CPW Field Journal
When it comes to outdoors expertise, no one understands Colorado’s fishery and wildlife resources better than Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s diverse staff of wildlife managers, park rangers and biologists. For these dedicated individuals, working for CPW is not just an occupation but a way of life. When they’re not enforcing fish and game laws, patrolling state lands or conducting fish and wildlife research, most CPW employees are avid sportsmen and women who spend their leisure time hunting and angling throughout the state. Here, CPW staff share their personal stories and experiences, provide on-the-ground field updates and offer a unique, “inside” perspective on all things hunting and fishing in Colorado.
In this segment of CPW Field Journal, Southwest Regional Manager Patt Dorsey explains how the solitude of hunting helps her to de-stress and escape everyday life.
“Sssssh . . . I’m Hunting”
Hunting is not a matter of life and death . . . it is far more serious than that.
Needless to say, I abhor the term “hunting recreation.” For me, and others like me, hunting is re-creation. Hunting is essential for bringing tranquility back into our digitized, homogenized, computerized, compartmentalized, not-enough-exercise lifestyles.
Like many hunters, I consider hunting, and the requisite time alone in the woods, “therapy.” Some suggest that it deepens their spirituality (and in some cases relationships with God). Perhaps we hunters are on to something . . . Buddhists deem tranquility critical on the path to enlightenment. And perhaps hunters have known for years what psychologists are researching: the importance of tranquility, silence and beauty.
From a psychologist’s perspective, being tranquil gives people a respite from the constant and complete attention required in our contemporary lives. Tranquility serves as a tonic for cognitive overload, or to put it bluntly, “brain burn.” Getting away from our daily distractions and fully engaging with our environment frees our busy, burning brains, opening them up to fascination, creativity and relaxation.
Mike King is the busy executive director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources. His office is a block away from the state capitol. There he interacts with the legislature and resolves natural resource conflicts. If that is not enough, he is an equally busy husband and father of three. Few activities require the complete nature immersion and soft focus that hunting requires. “When I am immersed in hunting, the daily gets lost,” explained King. “That’s when the work stress evaporates.”
Hunters frequently describe their afflictions in medical terms like “elk-oholism” or “duck-itis.” Yet, there is evidence to suggest that a lack of interaction with nature has real health implications. Long hours of mental activity can lead to fatigue. Mental fatigue affects our performance, creates negative emotions, increases our irritability and decreases our sensitivity. Ironically it seems our humanity, with its cars, trucks, buzzers and ringtones, makes us less human. Conversely, contact with nature significantly contributes to physical health and mental well-being.
A 2007 English study found that the most tranquil places had: forests, rivers, streams, lakes or the sea, birds and other wildlife, wide open spaces and clear open night sky. There’s no doubt beautiful scenery contributes a great deal to tranquility and our ability to find inner calm.
For King, beauty is found on a quaky-covered Colorado hillside in September. For Luke Hoffman, beauty is hard to get to. It sits atop a high saddle with a view of a few small meadows and the next ridge over. Hoffman is a district wildlife manager in the San Luis Valley. His busy season begins in May and runs nonstop through December, when he is trying to keep elk off the valley floor and out of the all-you-can-eat buffet in the alfalfa, rye and potato fields.
Quiet, or the absence of noise, contributes significantly more than beauty to tranquility. Scientific research has proven that while we can capture a scene in a single glance, our auditory reaction time is far faster. Additionally, what we hear enhances what we see.
On King’s hillside, ocher aspen leaves shudder as though frightened by the slightest autumn breeze. King’s anticipation is occasionally broken by a bull elk burdened by testosterone, bellowing a lusty bugle or a dusky grouse busting from cover in a flurry.
In our modern lives we tend to focus on what we see, stimulated by visual cues. Some animals are totally blind such as the star-nosed mole, the Texas salamander, cave fish, etc. There is even an eyeless shrimp. Other species, like bats, have weak eyesight. Many mammals are born with poor vision and/or with closed eyes. And even more species have some form of color blindness. While we evolved eyelids — we never evolved ear lids. Our sense of hearing was, and is, hugely important. Yet, we rarely reflect on the importance of listening.
Hunters know that the absence of noise does not equate to silence. In fact, I am often surprised at how loud silence can be. When I am still, I listen and I hear the wind drag on the feathers of a chickadee approaching its landing strip on the branch above me (it sounds like a B-52 bomber). I hear a chipmunk’s scissor teeth mowing Timothy grass and watch it comb the seeds from the Timothy’s tight heads. And, on Dec. 8, many years ago, I was alone in a river bottom listening to the sunlight melt the hoarfrost when I heard soft inhalations and exhalations approaching. Then I heard the sounds of my own breath and shot my first deer a few minutes later.
“It’s almost like I’m wearing hearing aids,” explained Hoffman. With a hunting-induced heightened sense of hearing, he hears slight twigs, breaking trees leaning against the wind, goose music and chipmunk chatter.Hoffman’s words come remarkably close to Dr. Maria Montessori’s, whose educational methods are drawn on worldwide. When we are silent we notice things which we might not otherwise notice. Montessori stated it this way, “It would almost seem as if we put the equivalent of a microscope to our ears.”
