Life is All About Conflict

Once upon a time, life was nothing but conflict and struggle. Struggle to keep yourself and your children alive, struggle to find food, struggle with disease, struggle to stay warm and dry in the winter, just struggle and more struggle.  In modern times, we’ve solved many of these issues that we dealt with for thousands of years but what we cannot solve is the fact that we’ve evolved to overcome adversity.  If there is no adversity to overcome, we need to create it.  This is why many people run marathons, do crossfit, take incredibly challenging jobs and this is why many people hunt.  These people have found healthy outlets for their need to struggle.  However, there is a growing segment in our society that wants to deny their nature. I won’t go into all the areas where this is happening, because you could write a book about it, but there is a general emptiness and unhappiness that resonates from people who deny their nature in the name of “progress” or modern times.  Sometimes their goals are well intended, but you don’t undo hundreds of thousands of years of evolution just by saying, “this isn’t the way it should be” and then getting mad at those who don’t comply and calling them nasty names.

There is infinitely more peace and freedom in accepting your nature than in trying to deny it.  

Paraphrasing John Lennon, peace is here if you want it.  I don’t mean it in the same way he did, I don’t have the same faith in human nature that I think we will end all wars, but I do think internal peace is here if you want it.  And who knows, maybe if more people find that internal peace, we can end all wars. But you have to have some peace in your own heart before you can make peace out in the world.

We crave that conflict and struggle.  But instead of looking inward for conflict, we glue our eyes to social media to find out what crazy thing Donald Trump or Maxine Waters has said today so that we can get outraged.  We crave those dopamine hits from the anticipation of our anger no differently than a drug addict or porn addict crave their next hit.  We focus on the brokenness of the world so that we don’t have to face the brokenness of our own hearts and lives.

Life is about conflict, but you have the choice of where to go to battle. You can go to war with the world and you will continue to struggle and never get ahead.  You will never find peace because you will never conquer the world, in fact you will only sew hatred and vitriol as you fail at saving the world.  Or, you can go to war with your own heart.  You can heal yourself, find your true nature and embrace it, becoming a happier, more loving and better human being.  Not only will your life improve, but you will improve the lives of the people around you.  

I cannot tell you what this looks like for you, only that I can easily tell the difference between those who go to war with the world and those that go to war with themselves.  I can tell you to look at biology, evolution and history for clues, but there are too many variables and one size does not fit all.  I can tell you that all human beings are spiritual creatures and you should pursue that, but, in spite of my own beliefs, I cannot tell you which path to take.  I can tell you that you should put down the phone and turn off the TV and the laptop every now and again.  It’s good to ingest as much knowledge as possible, but unless you spend some quiet time in reflection, your ideas are not truly your own, but rather a regurgitation of something you heard or read somewhere.  Go get quiet and make up your own damn mind.

I can also tell you that while you alone cannot change the world, you can change the world around you.  Redirect some of that energy you spend on politics or sports on your children, your spouse and your friends and family.  Your relationships will improve which will provide you with a happier and more emotionally stable life.  

Hunting is one way I exercise my true nature.

Hunting is as human as sex.  Those who would tell us to give up hunting are the same ones constantly pushing sex in our faces.  Sex is part of being human, it’s part of being a mammal, but so is hunting.  We are, thanks to technology, more often predators today than prey, but sometimes, we’re still prey.  I live in bear country, but every time I go off into the mountains and sleep in a tent, I inevitably hear from multiple people, “Aren’t you afraid of bears or wolves?”  Usually I answer, “no”, but this hunting trip I’m about to go on, I have to admit that I am a little afraid.  If all goes well, I will have an elk on the ground and I will be focusing on dressing and butchering it to pack out.  Bears are looking for one last meal before hibernation and it doesn’t get much better than a dead elk.

That fear makes me feel human.  And feeling human, truly human, is one of the most liberating feelings there is.  Rather than running from that fear, or letting that fear control my life, I am embracing that fear.  When I am in the mountains with bears and wolves, I am at the place in the food chain God intended me to be.  I am not in some high-rise apartment in New York protected by armed guards having my food delivered to me.  I am taking risks that others cannot or will not take and because of that, I will have rewards that others will not reap.  

