“For in the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”
—Baba Dioum, Senegalese environmentalist
I have been blessed with two strong children, and my wife and I have spent long months, of long seasons, outside with them, fishing, hunting, gathering everything from thimbleberries to antelope, marveling at the way a hawk rips a bullsnake from the grass, or at the way a sturgeon, caught on a catfish rig and released, disappears back into the cold runoff of the Marias River like a dinosaur returning to another epoch. In short, we are teaching them to love creation, and to find that sense of wonder at the myriad wild animals—what writer Henry Beston called “the other nations”—that share this part of Montana with us.
For a long time, I wondered if I was making a terrible mistake.
It has been my luck, and my choice, to have lived in some of the wildest places left in the United States. When I was 11, my family moved to a place called Sharp’s Cove, within driving distance of Huntsville, Ala., a small valley in the southern Cumberlands, replete with mysterious caves and spring-fed creeks and bass ponds, farm lands and cattle, and endless (for a child) hardwood forests. It was a freedom that I could barely have imagined when we lived in town.
The winter we moved there I hunted every day. I could load my pockets with shotgun shells, from Number 4 shot for ducks along the creek to 6 shot for rabbits and squirrels in the woods, to 8 for quail and doves on the way home. Hunting season ran until the end of February.
By March, the silver redhorse (a kind of sucker fish) were shoaling in the creek. In April, crappie started biting at the nearby public lake. Catfish followed, with bass and shellcrackers after that. Summer was snakes, caught and kept for a few days and released, or bullfrogs, gigged on all-night expeditions and fried for breakfast. Bow-hunting season started in October, just as dove season closed, and as topwater bass fishing came back for a brief and glorious two weeks or so. These cycles were not strictly about taking game and fish. They were an intensive apprenticeship to a landscape that I learned to love more than anything else I had experienced up to that point in my life.
When I was in my early twenties, after a short time spent working at a sawmill in the Amazon and a stint working as a contractor for Weyerhaeuser paper company in the South, I lived for a while on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, sometimes commuting to work at a fish-packing plant in my brother-in-law’s skiff. After five or six hours of unloading pound net boats and boxing the fantastic bounty of Pamlico Sound, I got in the skiff, headed south and fished the outgoing tide for redfish, speckled trout, cobia and anything that came by—all the predatory inhabitants of a place where the current raged and sucked prey fish out of the sanctuaries of eelgrass and spartina and into the maelstrom of the Atlantic Ocean, not 15 miles from where two of the greatest forces on earth collided: the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current.
It was a dream of mine, to be there, fishing, in that place, witness to those forces and those sleek predators arcing through the green waters. That dream had gotten me through many an afternoon of dreary school, many a day of dreary jobs.
When I moved west to Montana in the late 1980s, I worked as a tree planter, sawyer, morel picker, yew-bark cutter, whatever I could do to live outside and be free to hunt and fish and climb and wander. What I loved growing up in Alabama, I found tenfold here. The Madison River and the Bitterroot were the rivers I had been looking for my whole life. Elk hunting was the most perfect kind of hunting, more so than any hunting I’d ever experienced before, more so even than what I’d read of the once-great African safaris.
My relationship to the mountains and rivers is, first, as a predator, a forager, an inhabitant and participant rather than a visitor. As I teach my son and daughter these pursuits, I cannot help but wonder if they will live to see a time when there are few places to forage, few wild animals to watch or hunt on public land, or no public land at all.
I look at the great cities of China and India, at Atlanta and even Bozeman, and I see no room for an inhabitant of anything but a landscape devoted to human needs. I ask myself if teaching my children to love the outdoors and all that inhabits it is wrong on a planet where the number of homo sapiens will soon reach nine billion ravenous souls. Residential subdivisions cover the Alabama land where I learned to hunt whitetails and rabbits and quail. The Outer Banks are now unrecognizable to me, buried under vacation homes. The quiet Bitterroot Valley that we once loved glitters with lights and traffic and commerce. If it is inevitable that we must bear witness to more subdivisions, more beloved rivers drained for irrigation, more loss of wildlife and wild places, then why teach our children to love these wild places and things in the first place? Why set them up for that kind of heartbreak?
The answer is this: because hunting and fishing and the wonders of the natural world are what I have to offer them. It—everything I ever loved, its power undiluted by the losses I’ve experienced—is all still out there, waiting for a new generation to discover it and, if it is their compulsion to do so, to fight for it in the years to come.
After the wild floods of mid-summer 2011 had subsided, my family was fishing the Missouri, downstream of Carter Ferry. My daughter’s nightcrawler rolled across the gravels of a shoal and tumbled into the shadows of deeper water. We never knew what took it, just an invisible, implacable force. The 8-pound test line was singing as she ran through the shallows, doing her 9-year-old best to hold on to the cheap little spinning outfit. The line snapped with deep finality. “It was a sturgeon!” she said. “A sturgeon! I know it was!” She stood in the water looking into the muddy currents, transfixed, the mystery there unrevealed, waiting for further exploration.
My son’s first year in the mountains with a rifle arrived during elk season, 2012, though he’s come along on such hunts since he was 6. We set out in profound darkness and six or eight inches of new snow, our headlights playing over the tracks of a few mule deer, wolves, a pair of grizzlies, one big, one fairly small. The only chance at the elk we knew were there was to go high, and try to be above them at first light. We went up and up, frozen slide rock underfoot, wind crying in stunted limber pines that slowly became visible around us as darkness turned to palest dawn. We had cow tags in our packs. If we could stay downwind, and around a ridge, there was a bedding area holding a hundred head in a patch of partially burnt timber. I’d seen them there the day before, glassing from another valley.
We stood, breathing, recovering from the climb, waiting. Maybe the wind shifted. Maybe a sentry cow that we couldn’t see could see us.
We heard the whistle and chatter of the herd, still too far away, then the thunder of hooves. We were close enough to smell their heavy scent, but they remained unseen. Somewhere still above us, beyond a false summit that we’d mistaken for the top of the ridge, the herd poured away, clattering to safety on trails we’d never seen before, never known existed.
The lead cows came into view across an abyssal basin of sheer cliff and one narrow trail leading back toward the Scapegoat Wilderness. “They made monkeys out of us,” my son said, still winded but grinning.
“Indeed they did.”
We stood silent on that high place, awed and humbled in the timeless way of human beings who find, however fleetingly, their place in creation.