On a potholed country road near Deckers Point in Indiana County there's a small island patch of woods. Surrounded by corn fields, it's rife with mature oaks and the gray squirrels that feast on their acorns.
When I was about 13 years old it was my favorite place on the planet. My dad had recognized the second-growth, mast-producing trees in the middle of a farmer's field as a safe and productive place to teach me how to hunt. No one else, it seemed, knew about the spot, and season after season we had it to ourselves.
It was mostly there that I learned to walk quietly in the woods -- softly heel to toe to avoid snapping branches -- and to pivot to blunt the sounds of brush scraping past. I learned to anticipate changes through scent, sound and touch as well as sight, and to recognize that the best woodland sentinels were the wildlife, who always signaled what was coming before I knew it.
With Dad at my side, I learned the importance of controlling where my gun was pointed and the trajectory to and beyond the intended prey. As I matured and my gun-handling skills improved, I was rewarded with greater responsibilities, progressing from a single-shot 20-gauge to a double-barrel shotgun, and from a single-shot .22 to a pump-action rifle.
In time, standing in field conditions I could quickly shoulder my .22 and hit a squirrel's small head. Dad and I had a deal -- whoever shot the fewest squirrels (head shots only) bought ice cream for two on the way home. It was a boy's way of bonding with an adult mentor, and perhaps a father's way of passing on a culture of valued rural traditions.
Much of what I know today I learned in that island patch of woods. Cooperation: With Dad flanking my left, we slowly, efficiently and safely navigated those woods. Ethics: Shooting a squirrel was far less important than not taking a shot that didn't present a reasonable chance for a quick, clean kill. Conservation: I came to understand the ecology of that ecosystem and my relationship to it. Patience: Hunting success involved knowing when to move slowly and when to stand still, and when the squirrels didn't cooperate, I learned to enjoy the day even when I had to buy the ice cream.
Mostly during those trips, I learned to trust my instincts and manage my responsibilities to my surroundings. Outdoors I'm the visitor, I learned, but I'm also the steward of an artificial second-growth environment that people errantly call "nature."
As Monday's opening of the statewide rifle deer season approaches, I've been thinking about the island patch and how the hunting lessons I learned there were transposed over the years into valuable life lessons that have kept me grounded through successes and failures. I've grown increasingly troubled by the latest round of American urbanization, the loss of rural traditions and all that is not being learned by an attention-deficit generation that has lost its connection to the natural world.
The conservation movement, started a century ago by hunters to revitalize and protect habitat and wildlife, has been absorbed by a broader environmental movement focused on protecting the Earth from humans. And while people recite pro-environmental T-shirt slogans and corporations tout their green credentials, modern Americans now know less about how nature works than at any time in my life.
City folk move beyond the street lights and immediately post No Hunting signs on properties that had been hunted for decades, properties much like the island patch of woods. They think their back acres will take care of themselves. Not recognizing the responsibilities of ecological stewardship, they remove their lands from a complex wildlife management plan in which safe, regulated public hunting is used to control specific animal populations to improve or maintain habitat used by all wildlife, as well as people.
With electronic gadgets geared for indoor use, and too few outdoor mentors, many kids and young adults see the outdoors as the green glare beyond the window and rarely venture there. They learn to advance to the next level of Assassin's Creed and dance Gangnam Style but never learn what they will need to know about cooperation, ethics, conservation and patience.
But it is a generation that gave me Google maps, where a few days ago I zoomed in on a satellite photo of a potholed country road near Deckers Point in Indiana County. I was thrilled -- elated -- to find the little island patch of woods, still surrounded by corn fields, still beckoning to teach its lessons to anyone willing to learn.
John Hayes is the Post-Gazette outdoors editor. He can be reached at 412-263-1991, email@example.com.