We walked through the fields, carefully cutting through the blades of grass, with silence our goal, shoulder-slung rifles our partners, black-gray darkness our companion, and cold air our fellow traveler. There was no light yet on the horizon. We approached the woods’ edge. Hope coursed through our veins.
Moving quietly through the woods over fallen leaves is a nearly impossible task. Despite this, we pressed on to our rocky overlook. Here we made our home. We sat, leaning our rifles on the boulders, stuck deep into the earth. Our view was a lake of darkness, nothing but cold wind moving through emptiness.
But joy comes in the morning — as the sun slowly rose, the blackness turned blue, then blue-gray, then gray-brown, and then yellowish. The light was not yet pouring over the mountain ridge, but we saw clearly the gorgeous meadow-forest bordered by a lazy river. It is to this piece of land that we tied our fates. We watched, we froze, we hoped, and we waited for the opportunity for thunder to crack the air and harvest to be made.
As I sat in the woods of Virginia this past autumn, it became clear that what we were doing there was much more than waiting for a deer to show up. The woods, the cold, and the time all revealed that hunting can be about much more than sport and subsistence — it can actually be a habit of virtue cultivation and character formation. And that is something we all desperately need.
Our Modern Afflictions
In modern America, we suffer from a very particular set of afflictions. We are a people so distracted by technology that we can barely sit still without our fingers reflexively fidgeting for a phone to scroll. We all, especially our young, are so addicted to our phones that there is such a thing as “smartphone separation anxiety.”
We are a people made impatient by our access to nearly anything on demand.
We are a people deeply disconnected from the earth. We fail to understand the origins of our food and the patterns of nature. So we’re left extraordinarily unhealthy and ignorant of the ebbs and flows of the land.
We are a people so discouraged by failure or simple offense that we find it exceedingly difficult to cope with daily living. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than our campuses.
All of these struggles have been studied in depth and much ink has been spilled. There appears to be a cultural consensus that these ills are real. The question is how to combat them and set a new course.
Virtue Cultivation and Character Formation
While I certainly don’t pretend to offer a complete solution here, it’s clear that we as individuals need to develop habits and rhythms of life that cultivate virtues and form our character in ways that make us the kind of people that are less distracted, more patient, more connected to the earth, and more resilient.
As I sat in the silence of the woods with a friend, exchanging only a few whispers, it became clear that the act of hunting, with all its anticipation, suffering, hopes, successes, and failures, teaches a myriad of lessons that we are in desperate need of learning. These lessons taught in the school of the woods seem to match with precision our modern afflictions.
Perhaps above all else, hunting forces quiet stillness. To simply be quiet, and sit still, is to force oneself to coexist with the thoughts that enter one’s head when the silence descends. Each day we employ a multiplicity of tools against silence and stillness — our weapons of distraction.
When silence comes beside us, we must finally face the thoughts in the quiet — our hopes, our sins, our regrets, ourselves. Blaise Pascal once wrote that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” A sweeping claim, but might he be onto something?
When we reach in our pockets and find no phone, we are healed, we are set free — to think our own thoughts, to face our own demons, to reckon with our fears. There is no better remedy than facing these head on, being honest with oneself. Without silence, without stillness, they will never be faced.
Patience is another absent virtue. Our modern world has provided us near-instant access to everything. This is undeniably helpful, but it also diminishes our ability for patience, a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Hunting develops nothing if not patience, the art of waiting. There is waiting, watching, waiting, watching, and more waiting.
Sometimes patience pays off, sometimes it doesn’t. This teaches us that we do not control everything, a myth that’s easy to believe with our modern advancements. We don’t control the animals, we don’t control the weather, we don’t control the wind. Hunting demands endurance and patience. In this, we begin to see the natural order of things, and are humbled.
It’s in seeing this natural order that we learn another great lesson about our place in this connected world. Simply staring at the same field, meadow, or riverbank for hours on end begins to inspire awe. To wonder and understand how time has shaped these places, how incredible the earth is, what a gift it is.
The specific act of killing and butchering an animal drives home what the vast majority of us don’t fully understand — that to eat the food we do requires sacrifice, requires death. This should be confronted, and there is no substitute for firsthand experience.
I believe it is impossible to kill and butcher an animal and not gain a deep respect for the animal, and the incredible thing that bodies are. This experience helps to close the massive gap in our respect and understanding for the earth, the animal kingdom, and how we get our food.
I love eating meat, and am an apologist for meat, but we should understand what it costs. In our staring at the earth or harvesting an animal, our broken relationship with the earth, perhaps our greatest gift, begins to heal.
Finally, hunting teaches risk, suffering, and defeat. Character comes by suffering, and in hunting, this is often enduring the cold, the elements, and the pain. Built into hunting is more failure than success, forcing us to learn that time spent failing is not necessarily time wasted.
We collectively need to learn resilience and persistence. In hunting, you must walk back into the woods, ready to fail again. It teaches us to humbly walk away empty handed — indeed, how to fail well.
As we learn such lessons, we will become much better-suited to handle offense, defeat, and disappointment. Perhaps even more than persistence, this cycle of failure and occasional success teaches us something more important: how to hope.
Stillness, quiet, patience, order, connection, resilience, persistence, and hope are some crucial virtues we lack. And these are the very things that hunting can teach us again.