I’m not really much of a 21st century man, but I’m trying to be where it makes sense.  My wife is currently the breadwinner in our family and I do my best to support her.  I usually am the one who quits work early to pick up our daughter and my ego is not bruised by any of this.  However, though I pray I never have a need to, I will not hesitate to resort to violence if necessary to protect my family.  I will leave my family for a period of time to go hunt.  I will be the Christian leader of the household God calls me to be.  Not everything that has been done for eons needs to be replaced.  In fact, I’d argue, we need to keep tweaking how we do things, but in America at least, I wouldn’t call for an overhaul of any institution or cultural more.  

Conflict is natural.  Conflict can be good.  Conflict, when handled properly, is how things grow.  So, the question you have to ask yourself is, “Am I engaging in conflict that is going to make me be a better person?  Or, is the conflict I’m engaged in really only designed to make me appear like I’m already a good person?”

When Those Disconnected from Nature Attempt to Interact with the Wild

Yesterday, it was reportedthat the Oregon man who harassed bison in Yellowstone was convicted of the crime.  Earlier in the week, it was reported that the Governor of New Jersey, through executive order and not legislative action, ended bear hunting on public land in spite of New Jersey having the highest bear population density in the United States.  These are just the two latest examples of people ignorant of the wild making stupid decisions in or about the wild.

Forgive me if I sound like I’m preaching, but I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t endlessly irritating to me.  

In the case of the man from Oregon, most of us have seen this play out in person, especially if you’ve been to Yellowstone.  I’ve been to Yellowstone three times in the last year and if I’m being honest, I don’t need to go back no matter how beautiful it is.  I’ve had multiple bad experiences with people; everything from interfering with wildlife on the roads to incredible rudeness at Old Faithful.  However, this happens at every park and most recently I saw people lose their minds at the sight of a black bear in the Great Smoky Mountains, completely shutting down a road and wandering of within a few feet of a sow and her cubs just so they could get a closer picture.  

I’m mindful of the fact that for a lot of these people, it may be the first time they’ve seen a bear or a bison in the wild.  I understand and share their excitement.  It’s still incredibly cool to me after all these years and numerous bison and black bears I’ve seen – it never gets old.  However, people need to be aware that this is not the city, nor the suburbs.  These are very large and very powerful wild animals, they are not pets or domesticated farm animals.  More so than that, we’re on their turf, not the other way around.  

While this problem is multi-cultural, as a few scenes from the first season of Yellowstone shows, I expect more of Americans than I do our foreign visitors.  Most folks around the world have little to no wild places or animals and no way to know how to respect such places and things. Americans, on the other hand, should be taught about the North American Wildlife Model in either history or science class.  I know that this is probably never done, but it should be.  While it is impossible for one to know everything about every place and everything in a country as large as ours, if you’re touring national parks for the summer, shouldn’t you know at least a little something about what you’re getting yourself into?  Shouldn’t you research how to be safe and show respect wherever you go?

Furthermore, these are the same people susceptible to slick public relations campaigns funded by organizations like the Humane Society of the United States and PETA that cherry pick data and play on people’s emotions rather than presenting a scientific argument.  Then these people vote, either directly in some states, or at least for candidates who support radical anti-wildlife regulations.  This is how the people of New Jersey got Governor Phil Murphy.  

New Jersey and California are great examples of what is to come, especially here in Colorado as the liberal Front Range continues to grow with California refugees (most of whom are not like the Climers).  These states have incredibly wild areas but are politically controlled by densely populated urban areas.  Many of these urban people hike, climb, etc., they should understand how our wild places and wild animals are managed, but they don’t for the most part.  Most of us, myself often included, only care about and learn about things that directly affect ourselves.  All these people know is they want to go for a hike during the rut and not see hunters, they don’t understand the consequences of letting things “return to the wild” without human management.

