Sunday, January 31, 2010

Talking guns


New England Homestead, November 13 1897

Thornton Burgess loved to go hunting when he was young. He admits as much in his autobiography. What he doesn't say is that his interest in hunting persisted well into his adult years. Nevertheless, one can already see him distancing himself from the activity in his early writing.

In 1897, we see this column of advice for "young sportsmen" (AKA hunters). It begins with the following striking assertion: "Every boy over fifteen should be taught the use of a gun, and how to care for it." (If you click on the image below you should be able to read the whole article). For rural kids in the late 1800s, hunting could be taken for granted, thus gun safety was paramount.

At the same time, it is clear that Burgess is a knowledgeable authority, with some very specific safety tips, including:
Never get into a wagon with a loaded gun.
Never drag a loaded gun by the muzzle through thick underbrush.
It is also clear that Burgess sees hunting as something governed by regulations: "Never shoot quail on the ground. Obey all game laws to the letter." And is guided by a conservation sensibility: "Never hunt for market; that is what is making game scarce." This last one was one of Hornaday's chief issues.

Burgess did, however, write two published essays that essentially romanticized hunting. These appeared in the "sportsman" magazine, Recreation. (One of the essays was published in the same issue as "When the Scoters Fly").

The first, from 1898, features Burgess and a companion hunting yellow-legs and plover in a Cape Cod marsh.


The second, from 1899, features Burgess and a companion ("the taxidermist") hunting ducks outside of Springfield.


Both of them tell essentially the same story in similar ways. In both, Burgess seems more interested in describing the natural scene than actually shooting anything. And in both, his companion shows an uncanny ability to communicate with waterfowl, only to let the guns have the final word.

Here's the scene from the Cape Cod story. His companion has set up some decoys and is now going to outwit the yellow-legs by mimicking their communication patterns:
Faint, from far up the marsh, sounds the whistle of a yellow-leg. In an instant George is alert and the little tin whistle that hangs about his neck is brought into play. Call for call he gives and now there are several…More and more plaintive and seductive grow his calls….

Burgess goes as far to represent what the birds believe his companion is "saying."
Then the little tin whistle begins to talk to itself in an indescribably contented undertone. Such a breakfast, and so much of it! There is not a place on the marsh like this! What fools they are not to come.
Finally, the seduction is achieved.
Past they swing back of us and then catching sight of the decoys, suddenly turn and with shrill whistles that fill all the air, set their wings and drop down. As well bunched they drop their long legs and the tips of the long wings meet overhead, the two guns speak and speak again.

Burgess uses the same language in the second story
From out the intense blackness in mid-river comes a subdued, inquiring, “quack.” “Quack,” responds the taxidermist, decidedly. Again comes the query; again the decided answer…The taxidermist’s gun speaks, and with a whistle of wings, the ducks above us leave the rice, while a still, black form drifts to our feet.
Even guns can be included in Burgess's communication system.

At the same time, there are hints that Burgess is looking for justifications. In the Cape Cod story, he makes it clear that the shooting victims are for eating (that this is not shooting simply for the sake of sport).
With regret we finally gather up the decoys and plod homeward while the day is still young, the charm of the early morning weaving a spell that the promise of a royal dinner of broiled plover alone can break.
In the Springfield story, he suggests that the shooting part is peripheral to the actual experience of hunting:
Was it not enough just to be tramping away from human habitation and sound of human life, along with dear old Mother Nature, breathing her gloriously pure air, basking in her sunshine, listening to the lap of water and the twitter of sparrows in the hedge. Was not this, after all, the real charm of hunting?
Indeed, you don't even need to shoot something for "hunting" to be a success:
Many a night have we returned empty-handed, but the hunts were none the less enjoyable. Indeed, I am inclined to think the pleasure was the greater, in that the shy black fellows had outwitted us, and we knew that next time we must be still more alert.
[UPDATE: "Sportsman" was a very important category for Burgess, to be distinguished from "hunter." This will be discussed in a future post.]
Tomorrow: Burgess shoots a moose, with a camera

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