By Bob Ferris
I was once insulted by someone younger on an on-line hunting forum because he thought that the camouflage pattern I wore in a picture I shared was too dated. He argued that I was somehow less of a hunter and diminished in my ability to speak about wildlife issues because I started my outdoor pursuits in a time before Gore-Tex existed (1969) or camouflage was a fashion statement. He doubled down arguing that I lacked true knowledge about natural systems and the "devastation" wrought by predators because my degrees in biology and wildlife conservation meant that I spent all my time in laboratories and never in the field where I would actually learn something as he had. In his analysis my experience meant I could not speak from experience and my education meant that I knew nothing about what I studied. But that is where we are...swimming in a stinky soup well-seasoned with oxymorons, illogic, and worse.
Need other examples? Take survival gear (please). The word "survival" since its first use in the 15th century has been used to describe being able to live through some significant hardship or where others cannot. Often the term implies chugging along thriving off nearly nothing. That is the skillset described. How exactly is this idea then the basis for an industry issuing catalogs filled with products? How does the associated idea of minimalism give birth to a billion dollar industry? But it has (1,2,3).
It is interesting to note and illustrative of my point that Bio-lite stoves are sometimes included on lists for survival supplies. The rationale frequently provided is that they can cook your food while recharging your cellphones and other electronic devices. I have a Bio-lite stove (mine above). I like it a lot and have used it to charge my cellphone while making my morning coffee and oatmeal. But coffee, oatmeal, and cellphones are all elements that require intact governments, functioning infrastructure, and robust agricultural systems. But none of these are part of an apocalyptic survival situation. Catastrophic or apocalyptic events, which is what the doomsday preppers are making ready for, are the lands of rubbing sticks together and rock rings fires which kicks survival gear into the realm of the silly.
The above said, I do not hate gear. I have enjoyed heated sox, neoprene wadders, and space-aged fabrics. I survived a week or so in Fort Saint John, BC in late January because of gore-tex and thinsulate (above). These are great improvements and certainly make life in the field during sketchy weather more comfortable. Although I do not miss all the wool and sweaty PVC coverings, I wear the "new stuff" with some measure of guilt. The guilt springs from knowing that a cart has gotten before the horse in that I fear that industry is driving the way we interact with nature rather than the more visceral and deeply engrained ethos that should guide or at the very least influence our actions.
What do I mean? I have a neighbor who is a bicycle racer. He is constantly tuning his bikes to reduce friction and increase speed. On some level this seems contrary to the idea of exercise embodied in the enterprise. I feel similarly about those accoutrements that make hunting, fishing, and camping a little easier, more comfortable, or increasingly successful. These improvements are nice but might not be functionally compatible with our valued experience as this collectively translates to more pressure on wildlife and wildlands. This is particularly true as the population increases and the resources do not. Our current Secretary of Interior's campaign against public lands (1,2,3) and the continued congressional failure to support and expand on the successes of the Land and Water Conservation Fund enabled by those wanting to destroy this heritage are examples of the problem (1,2,3).
Thomas Robert Malthus would likely chuckle sadly at the sorrow expressed by those using something longer, harder, and more broadly bemoaning its diminishment with surprise in their expressions. How in anyone's logical construct could accelerated exploitation lead to a positive conservation outcome? It is like a bowl of ice cream when you use a larger spoon. Yet here we are with snowmobiles (or machines) thought compatible with the idea of wilderness, faster skiffs with healthy fishing flats, and better optics with stable ungulate populations. It is hard in this swirl to sort irony from oxymoron and short-sightedness from cognitive dissonance.
I often ache to get out in the field. It comes and goes changing with the seasons and mirroring my past patterns. My field coat stinks of damp duck feathers and wet dogs. I oddly love the smell. The silence of the wind calls for fly casts. But maybe I should not breathe deep nor listen too closely these siren calls. Perhaps it is more important that I (and others) start the process of remembering what some of us once knew and teaching others what they need to know.