Predator-Human interactions are increasing all the time.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  Obviously, these areas have healthy populations, but once that population grows to a certain size it will pass its carrying capacity, or the ability for the land to support the population of animals.  This is when bears, mountain lions and other predators will start migrating to new areas to look for food and once an animal, like a bear or mountain lion, learns that houses and cars are a great place to find food, they’ll keep coming back to those places.  This costs a lot of money to citizens, government agencies and insurance companies, not to mention the risk of direct human interaction with these creatures, especially small children.  Once an animal learns this, the only option is for the local government is to catch it, and in most cases, put it down.  

As I always say, these are nuanced issues with many causes, correlations and factors, but it is important that for the safety of citizens and visitors that we understand these issues and contribute to the management of our wonderful resources.  For those that wish us to leave things be and let “nature take care of its own”, beware of becoming a victim to the Law of Unintended Consequences.  

On the Emotional and Spiritual Aspects of Killing

I love reading David Petzal from Field & Stream.  I look forward to his column every month and I often re-read past columns online.  Recently, “Teaching Young Hunters to Cope with Killing” was shared on their Facebook page.  In spite of the fact I’ve been teaching my daughter about hunting and ethical meat procurement since she’s been born, I have to admit I still don’t know how to properly describe the issue to her.  Of course, she’s five as I write this, so it’s a slow process and I believe a slow process is a lot better than keeping her in the dark and then sitting her down when she’s 12 and explaining where her food comes from.  That’s how vegans are made.

Even at five my daughter understands certain aspects of fair chase. These things have been taught by conversation at the dinner table, lessons during playtime and during episodes of MeatEater and Fresh Tracks with Randy Newberg.  However, I still wonder how she is going to feel this fall when we go squirrel and rabbit hunting as a family.  Is she going to be as excited to see me clean and dress small game as she was last fall when she found a freshly killed elk femur in Wyoming?  Or is seeing an animal alive one moment and then hearing the crack of the rifle and seeing the squirrel fall from the tree going to make her sad?  Either way her reaction will be normal and I fully expect her to finish the process in the kitchen with her mother because she loves to cook with mommy.

The taking of a life is a complicated thing, even for an adult.  As hunters and anglers, we do so for a very good reason, sustenance.  Sure, there are many other parts of the hunt, but the bottom line for almost all of us is we are going to feed ourselves and our families with that animal.  The death of that animal is going to provide healthy protein and nutrients to our bodies and hunting and fishing is certainly as animal friendly as meat comes (no pens, no hormones, no anti-biotics, no food that they weren’t meant to eat, etc.).  Killing to eat is as natural as the sun rising in the morning, but as humans, we, unlike other animal species, have a consciousness about the process.

For me, personally, I feel the same emotions before I pull the trigger as I do after, but they come in very different ways, looking and feeling very different.  Even when I’m not hunting, but just out in the woods observing animals, I feel a great love and reverence for all living things.  At no point do I ever take those animals for granted.

The hunt is everything before the pull of the trigger to me.  It’s everything from looking at maps and scouting to setting up camp and traipsing through the woods stalking game.  This allows for the slow process of preparedness. You’re visualizing what is going to happen so that when you lock eyes on your game you can quickly put the excitement of having found it aside, calm yourself and take an ethical shot.  I have always said a little prayer to myself before pulling the trigger to steady my nerves and remember to be grateful to be in the position to take a shot.  You’re about to take the life of a beautiful animal and it’s hard not to appreciate that when you’re in the moment.

Emotionally, I think the toughest part of hunting are those moments between the shot and the field dressing.  Often hunters will become overwhelmed by their emotions even if they act stoically around their buddies.  Many mature hunters will admit that they have cried as they approach the fallen animal. While everyone handles their emotions differently, I love hearing those stories or seeing it with my own two eyes. At this point, all your hard work has paid off, there is a relief in your success as well as a pride for having put in the time and effort.  There is also a deep feeling of appreciation as well as a twinge of sadness.  Contrary to what some anti-hunters might think, or attempt to over-simplify, killing is never fun.  Hunting is fun and joyous, but unless you’ve hunted, I imagine it’s hard to understand the nuance between the hunt and the kill.  

