It’s not uncommon to be awakened by cannon fire this time of year on the East End. Duck hunting season began on Thanksgiving Day. Open season on Amazon drones could be just around the corner.
“Cannon” was the word that came to mind when this former hunter first felt the recoil of a 12-gauge shotgun my father gave me at the age of 12.
I still have the gun, a side-by-side, double barrel, twin-trigger Remington. It was my dad’s gun handed down when he thought I was ready to go deer, rabbit, partridge, and pheasant hunting usually on land owned by a farmer south of Syracuse, near where he grew up. The first thing I shot was a glass jug my father picked as a target. The jug evaporated. My shoulder was sore for a week.
Strange to say, but I discovered the gun had a personality that, under my dad’s tutelage, I learned to like, and to respect.
I killed a deer with the old Remington when I was 15 during a hunt with my father and uncle. I was sitting on the side of a hill above a small apple orchard that had gone to seed, a likely spot for a deer to browse. Dad was proud and, as tradition demanded, smeared my cheek with blood. I’d come of age.
Does that sound weird, primitive? It didn’t at the time. I remember looking in the mirror when we got home, dog-tired. My face told me I’d taken a life. I was humbled. We ate everything we shot, and we never shot more than we were prepared to dress.
I stopped hunting, not in answer to a moral dilemma, but because for me it had been about being in the woods with my dad. Would I have liked it as much if we’d gone into the woods with cameras? Yes, I believe I would have, but then again. . . .
What is it in us? Is it some old survival gene that wants to hunt something even when our larder is filled with store-bought food? And what of the urge to kill and eat something beautiful, powerful, regal, majestic, and all the other adjectives we use to describe wild animals? Does the old gene tell us their essence can be possessed in this way? Are we what we eat?
On Sunday, I spoke with two duck hunters, Montaukers in their 20s. I asked them why they liked hunting ducks. They said they liked being out in nature. “I like seeing all the species that come here,” said one. “To get away from the television,” said the other. He meant to escape the all-pervasive screens separating us from the real deal. The hunters stressed that they always ate the ducks they shot.
Both said they feared that the “next generation” shot only for “the rush.” They worried that shooting without a full appreciation of a rural world fast disappearing, without that paradoxical mix of fulfillment and humility that comes from taking what you know is a precious life, without a fundamental connection to nature was just shooting — knocking things out of the sky, or worse.
People don’t hunt for their physical survival any longer, at least around here. They hunt and fish to keep their spirits alive — survival just the same. But does our spiritual wellbeing need to depend on the sacrifice of ducks? Yes and no.
Responsible hunters tend be conservation minded, reasoning that nature is best defended against encroaching “development,” against a technologically screened-in world, by those who bind their spirits to it with guns. At the same time, bird watchers don’t see the logic in killing nature to appreciate it.
There may be a way to solve this paradox and put those who just like to knock things out of the sky to work. Ducks might soon breathe easier.
Two weeks ago “60 Minutes” reported on Amazon’s plans to use drones to deliver packages. If the mega-company’s C.E.O., Jeffrey Bezos, is to be believed, there will soon be flocks of Amazons invading our peace. The day after the drone segment, a friend and former hunter said he was going to dust off his shotgun. I’m not sure if he was kidding. I’m buying stock in Remington.