It's human nature to divide ourselves up into comfortable little groups. A friend of mine says that if you were to take a group of perfectly homogeneous people -- same race, religion, social status, interests -- and lock them up in a room together, they'd still find a way to segregate themselves. By foot size or freckle density, perhaps. It's one of the things we probably need to work on as a species.
It happens out in the field as much as anywhere else people wander. I've gotten the hairy eyeball from the occasional spandex-clad suburban hiker while walking on public land, gun or rod in my hands. Nothing serious, but the implied judgement is there. And I'm just as guilty. I encounter a gaggle of crunchy Teva-sporters on the trail while decked out in camo or blaze, and my internal defenses instantly creep up just a notch, warranted or not. Oh, shit... here comes the PETA lecture...
We even clan up inside the confines of our self-same groups of interest. I'm a fly fisherman. After years of trial and error, fun and not so fun, I've stumbled upon my preferred niche as a fly fisherman. I'll fish for anything, but I enjoy fishing for smallmouth bass the most, and I can get a little rankly about it at times. I like to do it using topwater flies, especially those that I've spun myself out of dyed deer body hair. And I prefer to do it in small wadable rivers. So if we follow the evolution it goes something like, fly fisherman --> warm water fly fisherman --> river smallmouth bass fly fisherman --> topwater river smallmouth bass fly fisherman --> deer hair topwater river smallmouth bass fly fisherman. That's one stupendously long way to go to differentiate oneself from the other dudes out there waving a stick around in the river, but it's it worth because, as we all know, those trout guys with their wimpy little rods and microscopic bugs, they're weirdos.
The funny thing is, we're all out there for the same fundamental reasons. We want to take in nature. We want to escape the rat race, decompress, and take a little time to breathe. The only difference is that my friends and I include the gathering of food in that practice. From morels to moose, asparagus to walleye, if I can catch it, pick it, or kill it within the limits of the law, it's going in the gob, along with some taters and gravy. You can't get more free range organic than whitetail on the hoof.
Because of this, I often catch myself thinking of "us" as part of the active food chain, out there actually participating. We protein gatherers are in the game, getting after it, while "they" are stuck watching from the sidelines in way-too-clean zip-off tech pants.
How very self-righteous.
It's obviously a narrow mental stance to take, not to mention sort of ugly in general. I do attempt to curtail it as much as I can, but it's an ongoing battle. In reality, I'm sure many of those people are a lot more similar to me than I think. Maybe they merely never had anyone to introduce them to the joys of chasing rabbits behind a baying beagle or make them a delicious squirrel pot pie. A spotting scope and bird books don't predispose a person to rampant veganism any more than a shotgun and waders predispose a person to Anaditae genocide.
All this is slightly disconcerting to me because I don't come from a strictly hardline hunting and fishing family. Far from it. My dad didn't even hunt much other than a handful of squirrel trips as a kid and a couple fateful gun deer seasons during which they spent more time seeking out chocolate malts and cheeseburgers for his father than they did actually hunting deer. He was a counterculture, Mother Earth News subscribing, back-to-the-land child of the Sixties with jarringly long hair in some of those old pictures. He had no moral or ethical objections against the harvesting of meat anymore than the harvesting of potatoes, and was a better than average wingshot. He simply had little interest in doing it himself. We paddled flat water and whitewater almost obsessively. He taught me how to navigate cross country by map and compass and how to start a fire with a bow and drill. I learned to identify almost every plant and bird, edible or otherwise, in our little corner of the world. And, just by way of a son's pride, anyone that knew him will tell you that he truly was one helluva world class story-teller around a campfire or dinner table, a skilled purveyor of the family narrative.
So why do I fall into the trap of prejudging those people who most outsiders would guess to be the product of my own childhood much more often than they would surmise I eventually stumbled out of it covered in zits and a mean stinging nettle rash? This is the question that went rocketing through my head as I took a nice long, sweaty walk in the woods today.
The short answer: I have no idea. Peer pressure? The politics of conservation? Laziness?
Another one of the sins that we, the hunters and fisherman, often commit outside is the sin of tunnel vision. We get so involved in the task at hand that we often forget to remember where we are and how lucky we are to be there. I fall prey to it most often during a hot bite, especially ice fishing. More than once, I've plunked down on my bucket in group of ice fishermen, all of us like so many Thinsulate button mushrooms sprouting incongruously up from the ice, only to glance up some time later and realize that it's getting dark, and I'm one of the last remaining bumps on the frozen log. That's concentration, I guess, but it's also a shame to sit with your head down a hole during a perfectly good sunset. Sometimes it's like staring slack-jawed at a slideshow of fish and game on one side of the stage while the Rockettes are knocking out an impressive kickline on the other side.
I walked today, sans weapon, partly in an effort to get back to the mindset of simply being out there. Taking it all in. No rods, no guns, no bolas or fire hardened spears, and no blinders. Strictly open eyes and ears. Of course I stopped to look for deer tracks and puffballs. My eyes scanned for the telltale whitewash and bore holes of the woodcock in appropriate areas. I slowed to the cryogenically torpid pace of the sloth at times, just in case that was a deer or a coyote my Spidey Sense just pinged on. Splatter vision and forced stillness were employed. That will never change, it's too cemented in the synapses and tiny little folds of my oft-confused brain. It's simply how I'm trained to take it all in now. I was decidedly not there to hook or harm anything. It was just a simple walk, but I returned home with a resolution.
I hereby resolve to open my damn eyes a little more often out there. I resolve to pay a little more attention to my surroundings even when my fingers go all pruney from hastily taking bluegills off a double jig rig two at a time. And I resolve to talk to the nice couple in the clacky clip-on biking shoes at the trail head, instead of just grunting and walking by. Maybe.