It can be unnerving to have mixed emotions.  In life, one doesn’t usually experience gratitude, relief, joy, sadness and love all at once.  It happens, but not with the regularity that it happens to a hunter or fisherman.  It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but hunters especially, are comfortable in discomfort as we get up early in the morning and brave the cold, the wind, the rain, the snow and all the other elements (usually on vacation days from work mind you, this is how we choose to spend our free time) in pursuit of the hunt.  These mixed emotions and this discomfort, if you accept them, are powerful enough to transform you.  Unfortunately, many hunters choose to bury this instead, as if accepting the emotions somehow makes them less manly.  I believe, based on biology, evolution and my own anecdotal observations, that female hunters are much better at understanding this and accepting it and because of this, I believe that often times they have a deeper love of hunting than their male counterparts.  

I believe that one must accept all the emotional weight of the hunt before one can feel the spiritual connection of the hunt.  This does not mean you have to go around posting videos of you crying over your recently harvested elk on social media nor does it mean you need to start a blog and talk about these things all the time.  You can simply accept it in your heart and your mind.  I do think it’s helpful if you can talk about it, because those folks on the fence about hunting don’t often hear emotional or spiritual stories about hunting in the media.  We’re all painted with a broad brush and the many are convicted of the crimes of the few. 

Killing doesn’t have to be a cold-hearted endeavor.  Show the animal the proper love and respect, perhaps even participate in a ritual to connect yourself to nature in some way.  I once read where the Cherokee would bury tobacco before the hunt as a sacrifice.  I have a little Cherokee in my ancestry and I thought this would be a great way to connect with my ancestors as well as offer a token of love and respect to Mother Nature. Do I believe that the sacrifice actually helped my chances on the hunt?  No, but I do believe that it opened my mind and heart up to connect better with nature and perhaps that made for a better hunt.

What this looks like for you is probably different than it does for me. The only thing I hope is that more hunters are willing to dig a little deeper and then discuss those feelings with others.  It’s truly hard to understand unless you’ve done it, but I believe people, especially young people, are looking for meaning in their lives and hunting is a great way to find it.  Perhaps the person you share your hunting story with will be the next Theodore Roosevelt or George Bird Grinnell.  

Taking Comfort in Feeling Small

My family and I used to do a lot of car camping in the desert when we lived in California.  Our favorite spot was in Anza-Borrego State Park though we also enjoyed Death Valley National Park and Johnson Valley (BLM).  When we go camping, our daughter likes to go to bed as soon as the sun goes down (as opposed to a normal night at home when she wants to stay up all night watching MeatEater).  Usually when she goes to bed, my wife and I will enjoy the time to ourselves, talking quietly around the campfire and perhaps enjoying an adult beverage.  If any of you have ever camped in the desert, you know how impressive a clear night sky can be.

The one thing that always comes to my mind, always, is how massive our universe is.  You look out upon an infinite number of stars and know that they are so far away that it’s incredibly hard for most of us to fathom. Knowing that I am such a small part of the universe, especially given the history of time, is always oddly comforting.  

We humans like to pretend we’re important.  We like to pretend we’re special.  We shout our opinions into already loud echo chambers and feel validated when we hear our voice coming back to us in a slightly different tone. In today’s world, with social media so prevalent in everyone’s life, we know that we don’t even have to have talent to be famous, many people are famous just for being famous.  We crave that attention that will make us feel special and validate our insecurities. 

The truth is, we’re not special.  None of us are really.  Sure, there are those who make an impact that seems incredibly large to us in our time and place, but even the greatest of leaders are mere ripples on the ocean of time. The knowledge of this could be disheartening to some, they may view this as nihilistic, but nothing could be further from the truth.  

Another place that gives me great comfort in spite of making me feel so small is the Rocky Mountains.  When walking through some ancient canyon between mountains that are millions of years old I can see the layers of time on their faces.  I imagine the millions of stories those mountains have in their collective memory and if I get quiet enough and really listen hard, they will tell me some of those stories.  I also know that one day my time with the mountain will be a story it can tell to those still in the “womb of time” (stole that one from Theodore Roosevelt).  

