We got shot at the other day. That is, the geese were the target and I was there. I’m still alive to tell the story but, the geese? Maybe not.
I arose early, long before the sun, to take my camera to a spot I’d seen some months before. A beautiful landscape a couple of miles across the island: a broad, deep field framing a farmhouse in the distance. Having seen the place in the harsh light of midday, I wanted to return and capture it just as the sun peeked up over the horizon and provided what all landscape photographers hope for: long shadows, soft yellow light, dramatic clouds, colors of the morning.
Off I went, an hour before dawn, driving along our dark island roads to reach the place. Almost there, I hit the gravel part of the access road and turned the corner. There, along the hedgerow, was a succession of cars and trucks, maybe five or six, parked neatly next to each other. Aware that I had come upon a conclave of sorts, I dimmed my lights so as not to disturb. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realized each vehicle was occupied by several people and, here and there, a dog. What crazy folks besides me would be out here in the middle of nowhere, in the pitch dark? Dawn + men + trucks + dogs = hunters.
Notwithstanding the vulnerable feeling of being a woman out alone in the dark, passing by a group of men with guns, I noted my sense of relief that, toward me, at least, they probably posed no threat. So I continued along my way, quickly arriving at the refuge gateway and finding it… closed. Nuts! I hadn’t been down this way since late summer and had forgotten the seasonal closure of the area would be right at this spot. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife manages the refuge lands on Sauvie Island and, each year, much of the public land here is closed to all but those with a hunting permit.
Grumbling at my bad luck and memory, I turned around and made my way back to the main road, resolving to find a place where I could get some good photos in before the sun came up. I recalled a favorite wildlife viewing area where I’d previously gotten some soaring eagle shots and rushed there, beating the sunrise by mere minutes. Putting long lens to camera, I ran up the hill, tripod in hand.
It was beautiful, being out there in the near light, in the absolute quiet of the place. I stood completely still, drinking in the sensations that flooded over me, fully believing that any movement of mine would stop the flow. It fed me, this overwhelming feeling of grace and beauty and wonder and, even, gratitude to whatever was responsible for this tableau. I’m not a religious person, so not one to assign authorship of all this beauty to a specific being, but I experience a strong lifting of spirit – a spirituality of sorts – in the wondrous things of the world, particularly the silence-infused moments of immersion in nature.
On this day, I soaked it all in, closing my eyes to breathe deeply the smell of the morning air. Finally, lifting my camera, I searched the marsh through the viewfinder and found, to my delight, an enormous flock of geese floating peacefully on the lake. I let my lens wander across the vast expanse of waterfowl, pressing the shutter release every time a goose, or ten, moved to lead this gigantic organism in another direction. Occasionally, smaller flocks would pass overhead in their familiar V-pattern, piercing the sky with their synchronized acrobatics and the quiet with their soulful honks.
Then, like a panicked crowd running desperately from a theater fire, the magnificent creatures rose as one, spreading outward into the sky with the most deafening sound – an ear-splitting cacophony of cackling and honking – as their unity broke into chaos and the sky blackened with escaping geese. It took only a moment for the entropy to begin, spurred on by the crack of a shotgun. Then another, and another.
The geese searched for safety away from the danger, and soon they were headed for the sky directly above. They seemed to sense no threat from me as I stood alone on the ridge, so they continued to surge forward, thousands of them. I reached up and we could nearly touch. Just over my head, their fear was palpable as they chaotically circled the open farmland, apparently unaware this maneuver was creating an even easier target for their pursuers. Some groups tried and failed to form their efficient V’s, unable to marshal the unity they’d mastered only a moment before. Just as they got far enough from the source of danger, more shots rang out from the opposite end of the fields, the very place they had expected to find refuge.
