For the first couple of years that I was learning to hunt, I was reluctant to talk about it. There was no simple way to explain why I ? a lifelong animal lover and city slicker ? had decided to confront my fear of guns and learn to stalk and kill wildlife for meat.
I'd recently moved from New York City to Bend, Oregon, to cover a rural area for the local newspaper, and I wanted to identify with the rural culture that surrounded me. Though I had long considered myself an environmentalist, the hunters I met here seemed to understand and appreciate the ecosystem better than I did. I'd come to view wild game as one of the most ethical meat sources available. Whenever I tried to put these reasons into words, they came out sounding overly complicated and poorly thought-out.
More than anything, I avoided the topic because most folks in fast-growing Bend had moved here, like I had, from larger cities. I assumed most of them disapproved of hunting, just as I had until recently. Hunting is a divisive topic, and I wasn't comfortable defending my new practice if I didn't have to.
One Monday afternoon in the fall, I drove to the county courthouse to cover a hearing, which was a regular part of my job as a reporter. At the entrance, I scooted my green leather hobo bag into the x-ray machine, then walked through a metal detector.
The guard ? a tall, blond Sheriff's deputy in his early 40s ? paused the conveyor belt and studied the monitor for longer than usual. When my purse finally emerged from the x-ray machine, he grabbed it before I could.
"Ma'am?" He unzipped the top and started rummaging around.
"Yes?" I could feel my palms starting to sweat.
"Are you carrying a weapon of some sort?"
"What? Of course not."
"Then what's this?"
He pulled his hand out of my purse and held up a red plastic tube, three inches long and filled with steel pellets: a shotgun shell.
My face flushed. While leaving for work that morning, I'd noticed the ammo on the floor of my car. It must have fallen out of my vest while I was duck hunting that weekend. So I'd slipped it into my purse, with every intention of putting it away when I got home. By the time I ran into the courthouse, after lunch, I'd forgotten all about it.
"Uh," I stammered, "well, see, I can explain."
My mind raced ahead, darting between hypothetical scenarios. The guard, I figured, would handcuff me and lead me away. Would I be allowed to walk into this court ever again? If not, could I keep my job?
The guard had a thin smile on his face. My God, he was enjoying this! Perhaps he secretly hoped that all court-goers were smuggling contraband, so he could have the pleasure of arresting us, one by one, all day long.
"Let me guess," he said, yanking me out of my doomsday-dreaming. "You're a duck hunter?"
"Well, yeah, actually. I was duck hunting this weekend, and I..."
"Where?" He interrupted me. His voice wasn't aggressive. His question was genuine ? he wanted to know where I'd been hunting. I told him.
"See a lot of ducks?" He spun the shell in his hand.
"I saw a few, but I didn't have much luck shooting them," I said.
"Why not, do you think?"
"Well, that stretch of river is pretty open. The ducks were wary. And I'm a beginner."
He nodded. Then he held up the shotgun shell and sighed.
"I can't let you bring this into the courthouse." He turned toward the front door and motioned for me to walk back through the metal detector. "You'll have to stash it in your car."
I stared at him.
"And then... I can come back?"
"Yeah. I won't make you shoot a duck first."
I'd not only forgotten about the shotgun shell in my purse, I'd forgotten that some folks were tolerant of hunting (not to mention misplaced ammunition). It's likely that the guard was, himself, a hunter. Even if he wasn't, he was clearly interested in the subject. It was a reminder that I didn't need to be defensive.
Hunting isn't as polemical as I once thought it was. Sure, some animal rights activists are blatantly opposed. There are also a lot of people out there who are neutral. And many more who are open-minded and curious about the practice even if they don't have any firsthand experience.
In the years since I started hunting, common attitudes about food have expanded. It's no longer strange to meet someone who raises bees or chickens in her backyard. Or who owns a meat grinder and makes charcuterie. Whether we prepare our food from scratch or order it off a menu, I think we're all more aware that behind every meal, there's a story. There's a good chance, for example, the very shotgun shell that almost got me arrested instead led to a dinner of wild duck, weeks later. Of course, there's much more to that particular story. And I don't mind talking about it.