On Friday, November 25, 2016, the city of Magnolia, Ark., was virtually empty. What had happened? An apocalyptic event of some sort, wiping out everyone who would normally be working in their yard, or walking their dog, or playing with their children, or patronizing the stores on the downtown square? If so, I must have missed it – too busy sleeping off that massive Thanksgiving dinner I’d enjoyed the night before with the Taylor family. I drove along South Washington Street, marveling at the silence – the stillness – of this late-fall afternoon. No traffic. No pedestrians. Not much going on at any of the houses I passed. Apocalypse? Not at all. This day represented the heart of that season that most folks in south Arkansas live for. Not the Christmas season. Deer season.
I had no scientific means of proving this, but I reasoned that fully one-third of Magnolia had been emptied out by the annual confluence of deer hunting and post-Thanksgiving Day shopping. I arrived at this opinion simply from observing my wife’s family. The Taylor men had packed up and headed out some 24 hours earlier, bound for rural Chidester, where they and their kin have hunted deer for generations. The women were plotting a lengthy shopping excursion in Texarkana. Apply similar plans to households across Magnolia and you had a pretty good explanation for the emptied-out look and feel of the town at three o’clock on Black Friday.
Deer hunting is a sacred tradition in this neck of the woods, and I don’t mean just south Arkansas. It’s a tradition across America, but perhaps nowhere is it more exalted – more time-honored, or pursued with greater passion – than in little towns and rural counties in the South. You can find deer hunters by the thousands in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Missouri and Mississippi, but the ones I have known all my life are in Arkansas, where camo is more than just something you wear in the fall – it’s the meaning of life. Schools let out early on certain weeks in November for the “season,” and on quiet Saturday (even Sunday) mornings, you can hear the distant thunder of guns.
I myself have never been a hunter. I grew up outside the sport. If deer hunting is a tradition handed from one generation to the next, the men in my family chose not to participate. Though my father and grandfather all but worshipped guns, they did not use them for sport. They were collectors and weekend target shooters. They did not wear orange, they did not enter the woods on crisp fall mornings. For me, guns were museum pieces to be looked at, discussed, and stored safely away. At no time were any of the rifles or shotguns owned by my forebears used to hunt game – at least, not in my lifetime. The stories of deer hunting I heard were traded by kids my age or older, in school. My peers got to go deer hunting. I did not.
For most Arkansans – most Americans! – this is what might reasonably be called a crying shame. Hunting is the Great American Pastime; since frontier days, when buffalo roamed the plains, hunting has been more than just a rite of passage but a means of survival. While I grew up hearing tales of hunters who were unnecessarily cruel toward their prey, I’ve never doubted that most hunt for reasons greater than mere recreation. They hunt for the meat, and they hunt to cull the herd. Although it hasn’t always been the case, there is an overpopulation of deer in Arkansas, and a dreaded neurological malady with no cure – chronic wasting disease – has found its way into our herd. There is a practical, perhaps even humane, side to the sport.
Still, most folks who rise before dawn to venture into the deer woods hoping – sometimes praying – for at least a glimpse of the game they seek, aren’t preoccupied with thoughts of overpopulation. They are participating in an age-old ritual, often with the very ones who taught them how to hunt. The quest is hard-wired into them; it is part of their genetic makeup. There is magic in the act of loading weapons, packing food and gear, climbing into the truck, and taking off for two or three days in the deep woods, pursuing an unseen quarry that does not wish to be found. There is mystery in the hunt itself – reading the signs, following the clues, waiting, watching, hoping, praying. There is joy in experiencing the hunt for the first time with younger generations, themselves excited just to be out in the woods with fathers, grandfathers, brothers, uncles, family friends. There is the togetherness of camp life, its food smells and warm bunks and cold showers, its games and raucous laughter. Millions of Arkansans know these things firsthand, but I have only heard about them, imagined them.
I’ve decided to take it upon myself to experience the thrill, magic and mystery of the hunt at least once before I do a two-step off this mortal coil. It is my hope to complete a Hunter Education course and gain at least temporary access (next year) to the camp of my in-laws and their brethren. It is my goal to take a deer next season – my gun, my bullet. And I hope to get a good story out of it. My research has led me to not one viable book about deer hunting, at least not as it exists in this part of the world. Deer hunting in south Arkansas is a thing in and of itself – it has its own gear, equipment, philosophy, history, and family ties. It is directly related to the land and how it is mapped and read. It is weaponry, clothing and transportation. It is an economic force. It is community. It is a way of life.
My ultimate goal is to create literature from the experience – provided all goes as I hope it does. The book in one sense will be an act of journalism, an exploration of the economic, social, spiritual, and physical forces that go into game-hunting in south Arkansas. In another sense, it will be an adventure story – Man, as the old saying goes, against Nature. In another, it will, I hope, be a sort of diary that follows me into the deer woods and out the other side. I can’t find another book on the subject; I sincerely hope there isn’t one. I think there’s a good story to be told here; I hope I’m the one to tell it.