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Column: Wrestling with paradoxes

  • Shawn Braley illustration

  • Jon Stableford. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 1/11/2020 10:20:53 PM
Modified: 1/11/2020 10:20:11 PM

A couple of months ago, as I re-organized my garden shed for the winter, I uncovered an old galvanized pail. Nearly three decades had passed since the day I spotted it on an outdoor table, ventilated with bullet holes. At the time I recognized this as the work of my teenage son with his .22 at a time before the judgment part of his brain was fully developed, and even now I remember the bitter taste in my mouth for the waste.

Beyond that, I remember my frustration because months had passed between my son’s target practice and my discovery, far too long for a meaningful discussion. But even more vividly, I remember how quickly my disgust vanished when I recalled my father’s face the day he confronted me with the mischief I had wreaked with my BB gun in the musty cellar of our rented home.

Today these events are so far in the past that they are more sentimental for me than upsetting.

As I took the pail from my shed and tried to imagine a use for it, I thought of how often this happens to me — a moment of clarity as one truth suddenly gives way to another when I see it from a different vantage point. If the issue is minor, ethical confusion can be interesting and amusing, but the serious ones can be dark and troubling with metaphysical irony.

Virtually every landmark or institution in our nation stands on land stolen from indigenous people, even our national parks. Our Capitol and White House, these pristine symbols of democracy, were built at least in part with slave labor. We as a people love reason and the rule of law, but then we read the Second Amendment to justify shooting someone who threatens us. Allies become enemies and enemies friends, all with an election decided by a few votes. The Bible tells us we are the keepers of the Earth, but we take this as license to plunder and destroy.

I began on a lighter note, and prefer the paradoxes closer to home that tie me in knots.

While I try to manage my carbon footprint with the planet in mind, I wonder if the solar panels on our house fully compensate for the emissions from the diesel truck I have been driving sparingly for the past 20 years. Do the acres of forest on our land sequester all the carbon released by our wood stoves? And is it OK to spoil our grandchildren when we know their parents have to play tough cop at home?

When they were growing up, my children watched me wrestle with these ironies. When they were in grade school and we were just summer residents, I built a rough chicken house and bought a dozen laying hens a little past their prime. It was to be a family operation in which they could help with the feeding and collection of eggs, and it went well until one August day when a fox killed two of our birds in broad daylight.

As the head of this animal estate, my responsibility was to protect our flock. I borrowed a rifle (long before my son was old enough for his) and waited patiently for the fox to return.

The irony here is that we knew this fox. Earlier in the summer, when we drove up our road at twilight, we would see a mother and father with their kits on a pile of wood chips at the top of our hayfield, a Disney moment if there ever was one. Six weeks later, it would have been foolish to think the fox I waited for with murder in my eye had not come through the woods from our hayfield, but I blocked that thought from my mind. As it turned out, the fox was too wily for me. I kept my vigil for three days and then returned the rifle to its owner.

Guns and animals bring me to hunting season, a time each year when I am at odds with myself. I respect old traditions and the theory that hunting is good for the health of the herd. I know that hunters use venison to feed their families. But the wisdom of these abstractions melts away when I see deer near our house.

This year, four of them have been daily visitors — two does, each with a fawn — and some days they are joined by others under our apple trees. They look up when they sense our movement or hear our voices, and they cock their ears, but they know that we are no threat. Our dog doesn’t even frighten them.

One day in October I was at work with my wood-splitter, a machine so loud I need ear protection, and looked up to see a deer, not 50 yards away, nonchalantly grazing.

Our yard is a sanctuary, but these deer wander freely — some of them inevitably into the sights of hunters’ rifles.

I took the bullet-riddled pail from the garden shed, and now I use it to collect ashes from our wood stove. The holes are near the rim, the pail three-quarters good, and throughout the winter I will spread the ashes on the garden and grass around the house as fertilizer. Ashes leave such an unsightly smudge on snow that I immediately regret what I’ve done, but the good news is that the ugliness can be quickly erased by a two-minute squall.

And as for the bullet holes, to me they now look like a lesson in physics: smooth dimples on entry and ragged tears on the way out. The boy deep inside me imagines the dramatic ping! of each shot passing through.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.

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