I never quite understood how much it cost to hunt rare animals, not to mention who could afford to shoot one. Of course, I was familiar with how close to extinction such animals were and had read of messy wars between conservationists, hunters, and poachers. I had read some Hemingway, too, but that, I thought, was just Hemingway. In any event, I never cared to talk to a big game hunter until one such hunter's sister hired me. During my interview, while I was being wined and dined, Cherise showed me her brother's picture in the bush with his kill.
Why? What subject had we broached? I wish I remember. In the photo on Cherise's iPhone, her brother knelt, gun erect, behind his exotic animal. The restaurant was dark; the image glowed. My colleague's hand holding the phone shook. The kill was a kudu, white horns spiraling upward. I now know that this is the typical safari photo, taken like a wedding photo is taken, ritualistically, after each slaughter, the head of the dead animal propped upon a mound of sand. He's one of the only African American safari hunters, Cherise said.
And it was this one fact—this hunter being an exception to some unwritten, age-old colonial rule coupled with the seeming incongruence of his actions (as if I really thought any African American would understand the nature of oppression and carry that notion beyond his or her own person and so swear off the killing of all creatures)—that awoke in me a curiosity. What was it that drove this particular man to travel to Africa to kill big game? Was his motivation—his, let's say, calling to kill, any different than a white man's? These were racist and sexist questions. This was, in fact, my own safari. I was just trading in the rifle for a pen.
As a white woman, I wanted this man's story to reveal some deeper relationship, some disturbance to a dangerous playing field I didn't understand. I wanted the bungled narrative to point to something I had not seen before, a larger truth, or at least to a complicated neocolonialist narrative about what it might mean for an African American to hire an African safari guide. You should write an essay about him, Cherise suggested.
Flash forward a year: Herb drives his black Toyota pick-up truck up the driveway to the goat farm where I live. I watch from my window in the barn loft. I'm trying to hurry. He gets out and stands under the Kentucky coffee tree. I half-run down the sloping green hill, shouting, Hi, I'm Spring.
Before I hop into the passenger seat of this hunter's vehicle, before he drives me north, following the automated female voice on his GPS, know this: I milk goats, shovel their shit, attempt to care for their well-being. However, I am also fully aware that pastoralism marks the beginning of unrestrained consumerist mentalities, and that hunting—at least before animals were grown like plants, selectively bred, stocked in game preserves and boxed in factories—was once dependent upon the savvy of selectivity and restraint. If one overhunted or polluted one's hunting ground that was the end of one's food source. In many respects, before the human population rocketed, hunters' lives were more sustainable and their nomadic lifestyles better for the planet. The farmer-induced capitalist mentality, in other words, is perhaps the mentality that has done more to exterminate the brute, should we say, than any other mentality in history.
I guide Herb down Yellow Springs Road to Route 113, assuring him, as we round another bend that we haven't gone too far. On the phone in March, I had explained my motivation to write this essay: I framed it as hinging upon my own interest in animals. I told him that I lived and worked on a farm. I was interested, I had told him, in the differences between hunter and herder. That's cool that you work with goats and can swing with my sister, Herb had commented.
I had then purposefully danced around the subject of race, just as white people often do. Your sister told me that you're one of the only African American safari hunters, I say as soon as I can switch the subject away from the explanation of why I didn't attend the end-of-semester faculty party, why I lack belief in educational institutions, and how I grew up.
I think right now I'm the only one, or one of the only ones, Herb says, turning us onto 113. There was one my PH—professional hunter—told me about, who hunted a while ago. But that's not why I hunt: to be one of the few. I hunt for the thrill of it.
Like a matador? I ask. It just pops out.
I'm surprised. Matadors, in my imagination, are magicians with capes, pulling long-horned bulls out of pockets. Their choosing to brush with death seems to me like a cultural ritual and more dangerous than hunting game with a rifle from a ridge. Bullfights, in my mind, are fairer to the animal (even given the long banderillas driven into bulls' backs and the years of study matadors put in before stepping out into the ring) than big game hunters' khaki-coated stalking. Hunters' guns, bullets, and the long distances they maintain from their game make killing a bull by hand appear particularly other.
They call Africa the motherland, Herb is saying. We're stopped at a red light. When I came back after my first safari, after seeing how people over there live, how rough they have it, I thought I should call myself just American—not African American.
I'm intrigued. This comment reminds me of a journalist's account of being African American in Africa and feeling unhinged by the experience. It reminds me, too, of a poem I once read. I ask Herb whether he has read Toi Derricotte.
No, who's that?
She's a poet, and in one of her books, she describes going to Africa and an African telling her that she was lucky to have been enslaved.
I guess, the African's point was that her life as a black living in America today was better—
Oh, I see what you're saying. You're making me really think here.
I feel wrong. Like I shouldn't have said anything, like nothing I can say can be right. Who am I to quote Toi Derricotte? I steal a look at Herb. His profile is flat; he wears wire-rimmed glasses. He doesn't seem like a hunter; he seems quiet, introspective, unassuming—or, as he describes himself, reserved.
I see now why the government chose him for the work he does: busting those with offshore money market accounts. He's a tax man of the highest ilk; auditor extraordinaire. It's because he seems, on the outside, like an exceptionally ordinary man. You know, I went back and reread Green Hills of Africa, I say.
Herb had mentioned this book on the phone. Yes, I guess it made me think, mostly, of the manly aspect of big game hunting.
Huh, I've never thought about it that way before.
I guess it is mostly a man's sport.
Are there women safari hunters? I ask, curious.
I don't know. I don't think there are many. I mean, they might go with their husbands.