My father took me on many hunting trips before I actually hunted. We visited many rivers and shores before I caught my first trout on the Eel with my sister's telescoping metal pole while the family was heading north for the opening of the World's Fair in Seattle. Perhaps in this he was teaching me that hunting was not shooting and fishing was not catching. Maybe when the fish were not biting quickly easily and the deer or ducks missing it was not a sign that I needed a better rod or trickier lure; a longer shell with heavier shot; or a nifty scope rather than patience and iron sights. After all fish-tailing on an icy road is not an invitation to drive faster but we have done this in regards to wildlife populations and our stewardship of land, air, and water.
Those who want to sell us all manner of gear work hard to create an expectation. This is reenforced by video distillations that collapse days into seconds. Unfortunately, this often cuts out the watermelon sweetness of the experience of it leaving only the rind of killing and numbers. It is like watching a movie and skipping to the closing scene. Where in this can ethics and deep appreciation grow? Where is the needed understanding of these complex systems and the modeling of critical thought? I started my career as a deer biologist and understand the tapestry of this critter's habitat use through the day and year but that is a different understanding than the minute temporal pinpoints of where a big buck will be at dawn or dusk in the fall. In our current state we have to come to the understanding that the former is much more important than the latter (see above).
Few of us who hunt and fish would stand on a forested mountain, stubbled field, or sandy shore proudly proclaiming that we are the instruments of our own demise. Where would be the fun in that? But we are. Our unbridled consumption not just in gear but all about us leads us faster to a time when wild waters and lands fail us more frequently which seems ultimately fair as we have surely done the same to them. Conservation and stewardship require diligence and awareness.
But the mountain we must climb to turn this situation around is steep. Many in this country have listened regularly to seductive and authoritative voices not qualified to teach the lowest grades in most of our nation's elementary schools (1,2,3). These forces and others have labored relentlessly to paint fiction as fact and throw crumbs of doubt on sound science and drive wedges between natural allies. Because of this those who entered the fray fighting for an outdoor legacy now find themselves recalibrating goals in monumentally unfortunate directions (1,2,3).
I, for one (and I know there are others), hope that the frogs among us collectively start to feel the pot water warm and understand what that means. Similarly, I want those in duck blinds expecting frost, but surrounded by skeeters to scratch their heads as well as their bites along with those waiting for delayed hatches standing in snow or dry creek beds. I am all for quality gear and like to look at the catalogs and cruise the outdoor stores, but we have to listen to what nature is telling us rather than corporate voices anxious for another sell or those elected officials who do not listen to the lands we love or simply do not care.
This could start with baby steps. How about when you teach your child (or parent) about roll casts or the effective range of a shotgun or shot size you talk about how to spot fake news or nicely packaged miss-information like the above video (1,2,3). Or what a monumentally bad idea it is to take seriously any information gained from places calling themselves institutes (1,2,3) or universities (1,2,3) run by those who are not even qualified to teach in their areas of "expertise" at community colleges which the president recently maligned (1,2,3). This seems to make more sense than accepting hook, line, and sinker half-truths and fibs fed to you by oil companies and related industries that have been lying to you for two generations (1,2,3) or those once trusted who gladly and gratefully accept their money (1,2,3,4).
Those who hunt and fish need to pick a side. We, and I understand we are not monolithic, can cling to where we are and lose more...quicker. Or we can step out of our comfort zone and help shape the debate and solutions. And yes I understand that adopting this approach might mean standing next to the unwashed and nose-ringed or being subjected to some second-hand pot smoke, but look at what you were promised in the tax cut, the heath care overhaul, and the protection of public lands. Then look at what you got (1,2,3). At some point the light bulb must click on. Now would be an excellent time to remember that critical thinking is critical, experience comes with time, knowledge springs from education, and credibility comes from credentials not a creamy radio voice or a comforting message that serves you as well as that Twinkie does in your weight loss.