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"The Good Life"   (Chris Sullins, November 10, 2008)

My friend and I were engaged in a team co-op “deathmatch” video game where we were paired up together against a score or more of artificial intelligence-powered virtual bad guys. We watched the same screen with our weapons and site points covering an area in the distance. This was typical of first person shooter games where players either had their own display screens or shared use of one screen in a split view format.

I vaguely recall the underlying scenario took place in the “not so distant future” in what was already a current global hotspot in the real world that not so hypothetically fell into a complete chaotic cesspit. Various backgrounds for battle always took place somewhere between Mesopotamia and the Kavkaz, usually in an urban setting filled with damaged buildings and burned out cars. I had returned from that part of the real world less than a year before.

“Do you have some money saved up for the when the economy goes bad again?” I asked my friend who was still in college at his parents’ expense during America’s last tiny and easily forgotten recession.

“A little,” he replied as he pressed and pulled on the buttons and triggers with both hands on the control pad.

We were both a little old to be spending a weekend afternoon playing video games, but it would be hard to argue that riding around on a golf cart or passively watching televised sports was much different. Ironically, a similar FPS AI system had been used as part of my military training prior to deployment to an actual warzone. Back at the time I knew it would be woefully inadequate in preparation for the real thing. However, video games were fun and I had grown up with them when the first black and white displays were set inside wooden booths or table tops which began appearing in county fair tents back in the 1970s.

“I’ve seen your empty cupboard,” I began in a serious tone, “what are you going to do if you have zero cash and need to eat?”

During a pause in computerized mayhem he removed his cigarette with one hand and tipped an inch of spent ash off the end before calmly stating “I’ll live off the land.”

“It’s a serious question,” I said.

“And I answered it.” He said.

“You live in town and you have a yard smaller than most people’s swimming pools – how do you expect to garden that?” I asked.

“I’m not going to garden,” he said with the cigarette back in the corner of his mouth and the flashes and sounds of digital action commencing again. “I’ll go the forests and lakes just outside of town and I’ll hunt and fish.”

I had a pretty big grin form at this point that was probably quite visible from the corner of his eye “You’ve never hunted in your entire life and when was the last time you baited a hook?”

“Well, yeah, it’s been a long time since I fished –probably at least a year or so,” he began in complete honesty before ending with, “but what’s so hard about hunting?”

“It’s not like this video game”, I said. My friend knew I had hunted for a number of years for large and small game using both compound bows and various types of firearms. He also knew that I was completely self-taught and yet bagged game most seasons. “It’s a lot harder than something like this. I’m not just talking about having something to shoot at because there’s days when nothing –and I mean nothing walks by— but it’s the environmental factors that come into play. You’re outside in the wind, rain, and cold and not a comfortable room like this sitting in an easy chair.”

“I have a winter coat and I’m a good shot with a real rifle,” he said. “You’ve seen me at the range.”

“Being good at the range and saying it will make for bountiful hunting is a little like saying an expert marksman badge will keep you alive in combat,” I said trying to inject a larger dose of reality into his perception.

“You seem to do fine,” he said. “You’ve said you let stuff walk by and didn’t even take a shot an entire season because you choose not to.”

“That’s called ‘herd management’ and there’s a lot of hunting pressure out where I live,” I began as I multitasked with the action in the game. “I don’t have that much land and if I shot everything to fill tags during an entire season, there wouldn’t be much left during the next season.”

“So there is plenty of game for the taking,” he said.

“You’re missing my point,” I said as I perceived where this was going. “There are a couple of different things at work here. If I killed everything I saw over a couple years, it would deplete the long term viability of the types and numbers of animals living in the little ecosystem on my property within the county block. I just wouldn’t have much at all later if I took everything I saw when I went out hunting every time.

My county block doesn’t have a large herd of deer to begin with. When people talk about seeing 30 deer in one field in winter that’s when there’s no hunting pressure and it’s probably every deer from four country blocks showing up together at the same time and place. If I put too much pressure on my parcel of land all of those deer would know to continue avoiding my property long after I’ve pulled out every deer, squirrel and rabbit that ever set foot on it. Small animals also take a while to come back if they’re over-hunted, too.”