Our goal in life should not be to aspire to be the brightest star in the sky, but to be the Sun in our own solar system.  We should give light and warmth to those in our orbit; our families, friends, co-workers and neighbors.  We are all important in a very real and impactful way, but not in the superficial way that our televisions and iPhones tell us we should be.  Man’s desire to be immortal is as old as man himself, but I challenge us all to be better building blocks of life, rather than aspire to conquer death.  Even Marcus Aurelius once said that even the greatest Roman Emperor will be forgotten in but a few generations.  

There is power in feeling small.  Once you view yourself in the proper context to the universe, your purpose becomes crystal clear.  You know what things you can change and what things you must accept that you cannot change. In feeling small, you become aware of how important you really are.

And the next time you have a clear, dark night, or the next time you’re standing alone next to a mountain, take a moment and listen closely.  You never know what wisdom might be bestowed upon you.

The Power of Unplugging

Every time I travel, especially without my family, I get anxiety.  This is even more true if I’m going off into the woods and I will have no way to know if something happens back home. Sure, there are people who are constantly looking for cell service in the mountains, but I typically shut off my phone when I go in and save the battery for an emergency.  

The first day, I’m a nervous wreck thinking about all the things that couldgo wrong in my absence.  This is partly me and my own anxieties and it’s also partly the world that has taught me to be attached to my damn phone.  As a salesman, my phone is rarely out of reach, and even though that is out of necessity, rather than desire, it has become the new norm and it’s difficult to separate myself from it sometimes.  However, by Day Two, I’m a new man.

Beginning at Day Two, I don’t even remember I have a phone.  Of course, I think about my wife and daughter often, but I know they’re okay and I know my wife can handle any situation that might come up in my absence.  The truth is, there’s too much going on in my immediate situation to think about the trivial things that go on in the world.  Sure, there are serious things going on in the world, poverty, war, etc. but that’s not what most of us are inundated with on a day to day basis; we ignore those things mostly because they’re difficult to think about.  As I write this, outdoors people are arguing over whether or not to buy Yeti products.  I don’t see anything wrong with either the NRA or Yeti, they’re both organizations made up of people with good intentions who sometimes make mistakes. Take a side or don’t, but is something of that sort really worth getting upset about?  I don’t think so.

While we obsess about such nonsense on a day to day basis, when you’re hiking, hunting, fishing, etc., you have real concerns to occupy your brain; the weather, predators, finding game or fish, and perhaps just navigation and not rolling your ankle in a scree field.  Focusing on these immediate issues allows our brains to put the bullshit of civilization away for a while.  No longer are we concerned about pleasing our boss or what our neighbors think of us – they cannot see what we’re up to.  The media, social media, the political conversations at the water cooler are all distant memories for a few days.  

At the very least wilderness is escapism, no different than a comedic movie or a concert or any other form of entertainment.  The wilderness, if you pay attention, is endlessly entertaining. However, I think it’s so much more than that.  Unplugging from the world gives you the time to think about the important stuff in your life uninterrupted.  Maybe you’re struggling in some area (most of us are struggling with something at any given time, no matter how “together” we may have it) and getting away from the noise allows you to meditate or pray on your marriage, your career, your parenting or some other issue.  In the world there is always someone telling you what you should do, but in the wilderness, you get to figure out what is best for you.  That can be daunting, many people prefer to let others make their decisions for them, therefore they have no responsibility or blame if things fail, but that is not a way to live life if you ask me.  Sure, it’s good to seek advice, you’ll already have that in your head when you’re out there and that’s part of the evidence you can examine when making a decision.  However, there’s a greater sense of accomplishment if you solve your own problems.  

If you’re prepared, the wilderness provides all that you need to push the reset button, no matter who you are and what kinds of things you need to do it.  Need action? Go hunting, fishing, climbing, etc. Need peace and quiet?  Sit beside a river under a tree.  Need comfort?  Boil up some tea and sit beside the campfire.  Humans have been going to the wilderness for solace and answers ever since we became civilized enough to separate wilderness from civilization. Wilderness is a part of who we are and I believe if we accept that, it will make us better people and therefore better to each other.

