Have you ever been to a Cabela’s store? I was there last week for a Maine Guide Certification prep course. I had never stepped foot into a Cabela’s store until last week. There is a lot of taxidermy and a kiosk to check your guns at the door. As someone who has never been hunting or fired a gun, the entire scene was unfamiliar to say the least and I quickly recognized that perhaps a passion for wilderness skills is not limited to crunchy, hippie tree huggers.
Our instructor for the week was “The Captain”, a life-long Mainer and long time hunting, fishing and recreation guide. He apologized in advance for his swearing and no b.s. approach. I decided to follow along with my own touch of irreverence and a lot of humility. The irreverence gained me rapport with The Captain. The humility offered space for a lot of new knowledge. I learned things like—
- how to use a map and compass
- how to identify Maine birds, fish and trees
- canoe strokes
- rescue techniques
- hunting and fishing regulations
- bag and possession limits of grouse and mergansers, mink and beaver
- the difference between a shotgun and a rifle
- what a gut pile is and not to leave one in the middle of the road
I listened to stories of the hunt that had a tone of sacred reverence. I wondered at the common awe shared over the sound of a moose call in the woods. I learned that it is legal to shoot a bear cub, but that such an act will destroy the reputation of any hunter to dares to do it. I realized that the most exciting part of the hunt is the patient waiting, watching, listening and that the satisfaction of the hunt is only partly dependent on whether or not a shot it fired. There is nuance and complexity in the soul of every human being. My classmates hold intricate and fundamental ethical hunting practices. And I am very familiar with the task of reconciling the purity of my own values with the messy ways that those values manifest in daily practice.
When I first saw the guns and taxidermy, I braced myself for judgement and dismissal based on my naïveté. Instead, I encountered eager and gracious teachers who were excited by my curiosity and gracious toward my ambivalence. I had braced myself because I had distilled and simplified the "type" of person I expected to meet, indulging in the same judgements I find so offensive when they are aimed toward me.
But the wilderness managed to infiltrate that sunless, airless room that was filled with strangers who, especially in this current political climate, should be enemies. But last week it took little more than collective memories of campfires, canoes and starry nights to transcend those differences and bind us with our common passion for the Maine backwoods and waters.
The Captain asked us on the first day to describe our ideal campsite. He made a list of qualities as we went around the room and each shared a detail. Fresh water source. Shelter from the elements. Soft ground. Accessible fire wood. Amazing view. Between the 12 individuals in the room, we could have found 1 million things to argue over. But we only needed to fuel our common imagination in order to connect.
There is so much to fight over. There are so many imminent threats and dangers to the wellbeing of the oppressed and disenfranchised and to the earth. There is ample fodder for rage and frustration, exhaustion and withdraw. And yes, sometimes I think it would be best for the world to burn burn burn. But last weekend, a group of us gathered a metaphoric handful of fragile kindling and with it built a source of heat and light. I learned that a community that can learn together, that can sit together gently and quietly, that can laugh together and share the most basic pleasures of humor and mystery can overcome fear in powerful ways.
It’s not utopia. But it’s what we’ve got. And at least sometimes, it might be enough.