Author: Emily Courtney
“…sitting still in the shadow, let your game find you, or pass by without suspicion; for this is the best way to hunt, whether one is after game or only a better knowledge of the ways of bird and beast.”
I have an old book on my shelf, a very old book with a rusty red cover, scarred and stained from past readers’ hands and coffee cups, with faded gold lettering on the spine and yellowed pages that smell of dust and age. It’s a collection of essays by William J. Long, titled “Ways of Wood Folk.” Published in 1899, the book details his observations of various wild creatures at home in their wild places. The writing makes it clear that the author was a woodsman, more comfortable in the wild than anywhere else. He was insatiably curious about the world around him and its inhabitants, and seemingly more interested in the lives of wild animals than those of his fellow humans. During his time spent outdoors finding and watching wildlife, it seems his longing to grow in knowledge and understanding of these creatures often overruled his desire to make a meal or trophy of them. His words have rekindled my own curiosity about wood folk, and inspired me to pay a little closer attention in the woods.
Reading something written so long ago always makes me wonder what the world, and life in it, were like back then. Long conveys such accounts of his ramblings in wild places that it would seem they were much easier to come by in his time than they are now; as if the animals, the wilderness, and the people were all a bit wilder then. He frequented secluded spots where he could watch the feeding, breeding, and brood rearing behaviors of wildlife as they actually occurred. It’s difficult to find places like this now, where wild animals feel at home enough to carry on their daily routines without constantly being on guard against human intrusion. Long records observations of and encounters with a wide range of creatures; from catching crows robbing songbird nests, to studying beavers in the midst of dam construction, to watching a bull moose react to a hunter’s call. He would sacrifice the hope of a lynx pelt to watch the predator hunt. He would forego sleep to watch rabbits frolic in a moonlit clearing. He would devote an entire day to the study of a fox’s meal planning habits. Every encounter was a learning experience, and every animal had some lesson to teach, secret to share, or unique mannerism to display.
He devotes two separate chapters specifically to the habits of waterfowl. As a class of game animal, waterfowl seem to captivate their hunters to a degree unmatched by any other predator-prey relationship. Within the hunting community, you would be hard pressed to find a group that is more obsessed with their prey and the pursuit of it. Long was an occasional duck hunter, but much more frequent observer. He made such a study of the physiology, biology, and behavior of ducks that his knowledge of them could easily match or surpass that of the most seasoned professor. In one chapter he chronicles a day where he lies on his stomach in a muddy marsh, concealed by reeds, for hours on end, observing a flock of black ducks as they swam, fed, and slept inches from his face. These days, waterfowlers, or indeed any hunters, rarely reach that level of understanding about their prey. Most never even make an attempt at that degree of intimacy. The great irony here is that because of his familiarity with them, he could have hunted them more effectively than anyone, but seemed to shoot one only out of absolute necessity, when he needed something to take back to camp for his supper.
Long’s attitude towards wildlife and hunting often makes me reevaluate my own. My past pursuits in the woods have rarely looked like his; they don’t mirror his patience or deep desire for understanding. Simply by reading his accounts, I have learned more about the “ways” of the game I pursue than through all of my personal experiences with them. I think all hunters could benefit from his example of seeking a deeper understanding of wild things. Through my attempt at doing so, I have developed a more profound reverence and fascination for wildlife, which compels me to watch a bit longer before reaching for my weapon.