Wedding the Wild Particular
By Robert Benson
Texas Review Press Copyright © 2012 Robert Benson
All rights reserved.
WEDDING THE WILD PARTICULAR
When I moved to Sewanee, Tennessee, to teach at the University of the South, I was excited about my new job and had not thought much about finding colleagues who were also hunters. Even in the South in the 1970s there were not many fans of blood sports on college faculties, but a good number of students hunted and were happy to share their game with professors in exchange for kitchen access. No one I had spoken to at Sewanee seemed opposed to hunting in principle, and several admitted they welcomed the occasional venison roast or brace of ducks and the opportunity to help students cook a game dinner. Someone reported that the academic dean who hired me shot pigeons from his office window, but none of the members of the English Department had expressed any interest in hunting, and my hopes of finding field companions were slim. I had no enthusiasm for shooting anything from my office window. At the University of Georgia my interests in hunting and in literature had connected in my friendship with Jim Kilgo, and by 1979, when I moved to Sewanee, as hunters do when they move to another state, I worried about not having either a place to hunt or the company of other hunters, people I could talk to without apology about shotguns, dogs, duck calls and rifles, about the game and the woods and swamps those animals called home. But even before I moved Kilgo and I had planned to hunt together in the fall.
In the summer of 1979 I was in the process of moving into my new office, and I had parked my old Jeep-style Land Cruiser near the door to Walsh-Ellett Hall so that I wouldn't have to carry boxes of books farther. My office was on the second floor, near the elevator, and I had made two trips, one box at a time, when a man, who introduced himself as Jerry Smith, offered to help and produced a dolly from somewhere. He helped me the rest of the morning, and by the time we had unloaded all the books, I had learned that Jerry, though a religion professor, had grown up hunting, had spent a lot of time in the woods of Virginia as a boy, and had real enthusiasm for rifles and shotguns. He had been moved to offer to help me with my books in part because he was curious about what sort of academic character would drive a Land Cruiser. He found out, and for years we were hunting companions and spent many afternoons riding the back roads and jeep trails of the county and trying not to get the Land Cruiser stuck. Mostly we succeeded. On the way to the duck blind or back from turkey hunting we talked about everything: about teaching and hunting, about men we had hunted with, books and teachers we loved, students we had both taught or tried to teach, and places and days afield that remained vivid after the passage of years. The conversation wandered freely from woodcraft to the academy, from sighting in a new rifle to the hunting sequences in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and always we took for granted a connection between these seemingly disparate activities. Hunting and the intellectual life were both about curiosity and pursuit, about terrain and game literal or metaphoric. The hunter enters the natural world, and the writer or teacher tries to lead readers and students to see the imitation of nature that is art. Without knowledge of the primary world, the world of trees and animals, of sunrise and arrowheads, children and unruly grandfathers, hunting is aimless and literature undecipherable. Occasionally details in the woods–the sound of acorns dropping from a chestnut oak, a spot of blood on a brown leaf–were helpful in explaining a line of thought or even a line of poetry. Seeing what was there and learning to read it correctly worked as well for the book of nature as for other books. In a famous passage near the end of Meditations on Hunting the Spanish philosopher Jose' Ortega y Gasset writes this about what he calls the hunter's "look and attention":
[The hunter] does not believe that he knows where the critical moment is going to occur. He does not look tranquilly in one determined direction, sure beforehand that the game will pass in front of him. The hunter knows that he does not know what is going to happen, and this is one of the greatest attractions of his occupation. Thus he needs to prepare an attention of a different and superior style–an attention which does not consist in riveting itself on the presumed but consists precisely in not presuming anything and in avoiding inattentiveness. It is a 'universal' attention, which does not inscribe itself on any point and tries to be on all points. There is a magnificent term for this, one that still conserves all its zest of vivacity and imminence: alertness. The hunter is the alert man.
As constantly alert as the game he pursues, the hunter, unlike the farmer or the tourist, "lives from within his environment." In his closing paragraphs Ortega calls his reader's attention to the frequency with which philosophers have used metaphors of the hunt to describe philosophical thinking. He mentions Plato's frequent use of the word thereutes and St. Thomas Aquinas's use of venator and argues that "Like the hunter in the absolute outside of the countryside, the philosopher is the alert man in the absolute inside of ideas, which are also an unconquerable and dangerous jungle." Teachers too must be wary of presuming, must stay alert and open to possibilities.
