date: Feb. 23, 1992
by Luther Olson
As I opened my eyes, I listened a minute or two and heard nothing, just what I was hoping for on this late January morning. Wind can so easily spoil a day of hunting this time of year. I quickly picked up the phone by the bed and called Terry, my hunting partner for the past few years. Too bad to have to wake Linda, but then that's the price a wife has to pay to be married to such an avid hunter and fisherman.
Terry had called last week, saying his long-awaited move to the West Coast was now imminent, and he wanted to get in one last grouse hunt. I knew just how he felt about a final outing and quickly agreed to try to get together on Saturday. Unfortunately, by Friday night we realized that the bitter cold, high winds and continuing snow would cause a most uncomfortable day, and we reluctantly canceled our plans. Today, however, was different. The air was quiet, the temperatures mild, and just an inch or two of new snow meant conditions should be ideal, and yes, he had no other plans and would love to get out. What luck, for it turned out to be the last day that either of us had free before he and Linda would be leaving town.
I suggested breakfast at our house, after which my wife took some pictures so we could have a visual reminder of our day together. Although this was a last hunt, the special nature of the day wasn't because of anything different. As always, we headed straight for our favorite coverts and moved at our normal pace over familiar paths, sometimes out of sight from each other for many minutes at a time in the heavy underbrush, but always coming out exactly together as if we knew precisely what the other was thinking. We seldom made a sound except to decide on a direction change or the best way to avoid a natural impediment. We have always enjoyed hunting together because we think so much alike in the woods and find it easy to agree on any suggestion.
A January grouse hunt in north-eastern Ohio usually means few flushes. By now cold weather and predators have taken their toll, and this day was to be no exception. The grouse were as scarce as ever, and one hour stretched into two and then three, without so much as a flush. The only distraction was to watch the work of Beau, my big black Lab. At age five and in the prime of life, he was a delight to observe as he searched every likely clump of ground cover still above snow for any scent of our quarry.
As time passed with no action, it was easy for the mind to spring to life and supply the activity that was missing underfoot. On this day, it was only natural that I should ponder "the last hunt," for this wasn't the first time I had been a part of such a day.
Only three months back, in early November, I had flown to Wyoming to spend time with my parents in what will most likely have been a similar occasion with my father. Actually, we haven't hunted together since my college days, when I was able to spend some time with him during the fall seasons. It seems only yesterday. We had a wonderful time getting out in the fields for a couple of hours every two or three days, giving both Dad and Gypsy, his old German wire-haired pointer, time to recover from the aches and soreness of advanced age and less than normal activity.
"The spirit is willing, but the body is weak," Dad would say as we were slowly walking back to the truck. Legs, arms and eyes just weren't what they used to be, so our jaunts were kept short. With Mom watching and waiting (and worrying, I'm sure) from the truck, and then sharing coffee and fresh cookies during breaks, this was a most memorable two weeks. Hour upon hour were spent reminiscing about earlier family outings. Ohio is a long way from Wyoming, even by air, so it is unlikely that I will be back out there again next fall, even if Dad and Gypsy still have a little of the spirit remaining.
My thoughts also went back to the late fifties, when Dad returned to our original home in Wisconsin to visit his parents and do some last hunting with his father, my Grandpa Clarence. Along with an old hunting and fishing partner, Phil Swiggum, and our superb little Lab, Butch, they had some memorable hunts up in the tag elders, aspen and hay marshes of Jackson County--grouse heaven supreme! We still have photos of that trip also. There is an excellent one of Grandpa sitting and eating his lunch, and as usual, feeding Butch half his sandwich. Within a year, Grandpa had died of a sudden heart attack and we have been grateful ever since that Dad had the opportunity to go back for that hunt.
One of my most cherished memories from my youth was a delicious fried squirrel dinner one Sunday afternoon out in the country at Uncle Alvin's house (actually great-uncle). Aunt Ona had obviously had much experience in preparing squirrel, most likely learned from her mother and grandmother. Many of Dad's ancestors were hunters. Rabbits, squirrels, deer, ducks and grouse were a normal part of the family menu, and, if you can imagine, the food was often fried in coon grease. These hardy pioneers left the Eastern Seaboard back in the late eighteenth century and moved into the rugged hills and valleys of southern Ohio. By the mid-nineteenth century they had decided that better opportunities awaited them up in the virgin-timbered hills of west-central Wisconsin. To them, hunting and fishing were a most normal way of life.
I, too, like to eat the game I take, but unlike my ancestors, of course, I have the option of having my food prepared, packaged and frozen. I have been giving this a lot of thought in recent months, and it has occurred to me that perhaps I feel there is something sacred, almost sacramental, about all of this--taking and eating in response to a divine command. Doing this in memory of Grandpa, Uncle Alvin, Aunt Ona and all my ancestors is such strong motivation that the hunt has become almost a ritual. Although Grandpa has been dead for over thirty years, I still wear his battered, old hunting coat, carry his fishing tackle box and use his treasured Pfleuger Supreme casting reel.
I would like to think that it is my appreciation for nature and wildlife that creates such feelings, and I'm grateful that I have been brought up to recognize and respect this part of life. My wife has pointed out to me that my thoughts aren't unique. Mythologist Joseph Campbell, in his description of early man, has stated that even the most primitive hunting cultures considered hunting to be a sacred act, a "covenant" between the animal and the hunter, that the death of one was necessary for the sustenance of the other. This, of course, is a sobering thought that I'm sure most hunters understand fully. He contrasts that relationship with our casual handling of packages of meat in a supermarket in a manner that shows no recognition of, or respect for, the sacrifice involved. The meat counter is certainly not a special shrine within the confines of the supermarket.
