Many hunters, especially those who shoot birds, are finding it increasingly disturbing to participate in their sport because of growing disapproval and outright censure from friends and families. Are they really conscienceless killers, insensitive to the pain and suffering they inflict? Are they lying to themselves and others about the values of an activity long past its time of acceptance by civilized humans? Editors at Alfred A. Knopf have gathered the views of 21 of today's best outdoors writers and have issued Seasons of the Hunter ($17.95), a collection of reportage, essays, autobiographies, fiction and, best of all, some first-rate writing.
Shifting values in a changing world, headlong urbanization, environmental pressures—these have all contributed to the hunter's predicament. But there are many other factors, overt and subtle. Charles Gaines, who has hunted all his life, can write of a five-day hunt with a friend for "woodcock and grouse in New Hampshire, "...for those five days it was for both of us a fine savagery, shared with a dog." And, "I have three children, from fifteen to twenty years old. None of them has ever killed an animal or a bird, and none intends to." Gaines tackles the dilemma, including that of the generation gap, with a direct, engrossing essay. In Guy de la Valdene's case, the gap is reversed. His father didn't care for hunting. "He'd done that in airplanes for three years in one war and again 25 years later as a member of the Free French. He wouldn't shoot things that didn't shoot back. He's dead now, and I've never been to war, so I bird-hunt."
Other contributors in Seasons are far more oblique on the subject, both in tone and content: Thomas McGuane in a haunting boyhood memoir, Robert F. Jones in a lean straight report of a memorable hunt, Brian Kahn chasing elk with a congenial cowboy and bows and arrows. And then there are four pieces of fiction, all novel, entertaining and pertinent. One of my favorites is E.A. Proulx's simple tale with an O. Henry ending about a veteran hunter and sometime farmer who is cajoled into spending a season teaching a rich and sassy young man how to shoot birds, hates it ("I usually hunt by myself...Me'n the dog"), can't quit because of the money and finally escapes through a near miracle. Another, by David Seybold, thrives on even more meager ingredients: A county road agent in remote country comes across a desperately injured young deer, abandoned by a hit-and-run driver, and stays with it until it dies. He sits in the road with the deer across his lap, stroking its shuddering side: "This is the best I can do," he said to the deer. "I don't know what else to do.... Know what killed you? ...The times. The times are changing and you and your kind don't figure into what they're changing to...."
Each of these 21 pieces is an honest statement about hunting in the late years of the 20th century.