After my 13-year-old daughter pulled the trigger and sent a bullet that dropped a deer in the broken landscape that is the Badlands, she turned to me, the butt of her rifle still buried in her shoulder. Her face was flush with the understanding of something both tragic and momentous, but it was also full of question. I could see her struggle to find meaning in what she had done, meaning beyond simply killing for food, or stalking for sport, or acting out some atavistic narrative, the same one played out on savannahs incomprehensibly long ago.
“Dad, did I just kill a deer?” It was a question that will for her only beget more of them, and it carried the freight of everything she and I had done together as father and daughter to get her there. I knew finally that in teaching her to hunt, I had begun to practice what my good friend, Colin O’Neill, calls “the gentle art of letting our children go.”
I taught myself how to hunt animals after my father taught me how to hunt birds. It started when he put a gun in my hands. We drove upstate. I was wearing his old coat. The pockets were littered with copper pine needles and feathers. I loved the smell of it, and of the oil still on my fingers from the guns we had just sheathed. Even the dog, then more of a pest to a young boy than a charged tool of the hunt, smelled wonderful. I remembered thinking rarely had she smelled so.
By the end of the day, I had killed a woodcock. In doing so, I had experienced something unlike anything I had yet to know. I felt as if I had no right to, and of course, every right to. I did not realize it then, but like my daughter some 40 years later, I had been initiated into a world of obligation, but also of question and quandary. A world that’s like, well, life.
We are told ad infinitum of the blight that is our children’s experience—video games and social media. Get thee outside, we implore them, and what better way than to take them hunting? This is what we, at least those of us who are like-minded, read in the sporting magazines; read on this website. The advice is solid, infallible even. There is no shortage of experts opining on the value of time outdoors. But, even though I frown upon the time my daughter spends on frivolity, and indoors, this was not the overarching reason I taught her to hunt. No, I put a gun in her hands and began the instruction that brought her to a friend’s ranch in eastern Montana because I had been fumbling as a father.
I had some ideas on how to teach her the ways of a cruel, cruel world, but the grand lessons, those that when learned become the signposts that lead us though the bumpy passages, away from the sheer drops and indomitable, craggy peaks, seemed muddled and ill-considered by my example. Teaching my daughter to hunt was as much an antidote to the parental quandaries of her father as it was a tool to helping prepare her for the life ahead. The lessons and pitfalls of that life, and with them all their attendant contradictions, are limned in the stark relief of the mountains, of the hills and forests. It is by entering nature with a gun, or a bow, that we are taught about life and death, personal responsibility and ethics, humility, ordeal, triumph, and failure. Especially failure.
Certainly there are other pursuits that deliver our kids into some understanding of the world, prepare them for it, but can they do so with the gravity—that utter seriousness—that comes with hunting? There is, of course, a stark difference. Hunting has, as its end game, a death. Can running track or playing hockey inspire the same commitment to the lesson?
Hunting is about so much more than the appreciation of nature. It is about more than putting food on your plate. It is that, yes, very much so, but it is also the apparatus that asks us to recognize our place in the world, our role as its caretaker, and as a participant in humanity. In the far-flung, but the backyard too, among the beasts we choose to admire, observe and, yes, kill, there is much to be taught and learned. There is something beyond what is taught in the classroom, or the household, that can only be gleaned in the course of living, and especially living outside.
Ortega y Gasset called the experience of hunting religious. We are participants in the discord that is life, and with it, all its contradictions. When we hunt, we willingly swim in those contradictions. We are participating in an ancient ritual, something that gives rise to the spiritual and calls upon our past. We are paying respect to the laws of nature. I would add that we become more human, for the laws of nature lead to the laws of men.
We are parents, neighbors, and citizens. There is a code that binds us, that keeps us from sinking into incivility, but it’s not always distinct. That code wasn’t written indelibly. The ink smears, it fades. When I find myself unable to articulate any answers to the moral dilemmas, to the difficult choices that vex my daughter, I am comforted by the knowledge that I exposed her to hunting. There aren’t any truly right answers, only degrees of right. Certainly there is a more right way to living justly or morally, and to tackling life’s mysteries. Understanding our place in the big process that is hunting, and with that, what the poet, James Dickey, called “the uneasy lyrical skin that lies/Between death and life, trembling always….” Musing over the disconnect we have with our earlier selves, perhaps endeavoring to recapture some of it, and simply asking ourselves the difficult questions, these are the places to start in the search for that proper measurement of rightness.
Parenting is the gentle art of letting go. Colin’s advice is always with me. In the end, our children will be free of us, this is certain, but freedom comes with consequences. The wrong choices bring with them retribution, the right choices, satisfaction. That satisfaction, that feeling that comes with having led an authentic, moral, and civil life is the reward. But, we are shown the way. We learn how to arrive there, and some lessons are just better than others. This is why I taught my daughter to hunt.
As an antidote to living in the suburbs and working in New York City in finance, Michael Luders spends as much time as he can in the wilderness hunting, canoeing, and writing. He has just completed his first novel, In Tooth and Claw.