“I’ll just move around to different land,” he said.

“I see,” I noted, “you’re just going to trespass and poach. Legality aside, parking yourself behind a different tree or roaming around on another property doesn’t mean you’re going to find anything. Stalking game on foot is hard and takes a lot of patience. That’s even if there’s still game there and they’re not going to break cover just because you’re walking through.”

“I hear from guys at work all the time about how they sit up in a tree or push a small corn field and see eight deer on opening day alone,” he said. “I’ve heard that from you, too.”

“That’s on opening day,” I began to clarify again. “It can be zero for every day after that for some people. In fact, some of those guys are probably counting the same deer twice as they circle around.”

“[Expletive]!” He cursed as his character died for the first time on this level. “You made me die.”

“I think I’ve ‘died’ a couple times already,” I said. “Besides, how did I make you die?”

“This deep conversation,” he replied. “Let’s just cut back some on the talking during this part. Don’t worry. I’ll do fine if I have to in real life.”

“Ok, fine,” I said as I, too, tired of trying to pursue the matter. “One last bit of advice, try to lose the cigarettes before you head out into the field on your first hunt.”

“Yeah, whatever…”

* * *

Among the native tribes of the Upper Midwest there is a phrase which means “The Good Life”. There was a not too distant past when men left their family lodges to go on hunting and fishing trips deep into the surrounding pristine forests and across pure waters ranging from streams to the Great Lakes. One can almost imagine traversing the big water in a canoe as the background foliage changes from broadleaf trees to narrow cedars. Between the calls of crow flying overhead a splash would punctuate the paddle rhythm as a large fish would break the surface with a flop before submerging again. Along the shoreline deer would walk narrow paths and stop to take a drink.

I’ve read studies that theorized hunter-gatherer tribesmen spent approximately 2-4 hours per day doing the actual hunting and gathering of their food. Other studies have proposed that early humans had a higher content of animal and fish protein in their diet than most societies do today. As suede-elbow-patch academics sip double-cappuccinos while engaged in their detached digital world of publish or perish, Joe Six-Pack reads the headline or reference on a webpage to such studies and fantasizes about a supposedly easier time before the noise of motorized civilization and the punch of his daily grind.

Of course, Joe probably didn’t go beyond the journal abstracts –even if the mainstream reporter citing the researcher bothered to link to it. If Joe has been able to educate himself this far between bites of his mass-produced grain and sawdust-fed domesticated-beef burger, he may miss clocking back into the shop to make his hourly production or sales quota.

Likewise, the professor doesn’t have a clue on how to apply a flight-worthy fletching to an arrow shaft or personally complete a single stone arrowhead. The closest most professors have ever come to using a hammerstone is a wireless plastic mouse. Joe is at least a micron closer in a physical sense with his pneumatic nail-gun.

Every year at springtime when factory hybrid seeds were still being put into the ground my friends and I would shoot rifles across an open field into a massive stump at the base of a hill. The original tree had been cut before our own fathers had been born but it was still hard enough to easily catch bullets from everything fired at it up through 300 Winchester Magnum. The old stump had literally absorbed thousands of rounds of military ammunition brought in from around the globe and shot at it.

It was during one of these afternoons of shooting after emptying a magazine and beginning the walk across the recently disked field that I stumbled on the edge of a stone. Although it had broken the surface of the dirt it had remained hidden from my view by some short weeds. It wasn’t unusual for stones to rise in the field and we would carry these off to the side of the planting area. When I pulled this one completely from the dirt I noticed immediately it was far different than any other we had ever pulled before.

The shape was somewhere between round and oval and somewhat smooth for the type of material. It was a little large for one hand to comfortably cup around. The first comment out of someone’s mouth was that it looked like a small “dinosaur egg” but even that still didn’t seem right to our novice eyes. Our gut feeling was that it was fashioned by man and not by nature. It didn’t have the groove around it that was characteristic of the stone axes found elsewhere in the county. I wondered out loud if it was a pestle for grinding grain.

