Hunting, Fishing, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Ten years or so ago, a good friend of mine made a movie called The Naturalist, about an eccentric wanderer of Arkansas' Buffalo River country. Kent Bonar, the subject of the film, was raised in the woods by his grandfather and a bunch of old-time coon hunters and hound dog men.

Bonar has remained true to the tradition. He keeps a half dozen hunting dogs, doesn't drive, lives in a falling down house in the woods, and spends his days walking, carrying a light pack, a falling axe, a pistol and his pencils and paper, pausing to sketch and describe every aspect of the plants, animals and fish of this country where he was born, raised and chose to never leave. Bonar is an artist of the first order (although he stoutly rejects the term "artist," saying he just draws what's already there) and is also known, these days, as "the John Muir of the Ozarks." He's a fierce and irreverent advocate for conserving the Buffalo River country.

I've never met Bonar, but what impresses me most about him in the film is his happiness. Emerging from the shadowed green wall of the woods to cross a road construction project, the dust boiling, the equipment roaring, Bonar gathers his dogs and says, with a wry smile, "The Bible tells us that vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. So, there are a lot of things I just have to put up with." He walks on, long-strided, back into the shadows, chewing on a stalk of timothy, the dogs milling around him, still smiling.

I've never forgotten that quote. And while I highly recommend the movie, what interests me the most is how hunters and fishermen and people who dedicate their lives to conserving natural resources and wild lands so often seem happier than those who exist only in the world of humankind. It is almost as if there is a deep current of energy in the rivers and fields and woods that we connect to, and draw from. I come in from a long day on the river or from bird hunting, and the television will be on, with some talking head going on and on about something that is so terrible and must be attacked right away, or fixed right away, and my mind just shuts it out.

I come in utterly cashed from chasing elk, and see the world in a better, lighter, way, as if time in the silence of the woods, as focused as it is possible for a human being to be, is the most powerful restorative on earth. I spent a day this weekend with a hardcore striper fisherman on the east coast who devotes part of his work week to educating children in a rural school about birds and fish and sea creatures, and what struck me most, waiting outside his office while he was on the telephone, was how much he laughed, how energized and excited he was about his work.

We are a nation consumed by anger. Divided, by design or not, in every facet of our politics. We fool ourselves into believing that anger is an energy, but it's the same kind of energy provided by a heavy dose of sugar -- explosive, thin, its power quickly dissipated. The kind of unfocused, rootless anger inspired by television, newspapers, the Internet, and politics (and yes, sometimes, the stories and blogs and articles posted here at F&S) makes us like a boxer in the ring who cannot control his temper -- easy to manipulate, easy to hit, his every punch thrown in frustration, winded and red-faced and wasted.

When I feel like I'm being overwhelmed by the pressures of making a living, or by the constant reminders from the TV regarding the grievous mismanagement of our world, I think of a day on the lower Missouri, catching sauger and suckers and whatever else came by with my son and daughter. Mud and water, fish and sunlight, the wild gumbo hills and coulees all around us. That is the well from which real outdoorspeople draw their water. We hunters and fishermen live in the tumultuous, exhausting world of humankind just like everybody else. But we know where the well is. And we have to remember to go there, drop the anger and the worry, and quench our thirst.

I noticed this long ago, and it has proved to be true over almost 15 years as a reporter and writer: the people who are the most angry are never the ones who hunt and fish the most. Never the ones who take the kids out looking for game or fish. Never the ones who simply go out for a long walk to see what the country is up to, as Kent Bonar does almost every single day. There's a lesson here, for me, and for anybody who truly cares about our land and wildlife and sporting traditions. Cut off the TV, toss aside the newspaper, power down the computer and the phone, and go outside. Keep going until your well is full again. The world of humankind will still be there. It will still be, for the most part, mismanaged. But you will be better equipped to deal with its challenges.