Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman
Did it ever occur to you that outdoor recreation in all its iterations could be considered a form of trophy hunting?
Take as an example, bird-watching. To spend a day bird-watching all you probably need to do is throw some snacks and water into a backpack, grab your binoculars, and head into the woods.
However, as researcher David Cole points out in his review of the wilderness experience, it is more likely that you would plan your adventure and set goals. You would probably pack your birder’s guide along with your binoculars and your camera with a zoom lens. You might challenge yourself to spot a new bird. Or identify a new call.
It’s great fun, planning and gathering the paraphernalia, reading the maps, setting goals and anticipating their success. According to Cole, it’s also motivating. It shapes your experience and gives it purpose. Pursuing goals challenges your skills and your creativity and brings much joy. As such, the quality of the experience is greatly enhanced.
So what is the trophy when it’s not a tangible something? What do you bring home?
As a birder, you bring home your story that you share with fellow birders. You bring home an item to post in your birding journal. And, if you’re lucky, you bring home a photograph. These are your ‘certificates’ that say – in Aldo Leopold’s words – its owner has been somewhere and done something – that he has exercised skill, persistence, or discrimination in the age-old feat of overcoming, outwitting, or reducing-to-possession.
Trophies gained through recreation in the wild can come at a price, however. The loss of a rare living creature. The degradation of objects removed as specimens of interest. The integrity of a meadow when the trophy is mud.
For the recreationist, even in such eco-friendly pursuits as birding, hiking and photography, the price can be the loss of a sense of oneness with the natural world. Feelings of connection could lay dormant, buried under the layers of gadgets and goals and hoped-for triumphs, where nature becomes merely an arena for personal pursuits and pleasure.
So, how can we sustain our awareness of our fundamental kinship with the natural world when our lives are full of demands on our time, when we are by nature innovative, creative and energetic beings?
Through our senses….
- A horse trainer looks into the eyes of his horses and receives permission to begin his training.
- A 4-wheel driver gets out of his truck and stands on the shore of a mountain lake and knows he’s where he belongs.
- A woman reaches out to hug a mountain because that’s what nature makes you do.
- A hiker gazes into a valley and feels being one with everything
- We look into the eyes of a pond turtle and we worry for her safety.
Watching. Looking. Paying attention. We take that first step and tumble headlong into the horse trainer’s parallel universe of heightened awareness and consciousness. We achieve instinctive understanding, oneness, and belonging. We are awestruck by the beauty. We exhibit empathy.
Once such seeing is achieved, the challenge is to hold on to the connection; watching more, looking further, paying more attention, going deeper into the gift of sight, perhaps exploiting the depth perception and peripheral vision that give us the ability to take in our entire surroundings.
In her memoir, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard devoted an entire chapter to ‘seeing’.
Unfortunately, nature is very much a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t affair. A fish flashes, then dissolves in the water before my eyes like so much salt; deer apparently ascend bodily into heaven; the brightest oriole fades into leaves. These disappearances stun me into stillness and concentration…..there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied…..When I see this way I see truly.
And what of our other senses? From early childhood we learn that we have five: sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing. And we carry that bit of information into adulthood. We talk about using our senses in the wilderness to slow down and smell the roses, to identify birds by their sounds, to search for wildflowers, and stop and feel the wind.
Sensing in the wild in a connected way, however, is not about achieving serenity or slowing down. It’s not about enjoyment or about collecting. It’s about increased awareness.
John Muir, in his essay A Wind Storm in the Forest, talks of seeing the winds, which become at times about as visible as flowing water.
For the 4-wheel driver, using his senses in the wild is about survival, kill or be killed.
When I’m out there, my primal instincts kick in so that I can hear a twig crack in one direction and know it came from over there, or I notice something doesn’t fit in, it’s the wrong color, or that something is giving off a particular smell. It’s my sight and hearing, my ability to smell, these all work together the way they were meant to.
In her article, Finding My Wilderness Self, hunter Robyn Miglorian describes how, in the process of learning to hunt for her meat, her senses became sharper and tuned into what she describes as the chorus of life of the wilderness.
The goal was to see before being seen and to hear before being heard. The pursuit of game required a complete mental and sensory recalibration. For the first time in my life, I had to actually tune in to the living, breathing wild. I had to embrace the silence that I feared.
Over time, the silence and stillness gradually morphed from a chore, to a routine, to a way of existing. On a bowhunt for deer this September, six quail waltzed by within ten feet of me as I stood like a statue in the pre-dawn dimness. During a mid-afternoon glassing session [using her binoculars or her scope], I entered into a five-minute staring contest with a hyper-vigilant doe while her two fawns milled about feeding. In these moments I felt like more of an intimate member of the desert wilderness than I ever have before.
For me, becoming a hunter meant quietly embracing the chorus of life in the wilderness – what I had before perceived as uncomfortable silence – and gleaning as much information from it as possible. In doing so, I am developing an integrated sense of belonging in the backcountry and seeing what it means to be human-as-predator. I am finding my wilderness self.