"As I held this dying body, The strangest thought came over me, God had made this little body, That I had killed so thoughtlessly . . ." "The Little Grave" -- John Loudermilk

The Country Gentlemen sing that pretty song about a man who shoots a pheasant "for my darling's dinner plate."

It's a simple tale that embodies all the bewildering confusion about the sport of hunting, both for those who practice it and those who don't.

Today, particularly in the crowded Northeast and Mid-Atlantic areas of the United States, hunting is an entirely different phenomenon from what it was 200, 100 or even 50 years ago.

Where once hunters took to the woods and fields out of necessity -- to protect against crop and farm animal predation and to gain meat for the table -- in 1979 the hunt largely is sport, the ritualization of what once was necessity.

And yet it has as its goal the same end -- taking the lives of wild beasts.

Thousands of honest and forthright people wonder why. Why invade the domain of a harmless quail or rabbit or deer with the aim of killing it when you don't need to?

"It's gotten so bad that I won't even bring it up at a social occasion," said a Washington lawyer who hunts. "I'd spend the rest of the night defending myself."

Hunters feel they are a beleaguered minority, that a large chunk of the 90 percent of Americans who don't hunt will never understand what makes them tick. And they probably are right.

So they stick to their own small circle of colleagues, where they can talk about the gobbler turkey that marched within 10 yards of their gun muzzle and began its strut, and which died with a single shot.

And they know that story won't be misinterpreted as a saga of slaughter -- that their listening friends will recognize a moment that comes to a hunter perhaps once in a lifetime, after days, weeks, even years of fruitless pursuit.

There are as many reasons why people hunt as why people bake pies. A lot of them are simplistic. "I hunt because I'd rather kill my dinner myself than pay somebody else to do it," one hunter said.

But it runs deeper than that.

It would be nice to believe all hunters shared the approach of one Cliff Brooks, whom I discovered one day at a boat ramp off a public hunting area on the Chesapeake Bay.

Brooks comes from Baltimore. He's a big man who works with his hands. He has a build and general appearance not unlike that of Lee May, the cleanup batter for the Baltimore Orioles.

Brooks had spent the day slogging through a deserted marsh in a pair of hip boots. He was tired and bedraggled, but he had two wild ducks to show for his work.

He had seen nine deer. "I probably won't see the first one when deer season opens," he said.

That gave him a chuckle. He has hunted the same marsh for seven years, and his interest run finer that simply bring home game.

"It was so beautiful," he said. "They came out of the woods one by one.

"I just stood there watching. It was the first time I'd ever seen Sika deer and whitetails run together. First I just saw a faint shape in the woods. Then the first one came out and crossed the road. Then another one. I couldn't believe it. They just kept coming out, and finally the whitetail ran across the road."

Brooks had seen other things that day in the marsh -- hawks hunting, even an eagle hunting ("They're coming back, you know," he said, "the DDT ban saved them"). He'd seen wood ducks and mallards and muskrats and Canada geese.

"I get here whenever I can," he said, "when I don't have to work Saturday or the woman doesn't have something for me to do. I don't care whether I shoot or not. I just like to be here."

Stephen R. Kellert, who prepared an exhaustive survey of hunters and nonhunters for the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies last year, would characterize Brooks as a follower of the "naturalistic hunting attitude."

To such a hunter, Kellert wrote in his dissertation, "the goal is an intense involvement with wild animals in their natural habitats. Participation as a predator is not only valued for the opportunity to learn about the habits and characteristics of wild animals, but also for the sense of feeling an integral part of nature."

Why, though, is it necessary in the end to shoot?

Keller quotes from an article by John Madson and Ed Kozicky: "The hunter deeply respects and admires the creatures he hunts. This is the mysterious, ancient contradiction of the real hunter's character -- that he can at once hunt the thing he loves . . . Part of the hunter's deep attachment to wildlife may stem from the fact that he sees wild creatures at their best -- when they are being hunted. It is then that they are strongest, freeest and sharpest."

Kellert devotes great time and space to exploring the naturalistic hunting attitude on grounds that it is the most interesting. But his survey of 550 Americans and their attitudes toward hunting disclosed that "naturalist" hunters comprise the smallest percentage of the whole -- 15.7 percent.

