In the southern states of the US, rice farmers used to be plagued by the arrival of migratory birds, just as their crop was ready. The aptly named ricebirds – otherwise bobolink, a kind of blackbird – were a particular menace, descending in great, densely packed flocks that cast a shadow on the landscape as they flew over. They bobbed on the water of the flooded rice fields, feeding on the heads of the plants which were presented conveniently at beak height.
By the time they left, when the rice had been too hard to digest, they might have eaten a quarter of the crop. The only consolation was that they could be shot in great numbers as a “delicious morsel” for a “dainty supper”, according to one 1890s landowner.
Rice, as I discovered on a visit to North Carolina earlier this year, isn’t grown on the scale that it used to be, but the way of life associated with it, particularly duck hunting, exerts a strong appeal. This is not hunting as we understand it, although horses are still the best means to approach the prey and dogs find the quarry. There is a whole paraphernalia of clothing, camouflage and guns, and, from photographs, I could immediately understand the appeal.
Superficially, this world looked very different from that of foxhunting in Britain – more homespun, less formalised. But really, the two fulfill the same human urge to reconnect with the deep past. Through hunting, people whose weekday lives might be spent in city offices could enjoy a simpler state of existence, exposed to the elements, following a pursuit that is, in one form or another, as old as human life itself.
Our species has always hunted and a knowledge of landscape, weather and wildlife is just as important to those who hunt now as it was to remote ancestors.
Even after the hunting ban, the sport arouses strong passions. Boxing Day meets are a particular target for saboteurs, even if the form of hunting now allowed usually involves following a trail that has been laid beforehand rather than chasing a wild animal. In the US, duck hunting also has its opponents, although the scale of the American landscape makes it difficult to disrupt.
And yet I cannot help feeling that the two sides have something in common. the anti-hunting brigade are often proposers of rewilding, the movement that (perhaps misguidedly) seeks to return parts of Britain to a supposed state of grace, humans before got their controlling hands on it. Climate change provides them with another reason for putting the clock back. Surely there is an atavistic impulse at work here.
Hunt saboteurs are not obvious figures of romance – unlike the cavaliers who jump hedges, each one of whom is inwardly Prince Rupert of the Rhine – but they are also nostalgic for a vanished or vanishing world of nature. It is an irony that foxhunting would have disappeared in time, without legislation, because the pace of urban development means that the open countryside which it is possible to hunt over is rapidly shrinking. That ought to distress the anti-hunt lobby as much as their enemies.
At this time of year, the whole world seems to be swept up in a kind of communal nostalgia, expressed in the rituals that are repeated. One of our Christmas traditions, started (for reasons that I can’t now remember) when the children were young and now continued as a sacred rite, is to saw off the end of the Christmas tree on January 6 and write the date on it . We therefore should have a hearth piled with Christmas tree stumps, duly labeled in Sharpie, had I been able to find them when I got out the other decorations.
Perish the thought that any of these would go into the wood-burning stove, but that is another icon of the season. We don’t actually worship this glorious heat source, but it deserves to become one of the household gods, given the succor it provides at this time of high energy bills.
The scent of wood smoke, sometimes associated with trees I have chopped down in the garden, is one of those Proustian teleports guaranteed to transport me to a bobble-hat wearing walk down the frosty lanes of childhood.
Wood burners are under attack from the joyless apparatchiks of the nanny state who do not believe modern Britons can be trusted not to burn or suffocate themselves when lighting a fire. Have they no soul?
An extraordinary thing has entered – or returned to – my life: sketching. After a break of quite literally half a century, I took up pencil, brush and sketchbook again in October. Despite a never to be forgotten A in Art A-level, I dropped what had been a schoolboy passion on going to university, since there were so many people who were better at it.
Now, as I look forward to 2023, with strikes looming and the economy in rags, I am glad to have rediscovered an activity that has no interface with the modern world. A little like hunting, a little like our wood-burning stove.