Lily Raff McCaulou is from suburban Washington, D.C. She attended a New England liberal arts college, then moved to New York City to work in independent film production. There were no hunters among her family and friends. She “grew up terrified of guns.”
Her excellent memoir, “Call of the Mild,” charts Ms. McCaulou’s trajectory from New York to Bend, Ore., through a series of experiences that culminates in her killing and field dressing an elk. Her outdoor odyssey “started with one simple thing dinner. Not the greens and grains on the sides of the plate, but the hunk of meat in the middle.” She tells us in clear, well-crafted prose of her evolution from city girl to experienced hunter.
Ms. McCaulou moved from New York to Oregon to be a reporter for the Bend Bulletin, a local daily with a circulation of about 30,000. Bend is in central Oregon, on the western edge of the high desert that encompasses the entire eastern part of the state. A growing town, Bend has a mixed economy reflecting its rural past and its current incarnation as a recreational and second home destination for affluent urbanites.
In Bend, the author met her husband-to-be Scott, an avid outdoorsman who does not hunt. Through him she discovered that fly fishing would be her “gateway drug to hunting.” She wondered “if hunting could teach me to read landscapes the same way that fly-fishing is teaching me to interpret rivers and streams.”
“Growing up,” Ms. McCaulou “never knew any real-life hunters” and “never talked or heard much about them.” In Bend she met many, and found most “surprisingly thoughtful about their prey.” Thus she came to view a sport she “once wrote off as the pastime of rednecks” as “the embodiment of rural America.”
“After twenty-six years of eating meat,” the author wonders if she can “cut out the hit man and kill my own dinner.” She starts with a hunter safety course. She’s the only adult in the program, more of a stranger to guns than most of her youthful classmates. We accompany her to buy her “plain-Jane shotgun.” She goes trap shooting, and offers some observations on the history of the sport and the “particular etiquette” of a shooting range.
As a hunter, Ms. McCaulou first kills doves and a pheasant. She ruminates on how our eating habits and lifestyles have changed in recent decades. Today, Americans eat “eighty pounds more meat per year than in 1942,” yet there has been a decline in hunting as we spend “more time indoors and online, detached from the natural world.” At its “essence,” she opines, “hunting is finding food in the wild,” whether “hunting for birds or for mushrooms.” She takes us foraging for mushrooms and explains her growing sympathy for the “code of secrecy” among hunters.
Ms. McCaulou acquaints us very generally with the “politics of hunting.” This subject ranges far beyond guns, to a variety of habitat and other issues. She appreciates that hunting can “actually protect the health of a wildlife species,” and discusses how organizations dedicated to the preservation of particular species (e.g., Ducks Unlimited) play a generally positive role. Her discussion of these issues is interesting and sensible.
The author’s recollections are not only informative but also entertaining. On a fishing trip to Alaska, she describes a remote location where “grizzly bears are plentiful” and “fish the same river we do, for the same king salmon.” Although the weather turns bad and the mosquitoes are “thick,” the author’s biggest surprise is how much she enjoys the trip. Hearing of “a misguided pair of New Yorkers” whose string of mishaps leaves them “wet, cold, hungry and terrified,” she feels as if she is “following a ghost version” of herself, “the person I could have been if I hadn’t moved to Bend and met Scott.”
Other challenges in the author’s life provide perspective on her outdoor experiences hunting, back-country skiing and hiking. On one difficult trek, Scott tells her she is in “Fortitude Valley” — “when things get tough, it’s where you are. And you just have to get through it.” She does, navigating family tragedies such as the death of her brother, and the 11-hour saga with Scott as she field dresses her elk and they carry it out of the woods.
Ms. McCaulou writes that “hunting is a final frontier of feminism,” and suggests that women may be “the key to reviving hunting and fishing in the United States.” She makes a strong case for responsible hunting, in a book that rewards readers with a wealth of interesting information along the way.
Hunters and nonhunters alike will come away from this book better informed, and liking the author and her husband.
Ray Hartwell is a very occasional hunter and a senior fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute.
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