While everyone is obsessing over Trump, trying to excuse or at least understand how anyone could nominate for president of the United States a sociopathic boor with an inflamed nose, a limited vocabulary, puppet-gestures, and delusional ideas about his wonderfulness— to say nothing of his total lack of a grip on reality, I just don’t get it. But while everyone is distracted, I’m going to talk about a dangerous subject. Big game hunting.
My life has often been about reconciling opposites that most people handle by finding a social niche they fit and staying in it. But I don’t fit any social niches, because my niche is trying to understand everything, to expand consciousness. But I find that my physical being is the instrument of my consciousness and that interferes. For instance, I wish I were a vigorous, healthy young man who could go bighorn sheep hunting.
But I don’t really want to go bighorn sheep hunting. That I even know such a thing exists at all is partly empathy with Bob Scriver, partly hands-on with the animals (though they were dead), and partly from appreciating work by people like Tony Bynum. I’m in the second half of my seventies with fitness at the level of butterscotch pudding, and I’m no longer a shooter. (In the Sixties I shot a “gopher” every summer morning in order to feed our “wild” pets. I would not approve of wild pets now. My single-shot .22 is long gone.)
Big game hunting is gender-assigned. To some people that means sex, so they bring their-girl partners along, like Timothy Treadwell, exposing them to experiences they might not like that much, like being eaten by a grizzly. Certainly, I went along with hunting on the Rocky Mountain front to please Bob. And the GF Tribune often shows photos of girls who are barely teens with their first kill, much bigger than they are.
But also, I really wanted the experience, to be like the adventurers I had read about. I somehow attached psychologically with Robert Falcon Scott even as I also bonded with Anne of Green Gables. (I think it was because I was forced to attend so many Boy Scouts events where they played that movie of Scott dying in his little tent even as he wrote last words in his journal by the light of the last candle end.) Maybe it was a way to handle a sort of semi-suicidal tendency, a contempt for my own limits, a constant itch to go beyond. Ernest Thompson Seton was another of my heroes — “Two Little Savages,” preposterous as it sounds, was the key to the relationship between Bob and me.
Recently I lost my dentist, who with his wife was a big game hunter. Their trophy heads hung in the book-keeping part of their clinic where antlers could flourish in the upper space. But the staff — all young girls who had titles like dental hygienists — found them gruesome. A new manager of the medical consortium to whom the dentist belonged forced him to remove the trophies. He did. Then he quit and left.
Bob always had a lot of antlers and horns around, so he used them to embellish the outside of the Scriver Studio, the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife, and the foundry which we formally named the Bighorn Foundry. The eaves sported a whole row of admirable bighorn skulls. When Bob died and his property went into tribal hands, within days all the antlers and horns disappeared. It was never represented as removing something gruesome, nor did anyone mention how much they were worth. They were just gone.
Earlier I watched a video by Tony Bynum and others about hunting bighorns in Alberta, not far to the north of the rez. http://getzone.com/eye-of-the-hunter-bighorn-episode-1/ They put a lot of emphasis on technical expertise, careful maintenance of first-rate equipment, and energetic self-discipline. They repeat and repeat that it is about the experience. Horse-hunting is what Bob and I did, much better for a fifty-year-old man and better yet if we actually got something, which we always did. I never liked shooting the animal, not because of the tragedy and all that, but because it was the end of the hunt and beginning of a lot of work, packing out, and eventually processing which we did ourselves.
I was always impressed by gutting on the spot, usually in snow since we were high on the mountain shoulders late in the fall. Mammal organs are packaged in silvery thin tissue, fitted together in three dimensional puzzles, and when they were tumbled out into the snow, they colored it vividly scarlet with blood but also yellows and pinks worthy of a Lucian Freud nude. If Lucian had had access, he might have been pleased to penetrate so deeply into bodies, the secrets of life and death.
In the early days, before me, when Bob was collecting specimens for the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife, he hunted alone and packed out alone. Sturdy and muscled as he was, I don’t think he took much meat with him because he was after trophy-sized horns. Bighorns have a unique kind of armament and the Boone and Crockett obsessionist measurers rank them as three-quarter, full-curl, and even bigger. Since the rams’ lives depend on constant scanning, they force the tips of the horns into stone crevices and break them off so they can see past them.
Bob said the secret to hunting bighorns was to go above them, since they were always watching for danger ascending the mountain below them. He shot them carefully in a preplanned place, usually in the place just behind the top of the leg, not to spare meat but so that the bullet hole wouldn’t show on the full-mount he planned. Public consciousness of mountain sheep is not very high since “sheep” means to them domestic sheep. It was not hunting but the pasturing of woolies in the high country that decimated the mountain sheep — still does because they pass disease.
Two other fine local writers who take keen pleasure in expertise and fine equipment just as Tony and crew enjoy in their gear and protocols are Kari Linn Dell (rodeo) and Sid Gustafson (horse racing and veterinary medicine). Sid’s short story, “Smallpox,” includes a character based on Bob as taxidermist. He’s call “Stuff.” (Actually you’re supposed to say “mounted.”) In contrast Bob and I were strictly primitive and unsophisticated in what we did. Whatever worked, though sometimes it didn’t and then we tried not to dwell on it. It’s pure luck that we didn’t accidentally kill ourselves. But when you take on big physical things like these, the risk is always there and it’s always part of the experience — a sharp little edge.
Also strong is the sensory connection with both animal and habitat. When the museum was open to tourists, part of my job was to slip in with a comb to groom the full-mounts because there was no glass box around them — people could put their hands directly on the animals. The glass eyes got smudged and the fur became rucked and rumpled. Mountain “sheep” have hollow hairs rather than fur, as do the white mountain “goats”.
The taxonomists that named the sheep were thinking about ram’s horns but I’ve never known anyone to try to blow a mountain sheep horn as is done with a shofar. I rubbed down the massive ridged curls of our mounted ram with turpentine. This animal was real to me but I never gave him a human name. I guess I didn’t know what they called themselves.
When the museum was closed down, the mounted animals disappeared. Some had been damaged by a fire years earlier. I was told that the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation took the better ones and that they have so many full-mounts that they can mount exhibits of all-bears or all-deer. Nowadays the fashion in taxidermy has gone two ways: cutesy and to my mind reprehensible anthropomorphized small animals in human clothes attending tea parties and so on. And on the other hand, charismatic megamammals in spectacular poses, mid-leap or agonistic. Too big and extraordinary for a home.
The idea of accepting and deeply perceiving reality gets lost in this context, just as it does everywhere with everything. I wish I were young and sturdy enough to go with the big game hunters in Tony’s vid. I just don’t want to shoot anything. Why should such impulses be gender-assigned?
It is worthy praise to have oneself described as a person one would take hunting: trustworthy, pulling his or her own weight, skillful, honorable. Not a Trump. I hope no one ever puts a gun in his splayed out baby hands.