Baiting: Fair Chase? Ethical? What is baiting?

This topic is one that can be broken down into three questions and answers, each one getting more complex and more complicated.

1.     Is baiting fair chase?  No.

2.     Is baiting ethical?  Maybe, sometimes.

3.     What is baiting?  Well… we’ll attempt to define that shortly.

There is nothing about baiting that is “chase”, forget the “fair” part.  Dumping a bunch of corn or carrots underneath your tree stand so you can sit your lazy ass in one spot and let them come to you isn’t hunting, it’s just killing.  A situation such as this one is pretty clear, but beyond this, things get muddy.

Baiting might be ethical in certain situations, but those situations I wouldn’t call “hunting”.  If you are looking for a nuisance animal or it’s a culling situation in an urban or suburban environment, it is better for all parties involved for the animal(s) to come to a safe spot, rather than some guy with a bow creeping through backyards in search of said animal.  Whether we call this hunting or pest control or something else we can debate at another time, but if it’s not hunting, then fair chase goes out of the equation.

Now, as to the question, “what is baiting?”, well, different people have different ideas about that.  The example I gave above is an easy one, but some people believe the following are all baiting:

·     Sitting on a cornfield

·     Habitat improvement for the express purpose of bigger deer

·     Sitting on a watering hole

Many of these examples are unique to certain animals and locations.  If you’re hunting elk in Colorado you might sit on a watering hole, but there is no cornfield to sit and you’re most likely on public land, so you’re not improving the habitat.  My best attempt at defining “baiting” would look something like, the placement of attractants with the explicit intent of bringing game animals to a certain place for immediate or short-term harvest.  

I think most hunters would agree sitting over a watering hole is just smart hunting.  Not every watering hole gets used, so you’re looking for sign, and if your method of hunting is still hunting, I can’t think of too many better places to sit than over a watering hole.  As for the cornfield scenario, I think it could go either way.  If you’re sitting on a cornfield that is for the explicit purpose of agriculture and you’re taking advantage of the deer pursuing the few pieces of corn not picked up at harvest, I think again, you’re hunting a natural food source and that’s smart hunting.  However, if you or the landowner, purposely don’t harvest all the corn for commercial or agricultural reasons, but rather leave some to attract deer, then yes, I think that fits my definition of baiting.

Habitat improvement is something I think all hunters and conservations should pursue.  Will helping the herd help your hunting?  Sure, it will.  However, your intention in this is to produce habitat to support the herd all year long and well into the future and not just to lure a big buck near your tree stand. Habitat improvement is something we all should care about for the long-term health of our herds and all the other animals, game or not, that live alongside the game animals we are chasing. 

Having grown up in Indiana and having hunted white tail deer in Indiana, Michigan and Kentucky, I understand the complications of this issue. My friend’s dad’s property that I hunted in Kentucky was a small piece of land with a small vineyard on it.  The vineyard attracted turkeys and deer to the property (though the grapes were long gone by deer firearm season).  Considering the relatively small range of a white tail, was I baiting?  I’d say no because the grapes were long gone by late November.  However, being a small property, I had no idea what the neighbors were doing.  Did they have bird feeders that were attracting deer to the neighborhood?  And if so, was I hunting over bait?  I would say the answers are “no” and “no” because in two seasons hunting out there I didn’t see one damn deer and if the neighbors did have some attractant out, I had no knowledge of it.  You can only control what you can control and that is the essence of this question.

I think this all boils down to whether you are manipulating nature to affect your hunt.  Yes, we use technology to improve our odds, which we have since we started hunting millions of years ago and which without, our species would look very different today. With all of that technology is it really necessary to bait?  Shouldn’t the hunt be about the pursuit and the time in the woods?  If you just want to walk a few hundred yards to a tree stand and sit in it for 90 minutes to kill something for food, why don’t you just drive five miles to the grocery store and buy a steak?  Where is the passion?  Where is the participation in the natural world?  

