"How long he stood he did not know, but there was a foolish and yet delicious sense of knowing himself as an animal come from the forest, drawn by the fire. He was a thing of brush and liquid eye, of fur and muzzle and hoof, he was a thing of horn and blood that would smell like autumn if you bled it out on the ground. He stood a long long time, listening to the warm crackel of the flames." - Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
When I go hunting on Sunday mornings, I almost always leave the house feeling like I’ve forgotten something.
Do I have my vet box, my digging bar, my old canvas pack, two gallons of distilled water, both locator collars and at lease 6 button batteries?
Do I have the camera and the cell phone, my wallet and my hat? What about an extra shirt in case I need to look presentable for a stop on the way home?
I feel rushed and jangled going down the driveway, but it soon eases off. There is never any traffic on Sunday morning, and by the time I take a turn at the river, the radio is on 88.5, and I am listening to the soothing and familiar voice of Red Shipley, host of the “Stained Glass Bluegrass”
Gospel bluegrass music is about as close to a conventional church as I get. The message in the music is both simple and austere: Life is hard; Try to live life right; In the end you are going to die. Two solid facts and a small bit of good advice covers a lot of ground.
In winter my trips start in the dark and the dawn creeps up as I head into Maryland. This is my quiet time for the week, and I make the most of it.
In spring, as it is now, early morning fog will often roll in, giving the land a truly pagan feeling.
Though I like bluegrass gospel, I am not sure I am a Christian. I have spent too much time in the woods to not believe in evolution, and I have spent too much time reading the Bible not to notice that the Old Testament and the New Testament have different messages and a God who is, by turns, jealous, vindictive, petty, passive- aggressive and schizophrenic.
That said, I believe in the essential message of the New Testament, which is Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. I have not invented my own moral code.
The dogs are not Christian. Christians are preoccupied with the promise of an afterlife, while the dogs do not give it a moment’s thought. The dogs are Zen Buddhists, always living in the eternal NOW, fully cognizant that all is connected, and that much of life is unseen (if not unscented or unheard).
As I pull off the road onto the edge of the field I am going to hunt, I feel a little bit paranoid. Sunday hunting is illegal in both Virginia and Maryland, and though there is an exception for groundhog it still feels subversive. It does not matter that I am fully licensed in both states; I am always glad to get away from the car and into the privacy of the nearest thicket. Here the dogs and I tumble backwards, slipping through a rift in time to our antediluvian roots.
The dogs may look like two small white terriers, but they are genetically indistinguishable from wolves.
I may look like a balding, middle-aged white guy, but I am genetically indistinguishable from those who first knapped flint 20,000 years ago.
The dogs and I are the most primitive of hunters.
Humans and wolves have hunted this stretch of ground for millennia, both together and apart. Hunting is deeply encoded in our genes and, as improbable as it sounds, that code explodes within us just a few yards into the forest. Already we are thinking differently.
Hunting is not about killing. Humans and dogs hunt for water, for shelter, and for mates. We hunt for berries and warm weather, and a soft spot on which to rest from our labors. We hunt even when nothing dies.
Hunting, is the business of seeing connections, and from those connections being able to tease out higher and lower probabilities. A hunter understands succession and season, knows where to dig a water-well by looking at the plants, and knows where to find large game by looking at small signs.
In truth, the dogs and I are not very good hunters. On the up side, we are getting better. As bad as I am at my job, the dogs are good enough at theirs that we rarely have a blank day in the field.
Every time we go out, the dogs learn a little more about me, and I learn a little more about them. Over time we get better as individuals, and we become better as a team.
I watch the dogs closely. To do so is to see the world through a new set of glasses. Mountain can sniff at a hole and know what animals have come and gone and who still remains. She reads the language of forest and field -–- language written in urine and musk on a writing tablet of earth and vine. Mountain speaks many more languages than I do.
In this regard, most dogs are smarter than their owners. A dog knows the difference between bullshit and horseshit, but most humans are too far removed from the connective tissues of real life to tell the difference.
Not all humans are so blind, of course. The Kalahari bushman that seemingly tracks an eland over solid rock extrapolates from a single hoof-drag in a narrow patch of sand. From that alone he knows which direction the eland is moving, and about how long since it has passed. The bushman knows the eland is not going to spend much time on rock where there is no food, shelter or water. No doubt it is headed to the thicket of a nearby streambed. And there he is sure to find it.
Modern humans are not as good as bushmen at tracking wild game. Not only do we not see tracks in the sand, we do not stop to think what they mean.
