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Warren D. Southworth Sr. of Searsport has held a Master Maine Guide’s license since 1959. He is a faculty member emeritus of the Maine Community College System.
My people were hunters. In one of my earliest memories, my father, carrying me on his shoulders, follows our old dog Peggy through a bird cover. It’s early October, and the alders and poplars and apples hold tight to their leaves. Soon Peggy’s white tail stands above the green ferns. My father sets his gun away and lifts me down off his shoulders. He picks up the shotgun and walks in over Peggy’s point to flush the woodcock or partridge.
I am young, maybe 3 or 4, but I know the thrill of the pending action. I was, you see, even then, a hunter.
In the deer woods, I wore what all woodsmen wore. These were the men I learned from. These were the men who could handle an axe, a canoe and a gun. And we wore green wool pants and green-and-black plaid shirts. No polyester. No insulation. No hunter orange. No camouflage. That stuff came much later. I shivered, too, but not from the cold.
Firearms and archery tackle formed an intricate part of my childhood and my development. Through them I learned skill at arms and, more important, responsibility. The social atrocities of today’s gun violence were unheard of when I was growing up during the 1940s and ‘50s. During those hunting seasons, many of my classmates brought their deer rifles to school with them, on the bus, and stored them in the principal’s office for quick and easy access to the woods after classes.
I raised my children in the security and safety of this tradition, and they have raised theirs in it, too. And we are close as a family, at least in part, because of it.
She lies just ahead of me, on her side in the leaves of the forest floor. I approach, almost in shock, then kneel and run my hand down her still-warm flank, feeling the coarseness of the hair. Her eyes stare at nothing. I have shot my first deer, and I am overwhelmed by the immensity of my act. There, on my knees, in the woods I know so well, I cry and ask God’s forgiveness and, in the same breath, His blessing. For we have meat. Whether it’s the chicken in the farmyard, the pig in the slaughterhouse, or the steer on the pole, a creature must die if we are to eat it. And someone must accept the responsibility of killing.
Yes, I hunt for the meat. Deer or, rarely, moose. Most of those who say it’s gamey or tough have never eaten prime, properly cared for, knowledgeably prepared venison. Grouse and certain ducks are also prime fare. I care little for woodcock, wild turkey or bear, but then, I don’t hunt them. Granted, if I calculated the cost per pound of the wild game I eat, I’d be money ahead if I shopped at the local supermarket. But that’s not the point, is it?
Then, too, the conservation of what biologists call “the resource” requires us to control the numbers of certain species so that overpopulation doesn’t lead to subsequent disease. Ultimately, I believe the hunter’s bullet is by far more humane than death by starvation.
Aside from tradition and food, or even science, then what is the point? The drive to hunt, I believe, lies deep within me. It resides at the subcellular level, down there in the genome someplace. I am a predator, pure and simple. I could deny it, I suppose, but professional wildlife management and legality make it possible for me not only to accept it, but also to pursue it.
“Wait!” you say. “If the killing reviles you, then why not hunt with a camera?” Here’s why. Carrying a camera afield is not hunting. The camera makes me only an observer, not a hunter. Unless I carry the gun or the bow (or even the spear, I suppose), I do not experience the tension that exists between predator and prey, and that is what I seek, a deeper knowing of who and what I am and how I relate to other species on this planet. Many Native American cultures believed that when a man took up weapons to hunt, he actually hunted himself. I understand that notion. I accept that part of me.
After all this introspection, the easier question to answer is not why I hunt, but why I don’t hunt. I know for a certainty that I don’t hunt to kill. I discovered that fact 69 years ago. Perhaps the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, in his treatise on hunting, said it best for me: “I do not hunt to kill; on the contrary, I kill only so I will know that I have hunted.”