The May/June 2013 issue of Orion contains “Trapline,” an essay by David Treuer about his search for a skill—beaver trapping—which, after a childhood in Minnesota’s Leach Lake Reservation, holds a special spot in his sense of heritage and place. Here’s David on his time in the Canadian taiga, the origin of his essay, and the particular numbness of a trapper’s hands.
The experience you write about in “Trapline” takes place in northwestern Ontario, in the Canadian taiga. That’s a place not many people have visited—can you tell us a bit about what it’s like out there?
The boreal forest (or taiga) is my favorite landscape. It’s where I feel most at home. How can I describe something that is indescribably beautiful and varied? On one hand the boreal forest is the largest forest biome in the world, much larger than the Amazonian rainforest. It circles the globe—Canada, Alaska, Russia, Scandinavia. In Canada, where I spend a lot of time, the taiga is dominated by spruce and balsam, Precambrian granite, lakes, rivers, beaver ponds, swamps, and brush. In the summer travel by water is the only way to get around. The winter is much better for traveling since you can cross the ice.
It’s not what I would call a majestic landscape. There are few vistas. No mountains. When you are in it you are more or less either stuck in the trees or at water level. So while it’s not majestic it is intimate, vast, profound, and mostly quiet. No roads or cities, few towns. I’m kind of glad that not many people go there!
Growing up, you were exposed to the culture and practice of trapping animals. When did you begin to feel a desire to participate?
I did grow up around trappers but I cared more for Dungeons & Dragons and marching band (band geek!) while in high school. My yearning for the landscape and for activities tied to it (hunting, trapping, fishing) was born while I was far away, in college. I didn’t realize how important the place and the practices of my youth were to me until I couldn’t do them anymore. Trapping, in particular, became important when I moved back to Minnesota in the mid-1990s.
It’s funny, but I attached myself to trappers and trapping in the same way I had attached myself to writers and writing. I basically prostrated myself before the enormity of an activity, a calling, much larger than I was, practiced by people much more knowledgeable than I. In both cases—writing and trapping—humbling oneself can feel really good; to admit that you know nothing, that others know more, and to place yourself under their tutelage and at the mercy of their expertise…. It’s a great feeling.
I wanted to know what they knew. I wanted to hear the stories of their development. I wanted to become good at it in the ways they were. And to be good you have to go back and start at the beginning. Knife stroke by knife stroke. Hand movement by hand movement. Step by step. Just like writing: you have to start with the smallest, most unconscious steps of the process and make them conscious, relearn everything that is habitual and make it newly habitual.
Does this make sense? For writing—what words come? Why? What tense? When to use figurative language? How to make it smooth? As for trapping—how you walk, how you hold yourself, where you let your eyes go, how you touch things, why you touch them. From there you build. I find it exhilarating.
Walk us through the process of a trapping a beaver. What’s involved, mentally and physically? And what’s the difference between hunting and trapping?
What’s involved physically? Well, it depends on how you’re trapping. Is it early in the season, before the ice? Or after ice-over? Are you trapping houses? Or runs? Using body-grip traps or snares? Alongside roads and culverts or out in the bush?
But basically, you find where the beavers are going, and set a body-grip trap in their path—at beaver dams or lodges. Once you figure out where they are you secure your trap and usually submerge it with the hopes they swim through it, touch the trigger, and are killed. It is laborious. You cover many miles—often on foot—carrying traps, axe, wire, wire cutters, etc. The traps are heavy and the ground is uneven and clogged with sticks, trees, brush, and grass. Great exercise, really. Trappers are tough dudes.
Once you find a spot to put a trap you have to clear the channel or entrance but keep it looking natural. Nature is not clean and it’s not often convenient so you spend a lot of time with your hands in the water. You can’t wear gloves while setting body-grips a lot of the time because your wet gloves would freeze to the metal. So bare hands are the way to go. You are cutting, chopping, wiring, setting when it’s below zero. Trapper hands are cut, callused, strong, and more or less numb.
Hunting feels very different. Traps are, in a way, the trapper’s proxy, an extension of the trapper. But hunting—with rifle, shotgun, or bow—you see your prey, you watch it, you manipulate it and yourself into a position where you can shoot. It’s more immediate, more visual, but less intimate. More or less the difference between standing in front of a painting (where you take everything in at once, in one glance) and reading a book: where the meanings slowly accumulate, are constructed by the reader. Does this make sense?
Your time in the taiga stretches several years—the experiences you recount in this piece begin in 1996. When did it occur to you that you had an essay on your hands? Was there an experience, or an image, that pulled this piece of writing together for you?
My first visits to the taiga took place by the time I could walk. (Leech Lake, were I grew up, is just a few miles, really, from the southern edge of the taiga). I traveled there throughout my childhood—by canoe and car and motorboat. But I didn’t live or work or learn there till the 1990s.
As for writing about it? I’d wanted to write about it for years but I wasn’t sure to what end. I didn’t know what I wanted to say, I think, until recently. I didn’t know how to write a piece that communicated the beauty, the ruggedness, the intimacy, and the violence of the boreal forest until 2003, I suppose. That’s when trapping and my mother’s cancer more or less collided. And I felt, painfully, that she was the animal and the cancer was the trapper, and all I could do was watch the battle.
By the end of this piece, it’s clear that your feelings about trapping—and about hunting and killing, more generally—are complex. How have your feelings shifted or evolved since writing that piece? How have they evolved since you began trapping?
That’s a great question, but a tough question. I am more mature now and I suppose that changes things. I am less willing to push myself as hard as I did when I started. I am less interested in success, whatever that means.
I think I am more interested in the animals than I am in the process of trapping. More sentimental maybe? That could be because I have kids. I want them to hunt and trap (and they want to as well), but they also love animals, they respect animals. And they don’t quite get that loving them and respecting them doesn’t mean that you don’t necessarily not kill them; they don’t quite understand that killing necessarily entails a lack of compassion or caring.
So when I trap and hunt now, even if my kids aren’t with me, I hear them and see them, as though they were looking over my shoulder all the time. That’s bound to affect my perspective. Right?
David’s essay in the May/June 2013 issue of Orion is available in print and digital editions; go ahead, subscribe!