Updated: Jan 7, 2022
He was dressed in blaze orange and had a rifle on his shoulder.
I was dressed in blaze orange, too, the dog beside me in a fluorescent yellow vest.
It was a preserve, and I was surprised to see him. I had assumed it was a no-hunting space. That is why I was there with my four-legged companion who had filled my car with excited yips for the last ten minutes of the drive. It is a place we go so she and I can both be off-leash.
But there weren’t any “no hunting” signs. He had a right to be there and so did I.
He was already walking down the path away from the parking lot when I got out of my car. I wanted to call out to him, to be assured that he would not shoot my dog. But the woods had already swallowed him up, a fact that concerned me given the visibility of his outfit. If I couldn’t see him, maybe he couldn’t see us?
I thought about getting back in the car and leaving. But it was a perfect morning, and the woods were calling. Plus, there was the dog spinning in circles at my feet. We went ahead.
I spent the first twenty minutes of our hike trying to calm my mind, but it was too busy catastrophizing to capitulate. So I engaged, producing counter arguments to its fears. I told myself that I am probably often in the woods with hunters and nothing happens, that the woods are big, that he is most interested in shooting a fourteen-point buck. I reminded myself I had just as much of a right to be there as he did. But what do rights matter if he shot my dog?
Aside from all of this was the fact that I am a woman alone in the woods and he is a man with a firearm.
I called my dog back more often than normal, fulfilling the dual functions of keeping her close and letting myself be heard. I kept my eyes on the trees, alert for a slash of orange and, equally, for a tawny coat or the white flash of a tail. If there was a deer, I didn’t want to be anywhere near it.
This is when I asked myself if staying was the right call. I don’t want to live my life scared. I want to live my life free. Still. I don’t want to be stupid or unnecessarily careless. I want to enjoy my hike but I also want to return home alive.
Finally my mind found less alarming thoughts. Most hunters I know have a deep reverence for the woods. That hunter does not want to hurt me or my dog. He is hunting deer.
Though a pacifist by nature, I do largely support deer hunting. I know it helps regulate the deer population and saves many deer from starving over the long winter. It helps feed families who can stock their freezer, and often the freezers of their loved ones, with the meat.
I also know that I want to cry whenever I see a dead deer in the back of a pickup driving down the road or hanging from a tree in someone’s yard. I won’t ask myself to be different, nor will I ask the hunters to be different.
Still, I said a little prayer that the deer would scatter. It’s just who I am; I prefer them to live.
By the halfway point of my hike, I was fully relaxed, soaking in the quiet hush of the woods, the swish of the branches and my dog zigged and zagged, the sunbeams cutting through the misty morning.
I walked across a foot bridge and a question appeared: what if this world was big enough for all of us?
The early riser and the night owl.
The farmer who needs rain and the person hosting an outdoor party.
The hiker and the hunter.
What if it isn’t either/or? What if it is always both?
I got it. A peace came over me.
What about when personal choices impact others? The apartment dweller who plays the drums despite having neighbors on either side. The hungry person who takes more than his share of mashed potatoes and doesn’t leave enough for everyone. The worker whose chronic lateness causes those on the previous shift to stay past their time. The person who drives too fast and endangers others.
And what about when personal opinion or choice infringes on the rights, safety, and lives of others. If a kid at school is sensitive to loud noise, do we stop having fire drills? What about people who ignore serious medical problems, get very sick and put medical professionals at great risk or liability to care for them due to the choices they made? And what about laws that regulate women’s bodies?
How do we tease these apart? Does it come down to selfishness or consideration? Intent? Harm caused? Is it about what is best for the common good? Who decides what defines “best” and what do you do if you are not part of the “common”? What if those in power are choosing for you? What then?
I wish it was as easy as “do unto others”, but there are many types of humans dwelling here. Not everyone can agree on what that would even be.
Kindness seems like a good guidepost. So does the golden rule - treat others as you would like to be treated. But even those do not produce consensus among people.
Live and let live might be the closest we can get. It secures the freedom of all. But, in a civilized society, this too has limits. After all, people aren't allowed to drive drunk because they need to get home or shop at Target without clothes on because they prefer nudity.
I don’t know where rules and laws should begin and end, or how much should be regulated. All I know is that it feels better to me to allow other people to be, to assume they are living their life in a way that works for them, to trust that they know what’s best for them. It doesn’t feel good or right when people try to control me and it doesn’t feel good for me to try to control others.
Because, really, how profoundly arrogant would it be for me to say that I know how you should live? That being said, I do want people to be clothed when they are selecting the best head of lettuce or reaching on a high shelf for a box of Honey Nut Cheerios. I want it to be understood that your wallet is yours and my purse is mine. I want the government to regulate factory and car emissions and stop global warming. Where do we draw the lines?
If you came here for answers to these questions, I apologize. I don’t have them yet.
I was initially angry at the hunter for being in the woods. Angry that I was afraid for my safety. Angry that my peaceful hike was being overshadowed by fear. Equally, I bet the hunter was frustrated to see me and my galloping dog. But ultimately the choice was mine whether to stay or go, just as the choice was his.
But how do we “let live” those people who want to hurt others, who want to repress and confine? How do we battle hate and cruelty and just plain meanness?
I think the answer is that we don't. We don't rail against. Because that is like shouting into the wind. Futile, unheard, exhausting. We don't battle. Because why would we go to war if what we seek is peace?
A couple of years ago I would have abandoned my hike, slammed my car door, written a strongly worded letter to who knows who about how there shouldn’t be hunting at the preserve. I would have been sure it was my right, and not the hunter’s, to be there on those trails.
Though I probably won’t return there until after hunting season (that was a lot to work through on a hike), I’m glad I stayed, glad I trusted the space of the woods, the intentions of the hunter and the laws that protect both of us. I'm glad I had the experience of a peaceful co-existence.
I didn’t see him again and, obviously, my dog and I are safe. The whole thing left me wondering: what if there is a perfect balance I can’t always see? What if we all have an equal right to be?
Because choosing to fight against things I don’t want, don't like or don't believe is a costly choice. There is no end to the list. My work would never be done; my energy would be wasted, my misery ensured. I would spend my life policing the world, eating up my precious time here and changing very little.
I believe my greatest power comes from being sound in myself and in my own life - living well, living intentionally, living with a true caring for other people and the planet. It doesn’t mean not speaking up. It doesn’t mean never disagreeing.
It means my strength is not in what I say but in who I am.
I like the freedom of not needing to be right, of not arguing about worthiness or deservability. I like the way it feels to live my life in the way that feels best to me and not be afraid of other people’s choices, criticisms or, yes, even their firearms. I like knowing that I get to choose how affected or unaffected I am by other people. That, to me, is true freedom.