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 “By definition,” he wrote in an unpublished essay, “successful hunters are inescapably conversant with the life’s final instant .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 desperation before sinking to the floor of the marsh. “I Lee Harvey’d that bastard,” Doc proclaims. The kill complete, he slouches in his seat and takes an enormous breath, his eyes half-closed and dreamy, like a man who has just had good sex.
That night we meet on the porch of the BigWoods lodge to drink whiskey and listen to our fellow hunters talk about their day, about the hunt, and about their dogs, which they agree are as important as their guns. “I had a really good time with my dogs,” says one shooter, who returned with no ducks in his pouch. Normally, the marshes are alive by mid-December, but the warm autumn has yet to inspire many ducks to make the trip down from Canada. Deer and feral hogs, however, are plentiful, and some of the hunters will work until the early hours of morning, skinning and quartering their prey. I ask if any of them ever have regrets after they pull the trigger. A few admit they do. Doc says that he takes comfort in the knowledge that at least the poor creatures “didn’t die in a nursing home.” Jim Autrey, who has hunted deer all over Texas and heads up a video production company called Texas Deer Hunter, which sells hunting equipment and produces radio and TV shows about hunting, tells us that not once has he regretted a kill. “But I shot an American buffalo,” he adds. “And let me tell you, it was almost a religious experience.” Doc rolls his eyes but says nothing. Later we drive to the processing barn, where a bloodied doe, her eyes permanently frozen in horror, hangs from a hook while skinners undress her. The young woman who killed the doe, a high school ag teacher, drinks beer and talks in an excited voice about her day in the deer stand. As she was preparing to shoot, she accidentally sat in a bed of fire ants, leaped up, broke her nose on the window frame, and made a clean kill. I sense that this is a day she won’t forget.
On most mornings Doc wakes early, reads eight newspapers on the Internet, devours a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausage, and pancakes, then hurries to his office to warn his patients to mind their diets. This Monday morning, however, he sleeps late for the first time in months. We spend most of the day riding the estate in the Rhino, spotting bands of deer but shooting nothing, for which I am grateful. After a time we stop and walk through the woods, overwhelmed by the silence and the sensation that we are the last people on earth. In a recent e-mail to me, Susanna explained, “As to the blood sport, it is not the blood that truly engages me or Bob with hunting. It is the still active quiet of the woods; the sun coming up through the stark woods; the quiet, the listening; the quiet, the listening.” Although the present course of the Trinity River is several miles away, its meandering history is recorded in the diversity of the land where we are walking—alternating parcels of sandy loam, black clay, oxbow lakes, great open meadows, and dense tracks of oak, elm, cedar, and pine trees. Land in the Trinity floodplain is virtually useless for farming and ranching, but that hasn’t stopped people from clearing the woods or draining the marshes or otherwise destroying wildlife habitat.
In this magic setting, where solitude trumps a lifetime of casual beliefs, Doc’s ranting about the evils of the tax code seems to make sense. As an example of how it encourages people to make environmentally destructive moves, he tells me about an old patient of his who clear-cut 12,000 acres because growing grass instead of trees reduced his tax bill. Doc is a practical breed of conservative, one who believes that the death penalty is underused, that drugs should be decriminalized and treated as a public health problem, and that the environment should be protected because, among other reasons, it’s a good political issue for Republicans. Despite his distrust of government, Doc has made huge improvements to his property by tapping the government’s wetlands-restoration programs, which require pipeline, energy, and utility companies to pay landowners to plant trees and replace wetlands the companies destroy. He compares his mission to restore the habitat to Fitzcarraldo’s quixotic quest to haul a boat over a mountaintop.
Since returning to Texas, in 1984, Doc has bought and restored hundreds of acres of endangered bottomland hardwood, including part of what used to be his family farm and boyhood hunting ground. He has organized other land-owners into the Middle Trinity River Basin Conservation Cooperative, which now covers 190,000 acres of river bottom. “Conservatism and conservation are first cousins,” he tells me. “My holy grail is to make money off my land without raising cows. I hate cows.” Trees that took a hundred years to grow and five minutes to fell are being systematically replanted. One acre of floodplain can sequester six hundred tons of carbon, Doc calculates, and if the Bush administration ever makes a carbon market possible, he figures to clean up. That’s not all. He plans to pump groundwater into the river and sell it downstream to the city of Houston. And that wastewater that Dallas is so eager to get rid of? It travels downriver and helps refurbish his bottomland hardwoods. “Every time someone in Dallas flushes a toilet,” he jokes, “I get a new oak tree.” I read somewhere that in the five years from 1992 to 1997, Texas led the nation in loss of undeveloped land; every two minutes another acre of Texas farmland or open space becomes a subdivision or a mall or a road. Until today, I regarded the BigWoods as merely a place to hunt. Suddenly, I appreciate it as the living preservation of our Texas heritage. And if Doc can make a buck saving it, more power to him.
An hour before sunset, Doc’s high school pal Dick Swift, a lawyer and former state representative from Palestine, joins us for one last attempt at bagging a Boone and Crockett—size buck. Swift sits in a folding chair on the small bed of the Rhino, his rifle across his knees. I try to shield my face from the spray of mud as we head for the river, bumping and sloshing through ankle-deep marshes and ribbons of black gumbo. When we reach the river, Doc follows its bank to a wide clearing and parks in a clump of trees where the deer won’t see us. It’s freezing cold. Doc pours cups of straight whiskey and passes them around. There was always a bottle at the hunting camp, Faulkner wrote: “Those fine fierce instants of heart and brain and courage and wiliness and speed were concentrated and distilled into that brown liquor which not women, not boys and children, but only hunters drank, drinking not of the blood they spilled but some condensation of the wild immortal spirit.”
Mercifully, no deer venture into the clearing, and we spend the twilight hour drinking and joking in soft voices and trading tales of derring-do and folly. It’s dark by the time we head back to the lodge. Billions of stars illuminate the night sky. The only sounds are yapping coyotes, hooting owls, and wind rustling the naked treetops. I feel cold but alive and complete and, for the moment at least, pumped by that primal atavistic drive only hunters understand. I started to say we hunters, but you know what I mean.