Squirrel season has begun, and the mountains are ringing with gunfire again. The fusillade will grow this month when deer season arrives. It's boom time in this state where hunting is supreme.
A total of 317,000 West Virginia hunting licenses were bought last year. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says 19 percent of West Virginians hunt -- the highest ratio of any state except Montana. The Division of Natural Resources estimates that hunters and anglers spend an astounding $250 million a year in West Virginia.
Last year, 205,924 deer were killed in the Mountain State, legally. (Nobody knows how many others were shot by unlicensed hunters, or weren't reported at check-in stations.) Also, 14,817 turkeys were checked in. The DNR estimates that the yearly "harvest'' also includes 1.7 million squirrels, 500,000 rabbits, 180,000 grouse, and so forth.
That's 2.6 million dead animals a year. If, say, two shots are fired for each kill, more than 5 million gunshots riddle the West Virginia woodlands -- a rate perhaps equal to Bosnia's.
Killing wild animals is natural to mountain people. In the little Wetzel County farm town where I grew up, every male hunted. Some bought licenses, some didn't. Rules passed in Charleston seemed inconsequential in the Wetzel hills. My father taught me to hunt, taking me onto silent ridges at dawn, when hilltops were like islands rising above fog in the valleys.
My teen-age years were spent with a bolt-action .22 rifle and a Stevens 20-gauge shotgun. You may not believe this, but my buddies and I had contests to see who could pick pears off a tree by clipping the stems with a .22.
Stalking squirrels in the still woods gave me shivers of excitement. Squirrels are delicious, and were a regular part of our diet. We tried to never waste a shot, and laughed at visiting city hunters who loosed salvos from automatic shotguns. We almost lived in the forest. In high school, Louis Bowers and I were paddled for playing hooky to hunt squirrels. We grinned foolishly at each other and planned the next hunt.
When men and boys weren't hunting, they hung around the post office where my father was postmaster, telling hunting tales. My favorite was by my cousin Joshua: A shrewd deerstalker, he would find a dip in a ridge where deer crossed, and "bait'' a few bushes with Buck Lure, a doe gland extract squirted from a squeeze bottle. One chilly morning, watching over his baited spot, he had sniffles. He reached for his nasal spray and squirted it up a nostril. You guessed it -- the Buck Lure made him so sick he staggered from the woods and went home to bed.
That's how my adolescence went. But something happened as I aged. Gradually, I began feeling sorry for the animals -- and ashamed of myself for killing them. After a while, it sickened me. If a wounded squirrel was convulsing, bleeding and dying, I almost panicked. The horror was worse if I had to club it to death. I was revolted by myself. I began to lower the gun and not shoot. Then I quit hunting entirely. For 40 years, I've never gone back.
I realize that nature kills as cruelly as hunters do. I've heard rabbits scream when pierced by predators. It's hideous. Further, I realize that all the meat we buy in supermarkets comes from killed animals. But those are different issues. They don't involve the question of whether I'll kill for sport -- for fun.
Although I stopped hunting, the love of woods, hills, streams and fields remained as strong as ever. There's something spiritual about the stillness of a deep ravine, the smell of autumn leaves, the dappled sunlight flickering on a forest floor. I switched to hiking, camping, weenie roasts, first with kids, now with grandkids. Today it's a thrill simply to see squirrels, raccoons, deer, possums, groundhogs -- even squeaky chipmunks.
West Virginia has more woodland than any other state, hence more opportunity for people to enjoy mountain loveliness. A serene trail or gurgling brook is never more than a few minutes away. Right now, the hunters possess the hills. But the rest of us outdoor-lovers will have our chance when they leave.
I wouldn't tell any hunter to quit killing. I have no right to impose my moral compunction on someone else. It's a decision each person must make in the privacy of conscience. I've made mine. Obviously, 317,000 others made a different choice. If they feel no shame when a squirrel shudders, gasps and dies, they won't learn it from words in a newspaper.
As for me, I can never go back to my adolescence.