“It is their destiny to ride the wind
That carries them to faraway places…”
~H. Albert Hochbaum in To Ride the Wind
In the days before ever hunting wildfowl, I found the same solace I was seeking from the public life on the yoga mat. At the studio, the environment is controlled. The temperature, sound, and austere surroundings and even the space in which we practiced our postures –the mat– are proscribed. Our instructor walked the room – his voice a calm reassurance that we would all achieve a benefit for our effort. The benefit would be physical, spiritual, and mental. He was right, all of us in his class walked away feeling cleansed of the disorder we felt in our lives. I often walked away hungry for something more.
As much as I wanted to perfect my life, as much as I wanted to restore order, I knew it wouldn’t be enough for me to practice my yoga skills on the mat or even off the mat, in the grocery line – standing in line was what I wanted to get away from. I wanted the ultimate escape, the ultimate experience of nature. I couldn’t find “it” in the studio, as much as I enjoyed the exertion and my own practice. As much as the calming voice of my instructor echoed my deepest values – effort and achievement, it was another voice that invited me duck hunting. If it had happened at any other time in my life, I wouldn’t have gone.
The weather was cold and unforgiving my first day on the flats. The nearest escape from the misery of damp cobwebs and the flesh of rotting salmon was a four hundred yard crawl away. Mascara dripped into my eyes as the sky opened up with rain. I took the lead, my friend positioned behind me, and we began a long crawl. The borrowed shotgun was heavy, and I used it to break my trail. When we reached the edge of the pond, two widgeon glanced at me from the sides of their heads. Their bodies broke from the surface, shedding pond water and lifting into the rain-filled sky.
I heard the voice behind me tell me to shoot, and I pulled the trigger without fully mounting the gun. I watched the pair of widgeons fly into the distant clouds. Their wings carried an untranslatable story – a sound like the rushed beating of my heart if it pumped wind instead of blood. Beside me, a spent 12 gauge shell lay in the marsh. My friend picked up the shell and held it up to his nose. “This is what fall smells like to me.”
Until that moment, the only thing that fall ever smelled like to me was school supplies. The misery of the swamp – its pungent smell, the grainy river mud, the cold, wet environment – was also full of life. The river delta teamed with life in forms that could never be seen from a boardwalk. These were the creatures feared in the house – spiders, shrews, insects. And off in the distance, gently gliding on a pond, were the ducks. I didn’t know anything about them or their distant journeys on the wind. I only knew that they were why we were in the muck. The opening of the shotgun’s action and the empty shells ejecting backward, and then the smoke emptying out of the barrels, was the ultimate exhale. I was hooked.
Instead of returning to the yoga studio, I purchased an over/under 20 gauge shotgun made for the field. The CZ Redhead was lighter than the borrowed 12 gauge, and its satin chrome finished receiver and chrome-lined barrels would weather the salt of the tidal flats. I forgot about going to yoga class. The opportunity to practice yoga was replaced by a recreation that asked more of me than a back bend.
Having at one time attempted vegetarianism and contemplated the impossibility of surviving without harming other “sentient life,” the thought of becoming a hunter was a remote possibility. Hunting waterfowl forced me to recognize my dependence and responsibility to survive at the expense of another creature. It was not many years later that I was standing in waist-deep duck grass and surveying a vast flat covered in duck ponds. Cheyenne, my newest chocolate lab, bounded toward me with a single widgeon I’d shot from the sky and that I would have for dinner that night. It was the last duck I’d take at the end of a week-long hunting trip on the west side of the Cook Inlet. I wasn’t hungry for something more, it had been a day filled with the sight of thousands of ducks and geese, lucky or skillful shooting, and the dogs working the sloughs retrieving birds.
I still practice yoga as it provides physical, spiritual, and mental benefits. It “empties the cup.” But, I also practice trap shooting and duck hunting and, although it could be argued that hunting does not follow the unattainable tenant of “non-violence,” it is not violence. The intention is not to hurt life, but to sustain life. Both can be said to be an art – the Art of Yoga and the Art of Duck Hunting. They both provide physical, spiritual, and mental benefits. Yoga is like the cup being emptied, duck hunting is like the cup being filled, but for either to achieve the ultimate benefit, someone has to drink the whiskey.
The photos used in this post are licensed under the Creative Commons or used with permission and do not represent an endorsement or support by the photo’s creators, Coot Yoga by nartreb, Mallard Poser 2 by Dave Weddell