Bullfrog tadpoles are big, easily fat as my thumb and a little longer. They’re obvious while resting on a pond’s mud flat or among the rocks in a tumbling creek. They wear the typical cryptic olive-brown camouflage you’d expect to see on an aquatic creature that can easily slide down any number of gullets, but their sheer size makes them conspicuous, or at least to me it does. I don’t see how any green heron or kingfisher could ever miss them.They look like plump, lazy little morsels, easily captured by even the sloppiest of attempts.
But they ain’t.
Bullfrog tadpoles are deceptively elusive with a quickness that contradicts the sluggish form, and they know exactly where the closest shelter is found. Then, if you are so lucky as to lay a finger on that muscular tail or gelatinous body, you’ve got to contend with their serious slickness. It’s like trying to catch a wad of animated snot.
As a writer, grabbing hold of the best word is akin to catching a bullfrog tadpole.
I struggle with this to the point of obsession. It seems easy. You’d think that surely a writer by profession would always be able to capture the right word. But, as German scribbler Thomas Mann said: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
Finding the right word is often like trying to catch a wad of animated snot.
This thought struck me as I was editing a press release and again saw the word “sportsman” as a term lumping hunters and anglers into a neat pile as distinct from “outdoorsman” which has taken on a bro-culture/flat-bill/Pabst-drinking/rock climbing/cycling/kayaking persona. Personally, I think we’re all — “sportsmen” and “outdoorsmen” — much closer than we are apart. But for the sake of clarity and our unending need to categorize, that’s how it breaks down.
I don’t like the word “sportsman.” It became synonymous with modern hunting and fishing to mark a clear difference market hunters and those that hunted for reasons beyond capitalism. At the time, it was a fine choice for outdoor writers to label hunters and anglers. But now, it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because it lacks honesty.
Hemingway said there are only three sports: bull fighting, auto racing, and mountain climbing (there ya go, bros). Inherent in each of these pursuits is the element of danger for the participant as well as a sense of conquest when the pursuit is over. Though I’ve had an alligator on the fishing line, though I’ve stepped over too many cottonmouths to count, and though I’ve slipped on a treestep once or twice, I generally don’t feel like my life is on the line while hunting or fishing. I’ve also never hunted or fished in the name of conquest. And frankly speaking, if you have then I don’t care to know you.
This is not to say that Hemingway has the term locked down, but I get his point. I can see how his treble of sports are “sporting.” Hunting and fishing are something more.
Hunting and fishing transcends sport. They transcend our modern definitions of humanity. Hunters and anglers were the default form of the Homo genus for eons. It seems demeaning, beneath us, to attach an Industrial Age label to Stone Age actions. It’s a title that separates us from what we really belong to. It’s not who we are and “sport” is not what we do. It’s not an honest word.
Going back to our rock-climbing bros, some of whom are my good friends, there is a difference between what they seek in the wild and what I seek, which is to become the wild. I want blood — sometimes literally, sometimes only metaphorically — but what I crave can only be satiated with blood. It’s a primal thing. It’s a predator thing. It’s a Pleistocene thing. It’s not a sport.
So I’ve started a personal and professional campaign in search of the perfect word to describe what I am as a hunter and angler, a student of the savage who very much seeks a return to his savage roots. It’s been a month or so since I first dove into this quest, but I’m nowhere close to an answer.
What is the word for who we were and who we really are at the core?