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Sierra Magazine

Why I Hunt

Stalking wild game in a rugged landscape brings one environmentalist closer to nature.

by Rick Bass

I was a hunter before I came far up into northwest Montana, but not to the degree I am now. It astounds me sometimes to step back, particularly at the end of autumn, the end of the hunting season, and take both mental and physical inventory of all that was hunted and all that was gathered from this life in the mountains. The woodshed groaning tight, full of firewood. The fruits and herbs and vegetables from the garden, canned or dried or frozen; the wild mushrooms, huckleberries, thimbleberries, and strawberries. And most precious of all, the flesh of the wild things that share with us these mountains and the plains to the east--the elk, the whitetail and mule deer; the ducks and geese, grouse and pheasant and Hungarian partridge and dove and chukar and wild turkey; the trout and whitefish. Each year the cumulative bounty seems unbelievable. What heaven is this into which we’ve fallen?

How my wife and I got to this valley--the Yaak--15 years ago is a mystery, a move that I’ve only recently come to accept as having been inevitable. We got in the truck one day feeling strangely restless in Mississippi, and we drove. What did I know? Only that I missed the West’s terrain of space. Young and healthy, and not coincidentally new-in-love, we hit that huge and rugged landscape in full stride. We drove north until we ran out of country--until the road ended, and we reached Canada’s thick blue woods--and then we turned west and traveled until we ran almost out of mountains: the backside of the Rockies, to the wet, west-slope rainforest.

We came over a little mountain pass--it was August and winter was already fast approaching--and looked down on the soft hills, the dense purples of the spruce and fir forests, the ivory crests of the ice-capped peaks, and the slender ribbons of gray thread rising from the chimneys of the few cabins nudged close to the winding river below, and we fell in love with the Yaak Valley and the hard-logged Kootenai National Forest--the way people in movies fall with each other, star and starlet, as if a trap door has been pulled out from beneath them: tumbling through the air, arms windmilling furiously, and suddenly no other world but each other, no other world but this one, and eyes for no one, or no place, else.

Right from the beginning, I could see that there was extraordinary bounty in this low-elevation forest, resting as it does in a magical seam between the Pacific Northwest and the northern Rockies. Some landscapes these days have been reduced to nothing but dandelions and fire ants, knapweed and thistle, where the only remaining wildlife are sparrows, squirrels, and starlings. In the blessed Yaak, however, not a single mammal has gone extinct since the end of the Ice Age. This forest sustains more types of hunters--carnivores--than any valley in North America. It is a predator’s showcase, home not just to wolves and grizzlies, but wolverines, lynx, bobcat, marten, fisher, black bear, mountain lion, golden eagle, bald eagle, coyote, fox, weasel. In the Yaak, everything is in motion, either seeking its quarry, or seeking to avoid becoming quarry.

The people who have chosen to live in this remote valley--few phones, very little electricity, and long, dark winters--possess a hardness and a dreaminess both. They--we--can live a life of deprivation, and yet are willing to enter the comfort of daydreams and imagination.There is something mysterious happening here between the landscape and the people, a thing that stimulates our imagination, and causes many of us to set off deep into the woods in search of the unknown, and sustenance--not just metaphorical or spiritual sustenance, but the real thing.

Only about 5 percent of the nation and 15 to 20 percent of Montanans are hunters. But in this one valley, almost everyone is a hunter. It is not the peer pressure of the local culture that recruits us into hunting, nor even necessarily the economic boon of a few hundred pounds of meat in a cash-poor society. Rather, it is the terrain itself, and one’s gradual integration into it, that summons the hunter. Nearly everyone who has lived here for any length of time has ended up--sometimes almost against one’s conscious wishes--becoming a hunter. This wild and powerful landscape sculpts us like clay. I don’t find such sculpting an affront to the human spirit, but instead, wonderful testimony to our pliability, our ability to adapt to a place.

I myself love to hunt the deer, the elk, and the grouse--to follow them into the mouth of the forest, to disappear in their pursuit--to get lost following their snowy tracks up one mountain and down the next. One sets out after one’s quarry with senses fully engaged, wildly alert: entranced, nearly hypnotized. The tiniest of factors can possess the largest significance--the crack of a twig, the shift of a breeze, a single stray hair caught on a piece of bark, a fresh-bent blade of grass.

Each year during such pursuits, I am struck more and more by the conceit that people in a hunter-gatherer culture might have richer imaginations than those who dwell more fully in an agricultural or even post-agricultural environment. What else is the hunt but a stirring of the imagination, with the quarry, or goal, or treasure lying just around the corner or over the next rise? A hunter’s imagination has no choice but to become deeply engaged, for it is never the hunter who is in control, but always the hunted, in that the prey directs the predator’s movements.

The hunted shapes the hunter; the pursuit and evasion of predator and prey are but shadows of the same desire. The thrush wants to remain a thrush. The goshawk wants to consume the thrush and in doing so, partly become the thrush--to take its flesh into its flesh. They weave through the tangled branches of the forest, zigging and zagging, the goshawk right on the thrush’s tail, like a shadow. Or perhaps it is the thrush that is the shadow thrown by the light of the goshawk’s fiery desire.

