The Myth of the Hunt

  • Share
  • Read Later
It seems more like a dream a vice president might have than something that might actually befall one. It might also inspire a great fairy tale someday. I imagine it being recited to the children of a magical, peaceful world to come — a utopia of enduring gentleness that accounts for its origins with the following fable:

"And so, after decades at the heights of power helping to mount and administer great battles that caused many thousands of deaths and injuries, the aging leader set out one afternoon into the fields of his beloved homeland in pursuit of a bird that meant no harm to him and which showed him at last — unintentionally, in a twinkling, and in a way that forever changed his heart and, over time, the hearts of all our leaders — what it was actually like to shoot a man."

It's no wonder we're spellbound by Dick Cheney's hunting accident, despite the fact that no one died and the responsible party apologized (though not, perhaps, as promptly as he might have). It may be a small story in an age of big ones — an odd minor scene in history's bloody pageant — but if you let it sink down inside your mind and resonate there for just a little while, you have to confess that itís potent, mythic stuff.

But maybe you're too annoyed by the reporting. I know I've been. For a westerner who likes to hunt and knows about the pastime's risks (I almost shot a friend once while stalking mule deer), watching the Washington press corps cover a story that hinges on a chaotic Texas quail shoot is like watching Prince Charles attempt a native dance. Because they're so good at doing so many other things, the talking heads think they're good at this thing too, even though many of them don't know the difference between a .28-gauge shotgun and an any-caliber rifle. The chief difference, of course (and the relevant one here) is that a shotgun of this modest size barely constitutes a serious weapon when loaded with birdshot of the type that Cheney used. Its hard enough for such pellets to pierce a quail's heart, let alone penetrate a man's, and the fact that one did so is a testament not to Cheney's gross negligence (that question still needs more exploring) but to his supreme unluckiness.

What's made this awkward reporting not merely annoying but socially and politically divisive is that it insults the intelligence of some people who already feel insulted in other ways by the very same class of urban journalists. Outside of D.C., L.A. and NYC, the only time folks get to meet a correspondent from a major television network or a writer from a leading newspaper is when a storm has just destroyed their neighborhood. And when the big shots do vist the outland, they always dress wrong, covered in either condescending denim or some haughty blend of wool and silk. Then they call the tornado that struck the place a "cyclone," even though the place is Minnesota and Minnesotans don't use that word.

For me and for lots of westerners I've spoken to, the greatest failure of the accident coverage has been its inability to convey, let alone fathom in the first place, just what goes on when people are chasing birds out in the middle of nowhere, in the brush, with dogs and other hunters on every side and adrenaline pumping through everybody's veins. It's a jittery, fluid situation. The coveys erupt without warning and they don't fly straight, meaning hunters don't only have to be prepared to raise their barrels at any instant, they need an awareness of the potential arcs through which they can safely swing them before they fire. Or hold their fire, as the case may be.

In the field, there are hundreds of cases that may be — and a wide range of penalties for misjudging one, from the social embarrassment of missing a bird (quail hunting has an aristocratic tone that fosters a lot of ribbing about poor marksmanship) to the mortal anguish of hitting a human being. The sport is dangerous, which heightens its thrill, but it's a civilized level of danger that's usually manageable through good equipment, experienced companions, and traditional codes of conduct. The emotions behind these codes are old and fixed: pride and shame. Like a mountain climbing expedition, a hunting trip is an excuse-free zone. Once a person picks up his gun, he is that gun. And whatever that gun causes.

It's like war, I've suggested, but it's also unlike war, mostly because the quarry poses no threat. In a time of actual war — and when one of the hunters helps to run that war — the playfulness of the sport may seem distasteful. To shoot at feathered things while obliging other folks to shoot at much larger creatures that shoot back doesn't seem right somehow, or wise. At some poetic level it tempts the gods, and the gods are always armed. For Cheney, that's the painful, humbling part. For the public, it's the engrossing, mythic part. The press may be mauling the story and prolonging it, but the accident's strange allegorical allure is beyond its power to affect.