Thursday on the way north, summer faded fast in the rear-view mirror. Already some sumacs blazed brilliantly and alongside the blacktop a dirt footpath that angled into oak and popple suggested the promise of the coming season. This wasn’t yet grouse time and there was no gun behind the seat. Still, soon, leaves will change color, migrant birds will gather and an eager dog will quarter ahead, nose to the ground, a chill in the air.

Some years ago my friend Willy and I were on Delta Marsh in Manitoba, hunting ducks. It was late October and the big squalls from the far north rumbled overhead, snow cascading from gunboat-colored skies. Amid these furies each morning in the still-dark we launched our sport boat, loaded decoys and dogs and broke ice toward open water beyond. With the coming light canvasbacks and bluebills arrowed over our decoys, gale winds muffling our scatterguns’ reports, poof, poof, birds soon piling at our sides.

Then one morning we were alone. Overnight the marsh froze shut and the few hunters who remained pulled out. Willy and I knew only one place we could hunt a final time: Cabin 70 on the west marsh. Freeze-up came late there, and in the black of that last morning, wipers flapping against the snow, we angled the truck in its direction. Ducks would be cattail-high at sunup, afterburners glowing.

We wanted to be ready.

So it goes in autumn, and you can’t really make someone participate under these conditions. The interest is there or it is not. Or, rather, the passion.

The thinking all along has been that a certain percentage of the population will hunt, particularly those exposed early to the field sports, and those who do over time burnish their abilities, enriching their lives, leaving in the end, cast in the funeral pyre, a scrapbook of full-on experiences, life well-lived, page by page.

Yet a hunter is more than a hiker with a gun, and the intent of autumn’s pursuit is not for game alone. If it were, production could be ramped up. Rather, what’s important about hunting, and manifests itself often among hunters as it has for centuries, is expression of an American principle fast losing favor among the general public: individualism.

Ayn Rand, among many others, advocated this critical but often misunderstood ideal: the importance to the broader society of an individual acting in his or her self-interest, regardless of the aggregate’s opinion of the individual’s action. The notion can be carried too far, and any reading of Rand that isolates her thinking to the caricature of selfishness as a virtue misses the point.

More accurately, her suggestion is that an otherwise healthy society that does not allow individualism to flourish, and in which rational selfishness, as Rand described it, isn’t recognized as necessary, however paradoxically, to the well-being of the aggregate is, if not doomed, at least less healthy than it believes.

Of course hunting is not a unique expression of individualism. But dating to settlement and long before, the opportunity to sustain oneself by one’s own hand, among the elements, with prospects good but outcomes uncertain, has been one measure of this continent’s, and nation’s, greatness.

Now however comes hunting’s participation decline, as documented most recently by a Department of Natural Resources survey of small-game seekers. Reasons include the usual culprits: an exponential expansion of the human population and with it the rise of urbanism, the loss of wild lands and access to them, and the falloff of certain game populations.

But more is at work here.

In the last half-century, campfires of old have been replaced by one much larger: television, around which we — all of us — gather willfully, if less happily, our gazes fixed.

Pervasive now also are the Internet and social media, which often are advertised as bold new venues for personal expression. But far more often they instead are arbiters and enforcers of a new social construct, the foundation of which, at individualism’s expense, is collectivism. If you doubt this, look around: We dress alike, talk alike and, for the most part, aspire together to the same knickknack-cluttered subdivisions.

So it is that as never before, every day on every door, conformity comes knocking, its deceit veiled, but barely.

That morning at Cabin 70 on Delta Marsh, Willy and I watched through ice-crusted balaclavas as bluebills came begging to land.

The wind blew. Snow fell. The dog’s teeth chattered.

We got our ducks.

Our thinking on that morning echoed my thinking Thursday as I freewheeled my way north, sumacs blazing and hunting season pending.

The question never was, to paraphrase Ayn Rand, who was going to let me.

But who was going to stop me.

 

danderson@startribune.com