Every year about this time of late summer, the usual predictions for the upcoming hunting seasons of various game species come out — projections for upland birds, ducks, deer and bear.
These prognostications are typically based on numbers collected by various wildlife agencies — drumming counts, roadside surveys, doe-to-fawn ratios, buck-to-doe ratios, total kills from the previous autumn — large abstract numbers. For instance, I read Wisconsin grouse hunters killed 173,347 birds this past season, which seems like a lot of birds, even though the Department of Natural Reources claimed it was a “down” year. One bird riding in my game bag seems like a gift to me, so I don’t know what to think of a six-figure harvest number.
We like to use numbers to make sense of things, and they do in many contexts. If I’m making $10 per hour and someone offers me $20 an hour, it’s easy to see I would make twice as much money for the same amount of time worked. We often use numbers as a basis for comparison — I make twice as much per hour as you — but doing so invariably leads to competition and feelings of superiority or inferiority. Living in our world of numbers can lend itself to unhealthy competition and an insatiable desire for more, as well as blinding us to things not calculable via numbers.
Last week, I heard myself telling a group of grouse hunters I had “good seasons” in 2015 and 2016. Afterwards when I thought about what I’d said, I realized I was basing this entirely on the number of birds I’d shot, that the only factor I’d used to calculate the merit of a season was the number of birds I’d put on the tailgate. My success I measured solely by the number of birds I’d killed. This was simply wrong, something I knew the moment the words left my mouth.
Numbers and abstractions can only account for so much, something we should keep in mind in our era of big data. Numbers don’t take into account the intensity of the dog’s point, his quivering sides and twitching nostrils, and they sure don’t reflect the chaos and thunder of a ruffed grouse rising up out of the brush five yards in front of the pointing dog’s nose. Numbers can never convey the satisfaction of holding that bird in hand or the memories that will stream back time and again reliving these few October seconds.
So I really don’t care what the surveys are predicting for this upcoming season. I really don’t care if the numbers are up or down or sideways. I plan to spend my time in the woods not computing, not thinking about the number of points, flushes and kills I’ve recorded.
The last thing I want to be is an accountant tallying up numbers in neat columns and trying to make sense of my life through them. One reason we go out into the woods, fields and waters is to experience that which is unquantifiable, to throw numbers to the wind. So, starting Saturday, I plan to spend the next few months doing a whole lot of that which doesn’t compute, things not quantifiable. My dogs, thankfully, have no idea how to count. They will have great seasons.
Parman writes from Seeley, where he lives and hunts with his wife, Susan, and their two English setters, Fergus and Jenkins.