NEW YORK — Driving back from Sunset Beach, North Carolina, where we spend two weeks every summer, we hugged the coastline. After crossing the 40-kilometer Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, we stopped for the first time at the Visitors Center for the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge. The center turned out to be more like a museum, with several exhibits. One, with some blown-up old photos, was arrestingly called “The Outlaw Gunner.”
No, the display was not about a soldier run amok, as I learned soon enough. “Gunner” here is the same as “hunter,” and the story is the wholesale slaughter of wildfowl via the “mass production methods” that were practiced around Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries even after the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 made them illegal.
“The Outlaw Gunner,” by Harry M. Walsh, M.D., which the visitor’s center carried for sale, details the weapons and other devices that “market gunners” — those engaged in mass killing for a living — had at their disposal. Central to this practice was “the fowling piece” or the gun. There were a range of pieces: swivel gun, punt gun, battery gun, etc., and what was simply called “the big gun.”
How big was the big gun? A list of “names and addresses of owners of big guns in the vicinity of Susquehanna Flats, Maryland,” dated Jan. 1, 1914, which Walsh reproduces in his book, notes: “These guns are all about the same weight (45 to 57 kilograms); length (3.7 meters); bore diameter of 1 to 2 inches.” No wonder each gun required a special skiff or rig.
Walsh shows a photo of an old market gunner, “Sam Armstrong” of Delaware City, who referred to the big gun as his headache gun because he said, according to Walsh, that “he took two aspirins before and after firing.”
A skiff whose bow was equipped with a three- to seven-barrel battery gun must have been as deadly as a miniaturized battleship. Not that a regular gun was ineffective. Walsh shows a photo of former market gunner “Atley Lankford,” of Elliott Island, Maryland, with his model 11 Remington automatic, “which has killed over 35,000 ducks.” (Not a typo.)
Walsh wrote his book in the late 1960s, when the consequences of the ill treatment of nature were quickly coming to the fore. So, one aim in writing about outlaw gunners, he said, was to plead for an end to “the slaughter we have brought about.”
As someone who once “apprenticed” for a former market gunner, Walsh could not hide his nostalgia for “the good old days” when unchecked mass killings were “a way of life.” Indeed, he sounds a little forced when he argues that such slaughter was an economic necessity — a way of helping “to feed a hungry America that was living off the land.”
A good part of it must have been our killing instinct. Vice President Dick Cheney’s occasional gunning sprees suggest that, as does “Seashore Chronicles” by Brooks Barnes and Barry Truitt (1997), another book I bought at the visitor’s center.
A collection of writings about the Virginia Barrier Islands from 1650 — when Henry Norwood, the “treasurer” of Virginia, wrote an account — to the early 1990s, the book gives ample glimpses into the “way of life” Walsh had in mind all right, but also one in which people killed, regardless of need.
For example, an appropriately named writer, “Alexander Hunter” (1843-1914), a frequent visitor to the island resorts, described how he went hunting one morning on the shore of Cobb’s Island. It was Christmas 1895 when “earth, air and water harmonized in one grand anthem in honor of the Nativity.”
“On this sandbank the snipe were feeding in countless numbers, and I was not exaggerating when I say the bar running into the sea was so thick with them that there was not a bare spot discernible. Creeping up on my hands and knees to within forty yards, I sighted along the fluttering mosaic-looking ground and pulled trigger. A long swath of dead and dying marked the track of the shot.”
After gathering up the dead snipe into “great heaps,” he was ready for “further sport,” but his guide distracted him for the greater “thrill” of killing brant.
The visitor’s center lists snipe as “uncommon” today. Brant are “common” only in winter, but “common” just means that the bird is “likely to be seen or heard in suitable habitat.”
On Sunset Beach, N.C., a barrier island that turned into a developers’ dreamland in the 1970s, no wildfowling is possible. There are too few birds. Aside from gulls and grackles and, yes, brown pelicans, the only bird that forms a sizable flock is the ibis, at least during the time of summer that we are there. Sandpipers, plovers and curlews are so few they always look like stragglers.
Still, our killer mind never rests, even in the kind of inlet Sunset Beach forms. Each year more people are out to catch minnows for bait. Each year we see schools of minnows break the surface of the water less often. Kingfishers and herons and egrets fly in for them less often.
Sunday, Aug. 24, was our last day. In the morning I kayaked out of the canal into the inlet for the summer’s farewell. The tide was low and some of the sandbanks were out of water. Several men were already out casting nets. Several were fishing with poles.
On one sandbank a Great Blue Heron, the ever-wary bird that prefers camouflage, strutted on its spindly legs, uncertain, lost.
Translator and essayist Hiroaki Sato’s most recent book is “Japanese Women Poets: An Anthology.”