A long view on the value of mentoring

My dad was as stoic as a cornerpost. He could certainly be animated, but when it came to hunting and guns, he was serious, severe, and solitudinous.

Because he was my mentor, the person who introduced and personified hunting to me, I grew up thinking that’s what hunting was: lonely, serious, and grim. When it came time to introduce hunting to my own kids, I approached it in much the same way, scolding my twin boys to quiet their loud footfalls and to quit having so much giggly fun.

I’m a little more easy-going now, but it’s natural to teach others in the same manner that you were taught, whether the topic is cooking a breakfast or driving a car or hunting a deer. But in my case, I think the learning environment that I grew up in – in which hunting was something that happened alone, and with the weight of expectation and judgement heavy on every outing — kept me from thinking about how I might make it a more social, participatory activity. And that mindset kept me from what I think is the natural progression as a hunter – to teach other hunters.

I’m hardly alone. The solo, serious hunter is an American architype, personified by Daniel Boone’s wilderness treks to the cold-camping fur trapper of the American West to the backcountry bad-ass depicted across so much social media these days. Their feats may be heroic and impressive, but they’re hardly welcoming.

I spent a good deal of this week thinking about that dichotomy – the hunters’ personal journey vs. the group activity – as I hunted pronghorns near my home. I hunted alone, the way I had for most of my decades as a hunter. I like my own company, and I cherished the solitude, away from phones or kids, just as I welcomed making my own choices without counseling my companions. But after a couple days, my hunting felt a little empty. What was missing was someone to share the experience with, the teamwork and collaboration that goes into planning a stalk or judging an animal or celebrating the kill when the plan comes together.

This is what mentoring is, simply sharing the experience. You don’t have to have a curriculum or even a game plan. Just welcoming someone on a hunt – whether it’s yours or theirs – creates the medium for mentoring, which is as easy and natural as sharing ideas or gear or a special place with someone else.

The surprising thing is that the teacher is likely to learn at least as much as the student. As for my own father, I’m learning more about him all the time, even though he’s been dead for 9 years. The stoic man I thought only wanted to stalk alone introduced hunting to many of my neighbors, years after I was out of the house. One childhood friend told me a few years ago about how my father had taught his kids how to shoot, and then invited them to our farm to hunt. My father showed them where to sit for afternoon deer and how to rest a rifle on the cornerpost in order to make an anchoring shot. My friend said what he remembers most about that outing was the shadow of my dad in the afternoon sun, straight and tall and wearing a cowboy hat.

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