Prior to its settlement in the 18th century, Chili was the swampy and densely forested hunting grounds of the Seneca Natives, one of the six nations of the Iroquois. Although there is not enough information to suggest that these peoples established a permanent village in the expansive swamp that we call ‘Chili’, archived records buried deep in library shelves evidence that hunting parties transiently combed the woods, making tentative settlements near small streams and ponds. Deer, turkey, and other small game were permanent residents in Chili’s primeval forests, with a visiting bear or wolf from time to time. Chili, before the metallic melee of the saw and plow, was a hunting haven; the wetlands a biotic heart, pumping out prodigal life that thrived on what these wet soils offered, including the Seneca.
What happened to this fecundity? To date, roughly 28,000 people have moved into these hunting grounds, clearing the forests and filling the wetlands, plowing fields, and laying extensive webs of asphalt, cutting open a landscape that can be only found in text and pictures. The Seneca were the first to leave. As the land subsided to the exploits of the white man, the wildlife began to leave as well, concentrating smaller and smaller populations in the fragmented remains. And what happened to the spirit of the hunter? Although graceful footprints of the Seneca are no longer found pressed in the mud, the heavily treded tracks that trod across our remaining open places reveal that the legacy lives; that unexplainable yet innate instincts are indeed heeded. The spirit of the hunter still persists in our heavily modernized landscape, and although they are a categorical minority, the heritage they preserve is one essential for the health of the Chili’s wetlands, as well as Chili’s identity.
John Dailey, an employee of Chili’s DPW and a member of the volunteer fire department, is one of the few individuals that cherishes a more primal, archaic paradigm of man and the wild. He hunts, and loves it. John was fourteen when he was started hunting, an interest that was catalyzed by his father and his neighbor down the street. Ever since his introduction to this particular lifestyle, he has remained steeped in it, hunting deer and turkey in South Chili, near the Genesee Land Trust’s Reed Road Bird Preserve. But, tradition aside, what compels someone to don a heavy camouflaged suit and a heavy gun in (usually) inclement November weather? What compels this particular breed of people to leave the comfort of their televisions and lazy-boys to tramp around muddy forests for hours on end? Don’t forget, November is peak football season. “I enjoy going out, and filling my freezer,” John described to me. “It saves a lot of money. Between Steven [my step-son] and me, we put five and a half deer in the freezer [last year]”. You are probably asking the same question to yourself as I was: what does a half-deer look like in the wild? The half deer, as I later learned, was a gift from a neighbor, who shot a whole deer and decided to share. My second, more pertinent question: how long will two hundred pounds of venison feed John Dailey’s family? “That should make us to November,” John answered with a hearty laugh. “You know, that sounds like a lot, but if you have a 150 pound deer, you’re probably only looking at forty to fifty pounds of meat. You got the hide, the bones, and all that. I do what I can to get every little scrap off of it. So you’re only talking about a good sized pig out of five deer.” Considering the fact that the hunting season opens November 20 and closes December 21, John can hunt enough in a small, permissible amount of time to supply enough meat for his family until the calendar flips to November again. Remember, the Seneca could hunt all year.
Hunting in the twenty first century bears some similarity to hunting to centuries past, but there are quite a few, remarkable differences. For instance, the Seneca did not have a Gander Mountain to supply them with sleek, perfectly honed broad heads, barrels, and bullets, all with price tags declaring small fortunes. Nor did they have to wade through the bureaucratic quagmire of training courses, permits, regulations, and leases. Hunting of yore was quite simple and unbounded, while the hunting of today seems to accrue much time and money before you can even climb into the deer stand. And if you are hunting by principle of subsistence instead of sport, is it even economical anymore? It can be, if you are willing to take more responsibility for the processes that transform ‘dead deer’ into ‘delicious burger on the Char-Broil’. In addition to hunting his own animals, John processes his own animals, avoiding many production costs that are factored into the final market price of the meat you buy in a grocery store. Even though consumers of sliced sandwich ham, for instance, never touch the animal before its viscera is squeezed into plastic wrap, they are still paying for the slaughter, processing, packaging, and transport, which John does by himself for a marginal cost. “To butcher [five deer] and put it in the freezer, it is probably fifty to a hundred dollars out of my pocket,” John stated. “You have to buy the bags, and you have to buy the spices. I also buy pork to add to the grind to make it sticky….If you put a value on the venison per pound, if you tried to buy it somewhere, it is twenty to thirty dollars a pound. You don’t think of it, but it is a high end meat; a specialty meat. We put away close to two-hundred pounds [last year]….Most guys charge, depending on what you are giving them, sixty to a hundred dollars to butcher one deer. That is not including the sausage or stuff like that. The family that I started hunting with butchered their own deer, and I learned [from them].” By inheriting the knowledge of hunting and butchering from family and fellow hunters, John directly gleans his meals from nearby wetlands without having to drive to a grocery. And venison, of course, cannot even be compared to anything you can find in the meat aisle.