Not talking is a prerequisite for seeking silence. However, not talking does not equate to the absence of communication. Durango-based hairstylist, bowhunter and business owner, Doug Boykin, knows that while he is quiet, nature’s communication is at a crescendo. Boykin, who hunts the West from the southern Arizona desert to the southwestern Colorado treeline, has heard newborn javelina reds calling their pseudo-porcine mothers and Gambel’s quail gossiping continually to the rest of the covey. “A lot of people don’t appreciate quiet. They don’t realize there is a lot of communication going on in an elk herd,” Boykin explained.
Physiologically, tranquility can lower blood pressure, reduce muscle tension, decrease stress-related illness and improve sleep. An study found that people living in quieter areas used fewer tranquilizers, sleeping pills, antacids and antihypertensive drugs. A recent study found tranquility provided some pain relief during bone marrow biopsy.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, noise is a stressor, preparing the body for “fight or flight.” The fight-or-flight response evolved to help us survive imminent danger. Our ancestors survived because they had the ability to make quick choices when interacting with a cave lion. Today’s threats are less obvious, and/or imagined, and this over-stimulation triggers glandular, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal changes in the body.
Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist, who defines quiet as presence — not an absence of sound, but an absence of noise. Hempton describes the Earth as a “solar-powered jukebox.”
His choice of words is interesting. Aldous Huxley, who wrote “Brave New World” and had questionable eyesight, stated, “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
Hoffman likewise described, “When I’m hunting, I am completely silent and listening to nature’s music.” Quiet places remind Hoffman that there are wild places where civilization is eclipsed by the primitive.
Hempton describes quiet as the “think tank of the soul.” Montessori would have agreed. She felt that silence disposes the soul transcending to something special. Silence does not leave us as we were before. In her words, “Silence gives us, above all, the surprise of possessing within us something which we did not know we had, spirituality.”
Prehistoric cave paintings dating back 40,000 years were painted by Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. It is interesting that this prehistoric art occurs in acoustically unique areas of caves, allowing communion with the spiritual world. After many meditative hunting seasons, that doesn’t surprise me. Around 1900, spirituality simply meant being receptive, contemplative and inwardly quiet. These high human functions: spirituality, meditation and prayer demand silence.
Silence is a place of security. Like the deer that cautiously approaches the stream, sips then steps back into the forest where it can hear, we all need security. Churches, hospitals and libraries are all quiet places. Although few of us appreciate the sssshhhhhing of finger-pointing, looking-over-glasses librarians, we all appreciate that we think, read and write better in places free of noise.
Montessori believed that silence was essential to the human soul and that children instinctively sought it. Although this is undeniably certain, the hullabaloo of our modern lives makes silence less spiritual and more unusual. Richard McCabe, a gallery owner in Paxico, Kan., described his Canning, Alaska, moose hunt this way, “Except for the sound of erosion, it is quiet. It has a vacuous, sentient silence almost unnerving to those, such as I, who are conditioned to the constant tumult and echo of humanity.”
It takes me a while to find my circadian rhythm and my spirituality. But, fortunately hunting allows that.
Similarly, King finds that silence takes a while to get used to. “It takes me a couple of days to decompress.”
After a couple of days, King notices psychological and physiological changes. “When I am hunting well, food becomes fuel versus something you do at noon,” explained King.
From a purely pragmatic view, tranquility equals a boost to the rural economy. It is an important reason why many people visit the countryside. And, whether most hunters have been sufficiently introspective to realize it, it is an important reason why we hunt. Hunting and fishing have a direct economic impact of $76 billion annually on the U.S. economy. With a “ripple effect” — the impact of hunting and fishing is about $192 billion per year. Most of that money is spent in rural communities.
One can attempt to quantify the value of silence, like the value of hunting. But, as I stated early on, both are far more important than that. Silence and hunting are good for individuals and for society as a whole. They help people understand natural resources and have an overwhelming impact on our thinking, our actions and our relationships.
Unfortunately, silence is an endangered species. According to Hempton, it may be on the verge of extinction. Hempton’s list of “Last, Great, Quiet, Places” (places in nature where noise-free intervals last 15 minutes or more during daylight hours) has only 12 places on it.
I respectfully disagree, and perhaps one day Hempton and I might hunt a river bottom fighting the icy cold for open nostrils? Or, we might conceal ourselves in the shadows of an Engleman spruce near a muddy wallow, buzzed by tiny flies, waiting for an amorous bull elk? Or we might peek out of a cattail blind as quacks, whistles and “kitty, kitty, kitty” calls narrate the sunrise.
Upon one thing, we do agree. Hempton suggests that more than ever before, we need to fall back in love with the land. Silence is not a luxury — it is essential. I am betting that other hunters, from bowhunting barbers to grouse-hunting gallery owners and passionate resource professionals, share that view.
For an interesting interview with Gordon Hempton, click HERE.