In logical retrospect — and being told so by others when I recounted the story — I should probably have fled the scene, though I was very clearly in a wildlife viewing area ostensibly protected by distance from hunting land. I heard the shots ringing out to my left and right and knew from the sound that some were close but weren’t likely to reach me. I remember feeling thankful that these were shotguns with limited range and not rifles sending bullets far afield. I should have left just in case, but didn’t. I couldn’t. Instead, I lifted my camera and aimed at the sky. I felt the most compelling need to stay with my fearful friends and do the only thing I could do: I took pictures. My camera’s shutter clicked away at high speed as the geese frantically circled and dived, nearly colliding mid-air as they realized they were closed in on two sides by the danger. I felt, strangely, like a journalist embedded with troops on a battlefield. I was one of them. I remember thinking it was my job — my duty — to be with the birds, my friends, on the wildlife “refuge”.
I stayed for a long time, well past the end of the battle. The flock eventually flew far out of view and, I hoped, found safety. Luckily for me, I didn’t have to witness a goose getting shot out of the sky. I’m not sure I could have withstood that level of sorrow. It was already too sad, so I packed up my gear and turned toward home. Driving slowly, with foot light on the pedal, I considered what to write about this extraordinary experience.
For one, it’s important to say this: Because of our shared appreciation of the outdoors, I have spent a lot of time around people who hunt. I lived for some years in the high desert region of Oregon, where most families fill their larders with the fruits of their hunting labors. And, for many there, it’s felt to be an economic necessity. I also completely understand the culture of the outdoors, having spent most of my life out in it, from enjoying birds in the woods to surviving in snow caves in the mountains. Neither am I naive about the lure of a beautifully crafted gun. It was over thirty years ago that I learned to shoot and came to appreciate the skill of hitting a target exactly where you aim. I even have a few medals to attest to my understanding.
What I don’t understand — and have spent years trying — is the desire to kill and the joy in the doing of it. I’ve read dozens of books and magazine articles about hunting. I’ve been to sportsmen’s shows and mingled with hunters as we both admired a fine work of wildlife art or a gorgeous aluminum river boat. I’ve watched — and winced at — the videos from Ducks Unlimited, the highly regarded waterfowl conservation organization, where men cheer as ducks fall from the sky. I know the statistics showing that fees from hunting permits overwhelmingly support the management of our wildlife areas. But to what end? It seems the idea is to keep our wildlife populations healthy so we can appreciate their beauty and then… kill them. I can make no sense of this. Why do we as citizens not all pay taxes to keep the wild places for the wild? Because we who do not hunt abandoned our responsibility and surrendered it to those who do. And, because they do such a good job of it, why should anyone else bother to get involved?
For the record, I eat meat, though I wish I didn’t and I don’t enjoy it much. Despite my efforts, I was unable to sustain a vegetarian eating style past about four years, simply due to a lack of imaginative persistence in cooking. But when I do eat meat, I surely hope that no one enjoyed killing the animal. I hope it had a swift and painless death not preceded by a time of fear and chaos. That last one may be a hope not grounded in reality and, perhaps, all death involves those risks to some extent. But I cannot find room in my heart to understand the enjoyment of killing. Instead of celebrating our skill and good luck, should we not, instead, apologize to a being whose life we just took, not in self-defense, not in starvation, but in entertainment?
As I look out over the river, a flock of geese flies overhead. I wonder, now, whether some of them are veterans of the battle we endured together. Do they have a memory of these traumas? Or, am I the only one of us left to mourn? Somehow, it feels like the remaining task of my duty, to remember.
I also wonder, in the grand scheme of things (if there is one), will we all be sorry to discover, on our deathbeds, that there really is such a thing as karma? Might we all return as hunted beings, destined to turn the circle over and over? Not caring much for that scenario, I prefer to put hope in our continuing human evolution, despite some evidence to the contrary that it is actually happening. I remind myself often that a snail’s pace can be imperceptible at times.
I’d like to believe that, someday, we earthlings will figure out how to equalize our co-existence here and let go of the idea that we were meant to have dominion over all things. Some people believe that a supreme being gave us that right, but I have my doubts. Who could make such beautiful creatures only to die for our pleasure? Perhaps the lesson we were supposed to learn, after being ousted from the Garden of Eden, was that the way back was to finally find a way to live in peace with our majestic friends of the lake, river, woods, and sky.
I’m holding out hope for us all.