Almost half the hunters in his survey maintained that they went to the woods and fields for a much more basic reason -- meat.

Not surprisingly the bulk of these "utilitarian" hunters came from rural and farm-oriented areas. Kellert found that meat hunters were not particularly animal-oriented -- that "few if any satisfactions are obtained through contact or observation of wildlife in natural settings."

It is rare indeed to find a hunter from the thickly populated Northeast or Mid-Atlantic that claims he is spurred to hunt by utilitarian considerations. But I have shared the field with a few and I find little common ground between us.

We'll call this fellow Jim, a man who got himself in a bind by promising fresh game to too many of his friends. He found he was spending more and more time in the field and enjoying it less.

He came to view hunting with tunnel vision. Like a dope fiend, he increased his dosage and seemed to be aching to get caught. He overshot his limit whenever he could and advertised that seedy achievement.

"I just want to get out," he once told me. "I'm in over my head." And eventually he did, when he was caught for violating game laws and handed a stiff penalty in court.

Utilitarian hunters are not all like that, of course. Most simply shoot their limits and are done with it. But there seems to be little enthusiasm in it.

Kellert's research indicates that meat hunters are a declining breed, likely to be replaced increasingly by nature hunters and so-called "sport" hunters.

He quotes from a dissertation by Dale Shaw called "The Hunting Controversy: Attitudes and Arguments":

"In the past, as the supply of wildlife declined and human population increased, the primary ways in which wildlife was valued changed from its utility or nuisance values . . . to its value in providing for recreation.

"Today, for many urban or suburban Americans wildlife has become a scarce resource. As such the aesthetic value of the resources have increased dramatically and are replacing (utilitarian) hunting as the primary values of wildlife."

If "nature" hunters are gaining and "utilitarian" hunters are declining "dominionistic" or strictly-sport hunters seem to be holding their own.

Kellert found that slightly more than a third of the respondents in his study fit that category. He described these hunters as ones "primarily oriented around the opportunities for competition, achievement, skill and prowess offered by hunting." Primary concerns, he wrote, were "more human-centered, largely directed as a social activity."

Kellert found that "dominionistic" hunters were prevalent in large urban areas, and one doesn't have to look far from Washington to find good examples. a

Cadmaraderie is what draws the crowds to the goose blinds on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where they pile in and shoot when the well-paid guide says "shoot".

Kellert's research, then, provides a little platform from which to view the phenomenon of hunting, 1979-style.

It is a fact that some 20 million Amercans are wandering around each year with rifles, guns and bows and arrows in their hands. Some are seeking meat for the table, some are seeking to prove themselves to their friends, and a small but growing cadre is seeking to uncover the mysteries of the natural world without the complications of structured civilization.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) contends that no animal species hunted by man is in danger of being wiped out.

"Legal hunting is not a threat to any species in this country," the agency maintains. "Indeed," USFWS says, "the hunters and fishermen of the U.S., through money from license sales, special taxes on sporting goods and individual contributions, provide most of the funds spent on wildlife and its habitat."

Fish and Wildlife thus provides an easy escape route for a hunter from the probing questions of his nonhunting and antihunting acquaintances. "Game animals overpopulate naturally," he can say with authority. "If I don't take them, disease and predation will. It doesn't harm anything and it gives me satisfaction and the best meat that will ever grace my table."

That's a fine rationale but not much of a reason.Hunters don't leave the comfort of their homes out of a feeling that they must keep wild beasts from dying at the hands of natural predation and disease.

They become the predators.

That's where the lines of communication between people who hunt and people who don't break down. It's impossible to understand the workings of a hunter's mind without having been there to see his eyes narrow and his legs stop in midstride when a bush rustles on a mountainside.

Becoming a hunter is not a gradual thing. Either you are or you aren't. For the urbanite, it initially involves total immersion in a foreign environment. But when he throws the gun to his shoulder, it becomes his environment.

John Loudermilk's song of the pheasant has what some would view as a happy ending.

"All the woods were dark and shadows. With the light the tall pines gave, I said a prayer to God in heaven, And covered up a little grave."

The hunter would say humbug. He went to the woods to shoot a pheasant. The deed is done. It's time now to take it home and eat it.