Reba McEntire had her eye on a woodcock. Named after the famous country singer with curly red hair, the little hunting dog pointed her snout, trembling, and inched closer to her prey, then closer. Her owner George Darey stopped walking and aimed his shotgun toward the treetops. “Good girl,” he whispered nearby. I waited for the blast, the blood.
A woodcock is also known as a timberdoodle, or a bogsucker, or a brush snipe. What amusing names, I thought at the time. My field guide had described a stocky, long-billed bird with a short neck and squatty legs—the inland cousin of the coastal sandpiper. Its plumage would match the drab pattern on the ground surrounding our dew-soaked boots. I scanned the terrain ahead of Reba and saw nothing but fallen leaves—the hues of brown, pale gray, and rust the perfect camouflage for mid-autumn.
Darey gave his Brittany spaniel time to do her job; he wouldn’t fire at a bird he flushed himself. A fellow hunter coiled several yards away, and I stood back, covering my ears. “Good girl,” Darey said again. I cringed, staring at his trigger.
Watching Darey, I thought about another man, the nature writer and anthropologist Richard Nelson, who’d studied the Koyukon people in Alaska, pursuing deer and other game alongside them. The Koyukon believe an animal will give itself, Nelson writes, once its hunter has a long history of respecting it. It’s called luck, not skill, when the hunt is successful, which made me wonder, Are we about to get lucky?
The leaves stirred and rattled and parted, and a wild flapping exploded upward and away. A tiny dark body trailed across the sun—a blur of wing beats and shrill chatter. But neither hunter took aim, let alone fired a shot, through the dense tangle of skeletal limbs. It all happened so fast that neither could position himself, nor ensure each other’s safety, nor mine. Crouching at trailside, I had the perfect angle for a photo but my fingers plugged my eardrums instead. Darey shook his head when he saw me wincing there, the reporter afraid of his own story.
“Sorry,” I said. “I thought we had him.”
I went on that embarrassing hunting trip in late October 1996, when I was 27 years old, a year out of graduate school, studying wildlife ecology and environmental education. At the time I was living with a girlfriend in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a small, steeple-dotted town in the southwestern corner of the state. We’d settled there after working in New York on the nearby Hudson River, teaching on an historic sailboat from Albany, West Point, and Yonkers to the Twin Towers on the tip of Manhattan. And while she’d found a new administrative job at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and School, I took a stab at freelance journalism with a pocket notebook and a point-and-shoot camera. Writing about hunting was one of my first assignments for the lifestyle section in the Berkshire Eagle, after the editor had handed me Darey’s phone number scribbled in red ink on a slip of yellow paper.
George “Gige” Darey was a lifelong resident of Berkshire County and the chair of the state’s Fisheries and Wildlife Board. “But more importantly,” the editor said, “he’s one of the best sportsmen in Massachusetts.” My job was to depict Darey positively in 1,200 words or so, to make hunters and hunting look good for the sake of local tourism. But even though I acted professionally accepting the assignment that afternoon, I walked away feeling conflicted: the death of animals had always turned my stomach.
And hunting? Well, I’d always feared it, feared the guns, feared their noise.
Sure enough, as I crouched behind Darey, his shotgun poised skyward, a childhood memory welled up inside me as I flinched, waiting for the blast. I hadn’t shot an animal myself for nearly 20 years, since I was a boy on my father’s heels near his birthplace in southern Kentucky. In hardwoods much like the Berkshires, we pegged squirrels with a .22 rifle, its shot echoing like a firecracker as a bushy tail fluttered to the ground. I remember picking up a squirrel I’d killed, its body limp but still warm and delicate, how its blood smeared across my fingertips, how Dad said we’d skin it bottom-up. I cried about what I’d done, and I couldn’t stand the thought of eating it. As much as I’d study nature one day, my heart was schooled right then.
“You don’t have to become a hunter,” Dad said, “but you need to see things like this.” I looked closely as he instructed, but did we see the same thing?
Why am I so emotional about animals, whether or not guns are involved? It’s not that I killed things cruelly as a kid and now have nightmares about my deeds. On the contrary, I’ve always been drawn to other creatures—pets, wildlife, anything in between—and even as a young boy I knew that everything dies, often painfully, often tragically. I suppose that’s what haunts me—the way animals act or look as they perish—and I suppose there’s a question we all need to ask: do we die a little, too, when something passes?
Maybe it’s because my first memories of animals lie close to those of my family. It started with a rooster my father killed, though I don’t remember watching him do it. Apparently, during one of my first visits to Kentucky, when my great-grandparents lived on a farm, I stepped out of our car and ambled toward the chickens, saying, “Here, doggie, doggie. Here, doggie, doggie.” One of the cocks reared up, squawking madly, its downy feathers flying, and soon I was screaming bloody murder, running with my hands on my face. Today, I still have a scar on my cheek where the rooster hacked head-high with its spurs, and I can only imagine how Dad killed the bird, kicking and kicking and kicking it. Down a hill, my mom says.
