Whenever I look back on my childhood one of the things I am most grateful for is that my father owned a little bit of land and had good relations with his neighbors who owned quite a bit more. All together this meant the Dwyer children had access to about 400 acres of woods and fields. It was one hell of a playground.
I grew up hunting on our property, first rabbits, then squirrels and deer. It seemed like enough until I was in high school and made friends with classmates that also hunted but didn’t have access to private land like I did. By necessity they hunted on public land and it was through them that I learned there were not just hundreds but thousands of acres we could hunt if we were willing to make the drive.
As young adults often do we kept odd hours during those years, which meant we could often hunt on weekdays. There were many afternoons when we would have huge expanses of land to ourselves and at times it felt like it was our own personal hunting preserve. We rarely ever had to deal with other hunters and so we became spoiled in a way I would not realize until years later.
When our eagerness to test new places took us farther and farther from Louisville we found ourselves on unfamiliar public land that was not as quiet as our wildlife management areas back home. It was then that we started having experiences that changed my view of public land hunting once again. We would slog into a prime duck spot hours before sunrise, only to have other hunters show up at the last minute and set up just a few yards away with no apologies. I had a father and son walk right through my turkey spot and actually nod to me as they passed by. It was frustrating and the only reason we didn’t have any altercations was because we showed remarkable restraint for 20 year-olds.
In recent years my career has caused me to join the ranks of weekend warriors and now I find myself on public land that is sometimes too crowded to tolerate. I have had several mornings where I got up early only to cut my hunt short when someone showed up and started marching through the woods like Redcoats and ruined my stalk on an animal. Just a couple of months ago my nephew and I were standing at the truck loading our rifles and an older gentlemen pulled in, hopped out and trotted off into the spot we had planned to hunt without a word of greeting. Maddening.
It is has been said of Kentuckians that the land is our birthright. I believe this is true and for that reason I never make a fuss when my fellow outdoorsmen forget their manners. We are all stewards of nature and so long as it is not being abused, I can tolerate a lot. Besides, I am one of the lucky ones. I have plenty of private land to hunt on as well and hunting in public spaces is something I only do occasionally. For others this is all they have and perhaps this makes them a bit overzealous. Or at least this is what I tell myself.
To make a larger analogy, there are other public spaces where we see a similar dynamic. Places like parks, town squares and city streets. Those can also be abused. We hear about the political rally for a cause we don’t agree with or someone erecting a religious display that seems to violate our Constitutional rules and we demand they honor some silent pact to only use those spaces respectfully. But one man’s respect is another man’s oppression. I think that too often we are claiming harm simply because we feel entitled to these physical locations and hold them sacred. In some sense they are but they are also the best places to practice a tolerance worthy of hallowed ground.
Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. He is also active on Facebook and Twitter. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.