As the day went on, Terry and I were still not finding any sign of grouse. I began to think of the many people who now object to the very fact that I was out there carrying a shotgun, even this lovely, very old English Damascus-barreled gun with beautiful engraving and a finely checkered stock. There are those who do not approve of the very activity which we were pursuing on this winter day and from the viewpoint of a growing number of people, there should be a real "last hunt" for all of us--forever. The arguments of our many successes in wildlife management, and the valid place of hunting in the overall scheme, do not carry weight in this argument, even though most of the programs were initiated, supported and paid for by sportsmen. With our burgeoning urban population, the day has already arrived in many locations when the "last hunt" has, in fact, become reality.
Something will take its place. Nostalgia will always be a part of human emotions, and that, of course, is much of what this is all about. Can a last golf game, tennis match, or bowling night ever have the same depth of meaning that our recent hunts have had? I can't even imagine that, and the very thought hurts deep down inside. I must confess that there are times when I wish the Indian concept of eternal bliss was right after all, and someday Grandpa, Dad, Terry and I can all join once again in the big, happy hunting ground. That sounds almost too good. I wonder if they would allow dogs. I sure would like to see Grandpa feeding Butch half of another sandwich.
I wrote this essay almost six years ago but today it was often on my mind. This is the first time I have been out hunting this fall and the day has been most difficult.
First because Beau turned twelve today--Halloween day. No longer is he the powerful animal who could muscle through weeds and underbrush all day long. Because of a deteriorating nerve in his hip he spent most of the time in a walk or a brief slow run. It was sad to see him enjoy the hunt with such puppy-like enthusiasm and not have the strength to move as he would like. Fallen trees that he used to leap without thought were now such an obstacle that he had to search for a way around as I stood and waited. And when we got back into the car I had to lift him up to get him in, a far cry from his youth, when he could leap up into the car with ease, eager to get his treat for a job well done.
I can fully sympathize with his condition, for it was only about six months ago when I had an unexpected heart attack. Though I have been assured that there was little or no damage to my heart and have been given no restrictions on my activity, I am still very much aware of that attack. At this point I doubt that my strength and stamina will ever be as they were before this incident. A couple of slow and easy hours in the woods are now about all the two of us can manage. It is hard for me to accept the obvious fact that from now on there will be more and more obstacles that I, too, will have to face. Pride and enthusiasm must now take a back seat to physical reality, and the matter of mortality is an ever present thought.
"The spirit is willing, but the body is weak." The words sound over and over as if Dad is right beside me--and now I appreciate more than ever just what he meant. Recently I feel his presence and hear his voice like never before.
For what made the day especially difficult were now the memories of my father--who died just three weeks ago. He and Mom had dressed for church that Sunday morning when he sat down at the kitchen table and passed away right there in her arms. Now more than ever I realize just how precious our last hunt together had been, and as I walked through the fields my mind was filled with memories, and tears would come from time to time. I've been out West to visit many times, but it was our few hours together out in the field that I remember best. He has now truly had his last hunt, but our precious time in that brisk November air was more than just metaphor.
While I may find a sacramental element to the hunt, even more do I see something of the sacred in "family." Though we grow up and take a mate with whom we "become as one," yet in another very real sense we are always a child in a most special (and hopefully eternal) relationship. Small wonder that so many religions believe in the reuniting of the family in a hereafter. I have noticed that when I am called on to give a prayer of thanks for a certain occasion, my first thought is always to express appreciation for loved ones, whether close family or a wider circle of friends. Love of God, family, and friends, and the special times and activities we share throughout our lifetime are to me the essence of life, always defining just who we are and why we exist.
So much of who and what I am is a result of my father's teachings and expectations. He was a perfectionist who placed great importance on "common sense." He had a saying for almost every situation--and most of them had a rather obvious moral or educational message. I still frequently hear his voice and feel his presence as if he is standing behind me, looking over my shoulder. And I respond by wondering if I'm making the right decision or taking the right course of action. If not, I always expect to hear the "best" way to do something. As the oldest child I was always the one who tried so hard to please our parents, and that is undoubtedly behind some of my feelings now. I always understood, however, that this direction came out of love and concern. It was always well-meant and never do I recall responding with resentment.
Now as I am out walking I sometimes ponder my reason for our hunt. Is it to please Beau, who so obviously loves to be running in the outdoors? Or is it to please myself, as I also enjoy so much the sights, sounds and smells of being in the fields or woods--and realize that my hours and days out there are becoming numbered? Or perhaps I am rather subconsciously still trying to please my father--or for that matter my Grandfather also, for whom hunting was also such an important part of life. But perhaps most importantly, I question whether in some obscure way I am pleasing God--the "This do" part of my life.
If I am able to look at myself at least somewhat objectively, I suppose that the answer is all of the above and probably in rather equal amounts. It perhaps seems rather silly to even think about pleasing your dog, yourself, your ancestors and your God all in one act. One could make a pretty good arguement, however, that this is what keeps a person's life in equilibrium, and, therefore, I really wouldn't have it any other way.
Oct. 31, 1998