More recently three poets have asserted strong connections between hunting and writing. Dave Smith's most recent collection of essays is called Hunting Men: Reflections on a Life in American Poetry, and he explains that his title is taken "from a memoir-essay honoring men who taught me patience, observation, and willingness to rely on my senses, skills they used in hunting upland game birds." Like writing, teaching and hunting are difficult crafts with long apprenticeships and no guarantee of success. A beginner does not become a master of either craft by direct imitation. Watching a gifted teacher, Norman Maclean observes, "does make one a better teacher by lifting up the spirit and making one feel elevated about what he has chosen to do in life." But watching what someone else does in class will not help you teach better. Hunting is a serious activity and so is teaching, and both cherish custom and ritual, traditional modes of thinking and behavior that give them an ethical dimension. Both are deeply connected to those mortal matters that touch the heart. The woods and the weather and the chemistry of each class constantly change, and as much as we long for it, neither teaching nor hunting allows the word encore. This, whatever it is, will never happen the same way twice. What we learn as apprentices in both crafts is alertness. Dave Smith writes that the hunting he learned "was an education to me in nature's abundant beauty and a training in how to search, why it matters to search there. It was memory's storing up of images that define the life of a place and, I think, of poetry." The hunting men of his youth were "the initial and legitimate guides to my life with poems, those miracles of verbal invention and mystery- incarnation. They taught me how to practice finding right details, to think about what I saw or did not see from every perspective that influenced a field, its actors and circumstances and nature."
Writing about the connection between writing and the trapping he did as a boy, the North Carolina writer Peter Makuck recalls that Henry James said, "the writer is a person on whom nothing is lost." Makuck goes on to say that the same thing should be said of a successful trapper: "trapping requires close observation, the habit of noticing." Both poets are very close to describing Ortega's alert man. Teaching is not the solitary activity writing is, but the intellectual life requires solitude as well as conversation, and the delight and self-confidence of a young hunter who stalks and kills his first deer on his own is not different from the exhilaration an undergraduate experiences understanding a difficult poem and expressing his understanding in his own carefully constructed sentences and paragraphs. Both have done something difficult and serious; both demand intense and intimate concentration. Nothing can be ignored. The teacher and the skillful hunter can convey their delight in their craft by story and example; marksmanship and grammar can be taught, but hunting well and getting an education are accomplished by individuals. All educated people, either in the classroom or in the woods, are self-educated. Participation links hunting to the life of the mind. Sam Fathers in Go Down, Moses is Ike McCaslin's teacher. Sam initiates Ike, marks him with the blood of his first buck, and then releases him to be tutored by the wilderness. Having learned what can be taught, Ike enters the big woods as a member, a participant in the "ancient and unremitting contest," who submits himself to the "ancient and immitigable rules which voided all regret and brooked no quarter." Ike says, "Sam Fathers set me free." In another context the essayist Richard Weaver writes, "A liberal education specifically prepares for the achievement of freedom."
Sydney Lea's collection of essays on hunting and writing called Hunting the Whole Way Home, he writes, is part of his "ongoing struggle to make sense of a life," and for him meaning is clearer in the context of hunting. Writing and hunting are ways of ordering our experience, ways of fending off confusion and moral bewilderment. Lea quotes Robert Frost on the attempt to unite avocation and vocation:
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.
The mortal stakes make writing and hunting matter.
Through Jerry I got to know Red Lancaster, the retired academic dean, and my office was just down the hall from that of Gilbert Gilchrist, a professor of political science. Both men were hunters, and Red, who had lived in Sewanee since the 1930s, knew practically every landowner in Middle Tennessee and had hunted every farm within a day's drive of the university. Going hunting for him was simply a matter of driving to a farmhouse and renewing old acquaintances. Permission to hunt was never taken for granted, nor was it ever withheld, though one farmer told us that he would prefer we not hunt his place on Sunday. The conversation with the farmer was part of the ritual of civility that hunters kept before any guns were uncased. Farmers and hunters took each other seriously. And Red was as at home talking to a countryman as he was presiding at a faculty meeting or teaching undergraduates. Like Jerry, Red had grown up in rural Virginia and had been a woodsman and shooter all his life. He was an impressive wingshot into his 80s. Gilchrist was a South Carolina native who had also come to hunting early on his home ground. In the company of these men I got to know the land around Sewanee and many of the landowners, and I also began to be conscious of the strong connection between the academic life and life afield, a connection that, for me at least, still keeps hunting from being merely an expensive hobby like golf.
