By Charles Dodd White
When I hunted the Southern woods as a boy, my first concern had little to do with what I might kill. Instead, I time-traveled. At home during the week I consumed repeated viewings of “Grizzly Adams,” “Daniel Boone,” and “Jeremiah Johnson.” But when the weekends came around, a century dropped out from underneath me. My life became the ritual concerns of making camp, reading sign, collecting kindling. The campfire was by far my favorite TV program, and I could stare for hours into its suspense and drama. The most important lesson from the camp was what I could learn from the trails and creek beds and swamp bottoms and how they provided a sufficiency that would be hard to express to anyone who had never experienced it for themselves.
Today though, I feel no desire to pick up a rifle or shotgun and walk the Tennessee ridges and hollows within easy driving distance of my home. It's been more than 20 years since I've sat in a deer blind or called for a tom turkey at daybreak.
This doesn't come from a place of anti-hunting. I have believed, and still do, that there should be a psychological price exacted by eating animals. If you're willing to eat meat you should be willing to kill to do so. If we have learned anything in the last three decades about food ethics, it's that most Americans rely on a largely brutal though impressively expedient system to deliver the lion's share of our protein needs. So I maintain a large respect for those who go out to their tree stands to fill their freezers with wild meat. I think they don't let squeamishness cancel out their natural appetites. If more people did so, we would have a healthier ecology and an infinitely more well-adjusted relationship to what we put in our bellies.
I still enjoy my time in the woods. I continue to camp, paddle, hike, and fish throughout the year. And yes, I even cook ribeye steak over the campfire when I go on these trips. I'm even more avid in these pursuits than I was as a boy. My love of nature has deepened, which I think is a common effect of growing older. My desire to experience wilderness on its own terms has entwined with my love for reading about it. Instead of the old Hollywood versions of outdoor adventure that fired my imagination as a boy, I revisit my Thoreau, Emerson, and Abbey, or I dig deeper into my more recent encounters with John McPhee and Sigurd Olson. I've tried to grow in my understanding, become more open to its contemplative parts. Still, this evolution wouldn't be enough to dispel my nostalgic ties to those hunting camps with their many meaningful tales and legends. Too much personal accomplishment is back there behind me to want to give it up.
I have realized then that my change of attitude isn't in the Southern woods or my own development but in a large percentage of the Southern outdoorsman himself. I use the word "outdoorsman" with intentional precision because the change, though not universal, has been largely male. While there are many who still practice the reverence and respect that were hallmarks of my youthful hunting experience, it seems their numbers thin each season. Instead of the ethic of Leave No Trace, there is another kind of code. On the interstate you see it on the back panels and rear windows of tricked out pickup trucks. Stylized decals with phrases like Bone Collector or pictures of deer skulls against American flags or the graphic logo of the comic book vigilante The Punisher. The pastoral somehow got swapped out with the paramilitary while I wasn't paying attention, and I can't think of anything worse that could have happened to the average hunter.
It's hard to understand anything in the rural South today without viewing it through the lens of reactionary politics and what's supposed to pass for conservative culture. Southern white manhood doesn't know what to do with itself. People outside (and inside) the region consistently ridicule it for its role in racial prejudice, sexist dogma, and overall violent propensities. Some have paid attention to these criticisms, tried to be more thoughtful about how they move through the world while holding on to the traditions that still hold real value to them. But so many others have listened to their baser impulses, lashed out, doubled down.
They've committed themselves to this burlesque of masculinity that has become the new standard of the Southern man out in the woods. They've forgotten what it means to experience the particular beauty of the wilderness. They don't go out there to embrace solitude and time. They go out there to pull a trigger, and they have no qualms about advertising the fact. This desire to show off, to practice vain machismo, it changes everything. The act of hunting becomes mere background to the desire to offend. It is cultural theater, and it measures its effectiveness in terms of its ability to provoke an emotional response, not understanding. It wants to paint blood everywhere it can.
That is not the kind of Southern man I want to be. It's not the kind of man who wants to try to be better than he already is.
Recently, I canoed for a week with a small group of close friends in the Quetico-Superior region that comprises the border between Canada and Upper Minnesota. Each of us was born and raised in some part of the South, and it was our first time in the fabled Lake Country. We have made many trips together throughout the Southern woods, paddling, hiking, drinking, and telling amiable lies. We're all writers and care about the woods. We know each other, what we're about. By the end of the trip we had noticed something different about the North Country. Not in the woods themselves, which were as stark and striking as we expected them to be, but in the small town of Ely and its immediate surroundings. It's a place that couldn't be denser with sportsmen. Not just canoe paddlers and kayakers, but walleye fishermen and big game hunters, too. Most of them big, blue collar men who weren't shy about a bloody mary and a beer chaser after a full day of fishing on the lake. But there was a pronounced difference between these men and their Southern counterparts. When we sat down at the lodge bar with its wood paneling, beer signs, and taxidermied pike, the atmosphere was calm, the company convivial. We got to experience "Minnesota nice" at close range. There was no talk of you not being from around here, no guarded inquiry to the school of politics you followed. These men only wanted to know how the fishing was, how the weather had treated you.
It made me wistful for those old hunting trips. I hope they aren't completely gone, but I fear that brand of outdoorsman is fast going out of style. He doesn't fit in too well with the sloganizing and self-declared Southern Rebels of today with their Heritage Not Hate flags and their Molon Labe stickers. Large groups of young and middle-aged white men convinced they are under assault by a culture shift they want to stop, though it continues to outpace them year after year. I don't believe these men are exclusive to the South, but you see most clearly the things that are a part of the place where you grew up. There's a keenness to where you come from, a piercing sensitivity, and it's hard to look away when you've glimpsed an ugly truth.
In his seminal ecological essay, "A Native Hill," Wendell Berry discusses how the way we regard the land affects our patterns of behavior. In one passage, he talks about the psychological difference between taking a trail, which accommodates itself to the landscape, versus following a road, which cuts through the topography with the ultimate aim of maximum efficiency. At the extreme edge of this disregard for place, Berry places the highway, a piece of infrastructure designed as an epitome of all things contrary to the natural order of things. “Haste” is the word he uses. It's a good word. I believe haste is at the heart of the problem of the modern Southern outdoorsman. Haste to kill. Haste to defy. Haste to prove manhood. He has forgotten or more likely forsaken the patient way of being in the woods. Instead, he collects bones, he accrues points, realizing in real life marksmanship skills he first perfected through years of first-person-shooter video games. He goes to gun shows to buy camouflage face paint and pick up the newest tactical flashlights while browsing the latest prepper fiction. He imagines himself as a hero, his conceal-and-carry permit proving its ultimate worth when he puts down a mass shooter at his job or campus or church.
I hope I'm wrong. I hope we can recover our souls. I can't think of anything that hurts me more than destroying respect for the natural world.
I remember walking with my grandfather in the woods carrying my single-barreled .410. It was a warm autumn afternoon, and we were after squirrels. The leaves crinkled like paper underfoot. The sun was clean and strong against the thin sky.
"This way," he told me. "Now it's time to head on to the deep woods."
And I followed him, thrilled at whatever mystery such a place might hold.
Charles Dodd White is the author of three novels and a short story collection. He lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he teaches English at Pellissippi State Community College. His latest book is In the House of Wilderness.