The Thrill Of the Hunt

What’s the appeal of squeezing off a few rounds into a defenseless animal? We commie liberals may never understand, but that didn't stop me from heading into the woods with my right-wing-nutcase friend.

As part of my continuing education in the mysteries of red-state Texas, I decided in December to visit my right-wing-nutcase friend, Dr. Robert McFarlane, at his 7,500-acre ranch in the Trinity River bottom, near the community of Tennessee Colony. I wanted to understand why hunting—or “blood sport,” as he terms it—is so basic to his kind. Doc doesn’t mind my calling him a right-wing nutcase. He introduces me as his “commie liberal buddy,” and this arrangement of agreeing to disagree has served us well for better than a year now. If all conservatives were as smart, generous, witty, aghast at vanity and hypocrisy, and true to their beliefs as Doc, I’d probably be one.

I wrote once that Doc is a Falstaffian figure, to which he took sharp exception. Let’s just say that he is a man of large appetites and boundless pleasures, an honors graduate of Harvard Medical School who practices cardiology at Palestine Regional Medical Center by day and morphs into a river rat at night, a great mass of a man who is normally dressed in patched overalls and a grimy cap, his hair gone thin and his beard gray at 52. Medicine is merely his profession; his passion is the deep woods where he composes poetry and essays in his head and, with a few exceptions, kills only what he can eat. The woods are the one place he feels complete. “By definition,” he wrote in an unpublished essay, “successful hunters are inescapably conversant with the life’s final instant … they take comfort in the reality that a leaden bullet will salve, for [a] while, their primal atavistic drives.” So great is that drive that he has sacrificed everything, including his wife and children, to remain here.

Doc was a pretty good basketball player at Palestine High School in the late sixties until he got kicked off the team because he thought the opening of hunting season was more important than practice. As he tells it, he applied to Harvard “almost as a lark.” Four years later he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in chemistry, then breezed through Harvard Medical School. He also found time to read nearly everything by William Faulkner, concoct an explosive that blew the heads off gray squirrels that nested near his dorm, and court his future wife, a fellow Harvard Medical School student named Susanna Bedell. Doc could have set up practice anywhere in the country, but to the dismay of the Harvard faculty, he chose to go home to East Texas, where he became a country doctor and a land baron. Although Susanna’s roots were in Boston, she agreed to follow. The long-term plan was for them to live summers at their second home, in Concord, Massachusetts, and winters at their ranch, the BigWoods (the name comes from a collection of short stories by Faulkner). After the McFarlane twins, Scot and Anna, were born, in 1986, Susanna built a large internal-medicine practice in Palestine. By the time the children had reached the fourth grade, however, Susanna had endured all the bucolic living she could stand; she took the twins home to the Boston area, where she lives and practices today.

Doc sees Susanna every five or six weeks and accepts the separation as the price he must pay to reclaim his precious bottomland, to lovingly restore it to what it was before men with axes and plows started hacking it up a century ago. In an essay titled “Squirrel Hunting Alone,” he observes the mottled light on the forest floor and reflects on his wife’s different outlook on life. He believes that what made Rembrandt’s paintings special was his use of darkness, while she thinks it was his use of light. “Those who hunt,” he tells me, “have an inherent difficulty with optimism.” Doc has earmarked parts of the BigWoods for each of his children and believes that his son has the wiring needed to pursue blood sport. “He did a film on hunting for Concord Academy and almost got kicked out of school for joking about the Lee Harvey rule,” Doc tells me, chuckling as he reaches the punch line: “Head shots only.”

A few hours of daylight remain when I arrive at the BigWoods on a Sunday afternoon. Doc is eager to get started, and soon we are in his Yamaha Rhino ATV, bouncing across miles of trails and roads that he has carved through the wilderness. (Elsewhere on the property today are hunters—some Doc’s friends, some not—who’ve paid a fee for the privilege of prowling the place.) Doc’s .17-caliber pistol rests against his leg, and his larger caliber .25-06 is wedged against my leg. To my relief, he hasn’t brought along a gun for me; I discovered at age ten, when I picked up a dove that my dad had shot and felt life withdrawing from its small, warm body, that I didn’t have the stuff to be a hunter. “Cartwright, what a commie liberal like you needs to understand … ” Doc says, in preparation for a lecture on the need for a flat tax. He pauses in mid-sentence. Unexpectedly, we are halted by a huge hole in the levee road. It’s the work of beavers; soon the hole will expand and fester until the levee collapses into the marsh he has worked so hard to protect.

Doc’s attention is focused on a spot on the far edge of the marsh, at least eighty yards away. All I can see is a glint where the sun breaks off the water’s surface. But I recognize what is happening: Doc is slipping into his killing zone, a sort of catatonic state in which he loses touch with the external world. For the next few seconds, his energy, skill, and being are engaged in the process. In one fluid motion, he raises the pistol, aims, and squeezes off a round. I flinch at the crack of the .17-caliber and catch a glimpse of the mortally wounded beaver, flopping and flailing in final

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