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Zen and the Art of Hunting by Don Meredith © 2004
(first published in the December 2004 Alberta Outdoorsmen)

When I finally wrestled my way through the overhanging alder and willow branches, I found I had reached the top of a small ridge. I paused to examine the open woods below, my eyes gathering in the patterns of naked trees and shrubs below. Soon, I detected movement, just a few metres ahead. A doe white-tailed deer and her fawn were slowly making their way through the poplar trunks towards the abandoned logging road I was following. They were not the least bit disturbed. I pondered how they could not have heard me coming through the thicket. I had made a lot of noise following a well used but overgrown game trail, especially near the top of the ridge where I had struggled through particularly difficult tangle.

Then I realized that perhaps the deer had heard me coming, but didn't know what I really was. When I made noise coming through that thicket, I had grunted like a bull moose to cover my identity. Maybe she had heard that and assumed I was just the local randy bull moose. Could my still hunting techniques actually be working this early in the hunt?

That question reminded me that I had not consciously considered my hunting method that morning. It was the first day of our early season moose hunt, and our party had split up to check out moose activity in different areas of the second-growth forest. In the past, it took me at least a day to go through the mental exercise of clearing my head of urban concerns, relearning old lessons and honing my still-hunting skills to effectiveness. I had to work hard to abandon my urban mindset and create my hunting one. The former was all about destination and speed, the end justifying the means. The latter was about the here and now, the means justifying the end.

For some reason on this trip, my hunting mindset had been closer to the surface on this first day than it ever had been before. It seemed, as soon as I left my vehicle, I subconsciously switched into it. Once started down the trail, I didn't have to consciously slow my pace or stop and take stock of what I was doing because I intuitively understood what I was doing was right.

Now, as I watched the doe and fawn slowly disappear into the trees on the far side of the road, I smiled at my early season confidence. Was it a result of my many years of hunting experience finally kicking in, or my mind accepting that simple was indeed best, or just age slowing me down? I could not say, but the situation reminded me of a book I read back in the 1970s, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (1974) (Buy now: Amazon.ca; Amazon.com). It wasn't so much a book about Zen (a form of Buddhism stressing meditation and intuition) or maintaining motorcycles as it was about living a simpler life. The book had been on the bestseller lists for quite a while before I finally read it, and I remember being impressed with what it said about how the modern world can distract a person from living a fulfilled life.

Back in the early 1970s, the so-called "60s" were winding down, and many people were not finding satisfaction from either chasing the elusive North American dream or dropping out altogether as the hippies had recommended. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance came along as sort of a compromise between the two extremes. Pirsig suggested there were some good things about the modern world but you didn't have to get caught up in a lot of them, especially the hype about the race to consume as much material as your neighbors. Maybe your neighbors weren't as well off as they seemed.

The book was about the adventures of a father taking his 11-year-old son on a motorcycle trip across the United States where they learned much about each other and themselves. For me, one of the enduring images from that story is how the author described the joy of maintaining the motorcycle—doing regular maintenance, fixing each problem that arose and getting to know the machine as an extension of himself. In one scene, he described something that all weekend mechanics probably understand but I had never heard described before. It was how we hand tighten a screw or bolt. If we are sensitive to what we are doing, we don't just screw down as far as it will go and hope for the best. Instead we screw it down tight and then a bit more to a point where it will not back out from vibration. Pirsig described the point as where the threads in both the bolt and nut (for example) are slightly bent to apply pressure on each other. If screwed too tightly, you will not be able to remove the bolt easily by hand, or worse, strip the threads. If tightened too loosely, the bolt will easily back out. What we learn through experience is how the screw driver or wrench feels when those threads are bent just enough to keep the connection tight but accessible. In contrast, how often have you found it difficult to loosen the lug nuts on a truck or car wheel that were over-tightened by someone using a compressed-air wrench?

Pirsig's point was that we achieve a certain amount of satisfaction and confidence in taking responsibility for the pieces of technology we choose to use. By personally doing the routine maintenance and servicing of a particular machine, we know best how it will perform. As a result, it becomes more than just a tool but an extension of ourselves. In the book, he expanded this concept to include other aspects of our personal lives, from taking responsibility for our own personal well being (health, physical fitness), doing daily chores that ensure our families are fed and sheltered, to maintaining relationships and raising responsible children with the ethical values and mental tools to cope in a complex world.

These thoughts swirled around my head that morning as I prepared to drop down the ridge and continue my still hunt. I thought about how much more complex this world had become since Pirsig wrote his book. Computer technology has not delivered on its promise to provide more leisure time. Instead, it has sped up our lives and reduced our patience with people and processes. Even such activities as hunting and fishing are affected. First, we find less and less time to do these things with our family and friends. Second, technology is constantly bombarding us with new gadgets or accessories that promise to increase our enjoyment but actually may detract from the experience.

I, for one, have become quite defensive about my recreation time. Perhaps Pirsig's book helped me realize that my time in the woods or on a lake or stream was my chance to escape the pressures of the modern world, focus on a single task and be myself. Maybe when I left the truck this particular morning, my subconscious mind finally accepted this reality and automatically switched into my comfortable, Zen-like, still-hunting mode as I eased down the old logging road. All that was a concern to me was getting as close to game as possible without revealing my identity.

I did not see a moose that first day. But I did see the doe and her fawn and a host of other wildlife that barely acknowledged my presence. As far as I was concerned, I had screwed down my still-hunting bolt just right, and it wasn't going to back out until I was forced to leave these woods behind.


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Check-out Don's adventure novels:

Grizzly One
The Search
for Grizzly One
Dog Runner
Dog Runner