What Photographing a Father-Son Hunt Taught Me About Manhood
A photographer follows an 11-year-old boy and his dad on the trail of wild boar in the deep woods of Arkansas.
Text and Photographs by Pete Muller
It was not until the hog bolted, snarling and afraid, that I realized the extent of my vulnerability. According to the plan, the 230-pound pig was to be “bayed” by a small but adept pack of hounds until pit bulls and, later, knife-wielding hunters arrived on the scene. But when humans and dogs and wild pigs endeavor to survive one another, plans can turn to hopeful outlines.
Until that point, I had pursued the melee deep into the wooded banks of the Mississippi River with an irrational belief that, despite the prospect of danger, I had little to fear. But as the boar dashed in my direction, my heartbeat skyrocketed and my hands began to tremble and sweat. I spun around desperately looking for men with knives and grit and experience. Not one was in sight. I saw only Drew Moore, a slender, unarmed, 11-year-old boy. I figured he’d be of little help.
“What the hell do we do if it comes at us?” I yelled. Drew barked in a tone that implied my question was stupid and the answer obvious: “You better get up a tree!” His cheeks were flushed and his eyes narrowed as he scanned our surroundings. The sounds of the hog drew closer but it remained shrouded in thick brush. I surveyed the available trees; all were thin and virtually limbless. I noticed, though, that Drew had chosen a trunk, and his hand rested loosely on it as he continued to search for signs of the advancing boar.
And then, suddenly, it dashed into view a few feet from us. It was large, muscular—and alarmingly agile. Close behind it came three frenzied hounds, barking and nipping at the animal’s hind legs. If I hadn’t been so scared I would have laughed. It looked like a cartoon fight, a swirling ball of dust with hoof or snout popping out and disappearing again.
The whirlwind flew past, leaving us alone again. I glanced at Drew, who appeared heartily amused to see a man 25 years his senior quaking in his boots. “Can you really get up one of those trees?” I asked as we began to chase after the bedlam. “Mister Pete,” he said, “if a hog’s comin’ at me, I’ll get up a tree a squirrel couldn’t get up.” He hurried his pace and took the lead, ducking branches and thickets, with me stumbling along behind.
With distance and time to reflect on that day, I think about our evolutionary trajectory. We humans were once weaponless—defenseless against larger, faster, stronger predators. Some anthropologists say that our need for food along with our susceptibility to danger gave rise not only to the invention of weapons but to the highly social structures and gender roles of humankind today.
I traveled to the Mississippi-Arkansas border to participate in an experience that has remained a pillar of masculinity across cultures and places. Throughout history and literature boar hunting has been associated with the most venerable warriors, among them the mythologized Greek chieftains who fought at Troy. Thousands of years later, on the banks of the Mississippi, men of the American South (and now women too, of course) hunt hogs in much the same way as their ancestors did: in small bands, with dogs and knives. Now, as then, they take no more than they need—and all the meat ends up on the family table.