Then there’s our black poodle, Crybaby, whom we buried near our house in Indiana, though again it’s only what my family talks about, not something I witnessed firsthand. Still, that tale hangs over me, if not in memory than formatively as myth. Is that enough to shape a kid’s heart, to make death as familiar as kin?
But there are other animals I do recall, including Ginger, our rambunctious Irish setter. A deep-voiced man who lived two houses down shot her for crossing his lawn. I recall, as well, our many outdoor cats, most killed by passing cars. I remember Toes in particular for his unusual paws resembling catcher’s mitts, wide and soft. One day he followed me down the driveway as I walked out to catch the school bus, then he darted headlong into the road, spooked by the hydraulic brakes—a screeching I’ll never forget. In tears, I told the driver to wait as I dragged Toes by his tail. He lay on the pavement with shiny eyes, mouth agape, tongue bleeding. I buried him when I got home from school, not far from Crybaby’s gravesite.
Farther from our house in Indianapolis, dozens of animals stand out—from a frog I crushed accidentally to a turtle that swallowed my fishing hook. And once, biking along a cornfield, I heard the gurgled meowing of a hidden cat, and when I said, “Kitty, kitty, kitty,” out it came missing half its neck. As I stared at the pus-filled cavity, the exposed muscles buzzing with gnats, the purring, orange, emaciated creature rubbed back and forth across my legs. I rode away feeling ashamed. The cat chased me, meowing louder.
Like much in my memory, though, our trips to Kentucky stand out, as if the hot, humid, wilder South was a Noah’s Ark for my imagination. Dad once took me to a pig slaughter, complete with snorts and squeals and sausage grinders. I was only six or seven at the time, peering up at the flatbed trailers—hog heads on one, dripping innards and hindquarters on others. I remember walking toward a simmering kettle, its steam pungent and oily with lard, and then bending down to pick up an object: the two-holed pad of a pig’s nostrils. No blood, just squishy, like a mushroom cap or a piece of leather.
Yet if I had to pick only one Kentucky moment that left a lifelong impression, it’d be the day my father used a gun after we’d hit a dog near his family’s land. It was a neighbor’s long-legged hound, a calm creature away from machines. Earlier that day I’d stroked its ears, its tail wagging against my waist. I remember the clunk on the fender of our slow-moving Chevy Impala, and how the harmless barking turned into yelps of pain, the sound trailing behind us in the dust as Dad swore, looking over his shoulder. I saw the dog struggling to stand up as Dad told my brother and me to stay put, and he walked back down the gravel road 25 or 30 feet. We watched him through the rear window as an elderly man approached slowly, both of them kneeling to comfort the animal, appearing to say little to each other. In time the old man in coveralls walked back to his house nearby, only to return holding a silver pistol and visibly upset. When he handed the gun to my father, my brother and I knew what was next. The fiery blast made us jump with fright. The dog’s body fell flat.
Years later, when I was in the Berkshires, Darey loaded Reba into his pickup truck parked at roadside, the cab smelling of gun oil and a wet but much-loved dog. As I wrote in my notebook, he began telling stories about the uses for the animals he killed, pointing to a fly-fishing lure pinned to a cap sitting on his newspaper-covered dash. Elegant and iridescent, the lure’s deep-green feathers once colored a wood duck’s head, but now, tied around a hook, they resembled the wings of a mayfly—“a trout’s favorite meal,” Darey said.
I realized then he was like my father—Darey felt close to animals even as he killed them—and he ate local game with a clear conscience as my soy products crossed thousands of miles. Which is better, I wondered, and for whom? Vegetarians aren’t guilt-free. Whatever judgment I’d felt early on began to fade as we drove toward home. Darey had integrity, skills beyond my years, plenty of good qualities to write about. To finish my article, I found a quote by Richard Nelson that Darey could’ve told me himself: “We’ve forgotten our connection to the natural world in part because we have delegated the responsibilities of killing our food to someone else.” To help explain why hunters hunt, how a gun could offer more than death, I centered my article on that idea: self-sufficiency in one’s home ground.
But now, as I write this in my forties, that lifestyle piece seems fake. Back then I was trying to fit in locally, trying to be a man, embracing hunting. If I couldn’t fire a gun, I figured, the least I could do was write about it. I could champion killing to put food on the table, though my own meals passed through time zones—veggie burgers from Ohio, bean burritos from California. Yet I don’t so much feel like a hypocrite as I do a sentimental bleeding heart. If there’s any reason I’m an environmentalist, it’s due to my memories of animals, how they bent and broke and suffered, how they faded, how they perished.
The irony is I’m still surrounded by hunting. Today I live in Wisconsin and teach environmental studies to college kids, many of them sportsmen and women skilled with a rifle in their hands. They come from small towns and swelling suburbs, and quite a few have family cabins, some rustic spot beside a cerulean lake or deep in the woods among wildlife. And as with Darey and my father long ago, hunting comes naturally for most of them. They talk of tree stands and bag limits and the season’s first kill as casually as they talk about their social lives.
