At thirteen, I sat in a tree stand with my Dad at 5:30 am, waiting for the perfectly sized deer to walk out into the field below. Does tend to walk out into the fields before bucks do, and there are usually only a few bucks who appear before sunrise. I had my rifle ready — I’d diligently studied how to clean the gun, carry it, and follow safety procedures. I knew where to aim the rifle, the full anatomy of a deer, a handful of bird species, the difference between poison oak and poison ivy, and what type of bullet would be most effective for my gun. By 7:30 am the sun had risen, with no deer to show for it. As a cruel joke, the universe shuffled a flock of ten turkeys across the alfalfa field below us. We packed our gear and prepared to climb down, and my Dad comforted me: “Maybe next time, Snoop. Don’t worry, sometimes it just isn’t the right day.”
Two years later, I sit in a ground blind, waiting for what I hope will be my first kill. It’s my lucky day when an unassuming doe wanders into the field, just into my line of sight. When she does, I take a deep breath and hold before I squeeze the trigger.
My brother and I were born and raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of South Carolina. Here, hunting and fishing are not only recreational, but for putting food on our tables and money in our pockets. Hunting and fishing are also largely straight white male activities, loved and accepted in the South. People gladly celebrate hunters by sharing meats, trading stories and wearing hunting camo around the neighborhood. Many people hunt (or know someone who has hunted), and there’s a culture around hunting in the outdoors. But in my experience blackness, queerness, and to some extent womanhood are sidelined in these spaces — a reality that’s particularly painful because of the cultural importance and wide presence of hunting in the South.
My family’s history of hunting and fishing is centered around our history of sharecropping in Georgia. My great-grandfather taught my father how to hunt, and that was how they spent time together. Whatever they killed, they brought home to be cooked for the family. In spite of this connection to sharecropping, in my lifetime, I’ve known only a handful of black hunters. When I was fourteen, my father and I sat in a room filled with several fourteen year-old white boys and their fathers at a youth deer hunt. We were all being taken to hunting sites across some acreage to see who could claim a deer. Although we laughed and chatted with the other hunters, we were also othered in the space. I’ve met white men sporting confederate flags on their hats as we headed to our hunting site. Some of them stop to talk, while others give us a nod and continue in their own direction. General caution is something we carry with us into the woods.
Although I grew up hunting and fishing there seemed to be a stigma around black people not engaging in the outdoors, despite this accepting hunting and outdoor culture in the South. When I attended a historically black college for undergrad, there were a lot of students who were afraid to spend time outdoors alone. Even now I have friends who call ahead of their outdoor plans, for fear of being harmed by white friends who they don’t know well in the woods. The general idea is that people of color are not safe in the woods, simply because we don’t belong there. There was also a stigma of owning and using guns as a black family in the South. When I tell people that we hunt, sometimes they cringe and make judgements about our household — assuming that my brother and I had easy access to guns as children, and that we use them flagrantly and irresponsibly. They also assume that we’re card-carrying NRA members, and that our politics swing right, which could not be farther from the truth. I have grown up with a healthy respect for and fear of guns my whole life. We were even taught gun safety when using b.b. and water guns, being careful to know when it was loaded and not to point it at each other. You never shoot anything that you have no intention of eating. There were rules when inside the house: making sure to not touch anything gun-shaped, and not to poke around the closets that were designated for guns. When I got older, we bought a gun case.
When I was young, I didn’t understand the implications of what it meant to own a gun as a black person. As I went through more experiences as a queer woman of color, I began to understand the type of risk we put ourselves through to do the things we loved — and more importantly, the thing that helped us survive for so many years. When Philando Castile, a licensed and legal gun owner, was shot in Minnesota in 2016, I thought about all of the times we have driven (and will drive) with our guns to the fields. I thought about all of the times that we could have been seen as stereotypical dangers to society, and killed as a result. We have always done things by the rules, double checking to see if we have all of the permits and tags, and sometimes it still doesn’t seem like enough.
