Three months of failure.
Days spent wandering through the woods searching for the elusive deer. Few sightings. Some scat here. A shallow impression of a hoof there.
Nights thinking about all the other things I could be doing other than hunting. Like sleeping.
Early mornings spent freezing, stiff and tired leaning against some tree in the middle of nowhere staring at an empty field.
My inaugural year as a hunter was not packed with action. I was reminded of those many little failures when I filed my end-of-year hunt report (see sidebar).
I wandered slowly and sometimes even quietly through the woods. Taking long awkward steps, trying to avoid branches that nonetheless gave away my location to deer I never saw.
It seems to me that hunting is the perfect antidote to a persistent and, I think, damaging aspect of the age in which we live.
Everything is performance-driven. There are smartphone applications that track every step you take during a day, apps that count calories and ones that remind you when to drink water, tell you how much time you’ve spent on your phone, your average resting heart rate, the ideal time to go to bed and wake up. On social media, we’re constantly comparing our lives to others, a never-ending jockeying.
Even the success of this article will be judged by me and others at The Spokesman-Review, to some extent, by how many people read it and for how long.
The millennial generation (of which I am a part) is under increasing pressure to make ends meat (see what I did there?) to fight for a place in a world in which the finite limits of our consumption are coming into sharp focus.
Of course, I’m making some generalizations.
But speaking from my experience and those of people my age, there is a deep anxiety about what the future holds. A 2018 survey by the American Psychiatric Association found that millennials report higher levels of anxiety than previous generations. Surveys are not the be-all and end-all of scientific research, but they do shine some light on overall trends.
The idea of hustling, of always having to be on the lookout for the next opportunity, of having to aggressively establish your place in the world is deeply rooted in the identity of most everyone I know.
And I’ve hardly wanted for anything in my life, coming from a solidly middle-class and loving family.
The modern worker, smartphone enabled and all, is always ON – responding to emails at 11 p.m. – or taking work calls early in the morning. All to ensure that you still have a place at the table. That you’re producing and staying afloat.
To some extent, I think that is why I struggled with hunting.
It was so … slow and experiential. The outcome was not assured. Hours – days even – of effort led to nothing. When I read that in good areas hunters would get a deer only 30 percent of the time, I was shocked and a bit disappointed.
Thirty percent. That’s a lot of time for not much reward.
Which, oddly, brings me back to social media and the various applications that we’ve voluntarily let track and monitor our lives.
In one way or another, they are all built on injecting us with microhits of dopamine. As we see the likes pile up on Facebook posts, or as we win virtual trophies for taking 10,000 steps in a day, our brain releases just a bit of dopamine. We feel pleasure, even if for only an instant.
But it’s a short, cheap sort of pleasure, one that fades quickly.
Research is showing a connection between social media use and depression. It’s not clear if it’s causal, meaning social media is not necessarily causing depression.
But it’s linked.
I’ve become addicted, or at the very least, accustomed to, these instant hits of satisfaction.
Hunting does not provide that. Instead, it’s a slow pleasure. One that is not tied necessarily to an outcome. Of course, hunters are competitive, goal-oriented people looking to fill their freezers. If they weren’t, walking in the woods would suffice.
But no serious hunter I’ve met is doing it simply for the end result.
If they were, they’d go crazy because hunting is, mostly, about failure. It’s about spending a day, week or season in nature paying attention and trying to better attune yourself to the natural rhythms of life. It’s about patience and quiet and the acceptance of the moment as it is.
Our phones and our glitzy, staccato culture promises constant stimulation. It sells the lie of never-ending success, of lives lived in beautifully lit Instagram posts and careers as orderly and secure as a fleshed-out LinkedIn profile.
The final day of 2018’s late deer season comes to mind now. It was cold. I was tired. After sitting for two hours I was wondering, again, why I was doing this?
And then two does appeared on the hillside above me. They knew something was off, but they never identified me and my hunting mentor. For 10 minutes, we watched them slowly pick their way across the hillside.
Neither of us had doe tags, and so, in a way it was another failure.
But that memory of sitting quietly watching two creatures move across a landscape is one I will cherish for a long time.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.