As it is in the forest, so it is the suburbs. In the modern world we tend to rush too fast, only seeing the vast spaces between big things and big events, nearly oblivious to the small but telling details in between.
For most people, most of the time, that works well enough. After all, we have maps and road signs to tell us where to go. We have newspapers and television commentators to tell us what to think. We do not have to hunt very hard to find our meat at the grocery store.
Out here in the hedge, however, it does not pay to rush too fast. The dogs watch me because they know I can see farther ahead than they can, and from experience they know that I have a pretty good sense of geography, drainage and cover.
On my end, I watch the dogs because I know they can smell things I cannot see. Slight changes in their posture telegraph that we are likely to find along the upper bank where the drainage is good and the soil is soft . And we do.
When all goes well, the dogs and I work as a trans-species pack. There is a natural fit here. Not only are dogs and humans predators, but we are both pack animals as well.
As a general rule, most dogs are only too happy to have humans lead the pack. Being pack leader is over-rated. Whether you are wolf, politician, or corporate executive, you are not likely to last long at the top. It is not an accident that men tend to die sooner than women.
Perhaps to obviate the stress of leadership, humans have developed written codes to follow. Most of these codes make a great deal of sense, but in truth some are complete nonsense.
In Reno Nevada, there are slot machines at the airport, but it is illegal for the volunteer fire department to run a bingo game to raise money.
In the U.K., it is illegal to hunt badger or disturb their dens in any way, but DEFRA – the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – has been systematically gassing thousands of healthy badgers every year for thirty years in order to control brucellosis by wiping out badgers over large areas.
In the area I am hunting today, it is illegal to hunt deer on Sunday, but there are so many deer doing so much damage to forest and farms that in season there is an unlimited take – no limits at all. Shoot 100 deer a day if you want, but for God’s sake don’t shoot one on Sunday.
The core laws for humanity, of course, do not cover things like hunting and are pretty simple and universal.
Truth be told, the Ten Commandments are really just five commandments (no murder, no adultery, no theft, no false witness, no coveting). The other five commandments are just religious branding -- a Judeo-Christian version of “You shall drink Coke and never Pepsi, you will never show the Pepsi logo, nor will you ever say anything disparaging about Coke or anything positive about Pepsi, nor will you ever drink any other type of soft drink other than Coke.”
Here’s a hint: branding is not about morality. Branding is about business.
The business side of every religion fears that the congregation may take its business elsewhere. Christians fear more than Muslims, Jews and and Bhuddists -- they also fear alcohol, dancing, commerce, and hunting -- to name just four items once banned under Sunday "blue laws”.
Eleven states – including Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania – still ban Sunday hunting.
One story says the ban on Sunday hunting was first implemented as a kind of conservation measure to prevent landowners from shooting out all their game.
In truth, the measure was more likely implemented to keep the church pews full.
In Victorian England, the problem was not just keeping the congregations in church, but the pastor too. Parson John Russell, after all, was not the hunting parson, but just one of many.
The Reverend John Froude had his own pack of foxhounds, for example, while the Reverend John Templer of Stowe hunted with a live monkey seated on the saddle in front of him. There were so many hunting parsons, in fact, that Anthony Trollope dedicated a whole chapter to them in Hunting Sketches (1865).
All of this is a sidecar to the day, of course. The weather is about perfect with a 10 mile breeze. The temperature in the shade is 65, and it's 75 in the sun.
Prowling the edge of the Monocacy River, the dogs and I startle a precocious turtle – a slider – who pushes off into the muddy current and then is gone. It is very early for turtles.
The dogs and I dig another groundhog on a steep hill, but the third groundhog of the days manages to wedge itself into a root fortress and I give it law and pack up the tools.
On the way back to the truck, I see my first butterfly of the season – a fritillary -- and the dogs bust a large pair of deer from a hedge. On the river near the truck, a young couple in a canoe shoots down the Monocacy. These are the first canoeists of the year -- Spring has sprung. In a week, the shad will begin running up the Potomac to spawn.
On the way home, Dick Spotswood is hosting his bluegrass show on WAMU, and he cues up a version of “That Old Time Religion.”
Perhaps this is the big thought of the day: My religion is an “old time religion”.
My religion predates Gideon's Bible, televangelists, collection plates, sectarian riffs, and the story of the resurrection of Jesus.
My God is not under new management.
In First Church of Field and Stream, the resurrection story is told by fritillary butterflies and red-eared sliding turtles. The story of life everlasting is told by a young couple on a river outting, and a pair of deer bouncing across a bright green field of emerging barley.
You do not have to read these stories in a book; At the First Church of Field and Stream you can see them for yourself.
Let us prey.