McKean Minute: Words Matter

In the A-frame blind erected out of angle iron and gypsum board, guide Evan Stabolitis waited until the sandhill cranes were almost touching the red dirt of Oklahoma’s Red River Valley. Then he blared, “Kill ‘em all!”

We followed our shotguns out the roof of the blind and proceeded to obey his order.

Back home in Montana earlier in the fall, a buddy described his bowhunt for a bull elk.

“I snuck over the hill and there he was, feeding away from me. When he turned, I stuck him good.”

Listen to hunters even for a little while, and you’ll pick up on some curiously conflated language describing the end times for the animals we love to hunt.

“Whack ‘em and stack ‘em.”

“I let the air of out of him.”

“I sent one through the ol’ boiler room.”

“Let him have it!”

These are all pretty aggressive descriptions of killing an animal, and those of us who have done it enough to understand that the violence we inflict on animals is quick and humane when we make good shots hardly hear the words. We understand the action. We are killing an animal in order to feed our families and manage a public resource.

But those words are pretty heavy for a beginning hunter to hear, more like a gangland killing than a respectful hunt. I was hyper-aware of that last year, as I took a succession of new hunters into the field for their first experience of intentionally taking the life of an animal. And I noticed that my own language describing the experience softened.

I didn’t use the euphemism “harvest” to describe a kill. But I did use more descriptive language to describe the final moments. Instead of telling my apprentice hunter to “shoot him through both lungs so he’ll die quickly,” I said, “Hold just behind his shoulder, about a third of the way up from his belly.” Instead of saying “you need to break his leg so he doesn’t jump the fence onto the neighbor’s place” I said, “Put your crosshair right on the point of his shoulder and gently squeeze the trigger.”

Should I have been more clear that the bullet they sent would make a mess out of the animal? Should I have used more colorful terms to describe the violence they were about to inflict?

I don’t think so. It’s a heavy obligation for a beginning hunter to learn to use a gun safely, and to understand the awful power of a centerfire rifle. It’s even more intimidating to ask them to know and follow the litany of hunting regulations and to be able to identify legal game and effective shot placement. If they become repeat hunters, they’ll grow to understand the effect of their shot. And once they do, they’re free to use verbs like “whacked,” and “sluiced,” and “greased” to describe their actions.

But until then, the one grace we can give beginning hunters is gentle language to de-escalate the gravity of their actions. If they send their projectile well, they’ll have a huge vocabulary to describe everything that comes next.

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