He’s burning a huge pile of debris in the lot next to my home. Black smoke billows from the fire, darkening the clear morning sky. New to the area and wanting to be neighborly, I walk over to say Hello.
I do not recall how the talk turns to hunting so quickly, but this is a topic that lights up my neighbor’s face, already ruddy from the heat of the fire. He belongs to that tradition of hunters who wrap their personalities and their lifestyles around their sport. He travels to Alaska to hunt, he hunts here in Southern Oregon. Probably in his late 60’s, but trim and muscular and his movements sure, he looks and talks like the hunter he is.
He discusses deer hunting with my other neighbor, who is also standing beside the burn pile. The hunter prefers killing with bow and arrow. I learn that where we live, people can shoot virtually anywhere, even from their vehicles, as long as they’re 50 foot from the road. My hunter neighbor continues, bringing up the ever contentious issue of how native predators affect ungulate populations.
“Years ago no one saw cougar or bear around here, now they’re everywhere. I killed a bear down by that barn last year.” My hunting neighbor points to the back of the property I live on, where I ride my horses, walk our dogs, sit idly in the sun.
“They’re killing all the deer and elk. They wait until the cows have their calves then they eat the babies.” He’s talking about both bear and cougar. I ask if he’s sure the black bears are doing this, we certainty don’t have brown bears in Oregon. He says Yes.
There’s talk about the bears invading the vineyard that abuts our property in the back. They feed on the grapes so the landowner shoots them. One neighbor up the hill baits the bears, then kills them. My hunter neighbor complains that it’s illegal to use dogs to get rid of these troublesome predators. He says, “We voted it in down here, it was Eugene and Portland that voted against it.” He looks to me as if hoping for an ally in his resentment against these liberal communities.
In one sentence he says the deer are out of control, in another, he complains that the bear and cougar, and in Idaho and Montana the wolves, are decimating the deer and elk populations.
I suggest there is enough to go around. He looks at me, blue eyes sharp, and says, “Not if you’re a hunter.”
I excuse myself and leave. The sun is warm, the sky clear as I drive away from the black smoke. Another lovely Indian summer day. But the serenity of my idyllic rural home is tainted. And not by the thoughts of black bears and cougar roaming the hills that surround me. Their appetites I can understand. It’s the insatiable human desire to kill and control that will never make sense to me. No matter how hard I try.