We're heading north to Douglasville. I had originally asked Herb if he would mind if I talked with Aaron, his taxidermist, as a way to get a jumpstart on this essay back in March. (It's now May.) I'd been tipped off about Aaron. Herb's sister Cherise and I had gone to hear a Washington Post reporter speak about torture at Guantanamo, and I'd left the event angry—as not enough had been said and more apologies (to the tune of camouflaging the definition of a war crime) had been made for U.S. military actions than I could stomach. To top the evening off, there had been a contentious conversation about race in our university department—an ongoing discussion Cherise had weathered for years, taking heat from all sides. As she and I exchanged parting words that evening after the reporter's talk, I mentioned that I had finally spoken with Herb. Did he tell you about his taxidermist? she had asked.
No, I said. Why?
Well, I guess he was leafing through some magazine and saw some animals, and he was like, Those are my animals! The taxidermist had won some award for best-preserved or something, and my brother was saying, These are my animals, I should get a cut for that.
No. He called the guy, but I don't know, some regulation, or something, but he was right—they were his animals.
I had gone home that night and Googled Herb's name together with taxidermist and found a thank you note from Herb on Aaron's website: “Your attention to detail is impeccable and very much appreciated. Thanks for bringing my trophies back to life.” On site's home page, I had also found the spread Herb's sister mentioned. I, too, recognized “Herb's animals” from the photos Cherise had shown me at my interview. In the article accompanying the spread, Aaron is quoted as saying, “Most people think of taxidermy as almost a redneck industry.” He, on the other hand, insists what he does is an art. That's why, he says, he named his studio Artistic Visions Wildlife.
It's raining when Herb and I pull up to Aaron's. We've traveled an hour. It's now 1:01 p.m., according to the clock on Herb's truck's dash. I said we'd be here at 1:00; look at that, Herb says.
I knew you'd be here exactly at one, Aaron says.
He's standing in the mouth of his open garage. He's tall and has an easy grin. His cheeks look like he's hiding golf balls in them. The garage looks like any other garage from the outside. Inside, though, one wall is lined with mounted deer, ibex, springbok, blesbok, and zebra heads. Pins stick out of the animals' noses, eyes, foreheads. Plastic forms shaped like skulls litter a workbench.
Do you have any water? Herb asks. We've done so much talking on the drive here, I'm hoarse.
Don't have water, but you guys want Zeroes? It's what I drink. Gotta watch my girlish figure. Aaron laughs.
Aaron hands me a can of Diet Coke. I crack open the tab as he shows me the tubs of colored epoxy he uses to patch furless spots on cracking mounts. The Diet Coke swims in my mouth. Let's go to the studio, Aaron says.
Before we go, Herb needs to use the restroom. He asks for an umbrella as it has begun to rain. There is none. I watch him half-run across the drive to Aaron's house from the foyer of a house that's been transformed into a show room for Aaron's specimens. He still doesn't seem like a hunter, I find myself thinking.
In the studio, I stand before a giraffe head and neck, an entire Alaskan Brown Bear, a lion reclining on the rug, and some poachers' spears Aaron brought back from Mozambique. His father refinished them, and Aaron said, Why'd you do that? They were authentic.
When Herb returns he points to a pedestal. I want that for my Cape Buffalo. How much is that?
Which one? The one with the Africa cut-out?
Yeah. I like that. Hey, I want to ask you: do you think going on safari is manly?
I've been reading Hemingway? Have you read him? I butt in.
Hell ya, it's manly. Nah, I haven't read Hemingway. Want to, though.
I look at Herb. As a child, he wanted to run away to the Rocky Mountains. Instead, he fell in love with his teacher Mrs. Edmunds—a woman who helped him with his special learning needs. He wanted to go back to visit her after he had finished graduate school to show her his diploma and thank her, but she had just passed. As a teen, he'd gotten excited about big game hunting while working at a sporting goods store. He was making eight dollars an hour and helping service people who were going on safari. He knew he'd never be able to afford to go on such a hunt himself, if he continued to work for eight dollars an hour, and this had been what had inspired him, he'd told me on the drive up here, to attend college.
Aaron shuttles us up the white carpeted stairs to the studio attic where his computer is on and begins to click through his photos. Of course I am interested in the images on the screen. I am sickened by the stuffed animals below me, but the hunt—the process that opens these men up to the wilderness and connects them with other forms of life—intrigues me. I want to know more about what drives them to walk crotch-deep into leech-infested waters, crawl on their bellies across the savannah, and train their eyes and hands into killing machines to shoot lions out of trees.
I watch, in one of Aaron's videos, as a hulking cat falls from a tree. I hear Aaron comment on how mean she was. It is wrong, and I know it. Wrong to do this.
Herb sees it differently. He's culling the herd, memorializing an animal that everyone else would otherwise never remember, he's told me. He is keeping game alive, preserving the populations of wild beasts against the poachers who plunder without paying to replenish. I can see Herb's point. But I still feel that it is wrong—perhaps I'm wrong, too, writing this.
I have been, up to this minute, toying with going on Herb's next safari with him. He's headed to Mozambique to kill the Black Death—the Cape Buffalo with horns that stretch out wide on either side of their massive heads before tumbling into curls. He has said it would be cool if I wanted to come.
Spring Ulmer received her M.F.A. in nonfiction from the University of Iowa and also holds a M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Arizona. Her latest book, The Age of Virtual Reproduction, was published by Essay Press. Benjamin’s Spectacles, her first book of poetry, was selected by Sonia Sanchez for Kore Press’s 2007 First Book Award. She is also the recipient of a number of fellowships, grants, and awards, including a creative writing Fulbright Award to Rwanda.