This week is opening week for firearm whitetail deer season in Michigan.
Specifically, November 15th was opening day. An annual tradition of camaraderie, of family, of getting back into the woods and finding that connection to the prehistoric home which born all of humanity.
To give you some perspective on how big of a deal Opening Day is, a few years ago, the number of licensed hunters reported on Opening Day was enough to field the third largest standing army in the world. Schools shut down if the 15th is a weekday. Even the United Auto Workers (for better or for worse) got the day declared a holiday. In monetary terms, hunters the past five years have spent over $2BILLION dollars annually in hunting-related expenses.
There is a lot of good that comes from hunting culture and, having set up shop as a writer at a very artistic school, I understand that stating as much will garner quite a lot of eye-rolling and I’m certain that some of you, if you’re still here, are debating whether or not to stop reading. I get where you’re coming from. Claims of toxic hyper-masculinity, of Neanderthalic primalism, of animal rights, are the easy attacks on hunting life and this isn’t an argument against those beliefs. Here is a good place to start if you want to see how hunting and wildlife conservation go together and here are some wonderful places to dispel the hunting is a boys’ club myth. Read at your own leisure.
I don’t care to argue; I just want to tell a bit of a story.
I remember being nine years old, curled up asleep on the floor of a rickety tripod tree stand, the first my dad built when he moved up from Downriver Detroit, as my dad sat on a worn two-by-four smoking a Salem Light and muffling his coughs in the crook of his elbow. I remember being cold. I remember my dad telling me, “Stop fidgeting” (My knees are pistonning as I write this so I suppose that’s a lesson of his I never took to heart). I remember feeling guilty when I told him that night that I didn’t want to go hunting the next morning. I didn’t want to be cold, to sit still, to not talk. In short, I didn’t want to put in the work and claim the reward of a successful hunt. I suppose I didn’t even know what a “successful hunt” meant at the time.
I remember being a teenager and hunting on one side of the property, in that same rickety tripod, while my dad hunted from a ground blind some twenty acres away. Not too far, had it not been for the thickness of the ash trees, we’d have been able to see each other with or without our second skins of blaze orange. This was before the omnipresence of cellphones. My dad nipped a two way Motorola walkie-talkie from one of the many jobs he’d taken on in the restless calm before 2008, before the Bailout. We’d whisper updates over the stations. Crackling, “see anything, Bud” and “two crashing through the swamp to the north” etched their way across our little patch of woods. I was hunting on my own then, free to fidget as I saw fit but still connected to my dad by the words we shared.
I got my first buck when I was seventeen. When the Ash trees began to die. Emerald Ash Borer. A bright green little jewel of a beetle who lays its eggs deep into the meat of ask trees. As the larvae mature, they eat. And eat. And eat. At the time, there were still some semblances of forest canopy left, the underbrush hadn’t taken over, and I saw a five-point swamp buck slink through the hallways of timber until he came in line with my sights. I thought to myself, as my heart choked up in my throat, “please, please, please.”
“READY TO COME IN, BUD?” my dad said of the two-way. He didn’t yell it but in a quiet forest, with a deer’s ear, it was just the same as a bullhorn. The five-point zeroed in on me and we locked eyes and it seemed as if this young buck was looking right at me and saying, “You dumb mother fucker.” I pulled the trigger before he could bolt away and quickly called into the two-way, “I downed a buck. Dad, Dad. I got him!”
It took me a decade from the first time I went out with my dad to realize the victory that came from the work needed to have a successful hunt.
But I’m no longer part of that world.
I moved to Chicago to give my writing career more of a fighting chance. Caro, Michigan is, in my humble opinion, the best place for stories to come from but not the best place for them to get out to the public. By the time I left, there were no more living Ash trees left on my dad’s twenty acres. The underbrush choked everything. You can’t watch the deer coming from half a mile away. As I write this, my dad and uncle are in the woods. It’s day two of firearm season and they are both deerless. The forest has changed and so too has the hunting.
Now that I’m in Chicago, “established” if I dare toot my own horn just a little, I don’t have forests. Insert a metaphor of the city being its own forest here. But what I do have are the words. The stories. The bits of humanity that my dad and I shared either while sharing a deer blind (my knees are still pistonning) or over those clunky two-ways. I never called myself a “country boy’ (though I do love that John Denver song). Growing up, I was a little left of center in terms of what was needed to “fit in” in Smalltown, USA. I didn’t wear camo outside of the woods, I didn’t own a truck, I hate Kenny Chesney et al. For Christ’s sake, I used the words “omnipresence” earlier and “et al” just now. However, after over two years in Chicago, I’ve felt more country than I ever have. A student in Chicago: City of Stories said a few weeks ago that their mother told them that it’s funny, really, you move to a big city and end up learning more about your hometown. I’d like to go further with that and say that you also learn more about yourself.
Chicago is not a dead Ash forest but being here helps me reconnect to that rickety tripod tree stand (which, by the way, got rebuilt into a sixteen-foot-high “condo” complete with windows and a door that locks). When I think about setting in story, I’m like many writers: I think setting is just as much a character as any of the flesh and blood characters I write. Being in Chicago, with the concrete and the noise and the people and more people, has given me more perspective on where I come from. I asked authors ranging from Joe Meno to Bonnie Jo Campbell if you can write about the working class and still be considered working class yourself. I’ve gotten a spectrum of answers. I haven’t found my own yet. But if the setting of Chicago (modern, urban, sleek) can get me to focus more on my home (relaxed, earthen, quiet) than I think I can continue walking along this narrow edge between “artist” and “worker.”
We all have smartphones now, my dad doesn’t smoke Salem Lights anymore, on Opening Day this year, I taught story structure to college freshmen and then attended a piano concert. The world changes and humanity writhes in place. I think it’s up to us as individuals, as artists or writers, as factory workers or farmers, to find those things that connect us to who we were, who were are, and who we want to be.
Words are important and they are all I have to keep those connections strong. So I’ll end this post with a note to my dad. I’ll text him the link (thanks Age of Information) and hopefully he’s charged his smartphone enough to read it out in the woods. If you’re still reading this and you’re not my dad, you can stop if you want but you’ve already come this far so why not finish the job?
Good luck, be safe. Stop fidgeting! I know that this isn’t the first Opening Week that I’ve missed and I know it won’t be the last. But had it not been for you waking my ass up at 4:30am when I was little, hauling me out to the woods, showing me there is something important about the natural world, I’d never be where I am today. Chicago is fun, it’s busy, it’s definitely not the Condo or the Fishing Hole or the Swamp. But had I not come here, I think I would have grown to take those places you’ve made for granted. That, to me, would be worse than not having experienced them at all. I may be here, but my heart is in the woods, clad in camo and blaze orange. I love you. Raymond (RS Deeren/CoS GTA)