My earliest memories of joy involved some creek or lake--floating in an inflatable raft as my dad wade-fished in the White River, trekking across a farmer’s cow pasture to try our luck in its center pond, controlling the trolling motor on the boat as we scooted into a little inlet that looked right for some bass fishing. Hunting was similarly gleeful, many whippersnapper days spent in the woods waiting on a doe to turn the corner or a rabbit to dart out of a thicket. Those were the places I first bonded with my dad, felt connected to my country culture(s), & learned how to occupy time with sitting, thinking, & waiting.
In The Liberal Redneck Manifesto, those three redneck comedians talk about how hunting is the place rednecks lean closest to meditating, their own little section of peace & quiet. Fishing is on par with that notion as well; the activity is marked by shutting up & doing a repetitive activity, inevitably clearing the mind at least a bit, all while under the beautiful glow of a big sky. When you haven’t done much of it, you might think it’s all about the shooting or the hooking, the dead thing you carry home. Truth is, that’s such a smidge of it, which is why I have kept coming back to these two hillbilly hobbies.
I don’t like the killing, plain & simple, which has chased me with three decades of inner turmoil about whether or not I truly “like” the dang sports. The problem is, I freaking love the other individual parts so much--the connection to nature, the literal being in its midst, the patience & the persistence, the camaraderie with your fellow hunters / fisherpeople. But is it the killing that makes it hunting? Is it the hook through the lip that makes fishing what it is? I stumble here to stumble through my personal connections with hunting & fishing, hoping to find a way to fit these activities in my current life while adjusting them to match my sensitivities & desires.
Raised an only child (my half-brother, ten years older, was sent away when I was four; you can read about that elsewhere on this blog), my dad & I spent gobs of hours together picking out baits, casting our lines, & chit-chatting as the bugs bounced off the polished glass of the water. Each weekend, we’d leave mom at the campsite or the house & find the closest pond, lake, reservoir, creek, river, what-have-you. From my first Mickey Mouse pole to the two rod-and-reels he sent with me to Texas, fishing meant father, meant our shared culture, meant home.
I’ve talked here, too, about my Uncle Ricky, my dad’s older brother who died in a car crash when I was eight years old, a death I had a premonition about that has been linked to my case of DID. Before I began writing this essay, it didn’t dawn on me how much fishing was threaded to my memories of Uncle Ricky. There is the large-mouth bass mounted on my parents’ bedroom wall all my days, a fish my dad caught while with Ricky, illegally fishing in a Petty’s pond. There is an early family camping trip where I caught a catfish on that aforementioned Mickey Mouse pole, Uncle Ricky instructing me on how to reel it in.
My most vivid memory of fishing with Uncle Ricky was shortly before his death. We--my dad, Ricky, his son DG, & myself--snuck onto a fancy golf course to fish the various ponds. As a little boy, obviously, I didn’t have the attention span as the others, but when I began my whippersnapper-whining, Ricky chose to take me on a walk pond-to-pond hunting for golf balls, while my dad & DG continued their fishing.
I think of this moment often--Ricky & I barefoot wading into the ponds to snag the balls we’d eventually sell back to the club house in exchange for ice cream. It is in this memory I find what I love about fishing--the chance to go places & have experiences we might never see. This stupid world is robbing us of our reasons to get wet, to get dirty, to get lost in the woods & the water, etc. I realize fishing in my childhood was what disc golf was to my twenties; anywhere & anytime, it can be the reason & the excuse to get into nature, to always find a space to inhabit in unfamiliar / visiting places, & to have a reason to get up / get out.
I’ve always been a sneaky twerp, able to “adjust” a situation to fit my desires & needs, for better or for worse. The Uncle Ricky story is a prime example; I got the nature, the inhabiting a new space, the reasons to get out, but I got to forego the parts I don’t like about fishing--the possibility of repetitious uncontrollable failure, the masculine comparisons, & chiefly the injuring / killing a living being. Those other dislikes were mostly exaggerated because really the only thing I don’t like about fishing is the hooking a fish in the fucking mouth.
I know that fish don’t have the same pain receptors as larger animals. I know they aren’t as smart. Catch & release. Catch & fillet. It don’t matter; I have little interest in that final goal, the transition from hook to hand. Catch & release, to me, is like catching a bear in a bear trap & then petting it & letting it go. I’ve touched fish; I’m not that desperate to do it again. It doesn’t gross me out, don’t go thinking that, nor does the filleting. I simply don’t like eating fish; most stuff that gets fried outta the water tastes like bugs.
But god damn it, I like an excuse to wade in / set sail on the water, y’all. We need to get our toes wet. We need to travel distances on that watery highway. We need to make notice of where the bank turns from muck to trees. See here a compromise, the act of getting in the water / boat minus the fish killing. No, I’m not talking about rowing, or kayaking, or even canoeing. I’m talking about sitting, the mind-clearing brush across the water. Or, maybe, I should catch litter instead.
