Here’s the text of the pecha kucha talk I gave at Emergence Christianity last week:
The joy of hunting is sublime. Surprisingly sublime, when you consider that the climax of the endeavor comes with an explosion, in which a firing pin makes a tiny dent on the metal boot of a shotgun shell, compressing gunpowder and thereby causing an explosion that ejects dozens of pellets at breathtaking velocity through a metal tube and, if fate is on your side, into the flesh of a bird on the wing. Surprisingly sublime for an activity that ends, when successful, with blood and death.
I did not grow up hunting. My father is not a hunter, nor were my grandfathers. It is a chosen avocation of mine, often distasteful to those who share my vocation. I have yet to meet another PhD in theology in the field. Instead, I hunt with firefighters and Army Reservists and computer repairmen.
I hunt only birds, because hunting for me is all about the dog. It all starts with the dog.
Deep in the winter, the training begins. Hunting dogs are taught surprisingly few commands. Never “shake” or “roll over.” Not “lie down” or even “stay.” Just “sit,” “come,” “back,” and a release.
“Come” is simple enough, and if the dog loves and respects you, as any dog should, it is the most natural command.
“Sit” means more than just sit. It also means stay. It means to sit until released. There is no need for stay if the dog knows how to sit. “Sit” means sit until I tell you not to sit anymore.
The release command is the dog’s name, in our case, “Albert,” the happiest word the dog ever hears. When a bird hits the water, everything in a millennium of breeding leading to that moment fills every spiral of DNA in that retriever. He quakes with anticipation, salivates on behalf of his lupine ancestors, but, when trained, holds position until he hears his name.
“Albert!” He’s off like a shot, through brambles or thickets, breaking ice, busting through cattails. Unlike those lupine ancestors, he does not want to eat the dispatched fowl. His gastronomic needs are well tended to, and that instinct has been driven out of him. Instead, he wants nothing more than to bring that bird back, dead or alive, and lay it at his master’s feet.
Pheasant hunting engages my relationship with Albert differently than waterfowling. Through fields of rye and switchgrass, he hunts, nose in the air, somehow knowing to quarter back and forth, back and forth in front of me, rarely running beyond my 40-yard shooting range. And when he does, a quick whistle brings him back in range.
It’s taken me two years of hunting with him to notice, but now I see it. When he gets birdy I see. My companion hunters don’t but I do. He makes a quick, subtle jerk. His ears go up slightly, and his tail begins to wag a little faster and at a different angle.
He’s on the scent of a pheasant. “He’s birdy,” I yell. And then the bird flushes. With the shout, “Hen!” the bird glides away unmolested. But exclamations of “Rooster!” brings gunfire, downing the majestic creature with the long pinfeathers about 50% of the time. The pointers stand around like idiots, but Albert again goes into retriever mode, chasing down the bird, bringing him back to me.
Back at home, we use every part of the bird. The meat goes for sausage, the bones for broth, and the feathers for dog training. Surprisingly, my otherwise picky children love it. “Please dad, make pheasant sausage again,” they ask on a weekly basis. Nothing makes Tanner, the 12-year-old, more proud than pulling a duck bratwurst from his lunchbox to the ooohs and aaahs of his middle school compatriots.
I cannot quite describe for you the allure of the hunt: the joy in watching a dog you’ve trained do exactly what you’d hoped; fighting back the heartbeat in your ears with the whistle of duck wings; the adrenaline rush with the cackle of a rooster taking flight; the satisfaction of bringing game to the table.
I cannot quite explain that fully-orbed experience. But I can tell you at least this much: if you don’t hunt, you might not understand it. It’s a bit like explaining the Eucharist to a Hindu. We are eating flesh and drinking blood, to be sure.
But it’s different than that.
It’s more sublime than that.