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Why do people become conservationists?

7/1/2009

No one questions that we need to expand and preserve the conservation ethic to save and manage wildlife, but how do you do that?

Interviewing hundreds of people about what got them started as conservationists, almost uniformly I have found that they can recall one or more powerful, positive emotional experiences in nature that got them started.

Such experiences most often take place in childhood, and they are more important than books, TV shows, school programs, etc. to cultivating appreciation for nature. Exceptional nature-bonding experiences are so important because teach us that one of the pleasures of life comes from contact with nature and wildlife; a lesson we never forget.

The connection between the hunting and fishing and developing what Aldo Leopold called the foundation for the mindset of the conservationist, "the Ecological Conscience," is important. Most of the greatest conservations hunted and fished.

This is not that widely appreciated, especially in these days when not enough kids grow up knowing hunting or fishing first-hand. Hunting and fishing for kids is important not only because it introduces them to a lifelong recreational pursuit, but it opens their awareness to the value of nature in their lives as a source of enjoyment as an exceptional experience. With that first positive bond in place, learning skills about how to hunt and fish becomes much easier for student and teacher.

I feel fortunate that one of my earliest memories is when I was five or six. I went duck hunting with my father in the marshes along Lake Erie on a spectacular fall afternoon when the sun was a glowing golden ball hanging low in the western sky. As the sun set, waves of chocolate brown black ducks with silvery underwings and bright red legs came streaming into the marsh out of Lake Erie. When my father brought one down with his shotgun, it was like an act of magic.

Such memories forever etch awareness of possibilities in our lives. If they are positive memories, like my first duck hunt, those memories are associated with pleasure, and such memories remind us that being in nature with wildlife can be enjoyable, so it makes us want to return to conditions like our first experience.

Those first experiences then should be reinforced. My first lessons in environmental perception came from my father at that same young age. About a quarter of a mile from our house was a woodlot that covered the south end of the island. My father knew the woods well for the Swans had owned it before the Great Depression. That became my classroom.

He saw that I liked hunting and so he began to take me on walks in the woods in the evening after he finished work. One night, when we got to the woods he told me to stop, close my eyes and listen. I became aware of the sounds of the woods. In the distance, the leaves rustled. "What animal is that?" he asked me.

I can't remember what I guessed, but I was wrong.

He pointed out that you would hear a sound like someone stepping on a pile of leaves, then another, and another. "That's a squirrel, feeding," he said. "They hop and land on all four feet and are noisy when they land. They can get away with that because they can run up a tree to get away."

"A rabbit is more quiet when he is feeding, because their legs are longer, their feet are covered with fur and their stride is different; two feet and two feet. If they run, the sounds will be faster than a squirrel."

"Deer walk quietly. You don't hear every footstep, but they are heavy enough to break twigs and branches. If you jump one he runs off, making a lot of sound every time their feet land and they crash through brush."

"The animal that makes the most noise is the dog. He gets his food from a dish and has forgotten how to hunt for food, so every step he takes is noisy."

To help me develop my ability to distinguish forest sounds, closing my eyes forced me to use my sense of hearing more. Denying one sense makes you more acutely aware of others to compensate, which is why there are so many good blind musicians.

One night we went to the woods after dark. He told me to close my eyes and walk on the road that ran through the woods, which was a two-rut dirt road.

"You got learn to have eyes in the bottom of your feet if you want to walk quietly," he said.

In time, I found that if I concentrated on the soles of my feet, I could keep on the road by feeling the slight rise in the middle of the dirt road. Then we moved off the road. My assignment became to learn to feel the ground underfoot as I put each foot down; at first gently. It quickly became obvious why moccasins make for quiet walking the woods because you can feel everything under foot.

Honoring your bag

A celebration is in order when a kid catches their first fish or kills their first rabbit. Making it special adds even more significance, as it introduces ethics and respect for wild things.

For deer hunters, a first deer kill is often celebrated by "blooding," painting the young hunter's face with blood of their first deer. In Europe, the blood may be painted in the shape of a cross on the young hunter's forehead. This is called "The Cross of St. Hubert," who is the patron saint of hunters.

American Indians typically leave an offering of food and say prayers of thanksgiving beside an animal they have killed.

In Europe, another tradition for when a hunter kills a deer, is for the guide, who is called a Jaeger, to perform "The Last Bite" ceremony, which honors hunter and the game. According to Craig Boddington, it goes something like this:

"The Jaeger literally raises the game, seeing the animals from birth to maturity and ultimately to the table. His charge is not only management of the game, but also management of the hunter as the harvesting tool. Instilled in his being is respect for the land and the animals. He must ensure that the proper animal is found and dispatched humanely, and it is his charge to preside over a final ceremony to honor the fallen beast. When an animal is taken, the occasion is initially solemn — the congratulations, backslapping, and sharing of schnapps can come later. First the Jaeger will break off a green twig, and then break it again in two. The first part is gently placed in the animal's mouth, "the last bite." The second part is dipped gently in the animal's blood. Then the Jaeger removes his hat, places the twig upon it, and passes it to the hunter with his left hand. He will say solemnly, "Waismannsheil," the hunter's salute.

The hunter will remove his hat and accept the bloodied twig with his left hand, placing it on his hat and replying, "Waidmannsdank," the hunter's thanks. And then, having paid homage to a fine creature, the celebrating may commence."

So, if you introduce a child or an adult to hunting or fishing, remember that this is going to be a memory that they will carry with them for the rest of their life. Make the occasion special, celebrate what you catch, teach them how to show respect for wildlife, and rest assured that you will be starting someone on the road to becoming a lifelong conservationist, as well as introducing them to many pleasurable times to enrich the rest of their life.

I've never heard of a blooding ceremony for first fish. On San Francisco Bay sturgeon charters, the guide may try to coax a fisherman into kissing his first sturgeon before releasing it, but that's another story.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.

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