“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.