How do I know? They write about it, and they do so with passion and purpose. Each week they turn in a short essay about a course topic or outdoor experience, and often their pens turn to hunting. But in truth, more than talking about killing, they write about sitting in the woods, how it feels to slow down and pay attention to animals—deer, squirrels, birds. I envy them, to be honest, for what they already seem to know, that death is indeed like kin, intimate and unconditional. The blood doesn’t seem to scare them the way it does with me, and many days, I’m sure, they think of me as Darey did—a tree hugger, wincing and soft.
On top of that, I am married to one.
More than a decade ago, I met Paula, a park ranger, and we lived out West for many years. Only recently did we move to La Crosse for her job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Come fall, one of her duties is conducting bag checks of waterfowl hunters, and among many of the migrating species, wood ducks are often shot, sometimes hundreds in a single day. Paula comes home exhausted from the counting, a dark humor keeping her afloat. “If it flies, it dies,” she might say, shaking her head, recalling all the bodies. And every time she tells such a story, I think about holding that squirrel. I think about my students and their hunting essays, how they feel close to animals, how they kill them.
Of course, my wife is a lot like me—an environmentalist, an animal lover—and she especially enjoys watching birds, including woodcocks and wood ducks. E.O. Wilson calls it biophilia, an “inborn affinity” for other life forms, but he also believes people can cherish animals yet still hunt them, still kill them. One way or the other, he reminds us, we all play a part in the killing, if not directly taking a creature’s life, then destroying its habitat to build our homes. Or our cities, our highways, our shopping malls—things we rely on every day.
Wilson’s idea, however, doesn’t adequately explain how I feel. After all, the way I love animals is akin to loving the word’s meaning: from the Latin root anima for “breath, soul, life force.” I know I witnessed exactly that when my father shot that old man’s dog, how it gasped and writhed and fell in the dust, then lay lifeless beneath a wisp of gun smoke. “A mercy killing,” Dad called it as he shut the car door and drove on, and I’m sure he actually felt that way, though all I felt was regret. Regret for the gun, the road, the things of man. Regret like a sadness I can’t seem to shake.
Or maybe what I feel on most days is the Japanese mono no aware—“a sensitivity to things”—a wistful view of beauty that began centuries ago in the country’s poetry, literature, and artwork. It’s the wash of melancholy we experience when observing the transience of life. For instance, Japan’s cherry blossoms, moments before the pink petals fall. Today, I feel it beneath October’s frail leaves, a sky laced with migrants headed south. Like Reba, I’ve got my eye on something, something fleeting, something impermanent. Pets, wildlife, even my father now—all of them long gone.
Last night I took out my notebook again, this time along the Mississippi. Before sunset, Paula and I crossed the river and drove south beneath Minnesota’s bluffs. Near Iowa we walked across a shallow dam, where the impoundment creates a lovely marsh; this time of year, the wild rice beds are waning but still thick enough to shelter wood ducks. During the day, the birds take cover in the floodplain forest downstream of the dam, gorging on the acorns of swamp white oaks, fueling up to continue their migration. The males have a showy crest, bright red eyes, and an orange, black-tipped bill. Imagine dark green in its most lustrous hue and you’ll have a sense of the animal’s head. Though camouflaged in mostly brown and gray, the females are equally beautiful, their feathers like leaves layered beyond count on a forest floor at the end of autumn.
Both the males and females are smaller than mallards, and instead of quacking, they seem to squeak—like an infant’s toy, rubbery and soft, high-pitched, charming, adorable. Is it too sentimental to say that? After all, I’ve only heard a wood duck as it scurried for its life in flight. At dusk we listened to thousands of the birds as they hurried from the trees to the marsh. The sky was full of song above our heads, but what kind of song, and who else listens?
“Try this,” Paula said, cupping her ears to amplify the sound. “You’ve got deer’s ears,” she smiled, both us of looking silly.
I recalled a circle of kids doing the same thing at a YMCA camp, when I was a counselor just out of college—my first job in environmental education. Was that really two decades ago? Are we that old, this fast?
So much has happened in the past year, our lives racing by like those birds. My grandmother teeters on the edge of a precipice with dementia and the ailments of old age. And Paula’s brother recently lost his wife, who had a heart attack at only 47. Though surviving at first, she suffered brain damage, and within weeks her anima slipped away. We’ve all been struggling, heart-heavy. We’re searching for answers. We’re afraid.
But standing along the levee last night, Paula and I kept our hands up, listening. Come dawn, we knew, there’d be a dozen hunters, their shotguns poised skyward. A lot of birds were bound to perish, though neither of us felt anxious or sad. We weren’t overwhelmed by troubling questions. Wood ducks are stealthy. Most survive. Still, that notion seeped into my mind about what happens when blood is spilled, and we talked about our family and the animals we love, our voices misting in the pale light. In time I took out my notebook and scribbled a line or two beneath my headlamp. I thought of Reba inching toward the inevitable. “Good girl,” Darey said. “Good girl.”