Don’t Kill The Messenger

Across The Savannah

Don’t Kill The Messenger

Stirring the pot. Not my thing. When it comes to writing these columns, I have one rule: nothing too controversial. You won’t see me writing much, if anything, about religion, gun control, race, very little on politics, nothing on abortion or any topic sure to fire people up. Today, though, I am writing about a topic that divides people as surely as the Berlin Wall once separated Germany, and I’m writing it because of the fierce backlash I got from doing my job: covering an assignment. I feel the need to make a point.

It started innocently enough. Back in the spring, a magazine editor asked me if I would write a feature about the Marsh Tacky: a stout but small horse “14 hands high at the withers” as horsemen describe it. Spanish conquistadors brought them here in the 1600s, and today, only 250 live in South Carolina. As horses go, they are endangered.

The horses have long lived along the islands and swamps of the Lowcountry and are sure footed in wooded and swampy lands. They calmly and effectively get out of boggy areas safely and quickly, traits that would lead me into hot water.

I agreed to do the story. A few months later, the editor contacted me saying I ought to go see the Marsh Tacky in action. And so a few weeks ago, I got up at 4:30 on a Saturday morning and drove far out into the South Carolina backcountry to tag along with some men trying to preserve a way of life: hunting on horseback. The men were using dogs and hunting wild hogs. And the wild hogs’ sanctuary is in swamps and boggy terrain, areas the Marsh Tacky can traverse with ease.

We covered some fiercely wild terrain along the banks of the Great Pee Dee River, the river that just missed being in Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home.” Foster liked the way Suwannee sounded better, though he misspelled it “Swannee” to better fit the melody. My mind kept playing “Way Down Upon the Pee Dee River” as we rode over areas haunted by large rattlers and cottonmouths. I kept my eye to the ground whenever I stepped out of my ride, sure that an arm-thick Diamondback might sink his fangs into me.

No equestrian, I followed the riders in a Polaris Ranger, a golf cart on steroids. Soon the dogs, Pee Dee Curs, struck a trail. It sounded primeval. Baying dogs, pounding hooves, and a trail of dust rising behind riders like some scene from a Western. It’s but one vestige of how man used to live before he learned to capture and fatten animals in a pen.

Was the capture of a wild hog easy to be around? No. Was it a part of Southern lore? Yes. But it was something more than that. The men rode and hunted just as their forefathers had. They are trying to preserve a heritage.

I’ll spare you the details but I told some folks close to me how things went and they flailed me with criticism for being anywhere around this ritual. Taken aback, I explained that I was an observer only, a working journalist.

Other people, normally amicable and good company, pounced on me with vengeance. Over dinner, one friend, amid bites of sirloin tips, flailed me for having anything to do with an animal’s death. In between bites, she let me have it. As she stuck her fork into what once was a living, breathing animal, she dressed me down.

I am not a vegetarian, but I eat less meat than ever, mainly because I believe fish, fruit, and vegetables make for a healthier diet and eating far less meat, I discovered, leads to beneficial weight loss without dieting. I also believe the only people who can criticize the hunting and killing of animals are vegetarians. They live their belief without a trace of hypocrisy.

My position on hunting is simple and based on a founding principle of this country. Freedom. A wild animal may succumb to the bow or gun or knife, but at least it gets to live free. It beats being kept in a pen, stall, or field and fattened for the slaughterhouse. A wild animal lives an unfettered life, born free and free to range as it wishes.

We love our steaks, pork chops, and chicken don’t we. I spent two weeks in Green Bay, Wisconsin, one summer long ago. While there, a fellow said, “You ever seen a packing house?”

“No,” I said when a lie, “yes,” would have served me better. It was something I’ll never forget: superbly efficient, mechanized slaughter. Right before my disbelieving eyes, living creatures were transformed into steaks, ribs, roasts, and burgers. None of those cattle lived a free life. From birth to slaughter, the hand of man had directed their every moment. Wild hogs, squirrels, wild turkeys, whitetail deer, bass, bream, and foxes, however, live free.

I’ve got quite a challenge in the months to come. I’ve got to write about the Marsh Tacky in action without revealing what really happened. I interviewed the men who own the horses and dogs and got some great material. I found the horses and the dogs (equipped with radios for tracking them in swamps) quite friendly, affectionate even.

I did not get the chance to interview a wild hog. They were too busy evading capture, but could they talk, I am sure one of the wiser, older boars would have quoted Patrick Henry: “No pen for me. Give me liberty or give me death.”

Email Tom with feedback and ideas for new columns.

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