I think there are a few black and white truths in this world, but baiting, like almost all questions of morality and ethics, is made up of a lot of gray. There are only two limitations on you as a hunter: state and federal wildlife laws and your conscience.  The first one you have to answer to your fellow hunters and citizens on.  The second, you only have to answer to yourself, your community and your creator. All I hope is that hunters take the time to consider the second as much or more than they take to consider the first.

“A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than by a mob of onlookers. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this fact.”
– Aldo Leopold

Thoughts from Boise – Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Rendezvous 2018

Every time I am in the woods I am reborn.  Cleansed by campfire smoke and baptized by the rivers and streams. Heaven is America’s wild places and I’m never turned away at her Pearly Gates.  

There is a deep spiritual difference between watching nature through the lens of a camera and watching it from between the pins of your bow or through your rifle scope.  It’s the difference between watching your kids play and playing with your kids.  It’s about participation.  It’s about being engaged.  It’s about being present.

All those who criticize do so because they don’t understand.  Those who say, “you think that makes you a tough guy?” don’t understand the vulnerability it takes to emotionally lay yourself bare to nature, to failure, to rejection and to the cold and frustration.  They don’t understand the internal conversation you have when you decide to take a life, that the life you take is so you and your family can live.  People like simple feelings, but hunting is a complicated mix of responsibility, sadness, thankfulness, appreciation, frustration, joy, calm, peace, relief and more frustration.  

That having been said, it takes a certain fortitude to endure the elements, gain the skills to succeed, get blood on your hands and turn all of that into food. However, I don’t view that as some machismo based in insecurity, I see it as becoming fully human and not being afraid to fully engage in the natural world.  I choose not to delegate the dirty work in life to others.  I don’t see that as being “tough” or “manly”, I see that acquiring basic human skills, skills that are quickly disappearing from our species.

The modern world is supposed to be connecting us, but is it?  We’re quicker to judge, quicker to hate others different than us and quicker to hole up in our bubbles.  Whereas the natural world, when you engage it, connects you to all of creation including other humans.  When I return from the woods, I’m less concerned with the worries of the day, such as politics, money, etc. and more concerned with the overall well-being of my fellow man and our world.  Things become clearer, priorities readjust themselves to their proper places and what was dark all of a sudden has a beam of light in the distance.

In short, time in the woods makes me a better man, a man searching for meaning and a man who carries a little peace in my heart.  As the time in between my trips to the wild grows longer I become more of a man of the modern world; angry and empty.  The time in the woods calms me and fills me to the brim with goodness.  

Nature as Healer

 

In the introduction to Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash states, “…civilization created wilderness. For nomadic hunters and gatherers, who represented our species for most of its existence, ‘wilderness’ had no meaning.” He later discusses how as soon as we as a species separated civilization from wilderness, we romanticized and sought out the wilderness for our spiritual needs. The wilderness was a place where Biblical figures went to talk to God or have an epiphany. Thousands of years later, many of us still desire to escape civilization to recharge, mull over a tough situation or heal ourselves emotionally and spiritually. Just think of Cheryl Strayed and Wild. Obviously now, “wilderness” doesn’t just have meaning, it is where we go to find meaning.

I am certainly no exception to this human trait. Even just a walk outside amongst the trees, prairie dogs and mallards in my neighborhood can significantly change my mood. The bigger the issue, the deeper into the woods I need to go. As I write this, I am preparing for my fourth attempt at my first solo overnight trip (first three I had to turn around for various reasons, more on that in another post). We recently moved to Colorado and only six weeks in, I quit my new job. It was the absolute right thing to do and it allows me to focus on what I want to be doing, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared shitless. So, I’m going into the wilderness to clear my head, get my mind right and in the process, face my fears. Because make no mistake, though I have spent many, many nights out in the woods, doing it by myself for the first time is going to be a little bit scary. However, everything is going to be fine and when you conquer one fear, it gives you the confidence that you can conquer others as well. 

