I did not wear my hunter status on my sleeve, though my Filson shooting shirt, while being the same pale beige as the standard bird-watching garb of the day, was the one clue I offered to any fellow travelers who might be in the group. No one appeared to notice.
I’m always nervous around bird watchers. We go to the same places for sharply divergent activities: They admire. I kill. While many are fine with hunting, I can’t help but imagine what I’d be thinking if I were one of them, spotting a hunter in the group.
Oh. You’re the one who kills the birds we love.
This means I spend a lot of time imagining how I’m being judged, and what I’ll say if an accusation makes it from someone’s brain to her lips. I know this is a waste of time and needless self-aggravation given that most people are too polite to do that kind of thing. But it’s kind of hard to off my imagination.
At one point on the tour where we were standing near a bend in the Sacramento River, a Canada goose came wobbling in over us, fighting the gusty winds that have plagued California’s great Central Valley all spring. I watched with keen predatory interest. One person in the group of two dozen finally saw me watching and looked up too, and smiled, but the rest kept their eyes on the speaker who was talking to us.
A little later, we all moved down a road to take a look at a weir – a giant relief valve that sends waters gushing into a bypass when winter rains push the Sacramento River to its capacity, something that normally happens once every three years or so, but happened twice last winter.
We all stood atop this oak-shaded overlook. First I took in the bigger view – wind caressing the blond and pale green summer grasses, much as the water had coursed through them six months earlier. Then I looked down and there was only one thing I could see: spent 12 gauge shot shells, littered all around our feet.
This property is state land where shooting is allowed, and clearly, people come out here with a clay thrower for a little shooting action from time to time. And apparently, the last ones who came through were a bunch of slobs who couldn’t be bothered to take out their trash, despite the fact that it weighed a fraction of what it’d weighed when they hauled it in.
One of the first lessons I remember learning from my mom is we don’t litter, so I despise littering. If I’d had a bag of any sort on me, I would’ve started picking up shells, but I had nothing.
I waited for one of the bird watchers to say something about those stupid hunters, trashing up this otherwise beautiful piece of land. Hell, if I’d been there with a group of hunting or shooting friends, I would’ve said something snide.
But no one said anything. I looked around and appeared I was the only person fixated on the shells besides the tour guide’s two kids, who grabbed shells, forced them together, stuck them on the ends of sticks and other normal things kids do when their hands aren’t wrapped around video game controllers. Then they dropped them.
I was perplexed that no one else seemed to notice. Personally, I hate it when hunters litter, and when I’m out duck hunting on crowded public land, I always bring extra trash bags, and almost always come out with way more shells than I brought in, not to mention soda bottles, candy wrappers and sandwich bags.
Even if not one single non-hunter ever makes it to the spots where I do this clean-up routine, I don’t care. I believe every piece of trash we deliberately leave behind is an indictment. An indication that we don’t care about the environment. That we are just despoilers, not stewards, of the land…
Well, well, well. Look who’s judging now.
Who knows. Maybe the bird watchers were too, and they were just being polite. Or maybe they were just being attentive to the speaker. Unlike me.
All I know is this: We can do better as hunters and shooters. And perhaps if we did judge out loud a little more often, it would make a difference.
Holly A. Heyser is a hunter, forager, writer, photographer and college journalism lecturer who lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at hollyheyser.com.
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