I have been called a hunter and fisherman quite often, and really I am no more such than a million other Ozarkians. I was born a conservationist and naturalist, and I will always be. I was taught by a grandfather and father who knew more about conservation than any man I ever met. No, they didn’t go by the fish and game laws, newly imposed when they were young. They went by the laws of ‘wise use’, which is what ‘conservation’ once meant.
My grandfather was the most knowledgeable riverman and outdoorsman I ever knew. He taught me more about the workings of a natural world and wild creatures than books could ever could have. But my dad taught me how to live in the outdoors, enjoy its bounty and still be the kind of creature on this earth that he felt a man should be.
I recall like it was yesterday the time we were floating the river in December hunting ducks, and we drifted slowly past a gravel bar where two young raccoons were caught hunting for crayfish and mussels. They scurried up a nearby sycamore tree. I was 11 years old, and excited about the prospect of shooting, more than hunting. I wanted to blast the two of them, take the hides home to grandpa, who still trapped and sold furs at that time.
Dad lowered my gun from my shoulder by telling me that if I shot them, I would have to do the skinning, and clean them both and eat them after Mom had baked them. I had eaten raccoon, and I got to thinking I would rather eat a squirrel, if I had the choice. Why waste one of my eight 16 gauge shells on something I would like to eat less than a squirrel or rabbit? Those shells had to last me until the local Western Auto store had another broken box so I could buy ten more.
We stopped to eat sandwiches on that gravel bar, as the young ‘coons watched from high in the sycamore. Dad always built a small fire beside a log, and cut three-pronged forked saplings we could place sandwiches in and heat them. While we sat there on that log, he told me that every man should develop a reverence for life, something he used in his relations with other men and wild creatures too.
He told me that day that I should never kill a wild creature without feeling that reverence for life, something God gave to men in order that they could be what He meant them to be. It meant that you never created a tame creature with cruelty, and you never killed a fish or a bird or a mammal without feeling just a little sadness at its passing. He said that when you ate fish or squirrels or ducks, you were enjoying the bounty given by the Creator, and all lives, even of the smallest of his creation, had value and purpose.
“A boy yearns to kill something, and thinks of little else when he is just a boy.” Dad told me. “But a grown man who lacks that reverence for life has a weak soul, a lack of knowledge about who he is and where he fits into life, and he lacks any understanding about who God is and what is expected of him by the Lord.”
The impact of that powerful talk on the gravel bar of the Big Piney River has stayed with me. I have never been the same since. Oh yes, I forgot it briefly when I killed that robin with my sassafras bow and when I shot a chipmunk while alone in the woods a year later.
Grandpa is the only one who ever knew about the robin, and he helped me clean it and eat it, but no one ever knew about the chipmunk. As I held it in my hands that day I shed the last tears I ever remember and promised God that if he would forgive me for wasting that little life I would never ever do anything like that again.
We should all learn to live with that reverence for life that Dad taught me to find within myself. I can forgive about anything, but I am not a good enough person to not feel an awful wrath for someone who is cruel to an animal, or hurtful to a little child. If you took someone like that out and hanged him, I am afraid I would help you find a rope.
For such a person, who would for no reason create unnecessary pain and suffering for a poor creature, or harm a woman or child, I cannot have passion, and I cannot find forgiveness. What I feel for such a person is not in keeping with what God would expect of me, but I just can’t help it.
A reverence for life is the center of the word for wise use… conservation. If you hunt or fish, remember it. If you do not, remember that anyone can practice conservation. I think of that word when I shave, and I can’t keep the hot water running. Saving water today in a world that will have very little of it in 100 years is wise use… ‘conservation’. I turn it off and on as I need it, and while I use it on my garden, I have never watered a lawn in my life. What a useless waste!
My family recycles paper, plastic, glass and cans and anything else we can recycle. Gloria Jean is in charge of that, she hauls the bags of refuse to a recycling center a few miles away once every month or so.
My grandfather never had anything to haul off, he found a use for everything. Old match boxes were kept by all his neighbors for grandpa to use to sand his sassafras boat paddles and the furniture he made from scrap lumber. Remember those rough patches on the sides of the boxes? His rocking chair was made from the leftovers of johnboats he built, sanded smooth with match boxes! He used every can he emptied, and every paper bag.
What kills me is the way we throw old tires in the river, or dump them on back roads. Our government could give 50 cents to everyone for an old tire at the tire shop and end the increasing number of old tires thrown in the rivers. We also should pay a nickel or so for every plastic bag you get at Walmart or the local grocery store. Charge a nickel for each, and then pay a nickel back for those returned.
Only in the past year have I learned about one of the greatest conservation businesses in the Ozarks, a grocery store named Aldi’s. If you haven’t been in one, you have not been conserving your money. I checked out a list of food and grocery items in Aldi’s compared to the local grocery store and found that for every 100 dollars I would spend at that store which distributes thousands of plastic bags to be found all over the Ozarks, I will spend only 88 dollars at Aldi’s, and the food is better.
Best of all, Aldi’s stores have no plastic bags… you bring your own containers or put your stuff in cardboard boxes the store sets aside after emptying them. And you put a quarter up for the shopping cart and when you put it neatly back where it came from you get the quarter back. None ever have to be collected from the parking lot. That is a way to save money and practice conservation even if you never get outdoors.
If they ever start paying fifty cents for tires and a nickel for plastic bags, I can give up writing and spend all my time outdoors, just like I did as a kid. When I was nine or ten I would make some pretty good money picking up pop bottles that were worth three cents each.
This year folks, try to find ways to practice conservation… ‘wise use’. And teach your kids the ‘reverence for life’ my dad taught me. If you will, it would make Dad proud to know his life was worth so much.
The article I wrote years ago about New Years Eve in the wilderness is on my website…www.larrydablemontoutdoors.blogspot.com. Several people requested that I reprint it for them.