You don’t have to go into the woods alone to have this experience. I take two trips every year with old friends and it just so happened that in 2017, both of these guys got married. Jeff and I went to the Wind River Range in Wyoming and had a great week-long trip where we mixed backpacking and car camping all across the Northern Rockies. Jeremy and I went to Alaska as usual and spent four days northwest of Fairbanks in the bush and also in a cabin near some hot springs. While I enjoy the trips I take with these fellas every year, last year’s trips were special.  We had lots of heart-to-heart talks about serious topics such as marriage, family and work. We had lots of laughs, both at situations and ourselves. We also had long periods of silence where we worked through our own thoughts. Though perhaps some of the obstacles we overcame provided the most amount of personal growth, whether that was roping up and crossing ice cold rivers, holding each other’s life in our hands or simply me walking eleven miles with fifty pounds on my back, feet bleeding, and deciding not to complain about it. 

Ultimately, whether alone or with a loved one, time in the wild, if you’re open to it, will improve you. Maybe you need a little peace and quiet to deal with a tough situation or maybe you need to challenge yourself in some way because you feel hindered in your everyday life. For whatever reason, until you cut the cord with the civilized world for at least a short time, you’ll never know what you’re capable of. The world is there to fill us with information and noise. In order to know what you have to give to the world, you have to take the time to dig down deep inside yourself.  Wilderness has been there for us since the dawn of civilization and it’s still there for us now if we need it. 

My Story

I did not grow up hunting or fishing, though I have always loved the outdoors.  I did not have a father, grandfather or uncle who were hunters even though we lived in a rural area.  I came to hunting on my own in my 20s (and am only now coming to fishing in my 30s) through several unconventional ways.  I believe that part of it was living in urban metropolises and seeing some people’s negative views of rural people and their practices, it was beginning to care where my food came from and it was, perhaps most importantly, just getting to know myself for who I really am.

 

As a boy, I loved being outdoors and I had a BB gun, though that was the only gun that was in our house.  I liked the idea of hunting and fishing even back then.  I remember seeing A River Runs Through It when it came out and ever since then I’ve had a desire to learn to fly fish and go to Montana.  The books and movies stuck with me and I was always drawn to the Mountain West, it just took me a long time to get here.

 

Living in Chicago from 2004-2009 really hardened me in a lot of ways and forced me to figure out who I really was.  All these people were talking about “organic”, “sustainable” and all the other buzz words but when I’d bring up hunting, many people would become disgusted with me.  It never made sense: deer who lived for 2-5 years, free range, organically, hormone free who were then humanely killed seemed to be a lot better off than some farm raised animal (not that I have an issue with ethically raised domestic animals).  What irritated me more was sharing a meal with these folks and seeing them not eat all their food, especially the meat.  They put up a good fight about humanely treating animals and then they wasted their meat.  Almost unforgivable to me.  I know I’m weird, but when I eat, I eat my meat first and I finish it before moving on to my vegetables.  I try not to waste any food, but if I do, it’s not meat.  That animal’s sacrifice so that my family can eat is sacred whether it was harvested from the field or from a farm.

 

My defense of rural people and practices and my concern about where my food came from slowly evolved over time to something deeper.  As I went small game hunting with friends and hunted for whitetail in Indiana and Kentucky and went on multiple backpacking trips out west and in Alaska, I started to feel more connected to nature.  We humans like to toe the line between being above nature and then feeling guilty about thinking we’re above nature.  When you insert yourself into a role that has been played by man for thousands and thousands of years, you open yourself up to being connected to something greater than yourself.  You feel connected to the natural world – and we should – we are animals and a part of nature even if we happen to be the species that has the greatest impact on all other species. 

 

At this point I’m borderline obsessed.  If I’m not able to be in the wild, I’m reading about animals, habitat and conservation, writing about it, watching hunting shows online, listening to audiobooks or podcasts or at the very least thinking about it every minute I’m awake almost.  If it’s a good night, I even dream about it. 

 

My goal here is to simply try and reach other folks who feel like I do and find common ground with folks who don’t understand where we’re coming from.  Not everyone needs to be a hunter, but I am concerned about the future of conservation and wildlife and I am concerned about a lot of people who seem to be very unhappy with the postmodern world.  I think at least a few of them could find peace in the woods like I did.  If I can help introduce people to that joy and peace, then that will make me very happy.