Wednesday, November 16, 2011

JuJu, Rhinoceros, Apophenia

"Good Luck.  Be Safe!"

I've had those two short sentences said or written to me maybe a dozen times this week.  Deer camp is coming, and those are the prevailing sentiments.  Good luck getting a deer, but more than that, please come back home with all your parts attached and in working order.

Relative safety is achieved without too much trouble.  I hunt in an area without a lot of other hunters, I'm using a better safety harness in my tree stand this year, and I trust the men I hunt with implicitly.  Most of the fatalities associated with hunting occur when hunters fall out of their tree stands, or suffer some sort of heart problem anyway.  Either when Bullwinkle walks out in front of them or when they are attempting to drag a  deer out of the woods.  Shooting accidents do happen, but they are much less common than a chunk of bacon getting snagged up in a ventricle.  I have been much more frightened for my personal safety driving down the interstate than I ever have doing any type of hunting.

Luck is an entirely different matter.  We don't even know what it really is or if it exists.  In our struggle to define it, we assign random values, willy-nilly, to random occurrences until such time as we can link a certain outcome with a certain occurrence.  It's all very slipshod, but that doesn't prevent us from spending massive amounts of mental energy on it.  I'm sure it varies from person to person, but I think most of us have our own little rituals or talismans that we secretly believe help achieve a given goal.

I have a little pewter rhinoceros on my key chain.  It must be moved to the zipper of my hunting coat at the start of the gun deer season or I will surely go the entire year without so much as catching a glimpse of a deer.  I shot my first buck two days after I'd clipped that little guy to my coat, and now I have greatly diminished confidence if I do happen to forget him on my key ring back in camp.  God forbid I ever lose him.  I'd have to quit deer hunting.

There is a shirt that I prefer to wear under my vest while wading in summer.  I'm not going to go as far as calling it a must-have lucky shirt, but I certainly prefer to wear it.  If fits me well, wicks away moisture, and matches the trim on my favorite Fishpond vest, if nothing else.  It's important to look good on the stream -- never know when you might run into a mermaid.  If it doesn't bring actual luck, it definitely brings ease and comfort, two qualities in high demand when my notoriously sketchy fly casting starts to go sideways on me once again.

Just like mise en place in the kitchen, I think our little superstitious ticks help bring order to a world that can quickly ramp up to a Category 5 shitstorm if we enter into it ill prepared or disorganized.  Having everything in its place, including little trinkets, not only boosts confidence, but helps us to be more productive and level headed when it's time to rock-n-roll.

Apophenia is defined as perceiving connections in unrelated phenomena.  Or seeing meaningful patterns where none exist   This is where hunters and fishermen truly shine.  We see connections everywhere that may or may not be related.  Ask any fisherman why the fish are biting better (or not as well) today, and you'll get almost as many opinions as there are fish in the sea.  Everything from barometric pressure to sun spots, water temperature to wind direction, moon phase to static electricity -- all have them, and many more, have been thrust to the forefront as the cause of victory or defeat on any day in question.  I have literally stood slack-jawed in front of some of this armchair science, while at the same time, having absolutely no way to refute it.

Of course there are professionals, guides and commercial fishermen, tournament anglers and avid locals, who seem to have an uncanny ability to read their home water.  They've been fishing the same water for years, and have gained a sixth sense for how the lake "feels" today.  I realize this happens all the time.  The accumulation of vast amounts of data stored in an experts mind can result in pronouncements and catches that seem to border on the mystical.  But that's all it is, trial and error refined by experience.  The "10,000 Hour Rule" espoused by Malcolm Gladwell fits well here -- true expertise in any field comes from performing any task for roughly 10,000 hours.  I'm gonna need some aspirin and my tennis elbow arm band thingy after that much casting. 

It was once a common belief that Northern Pike lost their teeth in winter because they became more difficult to catch, and therefore, must have stopped eating until spring when their slightly frightening chompers would reappear for another summer of terrorizing perch.  We now know this to be patently false, but it was asserted as truth for decades.

Hunters are the same way.  We stand around tailgates and campfires trying make sense of what we have seen.  Deer trails go cold, birds seemingly disappear, coyotes stop responding, and we are forced, by our nature, to attempt to make sense of it all.  They stopped feeding, or it got too cold, or too hot.  Whatever.  We grasp at any shred of evidence, and stomp it to gelatinous goo until it oozes down into the cracks of our reasoning like mortar.  Not that it's an entirely bad practice.  Often, we do stumble on a bit of key information by simply hashing stuff out with each other.  Brainstorming over pickled eggs and beer can produce results other than the gaseous emission kind. 

To any of you fellow deer hunters who may stumble upon this before heading out into the fields and woods this weekend I say, good luck and be safe!  And don't forget your lucky socks.

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