Literary review: "Heart Shots"

The best feature film I have seen this year is "Whale Rider," a New Zealand offering about a young Maori girl who fights against tribal traditions to assert that a woman can hold a cultural role traditionally and exclusively reserved for men.

"Heart Shots: Women Write About Hunt" (Stackpole; $24.95), a new anthology edited by Mary Zeiss Stange, is about a group of whale riders, or maybe I should call them "deer riders."

In some native cultures, women were not allowed to hunt. In others, women shared hunting and fishing with men.

Clearly, there have been women hunters around for a long time, but not many of them in modern Western society, at least until recently.

Today, the biggest jump in new hunter recruitment is women, thanks in part to programs like "Becoming An Outdoorswoman" — started by Christine Thomas — and women assuming leadership roles in hunting such as Colorado's Patt Dorsey, who is the director of Hunter Education for the state, Brenda Valentine, who hosts her own TV hunting show, and Stange, who has written eloquently about women hunters and shooters.

I, for one, welcome more women hunters. They generally seem to be more down to business, less prone to shenanigans and more interested in studying the heritage of hunting. All these traits strengthen the culture of hunting, as well as its public image.

Women who learn to hunt also will teach their kids to hunt. This is especially important in an era when there are so many single-parent families.

They say that you can't judge a book by its cover. Maybe so, but both the cover and the contents of "Heart Shots," the 400-page anthology of women writing on hunting edited by Stange, are outstanding.

An associate professor of Women's Studies and Religion at Skidmore College, Stange has assembled 48 different essays by women — past and present, famous and unknown — sharing their perceptions of the spirit of the hunt.

Some of the women writers are real groundbreakers. For example, featured are the writings of Osa Johnson, who along with her husband, Martin, hosted a prime-time adventure-hunting TV show in the l950s; Annie Oakley, America's most famous lady marksman; novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings; Grace Seton-Thompson, co-founder of the Campfire Girls; Beryl Markham, writer and first solo pilot to fly east-west across the Atlantic; and Diana Rupp, first woman editor of Sports Afield magazine.

Regardless of the their celebrity, these women share a love for nature that leads them to hunt.

Women who hunt — or want to understand hunting so as to be better able to relate to spouses, children, relatives and friends who hunt — obviously will find this book valuable reading. But men might just learn a thing or two from listening to women who hunt.

The hunting story is as old as the love story, and perhaps more important in human history, especially early history. Men have told hunting stories for thousands of years. A good hunting story relates the sequence of events, the considerations taken, decisions made, skills employed, consequences and the ethics and values expressed.

Collectively, such stories pass down the accumulated wisdom of generations of hunters, as well as keep the spirit of the hunt alive so it can infuse new energy into the community who did not hunt.

So what makes this collection special, aside from the gender of the writers?

What strikes me, as I read through the hardback, is that these women seem more at ease describing the deep and profound feelings that can be stirred by hunting.

Are women hunters that different than men in their experiences? I doubt it, but the female of the species has grown up with fewer constraints on expressing her emotions. They are closer to the surface and thus more accessible.

Men reading this book should find that they will come to better understand their own experiences hunting. This will not make them sissies, but enrich their times afield.

Interestingly enough, men I have known who have found the greatest ease in expressing their profound feelings about hunting are priests. Several have told me that they have felt closest to God in the woods, and experienced their most profound moments of reverence for life, humility and thanksgiving when kneeling over a buck they have just shot or encountering a timber wolf at 10 feet and staring into its eyes while wrapped in mystical reverie.

"Heart Shots" is about women hunters who individually and collectively serve as role models for other women. But, it also is about the feminine side of us all — emotions, feelings and intuitions — and its place in hunting.

Rather than making men sissies for reading it, it will help make them more whole, which is good for men, women and nature.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click here to purchase a copy.

To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.