I don’t know if my paternal grandmother ever loaded, aimed and fired a rifle or shotgun, but she did more than anyone to inspire my enduring interest in hunting.
After all, guns, bullets and shot-shells don’t make us hunters. They’re just our tools.
Likewise, I came to learn that hoes, shovels and shears didn’t inspire Granny’s passion for growing fruits and vegetables. They just made her gardening more efficient.
The things that make us hunters and gatherers go far deeper than hardware.
Every time I brought home ducks, rabbits, squirrels or pheasants as a youth in the early 1970s, I cleaned them in Granny’s downstairs kitchen while she recalled when meat – wild or domestic – was rare. That era covered over half her life, born as she was in 1898. She said her brother Bernard – pronounced “Bur-nurd” – often hunted rabbits, as did her middle son, Terry. But success wasn’t routine. Bullets and shotgun shells were often scarce, as were rabbits in hungry communities.
And so I still recall Granny’s gratitude for rabbits and squirrels whenever I silently admire my vacuum-sealed packages of elk, deer, turkeys and fish stacked in our basement freezers. I even worry that she’d declare such wealth a luxury or gluttonous. Heck, she probably didn’t even own a freezer until her kids were adults.
I also thought of her this week while reading an interesting booklet from the Aldo Leopold Foundation called “Why Hunt?” Such a question wasn’t relevant when Granny raised her four kids during the Depression and into World War II. But it’s relevant today, given our abundance of commercially produced fruits, vegetables and meat.
Hunting is no longer a necessity. It's a choice requiring explanation.
And so it is that “Why Hunt?” relies on a man from Granny’s era to answer the question. Aldo Leopold – philosopher, conservationist and father of wildlife ecology – is renowned today for conceiving the moral code that connects people with the land and its wildlife.
Unlike some books invoking Leopold and his philosophies, “Why Hunt?” reminds readers that Leopold was a serious gun-toting, bow-wielding, creel-carrying hunter on land and water.
“Hunting is where it all started for Leopold,” said Buddy Huffaker, board president and executive director of the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo. “Hunting was instrumental in helping Leopold develop his land and conservation ethic. His observational skills were exceptional, and he honed them through hunting. Hunting helped him see how natural systems worked. He couldn’t have come up his land ethic without his extensive hunting experience.”
Leopold and his iconic books like “A Sand County Almanac” also give hunting credibility. His poetic, powerful words even make hunter-inflicted death seem less harsh, even proper. In fact, you wish you could have been there to see him shoot his first duck and ruffed grouse.
“At sunset, a lone black duck came out of the west, and without even a preliminary circling of (a hole in an ice-covered lake) set his wings and pitched downward,” Leopold wrote. “I cannot remember the shot; I remember only my unspeakable delight when my first duck hit the snowy ice with a thud and lay there, belly up, red legs kicking.”
Later, as Leopold neared the end of his “second season of featherless partridge (ruffed grouse) hunting,” a grouse rose with a roar from his left, blasted into the sky above the aspens, and crossed hell-bent behind him for the nearest cedar swamp.
Leopold wrote: “It was a swinging shot of the sort the partridge hunter dreams about, and the bird tumbled dead in a shower of feathers and golden leaves. I could draw a map today of each clump of red bunchberry and each blue aster that adorned the mossy spot where he lay, my first partridge on the wing.”
Huffaker said Leopold’s passion for hunting and learning still resonate with beginning hunters, especially young adults who seek direct connections with their food. “Leopold was a great teacher,” Huffaker said. “He invested heavily in young people, whether it was his own kids or his students. He brought them into his world and taught them the philosophical and technical skills they needed to be professionals.
“We followed that lead with ‘Why Hunt?’ as we try to connect with nontraditional hunters, whether they have the ‘locavore’ interest or just feel motivated to be outdoors for biological, ecological or philosophical reasons,” Huffaker continued. “They want to learn how to hunt, but it’s a real challenge for them to understand a lot of the things that longtime traditional hunters take for granted, such as ammo, firearms and all the different rifle calibers.”
“Why Hunt?” also includes testimonials from several young adults in their 20s and 30s who never hunted growing up. Some taught themselves to hunt while others relied on mentors and “Learn to Hunt” classes to glean the basics of hunting deer, turkeys and small game.
The booklet also includes links and resources from modern-day conservation writers and thinkers such as Jim Posewitz, Steven Rinella, Tovar Cerulli, Mary Stange and Randy Newberg; and cooking conservationists like Rinella, Georgia Pellegrini, Hank Shaw and Lily Raf McCaulou.
That diversity is further evidenced in groups that sponsored “Why Hunt?” Besides the Aldo Leopold Foundation, that lists includes Bast Durbin Advertising, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Audubon Great Lakes, Lone Oak Interests, Ruffed Grouse Society, UC Hunting Properties, Becoming an Outdoors-Woman, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, National Wild Turkey Federation and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.
Huffaker said the Leopold Foundation takes great satisfaction in connecting people to hunting and, ultimately, the food they acquire through hunting. “It reminds all of us that hunting is now considered a privilege, but it wasn’t long ago that it was a necessity,” he said. “For some people and their families, those days of necessity weren’t long ago.”
Learn to Hunt Opportunities
The Aldo Leopold Foundation (aldoleopold.org), Department of Natural Resources (dnr.wi.gov) Becoming an Outdoors-Woman Wisconsin (www.uwsp.edu/cnr-ap), and National Wild Turkey Federation Wisconsin (nwtf.org/about/state/Wisconsin) offer classes and seminars for beginning hunters and anglers year-round.