Summers are so short in Minnesota that courage is required to anticipate their end. But as August begins, and daylight’s arc narrows its reach, the inevitability of fall with its cool evenings and even cooler mornings is on everyone’s calendar, like it or not.
For those who own a bow or gun, and whose empty freezers demand their attention, autumn is less a single season than the entire year packed into three or four months. Football fans can make the same argument, and a seat in a stadium isn’t so much different than a perch in a tree, alert for a whitetail, a walk in a pheasant field or a hunkering-down in a duck blind, awaiting a mallard’s final circling.
Yet autumn’s siren call to hunters is uniquely primal and remains universal. Taken by one’s own hand, and wiles, a bird for the pot or venison for the fire is gratifying, and soul stirring, in ways more rudimentary pastimes aren’t. The cave man knew this instinctively, spear in hand, also the breech-clothed Dakota with his stick and string, and still the hunter today, whether farmer or city slicker, crop grower or office dweller.
A bonus for today’s nimrods is that hunting remains one of the few ways to fend off the cynical claptrap that in 2020 passes for social discourse. If the government’s not out to get us, the common belief goes, the boss is, or the next-door neighbor or the guy in the hoodie walking down the street. The fix is always in, or so it’s widely believed.
Hunting, with its intensity of focus, and its immersion in deep woods, yellowing prairies and dank marshes, offers a reprieve from these misguided distractions. Not immediately, because a newcomer’s stroll for ruffed grouse is little more than physical exercise. But add to this a few more experiences afield, and with them a growing understanding of the bird itself and the habitat upon which it depends, and a more comprehensive picture comes into view in which the hunter is less at the center of his or her personal drama than a bit player in an ageless and far more complex production that intrigues and rewards in equal measure.
That our work lives nowadays oftentimes are dog-and-pony shows far removed from the natural world doesn’t help. Bills must indeed be paid. But absent a willingness to counterpunch against these never-ending demands, freedom can be, as Glenn Frey and Don Henley once sang, “just some people talkin’.”
To their good fortune, hunters, if only intuitively, know it to be more than that when they follow a dog onto a wildlife management area, share a campfire with friends or, at nightfall, sleep soundly in an otherwise uninhabitable shack.
One would think the freedoms hunting offers would find additional adherents in this time of political unrest and arguments over mask-wearing. Perhaps it will, with deer and bird permits selling like hotcakes this fall, like fishing licenses did this spring.
Or maybe, for the masses, conformity’s pull will remain too strong.
Ultimately, freedom is all anyone ever wanted, from the peasants who fled Europe’s feudalism for America’s promise, to the Black people who were brought here as slaves, to Native Americans whose lives and cultures were relegated to reservations, to the guy down the street caught between a mortgage and an ache for something more.
A year ago this month, my older son, Trevor, two friends of his, Max Kelley and Ken Juell, and I were in Alaska, hunting caribou. This was a do-it-yourself affair 150 miles by bush plane northeast of Fairbanks.
Sometimes caribou are easy pickings, but not this time. We hiked 7 or 8 miles into the mountains each day, stopping periodically only to eat or rest or peer through spotting scopes. In the evenings, we huddled beneath a tarp, struggling in the rain and snow to light a fire.
Seven days in, Ken, Max and Trevor each had taken bulls, and we had packed the quartered animals to our camp, along a creek, where we swung the carcasses from a meat pole we hoped grizzlies couldn’t reach.
On the eighth morning, Trevor was up early, and spotted through his binoculars four bulls, three of them good, ambling downslope, toward the willows adjacent to our camp.
I found the fore shoulder of the second bull in the reticle of my scope a short while later, knowing just then a lot was at stake for both of us.
Now, in August, as daylight’s arc narrows, signaling the coming fall, a lot will be at stake again, not least, for hunters, their freedoms.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org