My first day hunting was with a friend who many in the outdoors industry would call a mentor. However, I didn’t think of it that way. It wasn’t until years later that we were asked to mentor a young hunter whose mother wanted to provide her son the opportunity to go waterfowling that I wondered about the word mentor and whether her son would think I was one. We spent the morning in the marsh together after a day at the gun range, and he shot his first pintail on the wing. Nothing about that day felt like mentoring any more than falling in love feels like a relationship.
“The Old Man knows pretty near close to everything, and mostly he ain’t painful with it. What I mean is he went to Africa once when he was a kid, and he shot a tiger or two out in India, or so he says, and he was in a whole lot of wars here and yonder. But he can still tell you why the quail sleep at night in a tight circle or why the turkeys always fly uphill.”
The Old Man and the Boy by Robert Ruark
What I’ve learned from an old duck hunter wasn’t taught to me in a day. But, all of it was expressed in the single moment that captured my attention. My first time duck hunting I missed my shot at a pair of widgeon (I had aimed at both of them) after a long crawl through the nastiest swamp filled with rotting salmon, spider webs, and shrews. My friend reached down into the wet grass and picked up my spent shell and held it up to my nose. “This is what fall smells like to me,” he said. He didn’t need to say anything else.
The people in my life are not automatically valuable to me because of their role (aunts, uncles, sisters, cousins, bosses, co-workers, or teachers) but because of who they are and what they share. Sometimes a defined relationship provides a reason to know someone, but it doesn’t necessarily provide the value. The term mentor is said to have come from Homer’s The Odyssey, but the character was an old friend of the king’s who failed at guiding and nurturing him (the qualities of a mentor). Interestingly, it was the goddess Athene, who took the form of Mentor and who guided and nurtured the king’s son. I don’t know what this has to do with the magic of last light or the sight of a gun dog perched at the end of the blind staring at the sky. I could take a friend’s son along with me hunting, but it was up to him to find something to love in the field.
So, if I wasn’t being mentored on hunts or later, mentoring hunts, what was happening? Why did the word mentor bother me so much? Because I love the outdoors, I question the words we use to describe them. When a fly fisherman refers to a particular lake as a fishery, I ask myself what about a lake reminds me of a fish factory where fish are bred and caught for an occupation. I never have liked indoor language for the outdoors. The regulatory vocabulary that calls fish and game the resource and hunters and fisherman a user group takes the blood out of what so often is a sacrament. I’m not dreaming about a fishery or huntery but lakes, streams, mountains, and fields. Although it makes me smile when river guides refer to their boat as the office.
The word mentor is just not a very outdoorsy word. It’s not a sexy word. It’s a word that belongs in the business world, in the therapist’s chair, in plot dynamics, or in the classroom. It was re-invented in 1699 by a French educator who focused on the training aspect of education. It’s a word that makes me feel 100 years old and bookish. When I read the word mentor in literature about hunter recruitment, I can’t put it in the same sentence with “the grouse flushed wild.” When there’s a young person or a beginner out hunting with me, we’re just hunting. It may not sound great on a parental consent form, but that’s what it is. And, it’s enough.
The proliferation of mentoring programs in the outdoor arena has a focus on safety and can include guided trips, seminars, motivational speaking, coordinated events, and educational materials. New hunters are able to experience hunting in a “controlled environment.” Some of these programs cite the need to get youth outdoors and away from video games so that they may develop a relationship with nature. Then, the programs, by design, replace the danger and life-blood of a legitimate hunt with a pragmatic activity and rhetoric. The safest mentoring activity may well take place in a video game format.
Hunting with a partner instead of a mentor puts me on an even level, which best represents what happens between a veteran and a new recruit. The responsibility of handling a firearm requires equality. While an expert re-lives his early days, a beginner awakens to possibility. Life is hard enough without warnings and admonishments from authority figures; far better to share the journey, learn from each other, and forget for a few moments the liability terminology of pseudo-parental relationships.
My hunting partner is always the one to insist we go a bit further or stay a bit longer. It’s in this extra time I wouldn’t have spent that everything happens. The chemistry of a good hunting partner is such that you can follow them to places that don’t really exist: the Neverland of the hunting world that is different to every person that finds it. Sitting in a duck blind at last light, you turn to your left–or your right–and the person on the bench next to you is your favorite person in the world. The word mentor and mentoring programs fall short in describing how this relationship forms or is sustained.
I might call my hunting partner a mentor today, if I liked the word. What I would rather call him is my hunting partner. It’s a relationship that does not get much press, and it’s one that is not often the subject of self-help books or therapy sessions (even if you’re Dick Cheney). The modern hunting partner relationship is not one that is celebrated by any anniversary or categorized by any census, but it is an important partnership in the life of any hunter. A hunting partner brings an extra set of eyes and ears and skills. They are doctors, attorneys, cooks, professional gun smiths, taxidermists and sometimes designated drivers. They can be eight year old boys or girls.