100. The stalk was on.
It gobbled again and I was fairly certain of its general location: down in a gully below me. Again I stood completely still, my eyes straining to look through the woods and see the large dark figure of a wild turkey. I knew that if I stood still and watched carefully enough I might eventually see the bird; it was moving, so I should notice its movement compared to the relative stasis of the woods.
And there it was! It was indeed moving, not exactly toward me, but up the hill toward the field.
Even without a gun, or a camera, or a shot, or a picture, I was elated; I had successfully located a turkey. This wasn’t a random meeting: I had been looking for one in a very specific area. This is precisely the same feeling I get when I catch a fish where I think a fish should be.
It’s a great feeling!
Although I wasn’t in full camo (only my child-size snow pants had a camouflage pattern) there were enough trees between the turkey and me that it didn’t seem to notice me. I pulled up the camera and struggled to get some shots. I have a great deal to learn about fancy cameras, and at that moment I realized I had no idea how to focus on a moving subject through a mess of branches.
But a few blurry images of the turkey made their way to the SD card in the camera before the animal disappeared over a ridge.
I backed out to the field and slowly moved toward what I thought would be an opening the turkey might use to enter the field. I climbed a ridge and waited, listening intently, my hat still folded up so my ears could better identify the direction of sounds. As they froze in the thirty-degree air, I quietly ate a snack and waited for the turkey.
It never emerged, and it never made another sound that I could hear, but that was irrelevant. My goal that morning was to find a turkey and capture it on film, and that goal (blurry or otherwise) was accomplished. Although I wasn’t going home with delicious wild turkey meat, I was full of pride.
I sat under a few more trees, hoping to catch a glimpse of other woodland creatures, but the “wintry mix” of precipitation only increased its ferocity. It was time to go home.
“Is this hunting?” I pondered on the hike back to the truck. I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that; certainly it’s not the kind of hunting the requires a license and tags. I can stalk the woods shooting animals with a camera at any time of the year. Surely these images won’t provide the kind of sustenance to my body that wild animal meat would, but the sustenance of the experience and images might feed my mind…
Although I don’t believe in the soul, perhaps they can feed that as well.