A Gaping Emptiness
I fill these days with Other Things.
The house is cleaner. Long-delayed chores are now done. I’ve painted a room. The perennial (losing) battle against ripgut and stickyweed has begun.
As I write this on Sunday morning, one last reminder of my joy sits in the refrigerator (which also needs cleaning): Two gadwall breasts, never frozen, from my final hunt of the season.
Yep, three weeks old, never frozen - dry aged for about a week, then vac-sealed and wet-aged, which Hank says will continue to be good aging until about … now.
That last hunt was a doozy. It was the embodiment of a season in which little came easy, but hard work and persistence could bring joy (at least in January, when all the birds were finally HERE).
My friend Sage scored the Number 1 reservation at a quality Sacramento Valley wildlife refuge. Number 1 is weird. Normally when you have a reservation, you have to make three plans for where you might go based on what you can expect to be available when your number is called and whether someone beats you to your target spots. That planning is wracked with anxiety: Bad choices can mean a poor hunt even if people all around you are shooting.
But we would have our pick of the place. The hardest decision we faced was which of the two equally awesome top-performing spots we’d hunt.
It was not a fast hunt. After months of being shot at, the birds were wary. My shooting was not the best of the season: I was exhausted, and I’d caught a cold that week, and it turns out Sudafed plus insufficient sleep makes me jangly.
So we hunted all day, ultimately got our limits, and enjoyed a spectacular closing-Sunday sunset.
Hunting all day is exhausting, but I really like being in the marsh at the moment the ducks are liberated from the long siege. I enjoy hunting them, I enjoy shooting them successfully, and I enjoy eating them. But I also enjoy knowing their lives will be a little easier now without assholes like me trying to kill them.
My life, though, is not easier.
I’m better rested, for sure. But by the end of each duck season, I am a well-tuned machine. My routine is tight, my gear is always ready, my social network is a vibrant community of hunters sharing intel, opportunities, and the stories of our days afield, mishaps and glories alike.
All of that feels good. Great, actually.
Then it all just stops. It’s like driving 80 mph down a freeway and dropping without warning into a dark chasm.
Human life has always had seasonality. But while Nature’s seasons ease into one another, human-made seasons are abrupt, their transitions jarring.
I get that hunting seasons - or, more accurately, off-seasons - are important, and there’s no realistic way for them to mimic Nature’s ebb and flow.
But the sudden loss leaves me feeling hollow.
I know morel and porcini seasons are around the corner. I know I can resume my exercise routine that makes me feel badass. I even have a pretty cool project I’m working on, which I’ll write about later this spring.
For now, though, I am scraping the walls of the chasm, trying to claw my way out, getting nothing but fingernails full of grit.
To The Bone is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
You need a seasonal hobby, like, I don't know, carving duck decoys. I know it's very hard to come to a screeching stop from any activity this intense, though. In my case, I go from being a celeb to kids in the schools where I present, to a woman in front of a computer. Hardly comparable, but, yeah. 😂
My favorite bit:
"Hunting all day is exhausting, but I really like being in the marsh at the moment the ducks are liberated from the long siege. I enjoy hunting them, I enjoy shooting them successfully, and I enjoy eating them. But I also enjoy knowing their lives will be a little easier now without assholes like me trying to kill them."
Perhaps this hidden absolute about hunting, once you have lived within the rhythm of the pursuit long enough, so often overlooked, should be celebrated more in print?
Many of us do indeed find no shock at all in the feeling of joy we experience when indeed our quarry is safe from all of us who give chase! The quiet assurance that comes with knowing we are a part of this natural scene, but not the only part!
Your paragraph speaks to the ethics behind those who founded the North American Model of Conservation so long ago. It also points out a glaring deficiency in most of today's writing about hunting. Great piece of writing and a good one to ponder over.