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Eli Francovich: Learning to play (and hunt) in the woods

John Andrews, a retired Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists, searches for deer from his hunting blind on Nov. 19, 2018. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)
John Andrews, a retired Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists, searches for deer from his hunting blind on Nov. 19, 2018. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)

We’re rambling and bumbling through thick country in Northeast Washington, the lingering snow from an unusual late-September storm sliding from the understory of the pines and aspens.

Dressed in camouflage we move slowly, listening for animals, the instinctual part of our body digging into deep memories, our intuition knowing what to do even if our brains stumble on the work.

This is scouting, the process by which hunters prepare for the season. It is, in essence, a long, slow walk through the woods. An appreciative walk tuned to the movements of animals, listening for the sounds of the forest. Cataloging the places where things look good. The places where things look bad. A slow, meditative checkup.

My partner and I are new hunters, and so I’m sure there are aspects of scouting that we do not understand. Things to do and things not to do. It doesn’t feel all that serious, it doesn’t feel like we’re doing much at all. That’s the beauty of being a beginner, the mistakes are hidden by ignorance. The joys, no matter how mundane, amplified by naivety.

I tell my father about this. About our “scouting” trip. He has hunted, when he was younger, in the 1980s, in Idaho. He did not scout. As he tells it, he walked out his back door in the Benewah, into the woods and, after some time, saw a deer, quietly followed it and shot it. Then he carried it back to his house and butchered it.

So scouting is a foreign concept to him. One that he, correctly, compares to playing.

And that’s what we’re doing, in a sense. We’re playing. Exploring the woods. I remember as a child doing the same thing. Walking through the forest out behind my house and looking at things. I had no violent intentions then. But my imagination gave the experience all the edge I needed. I worried about being attacked or getting lost. I dreamed of finding treasure, or magic. I sneaked by the houses and skirted the gates peppered throughout. It was never boring.

In the same way, a few days ago, I explored in the woods, my imagination running rampant. I fantasized about big bucks (let’s be honest, any buck) and elk. I worried about getting lost and thought about warm cups of coffee.

Which makes sense. We humans are animals, after all, even if we try and forget that basic biological fact. And play is one way young animals learn to be animals. Some research suggests play helps animals survive, although why and how that happens isn’t clear. Perhaps some tools and skills necessary to survive in the world are imparted through play. Watch kittens or chimps, dogs or fawns, and you see them practicing the things they’ll need to know when they’re adults, whether it’s locking horns or pouncing on prey.

But there is an element of play that science doesn’t understand. It can be a wasteful activity. Calories that could be used getting food are instead spent doing … what, exactly? Crows caught sliding down snow-covered roofs and flying back to the top only to do it again are … training for the winter Olympics?

Scientists aren’t sure.

All of which is to say that why animals (humans included) play isn’t always clear. But it’s important.

Over the past year, I’ve been learning to hunt. I’ve written about the boredom. The tedium of failure. The embarrassment of sitting in a stuffy classroom full of 13-year-olds for hunters education. Throughout, I’ve seen why hunting remains a powerful cultural, social and personal activity. Now I can add play to that list.

Hunting allows grown adults to go play in nature, recapturing at least temporarily some of the innocence of wide-eyed exploration.

For the best hunters, I’ve come to believe, are like children. Immersed in the woods. Completely committed to the game.

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