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Tom Chaney: The Holy Communion of Rabbit Hunting
Of Writers And Their Books: The Holy Communion of Rabbit Hunting. Tom notes that fifteen years of hunting with the men and Walt Harrington is still the observer. We are the richer by his observation, but we are forever barred from the ineluctable mysteries of the initiated. This column first appeared 28 October 2007.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: “Mr. Peabody's Coal Train's Done Hauled it Away”
By Tom Chaney
The Holy Communion of Rabbit Hunting
What does a sophisticated Washington Post writer do when he comes to Barren County Kentucky to celebrate Thanksgiving with his wife's rural kin?
The women head to the kitchen to fix the holiday meals. The men head down toward Burkesville to hunt on the family land in Lawson Bottom.
Even if he had been tempted to tie on an apron and help with the cooking, Walt Harrington, author of The Everlasting Stream: A True Story of Rabbits, Guns, Friendship, and Family [Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002] would have been run out of the kitchen with a broom.
So, not wanting to offend his new father-in-law, Harrington takes to the woods.
For the next fifteen some-odd years he hunts every Thanksgiving week with his father-in-law Alex Elliott, Alex's brother Bobby Elliott, and their friends Lewis Stockton and Carl Martin. In due time Walt's son Matt is initiated into the men's world of guns, rabbits, whiskey and stories.
The result is a delicious Thanksgiving feast of understanding as Harrington comes to see the oneness of life for these four men: how every hunt is both new and now and how this year's hunt is linked to past hunts; how the hunt breakfast, and its later replacement at a Burkesville restaurant, and how cleaning the kill topped by a slug of whiskey become a part of what Matt calls "the ritual."
In the fine illumination which comes to the author, Harrington makes a distinction between the meaning of social ritual to the hunters and to the outsiders such as Walt and Matt. The men don't see the breakfasts and the cleaning of rabbits as ritual. "The men don't try to create ritual in the way that, say, Martha Stewart goes about teaching America how to trim a Christmas tree in the old-fashioned way, as if doing so could somehow rekindle the old-fashioned values we've lost.
"That's when ritual becomes sentiment, a desperate shadow of ritual. The men don't plan the memorable moments in their lives; the moments happen.... The men live life. They don't watch themselves live life.... They are in attendance at their lives."
Fifteen years of hunting with the men and Walt is still the observer. We are the richer by his observation, but we are forever barred from the ineluctable mysteries of the initiated.
But, oh, what we do learn!
When Walt returns to Washington, D.C., after one of the early hunts, he serves up a rabbit banquet to friends. When one guest learns that the host has killed the rabbit for the main dish, she is horrified -- "I can't believe you killed those little bunnies!"
That guest was not a vegetarian. She would not have been so offended had the meat come from the local market. The nearness of the bloodshed was offensive.
We live in an era in which hunting is not seen as the politically correct thing to do. Lots of folks agree with the lady about killing the bunnies.
This book causes me to think about just where I stand on the issue of hunting. I was lucky enough to have a cousin by marriage who took over that part of my growing up. I had learned gun safety and skeet shooting at conservation camp. I had fired rifles at targets on a range.
But it was Roger Sanders who took me in hand and led me to the briar patch. Usually it was on his father-in-law's farm on the road to Pascal. Many rabbits escaped with their lives.
After college I hunted with Bill Jaggers and others in and around Jackson, Kentucky. We got a few quail every now and again. But I never bagged a pheasant. Smartest bird I know. When jumped they headed straight up the steepest mountain around.
About that time I stopped hunting. I quit for a specific reason. I had killed a rabbit. The thought struck me that the rabbit was dead. I had killed it. I liked killing it. There was a joy in the act of ending life that surprised and horrified me.
So I quit for a personal reason. You might call me a "cowardly carnivore." I still eat meat, but I don't want the blood from my supper dripping from my own hands. I jokingly call myself a second degree vegetarian -- I eat vegetables and things that eat vegetables.
I got off into all this personal stuff to say that Walt Harrington has not dissuaded me from my aversion to killing game, neither has he led me out of my quiet cowardice to crusade against hunting.
What the author does is to capture the elusive moments of friendship which bond men with a crystalline clarity.
Such a moment came one day at the Everlasting Stream in Lawson Bottom, the five hunters are cleaning their kill in the cold waters. Walt is the last to finish.
"I was the last man to stoop over the pool and rinse blood from my hands. God, the water was cold. When I stood, the men were sitting on Carl's tailgate or gathering themselves in the drive and the short winter grass along its southern edge. I took up a spot on the drive facing the tailgate maybe fifteen feet distant.
"That is when the waking lucid moment came. I was watching the men, not talking myself but laughing with them, when time elongated, and I was standing in the field, on the drive and yet standing outside the place, already realizing that I would remember these moments not only as a collection of facts but as pure sensation.... moments when a person's mind and body are in perfect sync."
Much later Walt asks the others about that day at that spring. All remembered that day among thousands. "As I've learned, hunting is filled with pristine moments.... an hour of near human perfection among men, a slice of time when the stars just line up right and you are in the zone, ... the sublime."
It was a social, not just a personal experience -- a synchronicity to ponder.
Hunting, says Harrington, is a process of seeing the world and the fields not only in large swatches of color but also close up -- the texture of a blade of grass; the pattern in the veins of the leaves. "When the men laugh together, as when their dogs hunt, they are a choir of still distinct voices."
Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney - firstname.lastname@example.org
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