by Whit Gibbons

July 16, 2006

I have written on more than one occasion about hunters, praising their stewardship of our natural habitats. When I read this account by Rusty Ward, I decided it was time to let a hunter speak for himself about hunting-and his own abiding appreciation of nature.

"Squirrel season opened today. I walked a half mile across the prairie to the stand of woods where I would entertain myself for a few hours by gathering my next evening meal. A dense tapestry of webs, sequined with dew glinting magically in the new light, hung across the landscape in precisely engineered geometries. To the orb weavers that built them, the webs were merely a night’s work, a chance to snag a fluttering meal and with it another day of life. To me they were art more powerful than all the faded frescoes and framed masterpieces preserved in all the world’s museums.

"Then, from ahead, a soft chirr. It wasn’t the scolding bark of a seriously agitated squirrel, but the low, mewling whine of a groggy squirrel that had just emerged from its den looking for coffee and had found instead a fat brother-in-law already seated at the kitchen table. Another whine, this time overlapped by a slightly lower pitched one from the brother-in-law at the other end of the table.

"I picked my way down the road toward the sound, sidestepping as many of the sparkling webs as I could, and slowly eased a .22 cartridge into my rifle’s chamber. There was a flicker of motion in the fork of a water oak 50 yards away. I eased to a tree, found the squirrel’s head in the dancing crosshairs, and . . . snatched the trigger nearly out of the stock. The squirrel hushed and vanished in the same instant. A stupid tyro’s mistake. It was not a good way to start the new season.

"Nearly a half century ago, I got to go on my first real squirrel hunt. I uncorked a 3-inch .410 load from my first real gun and dropped a stone-dead squirrel into a pack of frenzied deer hounds led by Ol’ Satan, an ill-tempered bluetick that had reportedly eaten his previous owner. Satan lunged for the squirrel and so did I.

"The other hunters, tough hill men all, had a healthy respect for Satan. My father grabbed me by the collar and yanked me out of the fray, but not before I had fastened onto my half of the squirrel and brought it out with me. This raised my status among the men, except for my father, who had had too difficult a time convincing my mother that I would be returned safe and sound to explain how he had almost allowed me to be eaten by a dog named Satan over a lousy squirrel. Nevertheless, my credentials as a serious, if slightly unbalanced, squirrel hunter were secured, and I have maintained them in good standing down unto the present day.

"When I was a kid, interest in guns and hunting was an honorable pursuit. And to grow into a man who knew guns and was a competent shot and good hunter was pretty much mainstream. As a culture, we have left those times and values far behind. Although the shooting sports and, to an extent, hunting have been making something of a comeback, we who practice this most ancient art are still viewed by many sophisticated urbanites as backward stepchildren.

"A couple of years back, an essayist for an East Coast literary magazine wanted to get to the bottom of the “gun question,” so he, a nonshooter, went to an indoor range, rented a handgun, and enrolled in a firearms safety course.

"He reported that he soon found pumping shot after shot into a man-size silhouette a few yards away to be banal (his word). I would like to have shrunk his target to the size of a half dollar, moved it out to 50 yards, and told him he would not eat again until he hit that half dollar. Of course, none of us relies on these skills to get our food nowadays, but every so often I like to pretend that it is so."

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)