I gave the stone to my father who knew someone who collected Native American artifacts. I returned to work and some weeks later my father came back with information on the stone. He was told it was a very old first tool used to make other tools. It was before the time of the more recent native inhabitants of our land. When my father had described the place where I found the stone in a field below a small hill leading to a short plateau, the expert had commented it sounded like a good spot for “continuous human habitation”. Many parts of our county and the surrounding counties in other states had a great reputation for hunting and fishing so this didn’t surprise us.

The hunting hadn’t always been that good. This was not for a lack of ability and effort, but rather the local wildlife had in fact been nearly depleted. Years after finding the stone I spoke with an elder from one of the last remaining native tribes in the neighboring state only a few miles away over the boundary line. During one of our conversations (and when an elder is speaking, one listens more than talks), he told me how life for the tribal members had been very difficult during the Great Depression.

After an appropriate pause of silence, I asked about hunting to supplement food for survival during this time because I had come to know his local area as a hunter’s paradise. In very few words he described this had still been a hardship for his people. He didn’t use the word “depleted”, a direct action phrase such as “hunted out”, or go into yearly hunting harvest data with a chart illustrating a decline. He told me “We would call the people out to look at the track when someone found one. This didn’t happen often back then.” It didn’t a long pause of silence as the simplicity and concise accuracy of this description hit me over the head like a rock.

As a species we have done an excellent job building tools that were capable of consistently hitting the target and killing things. Our tools have given us abilities to reach out and touch something with deadly effect from a speed and distance that would make birds of prey envious if they were capable of such emotion. On the open Western plains men with single shot iron-sited rifles would drop scores of bison in a single afternoon from hundreds of yards away. After only the hides and tongues were taken leaving behind ten of thousands of pounds of meat to rot under the sun, I think the original native inhabitants probably felt a brief tinge of amazement and wonder about the lethal capabilities of the tools when they weren’t reflecting upon the bigger picture of callous waste.

When I was inside a former palace in Baghdad I stood on a sturdy balcony on an interior rim and looked up at the hole in a huge domed roof caused by the US Air Force at the beginning of the 2003 Iraq invasion. This huge space was dark except for the stream of daylight that came through the comparatively small hole in the arched ceiling and partially illuminated the interior. Over the jagged edge in the football field size space below me was the broken rubble, bent rebars, shattered pipes, and frayed wires typical of the jumbled destruction of war. To simply write that the floors were blown out still seems to greatly underrate what has been only a historical footnote to the war.

The contrast between above and below was such that one wondered what kind of giant subterranean monster had to be stopped in its tracks before it could emerge into the world. Anyone occupying the coliseum space in the building at detonation would not only have been toast, but more likely reduced to sub-crouton status. They were the lucky ones. People in the adjoining hallways and rooms would have been crushed and smothered by the rubble which came down afterwards.

But the military mind reflects upon the technical achievement of the jet pilot flying his fighter hundreds of miles an hour and dropping the payload from thousands of feet up all the while communicating with other pilots, the ground, monitoring various electronic gauges, and preparing countermeasures. This becomes more amazing when considering it was done not just once, but twice through holes in the roof close enough to touch each other and look like one. Engineers on both sides of this final equation are also to be complimented on their abilities: one for designing such an accurate complex weapon system and another for a domed roof that didn’t completely collapse after two bombs were sent through it and detonated.

It had to be a personal “Wow!” moment for the pilot(s) involved and akin to Robin Hood splitting the arrow to win the tournament. In hunting the closest I came to it was shooting a deer with a shotgun from a tree-stand which immediately spun it around in one place facing the opposite direction. I reflexively pumped and instantly followed with a second shot dropping it where it stood. I went down to examine the dead deer which had two holes on one side a few inches apart and turned it over to find only one oblong hole on the other side. My second shot had actually exited out the entry hole of the first shot.