Our father often asked us to read outdoor and nature books outside of school, and when I started high school he gave me a copy of A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. A conservationist from the 1930s, Leopold wrote about his own learning experiences of operating a small family farm. This was one of my favorite books in high school. It captured the outdoor experience as something interactive and engaging versus something romantic and delicate. Like Aldo, birdwatching was one of my father’s favorite activities. One of my favorite stories from Aldo, The Alder Fork – A Fishing Idyl, details his experiences of fly fishing for trout. He ends up losing fishing line, and spends most of his day trying to catch three fish who are experienced enough to give him a tough time. “What was big was not the trout, but the chance,” he writes. It’s what was on my mind when fly fishing for the first time in Scotland with my partner. Our first four hours of fishing, we caught zero fish and let about five get off the line, and spent hours in silence waiting for the unsuspecting trout to reveal itself. One of the hardest things to do (especially as a kid), is to sit still and wait for the woods to come alive again. Aldo’s writing gives words to that experience through his own lens, and provides a narrative for the outdoor bystander. It is the experience that we seek in the woods that allows us to step outside of the human realm into something bigger.
Reading this book at age 26 brings up different feelings for me, as I see Aldo writing from his privileged perspective on stolen land. Who’s to say that Aldo’s narrative on nature is even remotely related to the way that I experience nature? When I was completing my first masters in Environmental Policy, I started practicing the reading of environmental narratives through an environmental justice lens that revealed inequities in the way people experienced nature, land ownership, health and other related issues. Lo and behold, I understood A Sand County Almanac through new eyes. While Aldo was able to expand on the outdoor experience, he was of many one who othered people of color out of “concern for population.”
My hunting experience has also informed how I explore my own queerness — I want to always be patient, and enjoy the journey even if I don’t find what I’m searching for within myself. It’s also taught me about what it means to exist in a community that cares about cultivating a safe environment for its members. In the hunting world, safety means knowing the rules of the season, and being friendly with others who might need help. There have been times where the fields didn’t yield many deer, and family friends reached out to let us hunt on their land, understanding that everyone wants to put food on their tables and provide for their families. In New York City, I’ve seen the queer community offer resources in a time of need — sharing a meal when money was tight, or offering some much needed life advice. Those acts of kindness were done with an understanding that we all want to be understood and supported for who we are.
When I’ve been aware of other women on hunts, they’ve been white women. They are occasionally found in large hunts, and I’ve observed them hunting with male partners. It wasn’t til I was 24 that my mother killed her first deer, tired of being left behind as my Dad, brother, and I went to hunt. This is very different from how my parents were raised; none of the women in their families went hunting. When I was younger, I occasionally met little girls who went hunting, but rarely ever black and brown ones. This became abundantly clear when I went to school at Spelman College, a historically black women’s college — I found a few girls who hiked and fished, but none who had ever hunted (I’m sure they’re out there!). This really laid the foundation for what I want to do with my life, which is finding a way to get more women and people of color exposed to the outdoors. I love finding a way to collaborate with groups that do environmental education, and environmental justice work, in an effort to engage people of color in nature. One of my bigger dreams is to one day open a summer camp for kids of color to play and learn outdoors to develop a better relationship with nature and each other.
Being a Capricorn, my birthday always falls on Christmas break. On my 26th birthday, I asked my father to go hunting with me. Living in New York City for a couple of years has almost made me forget what it feels like to go outside in South Carolina. As we waited in the blind, we saw an eastern towhee bird flutter across the field, loudly singing “drink your teaaaaa,” while keeping an eye out for strangers on its stroll. As I sat there, I was reminded of how much I love hearing the loud squirrels romp through the leaves, and watching the sky shift into shades of orange and deep red. It makes me appreciate being from a family that is still willing to engage in this act of survival that has brought us joy throughout our lives.🌲
edited by rachel.