The latest brickbat in the national hunting-antihunting debate was launched in October's Esquire, which ran a stinging essay by Joy Williams called, "The Killing Game; Why the American Hunter is Bloodthirsty, Piggish and Grossly Incompetent."
The piece hits away for 5,000-odd words at the inherent immorality of blood sports, concluding in a fiery finale that all hunters do is "make wildlife dead, dead, dead," and that it's "long past checkout time" for the sport.
It's strong stuff, forged from passion, but one-sided to an extreme. "It's horrible," said genteel Washington waterfowler Dave Henderson. "She doesn't have one good thing to say about us."
Indeed, the piece prompted so many protest letters, Esquire editor-in-chief Terry McDonell set aside extra space to run columns of responses in the January issue at a ratio of 4 to 1 against.
McDonell, a bird hunter who took over at Esquire six weeks ago after the essay was already in type, said he did not "personally agree with the piece." But he defended its publication on grounds Esquire has a history of running "arguably the nation's best outdoor sports journalism over the last 60 years, from Zane Grey and Hemingway to Tom McGuane, so it's not inappropriate for us to look at it from the other side."
But why so ferocious? "Hunters have a tendency to call large animals by cute names -- 'bruins' and 'muleys,' 'berry-fed blackies' and 'handsome cusses' and 'big guys,' " she writes, "thereby implying a balanced jolly game of mutual satisfaction between the hunter and the hunted -- Bam, bam, bam, I get to shoot you and you get to be dead."
I wanted to ask Williams where she got these ideas, so alien to the hunting I know. I can't imagine anyone belittling a bear by calling it a "berry-fed blackie," for example, or a deer a "handsome cuss," or a moose a "big guy." Nobody actually talks that way.
Williams was hard to find, so I asked her literary agent, Amanda Urban, whether in her research the author actually talked to any hunters or witnessed actual hunting.
Urban wasn't sure, but the more I thought about it, the more I was, because the piece simply bears no relationship to the hunting I've come to know over half a lifetime.
It dawned on me where Williams got her vision -- reading the silly magazines she quotes from freely, creating an image of a forest full of goofy guys wandering around blowing creatures away while saying things like:
"The big buck raised its nose to the air, curled back its lips and tested the scent of the doe's urine. I held my breath and . . . shot. The 180-grain spire point bullet caught the buck high on the back behind the shoulder and put it down."
Obviously, Williams thinks that's what hunting is really like.
Researching a sport as complex and multifaceted as hunting by reading popular outdoor magazines is like researching sexual mores of the 1990s by watching reruns of "Three's Company" on TV, or probing modern women's issues by thumbing through Cosmopolitans.
I once suggested to an outdoors magazine writer a piece on Back Bay, where fish and waterfowl populations had fallen through the floor after urban blight in nearby Virginia Beach ruined the water quality.
"My magazine doesn't buy stories like that," he said. "We don't cover negatives. We sell fantasies."
Well, fantasies beget fantasies, and the ones Williams manufactures in "The Killing Game" are sadly no closer to reality than the ones on which she evidently bases them.
She needs to get out and see for herself. I wish she'd been along on opening day of duck season last week when Chris Clarke and Joe Roland and I met in a howling northwester to go to the river blind Clarke spent a good deal of the summer building in an Eastern Shore marsh.
I'd like to have had her help dragging bags of home-made wooden decoys through the woods and the low-tide muck to the blind, or steadying the kayak for Clarke to climb in when he went out to set the rig in the dark, or tending Gunnar the chocolate Labrador so he didn't capsize his master with an errant leap.
I'd like her to have been there, a minute after legal shooting time, when three fast ducks barreled up the creek, swung past the blind and were lured back by the duck-calling Roland has honed over 20 years hunting his family farm in Delaware.
Did we shoot at those ducks? No, though they almost certainly were mallards, were in range and could very well have been the only ones we'd see all day. "Don't," Roland said at the last moment, "they could be blacks," and black duck season was closed until November.
Does that sound like the same waterfowlers Williams describes as "the most avaricious of all hunters," who make "friendly wagers on who would take the most birds"?
As it happened, we had other opportunities opening day. Our shooting was top-flight, not grossly imcompetent as Williams suggests, and Gunnar did a masterful job fetching every duck that fell, including the drake wigeon Roland correctly identified on the wing against a leaden sky at 150 yards.
We cleaned two of the ducks and presented them to the woman who owns the land, who would have been hunting herself if she were younger. The others we picked for ourselves and ate with gusto.
Some days you go hunting and nothing flies, of course, as happened a few days earlier on opening day of snow goose season. Williams could have learned something that day too.
In the end, there's a lot more mystery than murder to this sport, if you take the time to look. Williams clearly did not, and her arguments, while clever, fall flat as a result.