He's seen the eyes staring down from under a crown of antlers. He's tasted meals made of fresh catches and kills — even reeled in a dozen or so trout of his own. It won't be long now; my little boy is growing into an outdoorsman. A proud witness, I feel privileged to be a part of it.
Being outdoors with my 5-year-old son is the closest to heaven I may ever get. Teaching him how to tie a clinch knot, how to listen for the sound of incoming waterfowl, how to tell the difference between moose and deer tracks left in the mud — there are countless lessons I can share with him in Vermont's woods and marshes.
But those skills aren't all I want him to find there. I hope he'll experience camaraderie, grow to appreciate beauty and survival, and develop an honest understanding and respect for life.
It may not be easy to hold his attention; interest in hunting and fishing appears to be waning, nationally and here in Vermont. Tantalized by gadgetry, today's kids are trading in their Red Ryders for iPods and mobile devices. I didn't have my own phone until my first year in college, and it was attached to my dorm-room wall — egad!
And technology is not the only thing standing between kids and the woods. For many adults, hunting has turned into a repugnant display of pseudo-manliness that means guns, killing, aggression, and a lack of compassion and respect for wildlife. The extreme antihunting crowd pictures Ted Nugent in a loincloth tramping through the woods, with a bazooka fixed on anything that moves and "Cat Scratch Fever" playing in the background.
Meanwhile, on the other side, Constitution thumpers equate hunting with an American pride that sets us apart from the weak. To them, its opponents are tree-hugging longhairs. They're quick to cite Nugent's credo, "Kill it and grill it" — but also a litany of ways sportsmen and-women fund wildlife conservation efforts nationwide.
My reality — and I suspect that of most hunters — is somewhere in between. I must have been 8 or 9 years old when my father bought me my first Daisy BB gun. Just holding it made me feel trusted, and more grown-up. Initially, I'd come home from school and spend the evening after dinner in our cellar. Lying prone, plugging a cardboard box with mini musket balls, I talked to myself and imagined a real hunt. I learned how to exhale and hold my breath out, to steady a shot. I learned to respect the business end of a gun. I learned how to be alone.
BB guns in hand, a friend and I would spend entire days in the woods on his family's dairy farm. As we struck out in the morning, often in full camouflage and black face paint, the creeks and ponds opened up a new world to me. It was always there, crouching and silent. But I needed to listen for it to come alive.
I witnessed the grace of bounding deer, the backward dart of crawfish, the song of migrating birds. I was in awe that anyone could understand these creatures well enough to capture them. I sat around the dinner table, hearing tales of their demise, delighting in the spoils. I listened — and learned.
Now grown, I have my own stories of successes and failures in the woods, rivers and streams of Vermont. These tales are new to my son's ears, and I see my childhood imagination fresh in his eyes, as if I'm hearing those old stories for the first time over a plate of venison. As we grow older together and spend more time in the woods attempting to unlock their mysteries, we will share far more failures than successes. These times will make great table talk. That is my hope, anyway.
There is a proverb, attributed to many different sources, that says: "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime." I'm giving my son this education in the hope that it will sustain him the way it's sustained me.
And if he wants to bring his smartphone along to snap a photo of his first kill, I can live with that.