I do not mean to disparage hobbies. The man who works in an office every day of the week and who loves the fresh air, the exercise, and the challenge and camaraderie of a round of golf or a few sets of tennis has every right to enjoy his leisure without criticism from anyone. When I was younger, I was an enthusiastic tennis player, and I greatly admire my son's father-in-law, a real athlete, who in his sixties plays competitive tennis regularly. But there is no essential connection between that kind of recreation and what one does for a living. That's the point of hobbies. A hobby is what a person does to forget about work, to leave the practice of law or the selling of life insurance and to enjoy, in a completely different pitch, stamp collecting or needlepoint or birding. On the other hand there is an essential connection between teaching literature and hunting. Hunting ends with the death of an animal that the hunter and his family will eat. Even though hunting in contemporary America is not a matter of survival, it is naturally connected to the business of living and surviving in a way that hobbies are not. In an essay entitled "Indian Givers" Jim Kilgo wrote, "To stalk and kill an animal whose flesh becomes food is to participate in a mystery, whether the hunter knows it or not." Done thoughtfully hunting is a reminder of our mortality–perhaps the great literary subject. Walter Sullivan wrote, "If literature teaches us anything, it teaches us that there are many things worse than dying." We need to be deliberate about such matters in ways that older generations more closely tied to the natural world did not. When I expressed some reservations about retirement, a junior colleague brightly observed, "You'll be fine. You have your hobbies–you know, hunting and fishing." I had no response at the time and dropped the subject.
I taught English literature, mostly medieval writers, and various survey courses and composition courses for forty-five years, and for most of those years I also hunted whatever was in season. The academic rites attending the beginning of classes in the fall coincide in our part of the world with the opening of dove season, and many autumn afternoons I have left my office and gone with Jerry, Red, and Gilbert and occasionally a few students to watch the skies over cut corn fields. Franklin County is still a county of small farms, and Red could usually find a recently cut field that had birds. Between dove season and mid-semester exams I walked the fall woods on cooling afternoons looking for signs of the beginning of the rut, and not long after turning in mid-term grades I was spending the shorter days trying to kill a buck. And deeper into cold weather came the ducks. Second semester in February ruffed grouse were still in season, and by mid-March turkeys were gobbling on the Cumberland Plateau. I have worn camouflage clothing to class when I did not have time to change after leaving a gobbling turkey or watching the sunrise in a beaver swamp or duck blind and before an eight-o'clock composition class. Few students were either offended or puzzled. They knew my predilections, and fortunately anti-hunting sentiment, though a persistent irritation, had not yet carried the day. Until recently many of my students either hunted or came from families and communities that did. My enthusiasms were strong for both teaching and for hunting, and I never really thought of teaching as work or of hunting as hobby. I got paid to read books and talk about them and occasionally to write about them, but, given financial security, I think I would have done those things for free. I was a better teacher than a hunter, but I have come to believe that my days outside made me a better teacher, and, though this is harder to explain, that my teaching somehow made me a better hunter, perhaps more thoughtful, more alert.
The first poem in Donald Davidson's The Long Street is called "The Ninth Part of Speech," identified in the subtitle as "A Verse Letter: To Louis Zahner." Zahner taught with Davidson in the summers at the Bread Loaf School of English, and he lived in what had been a schoolhouse in rural Vermont. The poem begins by admitting that "Whatever an empty schoolhouse still can teach / We need to learn." A schoolhouse in a forest seems the right place to "link the theorem with the thing," to rescue learning from self-centered abstraction taught in "glass-front life-adjustment schools / Where Dunce and Master sit on equal stools." Zahner was a linguist, but Davidson commends him for moving to the woods "beyond a printed grammar's reach," and for his willingness to learn from close contact with nature "the ninth part of speech / That never yet was parsed or paradigmed." The poet recalls a tale from the time when Zahner's house was still a school, the story of a country school teacher kept after school, so to speak, by a bobcat, "an official visitor" who was clearly "no semi-literate school inspector." "Till dark fell he was Master, she the class." The life of the mind makes clearest sense when directly connected to the primary world. I am not convinced that college students who don't know a dove from a killdeer can read English poetry with understanding. Natural literacy is not optional. Davidson's poem ends by highlighting a principle all but ignored in the modern academy:
Few now are left who know the ancient rule (Continues...)
That tame abstract must wed the wild particular
In school or art, but most of all in school,
Else learning's spent to gild a fool
At market, altar, bench, or bar.
The shudder in the nerves must ever vex
Trim certainties of the vast complex,
And ever the wildcat's scream
Must break the Platonic dream
Else we but skim realities
And mock the great humanities.
Excerpted from Wedding the Wild Particular by Robert Benson. Copyright © 2012 Robert Benson. Excerpted by permission of Texas Review Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.