“Wow.” I remember saying it out loud. There had been some shots on moving game that were technically difficult, but you can’t even try to do something like that and still get it right. Some people might even wonder if it’s the same word when a sniper sends a bullet shattering both lenses of the scope of an enemy sniper who was also just a hair’s break away of the trigger from doing the same thing. Not having been in that situation, I would still think that calls more for a “Holy [Expletive]!” instead. If I ever am, survive, and am done changing my drawers afterward, I have a good idea of what the word will be.

Ancient man had his cave paintings portraying how well the hunt went. Thousands of years later this evolved and changed into more likely depicting victories of war in stone reliefs. During a relatively recent, but shorter time of human history, oil on canvas ranging in frame sizes small enough to fit in a home family room to murals so large to require a banquet hall of a castle, fictionalized both warfare and the hunting of animals. Modern video media now seems to glorify only warfare and the hunting of humans. I pray this chapter of the artistic journal is a short one, but not the last one.

How did we lose understanding of what was known to all tribes across the planet as the “Good Life” in their various tongues? This is not implying that times were “better” in the sense that they were ever any easier in the past. Quite the contrary as this is written by someone who has let arrows fly and missed completely or tracked thin blood trails and lost game in the dark as the rain started to fall. I have a small idea on the amount of time, labor, and materials involved in the basic work of real survival. But in all honesty I’ve handled an optical mouse for far more hundreds of hours per year than I’ve spent splitting the wood to keep me warm.

Part of what I’d like to do is dispel the illusions of survival in the western mind. There are many of them and I won’t dissolve them all in the acid of a single angry essay no matter how convincing my evidence could be. I don’t have a universally illuminating real-life story that will take the willing neophyte to some level of new understanding about human history like Ethan Powell did with Theo Caulder in “Instinct”. Likewise, I don’t want to sound like Agent Smith lecturing Morpheus in “The Matrix”.

“The Good Life” requires living in balance with nature. This will mean something very different to the musician living in an apartment who was eating tofu, recycling long before it was mandatory in the suburbs, and who has been bicycling to work as opposed to the rancher living miles from the next human who might drive to town once every couple of weeks and casts lead bullets at home for inherited firearms. Something they both have in common is taking things slow and cautious while thinking about how to “get by” within the future of their personal lifetime.

“Less is more” isn’t just a lifestyle choice, but often a necessity. They are more likely to think about leaving a philosophy of life behind to their children rather than a house full of things or some money in a bank account.

However, I’m going to ask for them and you as the reader to leave something more than just an abstract concept for your posterity. Please teach the skills you know to anyone who is willing. Please tell your story and family history –especially what your ancestors have done and what they have experienced. If you’re someone who feels like you don’t have much to give yet in either of those areas, then that puts you fully into the role of student. We have all been and always should be students. Learning is forever our first tool.

One can learn by doing, but asking for help is always a part of this. I did not gut and butcher my first deer by myself. This is like any other complex task and a book or video is not going to show you this properly without you still making some mistakes. The book you bought about hunting might not contain advice about using the urine from the doe you just shot to lure in another deer and the video won’t give you a timely warning when you’re about to nick the full bladder with a knife during the gutting itself.

Mistakes in a ‘hunting for sport’ situation can be shrugged off as live and learn before heading back to a warm cabin and canned food. Mistakes in a ‘hunting for survival’ situation might be another empty stomach closer to an unwritten epitaph for a scattering of bones beneath a stand of pine trees.

I could have used a vegetarian and an edible versus poisonous wild plant analogy to adjust for other individuals and their preferences. I could have easily used our entire modern global society, its energy consumption and depletion before its collapse, too. But, I purposely wanted to use some imagery that wasn’t pretty because when I’m asking you to go out and start getting some hands-on learning; you have to understand that this will involve getting your own hands dirty and it’s not going to smell good either.

Here’s that moment for reflective silence until next time.

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