Either way, the escape maneuvers of the thrush help carve and shape and direct the muscles of the goshawk. Even when you are walking through the woods seeing nothing but trees, you can feel the unseen passage of pursuits that might have occurred earlier that morning, precisely where you are standing--pursuits that will doubtless, after you are gone, sweep right back across that same spot again and again.

As does the goshawk, so too do human hunters imagine where their prey might be, or where it might go. They follow tracks hinting at not only distance and direction traveled, but also pace and gait and the general state of mind of the animal that is evading them. They plead to the mountain to deliver to them a deer, an elk. They imagine and hope that they are moving toward their goal of obtaining game.

When you plant a row of corn, there is not so much unknown. You can be fairly sure that, if the rains come, the corn is going to sprout. The corn is not seeking to elude you. But when you step into the woods, looking for a deer--well, there’s nothing in your mind, or in your blood, or in the world, but imagination.

Most Americans neither hunt nor gather nor even grow their own food, nor make, with their own hands, any of their other necessities. In this post-agricultural society, too often we confuse anticipation with imagination. When we wander down the aisle of the supermarket searching for a chunk of frozen chicken, or cruise into Dillard’s department store looking for a sweater, we can be fairly confident that grayish wad of chicken or that sweater is going to be there, thanks to the vigor and efficiency of a supply-and-demand marketplace. The imagination never quite hits second gear. Does the imagination atrophy, from such chronic inactivity? I suspect that it does.

All I know is that hunting--beyond being a thing I like to do--helps keep my imagination vital. I would hope never to be so blind as to offer it as prescription; I offer it only as testimony to my love of the landscape where I live--a place that is still, against all odds, its own place, quite unlike any other. I don’t think I would be able to sustain myself as a dreamer in this strange landscape if I did not take off three months each year to wander the mountains in search of game; to hunt, stretching and exercising not just my imagination, but my spirit. And to wander the mountains, too, in all the other seasons. And to be nourished by the river of spirit that flows, shifting and winding, between me and the land.

Rick Bass is author of 16 books, including the novel Where the Sea Used to Be and the essay collection The Book of Yaak. Next spring Houghton Mifflin will publish a new volume of his fiction, The Hermit’s Story. He is a member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council, which seeks to protect the last roadless areas in the Kootenai National Forest. For more information, contact the group at 918 Idaho PMB #220, Libby, MT 59935; (406) 295-9736.

Saving the wild planet

Strange Bedfellows or Natural Allies?

The Sierra Club has serious political differences with the National Rifle Association, but the two organizations can agree on one thing: The Katy Prairie in Texas, a winter home for millions of waterfowl that nest in the Midwest and Canada, should be protected. “It’s perfectly obvious to anyone with half a brain that if you’re going to enjoy the fruits of the outdoors, you’re going to have to take care of it,” says NRA director Sue King.

Working with Marge Hanselman, former conservation chair for the Houston Group of the Sierra Club, King has lobbied city officials and testified at hearings to oppose construction of an airport that would obliterate the prairie. She even donated the proceeds from a women’s target-shooting event to the Sierra Club and the Katy Prairie Conservancy. “Sue King is a strong woman and one of the most avid conservationists I know,” Hanselman says.

According to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Alliance, most hunters and anglers have strong conservationist leanings. A study the organization completed in January 2000 found that 83 percent of hunters and 86 percent of anglers support keeping the remaining wild areas in national forests free of roads. Both groups place a high value on protecting water quality (98 percent of hunters and 99 percent of anglers); providing habitat for endangered species (93 and 94 percent, respectively); and preserving places for solitude and experiences close to nature (91 and 92 percent).

Given these shared passions, environmentalists have much to gain from banding together with hunting and fishing groups. Sporting enthusiasts are numerous in some states with lots of public land, like Wyoming and Nevada, where environmentalists tend to be on the defensive. National environmental groups have a combined membership of more than 5 million, with millions more in local and state organizations. Add that to the nation’s 50 million hunters and anglers, and you have a formidable grassroots force.

The Sierra Club is already working with dozens of sporting groups around the country. Our New York activists held a fish-in on the Hudson River, catching and releasing fish to publicize the need to clean up General Electric’s PCB pollution in the waterway. We are teaming up with hunters in North Dakota who are opposed to oil and gas development in the Little Missouri Grasslands, and with both hunters and anglers in Wisconsin to fight the mining industry. In the broader Great Lakes area, the Sierra Club has joined forces with the National Wildlife Federation and Trout Unlimited to protect wetlands and enhance water quality. “The Clean Water Act has greatly improved our lakes and streams,” says hunting and fishing guide Gary Engberg. “But we still need to ensure the fish we catch are safe for all to eat.”

Such alliances could be increasingly important. President George W. Bush has suggested that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a nesting ground for hundreds of thousands of migrating waterfowl, is a good place for oil and gas drilling. He is also trying to overturn the plan that put 58 million acres of wild forests off-limits to logging and roadbuilding. “As the Sierra Club works to defend these places, we will continue to reach out to the hunters and anglers who have a stake in them,” says Sierra Club legislative director Debbie Sease. “We’re natural allies.”

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