Editor’s Note: First in a series of articles.
I am not a hunter. It’s not that I disapprove; it’s just that shooting guns and killing animals is not my thing. I have, however, seen lions in Africa kill an antelope. It is a different experience in person than it is on television. It is more visceral, more intense, and it helped me realize that it is perfectly natural for one animal to die in order to feed another.
I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida where my Dad “hunted and killed” mullet with his cast net in order to feed his family because we were poor. In a rural economy, hunting is a way of life. That’s why, after retiring from a 40-year career working with animals in zoos, I felt comfortable accepting a part-time job driving a mule wagon at a local quail hunting lodge.
During the hunting season, I spend my workdays managing a couple of mules that are the size of draft horses and handling a small English cocker spaniel that serves as a retriever. Most afternoons I sit with my feet propped up on the wagon, my hands firmly on the reins, and a dog standing in my lap waiting for her handler to call her name. I have watched vultures floating in a cloudless sky, felt the breeze as it rustles the pine trees before me, and listened for the call of bobwhite quail in the sea of broomsedge.
It is a job that affords me plenty of time to think. My attention is usually directed toward the job at hand — the mules, the horses, the dogs, and the hunters — and occasionally my thoughts are drawn to the conversations behind me on the wagon. But there are the long periods of quiet that remind me of the quote often attributed to Winnie the Pooh author, A. A. Milne: “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.”
Our operation takes pride in offering an experience that harkens to a bygone era. Instead of jeeps, we use horses and mule-drawn wagons. A typical hunting party consists of four guests, two on horseback and two on the wagon behind me, with a guide and his assistant leading the hunt. Six or eight English pointers are kenneled in the back of the wagon until it is time for them to find the birds.
It is a leisurely experience with a morning hunt, a couple of hours for lunch, followed by another hunt in the afternoon. We ride until the dogs point a covey, we stop to shoot birds when they are flushed, and once the birds are found and picked up, we ride off in search of the next covey. The guests hunt in pairs, usually alternating between the two on horseback, shooting together, and then the two people on my wagon shooting.
As a wagon driver, I find myself in close contact with our guests, and I meet some interesting folks. They are mostly business people hosting their friends, relatives, and clients — often working important deals in an intimate, relaxed setting. Some drive in from nearby cities in the Southeast, and some fly from far away — many on their private jets. Conversations on my wagon often include comments on our Southern hospitality, and I have lost count of the number of times I have heard a guest exclaim, “My gosh, this place is beautiful!” This is often followed by a description of comparable experiences hunting grouse in Scotland, waterfowl in Spain, and doves in Argentina. These folks can afford to be anywhere in the world, and one of their favorite spots is a place of world-class beauty at a quail hunting lodge in south Georgia.
My experience on the mule wagon has given me time to sits and thinks about such things as how the dog handler controls the pointers with a whistle and a “whoa,” why the retriever races out to find a quail with such enthusiasm, and what — if anything — the mules are thinking about as they stand immobile, awaiting my command to “giddy-up.”
It has also given me time to examine my own life and how I might incorporate some of the lessons learned from my hours on the wagon. I have written the most salient points — points that I boiled down to five bits of advice. I believe they might be worth exploring in some detail.
The pace of our hunt is what many people would call painfully slow. It is dictated by the speed of a couple of mules pulling a wagon. Before the turn of the 20th century, that pace — the speed that a grown person can walk — was the normal pace of everyday life. I enjoy the break from my supersonic, microwave, digital world while a pair of mules pulls me along the backroads of life. My job forces me to slow down and smell the manure. It is good for my soul and something too few people are able to appreciate.
As a wagon driver, when I am not wrestling a pair of obstinate mules, I spend most of my time watching the dogs — the pointers that race around looking for birds and the retriever that sits on my lap when she is not retrieving. Their joy for life and their ability to live in the moment is infectious and provides a lesson for humans. Perhaps we should spend less time worrying about the past and fearing the future. Somehow, we need to figure out how to just live in the present or, put another way, to seize the day.
My third observation is a lesson in how we should treat other people. I was raised in the South, where children are taught that when they say “yes” or “no” to a grown up, it had better be followed by “sir” or “ma’am.” It is so ingrained that I still find myself saying it to strangers to this day. When I pass someone on the street or meet someone in an elevator, I nod and say hello, whether I know the person or not. Anything else would be, well, just rude. So it is not such a stretch for those of us who work at the hunting lodge to treat our guests with respect. The world, I believe, would be a better place if we would show kindness to the people around us.
When my wife and I visited Africa in the 1980s, we were struck — and a little unnerved — by the isolation. When we were on safari, we were truly disconnected from the world. Today, there are few places left on the planet that are not connected to the rest of the world, whether through cellphones, Wi-Fi, or the Internet. When our friends recently traveled to Africa, they shared their experiences through social media — live from the Serengeti. I’m not sure I consider that progress. So while we are learning how to better focus on other people, we also need to learn how to put down our mobile devices and disconnect from our fast-paced, digital world on occasion.
The final observation is one that unfolds before me every day. It is the quiet thrill of sitting on my wagon and allowing the sights, smells and sounds of the Georgia woods to wash over me. Sometimes I wonder if we have lost the ability to appreciate nature for what it is.
So, there they are; five rules for living life in the slow lane. It sounds simple. Just slow down, unplug and enjoy the day. But how do we do that in a world that has such a tight hold on us? In my book, “The View from a Wagon,” I look at each of these areas in a little more detail.