This past weekend, I spent a lazy Sunday surrounded by the professionally preserved heads of elk and a handful of 12 year olds learning how to shoot BB guns equipped with scopes and garnished with smooth polished wood. Walking through the glass-lined tunnel of a massive aquarium stocked with Minnesota native fish species, I struggled to grasp the overwhelming interior and array of merchandise in the famous outdoorsman store that is “Cabela’s.”
Nestled between huge displays of Camo clothing and DVD racks with titles like “Coonin’ and Beaverin’,” and “It’s Good to be Alive,” I felt so out of place I couldn’t help but laugh. Cabela’s represents a well-defined niche of American culture with which I have had very little experience. Tagging along with my boyfriend and his father as they bonded over the smooth caress of elk-lined work gloves, I participated in some of the most interesting people-watching I have ever had.
In the corner, a woman was cocking a rifle and aiming it at the head of a mounted elk high above her straight brown veil of hair, boasting a steely grin. Small boys looked up at the sinewy necks of their rugged fathers, asking questions I can only imagine had to do with bullets and triggers as they ran admiring fingers across the cold metal of rifle muzzles. I could think only of the slogan plastered across one of those DVD covers that read: “Raisin’ em’ Right.” What was it like to grow up in this subculture of America? How did you grow up thinking of nature and animals? When did you first watch something die? What did it feel like to be the daughter in a family of hunting men? To receive a bright pink BB gun alongside your brother’s Red Ryder? This place was rife with representations of gender roles. Everything designated for the “Ladies” was laced with pink. An obscure corner of the store was devoted to scented candles and home furnishings. I couldn’t decide whether women were supposed to be empowered by the fact that they could shoot a gun beside their husbands, carrying a pastel knife blade in their pockets, or whether they should feel degraded by the fact that they have one color to which they are assigned and a section that reminds them they still have the duty of cooking for the men when they come home and outfitting the hunting lodge with candles that will temper the smell of fresh meat.
As we stopped to admire the life size hillside of expertly positioned dead wildlife (with taxidermied creatures ranging from a cantering pack of wolves, to 10 foot polar bears, miniscule squirrels, and a complete elephant) a man paused to tell us about the time he shot a bobcat. In front of the display, nodding as he told us how dangerous the claws of those massive felines are in person, I stopped and read a placard thanking the sportsmen of America for the wildlife and environmental preservation we enjoy today (see picture below.)
I hadn’t expected this. In a huge store riddled with dead animal heads, I didn’t think about the preservation of wild populations. I didn’t think about how modern hunting could be an almost religious experience of man immersed in nature. Quite frankly, I thought about the modern technology of hunting as an unfair and sadistic game played by intimidating men and their sons. Bringing my experience at Cabela’s into the conversation of Campus Ecology, I stared at that plaque and wondered what it means to be a part of the “wild.” Why do we have to be outfitted with hundreds of dollars of gear to go “back to nature?” Why do we need to preserve the woods so that we can shoot the creatures that call them home? Why do we see the glass eyes of formaldehyde filled corpses as a representation of worth and power?
As is probably obvious with the nature of these questions, I am still a bit disgusted with the practice and nature of hunting, but I began to think about it in a new way. What if the hunters are doing just as much to preserve nature as the environmentalists? What if they understand more about the systems and relationships found in the wilderness after hours of sitting patiently in the trees and waiting than the rest of us give them credit for? What can we learn from them that could help us to save what little natural space we still have left in this country?
Take a trip to Cabela’s. Even if you don’t come away enlightened, odds are you’ll find something to consider. If not, there’s always great beef jerky to taste.