However, as unabated population growth continues to alter and destroy local landscapes and wild tracts of land that preserve ecological diversity, cultural diversity atrophies as well. Undeveloped open spaces, especially wetlands and woodlands, are not only necessary for healthy ecosystems; they are sanctuaries of local culture. These places offer a place to enjoy freedoms that subdivisions and private property cannot; rivers to paddle, wildlife to photograph, game to hunt, birds to watch…the list is unending. The diversity of utility in open places facilitates Chili’s diversity of thought and perspective, which are essential components in the foundation of Chili’s character. An ecosystem with only one or two species cannot function; likewise, a town with only suburbs and parking lots is trapped in precarious monotony, doomed if you will. Unfortunately, many people in Chili are either ignorant of, or opposed to the protection of healthy wetland ecosystems, which makes it much harder for John and other hunters to pursue their passion. Without wetlands, you will not have turkey and deer, as well as thousands of other species that we love and sometimes rely on. “It’s not like they’re wasted space, there is all kinds of life in it,” John asserted. “You need them for cleaning the water you drink….Even the Green Way down here, you got that canal through there, there is all kinds of turtles, muskrats, ducks, and all kinds of birds….[Most people think] they’re just wastelands, there is only a few [who don’t]. Your hunters know that they are worth something, and maybe some of your environmentalists. People don’t care. They don’t know. [They feel that] ‘as long as my brush is picked up and my streets are plowed, what else is there to care about’? It’s a sad truth, but that’s the way it is.” Is it the only way though? Can we work for new truths that will create a healthy balance between the people and the environment? There are possibilities.
Interestingly enough, not only is John a hunter, he is also a hunter safety instructor, a position he willingly volunteers for in order to ensure that the spirit of hunting is passed to future generations. Even though the land is disappearing, and the hunting community is waning, John is the living link between the Seneca hunters and today’s youth. “I think it has been declining, but the classes that we teach are full; it is on an incline,” John described to me. It’s whether they stick with it, since [the classes] are mostly kids. The problem is private property. People start buying it up and posting it, and they don’t let anyone on it….It’s tough to find a piece of property.” Private property, coupled with subdivision and fragmentation, is an anathema to the hunting community in Chili. But there are also solutions. South Chili is replete with open space, and it is quite feasible for the hunting community to partner with large land owners, especially since most of the large land owners are farmers who lose a percentage of their crops to wildlife every year. In addition, large, public open spaces could consider limited hunting access in order to broaden the available range for hunters – the deer population has certainly expanded theirs. Letchworth State Park has allowed hunting for quite some time now, and it would not be unreasonable to allow hunters into other public spaces, with strict conditions of course. But whether or not these particular solutions are considered, we must not forget that our culture depends on hunting, and hunting is inextricable from diverse open spaces. The spirit of the hunter should always have a place in Chili’s identity, for the hunter’s insights enhance the value of untrammeled open space and wildlife.
“I value [wildlife] differently than they do. I look at it and its dinner, and someone else may say ‘oh, it’s pretty’. [Deer] are a beautiful animal, but that is the difference. It’s pretty until it’s in your backyard eating all your flowers, then it’s a pain in the butt. But that’s the kind of people you will deal with; either hunting it, or looking at it, or [saying] ‘it’s just something my car will hit’.