There was a time I enjoyed the hooking & the fight of the reeling in, was fascinated by the gutting & the filleting in the fishing cycle, but truth is, with hunting, I never had that intrigue. Instead, as a little fella, I went hunting because of the build-up. I didn’t recognize it then, but how special were those early winter morns with my dad, bundling up & being the only folks on the highway heading up to our tree-stands? We’d stop by a local diner & fill-up on some biscuits & gravy or stuff our pockets at the gas station with cans of Dr. Pepper & peppermints for the wait for daylight.
The conversations between bites & those earliest feelings of camaraderie with my dad, & later his friends & other kids, were the real “what I like about hunting.” That, & the feeling of being in the cold, damp woods before the sun even peeks its fat, glowing head through the trees, hearing the squirrels & birds wake up; now that, oh what a feeling. It was the first place I remember being alone with my thoughts, deciphering bullshit from venom, insight from nearsight. Till a big buck stepped through the thicket, that is.
Truth is, I’ve never killed a deer, though I’ve lied & said I had. It started in high school, someone teasing me about it, so I caved & said that I had, having been on enough hunts to know how to shoot, how to gut a deer, how it is processed. Then, somehow, like lies do, it rolled on, not a snowball building into an avalanche, where I was the best deer hunter on god’s green earth, but just that one-kill lie continued & spread.. Even though I don’t value the killing or buy into the bullshit of “I got the bigger buck” that permeates our culture, I still feel less of a hick, stupidly, somehow less of a man, for never having killed a deer, those beautiful, amazing creatures that I let walk under & beyond my treestand again & again.
My friend AG keeps promising me he’s gonna take me bird-watching & in his insistence & stories, I find I’ve been doing my type of deer “hunting” for years. Those dozens of times letting the animal graze beneath me & move on without firing a shot. The joy of meeting the deer on Roy G. Guerrero Park’s disc golf course. The sunset strolls at McKinney Falls State Park with D, counting “1-2-3…” living, breathing hooved heroes in the pasture by the parking lot. Sitting in the airport at 5:30 am like I am now, no natural light in sight, I’m wondering now what it looks like, what it feels like to get up early again, maybe a couple times a year, stroll into the woods, & just wait.
As the Liberal Rednecks hinted at, that waiting is what hunting & fishing provides my dad & others in my culture that they would otherwise miss among their scraping work days, familial drama, & the sudden (misperceived or not) onslaught of a world passing them by. The preciousness of the thoughtflow, the chit-chat time over coffee, the stories that burst forth--these are the things that fill that void in waiting--no Twittering or scuffling, no worrying or wasting.
Yesterday, my dad sent me a three-second video as eight turkeys scooted across the field in front of him during one of his last hunts of the deer season. As we soared through the sky on the way out to see D’s momma here in California, I thought of this video & then I started reading a random book I snagged from the new non-fiction shelf at the library--Being Aware of Being Aware by Rupert Spira. He’s working towards an understanding & emphasis on narrowing that self-focus back beyond “objective experience.” Nature, in general, lends itself to that core seeing, which is where I think my inability to let go of the appeal of hunting & fishing rings strongest. Both activities, but especially hunting, has given me a connection to my senses & an emphasis on awareness--the way I’m behaving, the clues of what’s going on around me, etc.--that continues to bring me safety & experiences I’d miss otherwises.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about rural (blue-collar, hick, redneck, what-have-you) dudes’ allergy to self-care & therapeutic means of betterment; this thought-train intersected with this here essay’s meditation on my own relationship with gaming, as hunting & fishing, despite their grotesque flaws, remain the most culturally acceptable, socially unifying, & downright most effective avenues for building solid bonds with relatives & friends, for connecting the self to something gratifying, & for allowing the space to think through the questions & simply hunker down to the base-level of thinking.
I saw many of my heathen, numb-skulled friends growing up turn into thoughtful fathers/husbands & hardworkers, thanks in large part to the responsibility & dedication they honed through hunting & fishing. I saw some of my would-be crazier, lazier, or drug-addled peers given purpose & community through these activities (another similarity to disc golf). I’ve seen myself bond with my father & his buddies, along with those peers of mine, in ways I might have neglected or avoided; most importantly, I’ve seen that father develop a true sense of self steeped in weekend hunting trips, marked more by hilarity over card games, the bacon & eggs shared at 4 a.m., & the contemplative time staring from his edge of the woods across the greater Indiana cornfields beyond than the sense of killing. Here in 2019, that’s one of my resolutions: to figure out how to adjust these activities to both preserve those special cultural attributes & adjust them beyond killing to still fit my particular worldview.