A Hunter by Nature

For Susan L. Ebert, discovering herself to be a hunter was both unforeseen and inevitable. The chef and outdoorswoman shares how hunting benefits her and her family.
Woman hunting in abandoned field

I sit motionless in the predawn as the first licks of sunlight caress the red granite bluffs towering over the far bank of the Brazos River. I’m facing the river, concealed from the east by the trunk of the ancient pecan I rest against, the tree’s long morning shadow obscuring my form. Straight ahead, a deserted picnic table sits on a grassy bench on the riverbank. The rising sun rakes away the mist swirling over the Brazos, highlighting the riotous blooms of Indian paintbrush, Mexican hat and firewheel bobbing in the breeze amid scores of flowering prickly pear cactus.

I am alone on an 11,000-acre tract of ranchland and without cellphone service, breathing in the glorious springtide. The scenery alone hasn’t drawn me here, however. While scouting yesterday, I’d found massive turkey tracks in the sandy soil edging the grassy bench and had struck a few notes on my call to locate any birds. I’d been rewarded with a booming gobble, so I had fashioned a makeshift blind at the base of the massive pecan before easing back out quietly in the approaching gloaming.

Here, on this riverbank where in previous seasons I’ve brought both ducks and bass to hand, I’m hoping that the male turkeys will perform their spring mating display — fanning, strutting, and drumming to attract receptive females. This particular morning, my loaded shotgun rests on my knee as my turkey hen decoy quivers in a light breeze, just to the right of the picnic table. I am here not simply to witness nature but to participate in it, in the timeless dance of predator and prey.

That morning long ago, I spent a good deal of time reflecting on the seemingly unrelated but inexplicably interlaced circumstances that define me as a hunter. In retrospect, the revelation of my true nature was preordained, although I didn’t grasp that at the time.

As a child, I would sprawl on the living room floor of my grandparents’ Kentucky fieldstone farmhouse, leafing through well-thumbed copies of Field & Stream, Outdoor Life and Kentucky Afield in which my papaw Dorsey, a renowned sportsman, made the occasional appearance: clutching a brace of cottontails, lifting aloft a leviathan catfish, posing with one of his champion coonhounds. He was larger than life to me anyway: a superb horseman, a prolific gardener and the consummate outdoorsman. Being the firstborn grandchild of a man who yearned for a grandson didn’t deter either Papaw or me: He’d grab a gun or a rod in one hand, and me by the other, and we’d steal away in “Ol’ Betsy,” his ’42 Willys Jeep, to hunt and fish — to my mother’s great exasperation. By the ’70s , we’d both drifted away from those precious excursions, with Papaw’s increasing age and failing health, and my focus on college followed by graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin. By the next decade, he would be gone, and I would be a young mother of two.

True to my roots, I set about growing my children’s baby food. DDT, which had been banned in 1972, had been the suspected culprit in the untimely death of my mother’s younger brother the very year I was born, a heartbreak from which Mamaw Grace and Papaw Dorsey never fully recovered. I vowed that I would garden 100 percent organically. You see, back in its heyday, DDT was touted as perfectly safe. “I remember Adrian playing in open bags of DDT with his little wooden trucks, as if it were sand,” Mother would tell me later. My complete plunge into organic gardening led me to join the editorial staff of Organic Gardening magazine in the mid-’80s, where I would serve for nearly a decade.

Yet, as an unabashed omnivore, ensuring the quality of my family’s fruits and vegetables was only half of my goal to provide unadulterated food for my family. My thoughts hark back to my childhood memories of my family’s Kentucky farm, where line-caught bream, bass and catfish, and wild game such as deer, pheasant, quail and turkey were each harvested one at a time as needed. I vowed that I once again would hunt, as my papaw had taught me, to provide clean, wild protein for my family as he had for his many decades ago.

From Organic Gardening, I would return as a single parent with my young brood to Austin, where I would helm the state-owned Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine. I immersed myself in all things related to wildlife and hunting, much as I had with organic gardening a decade before. And I would buy my first very-own shotgun, a sleek Beretta I dubbed “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.”

I spent a good deal of time taking shooting lessons — an ethical hunter’s worst fear is to cause an animal undue suffering with a poorly placed shot — and going afield with the agency’s hardworking wildlife biologists to study the wildlife I would pursue. I learned that these biologists set seasons and bag limits with care to prevent overharvesting. I learned that since the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act became law in 1937, the excise taxes it collects on long guns, handguns and ammunition has contributed more than $10.1 billion to wildlife conservation. I learned that the responsibility of taking an animal’s life was far more profound than a stroll past chilled cellophane-wrapped packages in the grocery store — and had far less impact on the environment than does industrial farming. I learned a deeper connection with my ancestors and a deeper appreciation of my role as my family’s provider.

I learned that I am a hunter.