Gentleman Bob and the Decline of the South

audubon quail

Coal miners have their canaries; we have colinus virginiánus, the bobwhite quail. Like the canary that goes silent as the oxygen levels in a mine drop, so too has the quail gone silent in large swaths of the South.

The decline of Gentleman Bob has been attributed to any number of factors. Wildlife biologists blame the loss and destruction of favorable habitat. Some point to diseases and parasites as the true ravagers of the quail. Myself, I lay the blame at a number of doors. The small farms with their hedgerows and weedy edges, where people, crops, and quail thrived have gone missing. As these habitats began to disappear, wildlife agencies began a curious love affair with such varmints as hawks, coyotes and wolves. The decline of trapping among the younger generation after the 1960s may have been celebrated heartily in many a fox den, PETA den, and raccoon nest, but not so much by Gentleman Bob who now had more worries to add to his list. Loss of habitat, the ever expanding suburban savannah and its 1” putting green lawns, and game laws that favored predators over prey have left Gentlemen Bob in a bad way.

Well, too bad for Gentlemen Bob you might say, and if you are truly enlightened you might also think too bad for the men and women who hunt quail and the dogs they follow in the field. But what exactly, you might ask, has this to with the state of things in Dixie? Well, much dear reader.

You see, Gentlemen Bob thrives where country people thrive. By thrive I do not mean $40,000 pick-up trucks that haul one person and some air in the back. Nor do I mean satellite TV, vacations to Maui, or a lifetime supply of Doritos and Viagra. I do mean the ownership and good stewardship of land in such a fashion as to provide a sufficiency for the people who derive their livelihood from it, and a surplus to aid posterity and the less fortunate. I also mean the fostering of independence over false security, charity over materialism, stewardship over exploitation.

Since the end of the Late Unpleasantness, the farmer in the South, and his brethren elsewhere have struggled with the prevailing trends in finance, demographics, and politics that have subordinated his avocation to the mores and methods of finance, industry, and biotechnology. Truth be told, the farmer has also to struggle with his own concupiscence, as do we all, the attractions of greed, lust, and ambition, even as these vices are dignified as virtues in our progressive and enlightened culture.

The destruction of the family farm was given a major boost by the Republican party during the administration of Richard M. Nixon. Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz (in some quarters pronounced “Butt-Head”) told farmers to “get big or get out.” In Butz’s wise view, federal subsidies to American family farmers encouraged inefficient production and created a moral hazard that could best be rectified by diverting these subsidies to Archer Daniel Midlands, Purina, Monsanto, and an assortment of large factory farm operations. Heaven forbid that we might do away with the subsidies all together and find better ways to farm. All of the above corporations, of course, have been bearers of nothing but virtue, light and goodness, or so say their public relations offices.

So family farms grew to be few in number, the hedgerows were destroyed, topsoil eroded, and gone too are all but the last remnants of the self-sufficient, independent citizenry that once flourished upon the country’s agriculture. Of course, the republican society that once flourished on the foundation on widely distributed property with its hallmarks of civility, manners, and hospitality has all but vanished as well. And Gentleman Bob is rarely heard in his former haunts on a June morning.

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3 thoughts on “Gentleman Bob and the Decline of the South

  1. One of the delicious terrors of boyhood was walking through the woods alone and stumbling upon a covey of quail. The ground before you seems to erupt thundering wings.

  2. Mr. Devanny,

    One of the delights of my boyhood was the hunt for the bobwhite, Gentleman Bob as you call him in your climes. There were no quail farms just as there were no catfish farms in those days. Quail lived in the numerous sage patches, themselves dotted with briar patches which harbored another supper critter the cottontail; and catfish lived in creeks. We hunted for food, anticipating even before the gathered our ammunition the smell of the biscuits which would accompany the quail with gravy along with rice and greens. My father’s rule was that we would never kill more than we would eat for supper and that only a few birds could be taken from any one covey. We did not have a “bird dog” as such. On most quail hunts like on most squirrel hunts, our old dog “Snow” would accompany us. He would not sit or point; but he would retrieve, gently bringing every felled bird to us. We lived in the woods, near one of the sage patches which we hunted. When we were not hunting, we were listening. We loved to listen to the calls an the counter calls. Often as the son went westerly as the old folks used to say, I would climb the wisteria vine which wound its way to the top of a lob-lolly pine which grew next to the smokehouse, a pine near eighty feet tall. There I would perch on the vine among the limbs and needles of the pine and listen for the quail; some times come April, for the whippoorwills.

    We could hunt the sage patches and the fence rows because until constitutional reform in Louisiana in the 1970’s all land was part of a commons which a boy and a dog could transit, could forage, could fish and could hunt. Once the constitution was changed, boys and dogs became trespassers. The sage patches and fence rows, unless owned or leased became off limits.

    Wild quail are all but gone in Louisiana. Birds are slaughtered, cleaned and sold commercially to restaurants and some meat marks; and there are private lands on which quail are cultivated and made available for the hunt for a price per gun. The old timers used to say, the old timers being mostly gone save for those of us who are with age becoming the new old timers, that the coming of the armadillos started the decline. Some claim that the coming of the fire ants to Louisiana about 1963 accelerated the demise of the quail. Of course, the sage patches and the fence rows of the old yeoman farms are gone as in Virginia. But then, not only are the birds gone but also the commons which invited fathers and sons to go get supper. Now, in the South, what is left of it, “supper” – that intimate word which at the vesper hour as one said grace suggested communion and reflection on our Lord’s promise that when He knocked and the door was open, He would come in an sup with us – is banished and has been replaced by “dinner,” once served to hunger farmers and farm boys at high noon, Gary Cooper Time, which in its turn has been replaced by that institutional term “lunch.” My grandchildren have never heard a bobwhite in the wild, never, I suppose in any environment. Since quail are birds, we might use to explain their absence that metaphor which applies to so many things Southern: they are gone with the wind!

  3. My good friend and I as we entered our early teens used to possum hunt and coon hunt, at night with a lantern, with the globe painted to that it would spot. One of our favorite places to stop for the food, at about the turn-around point, was the Old Stuckey Cemetery at the Old Stuckey Place, located on a gentle but thickly wooded slope which led down to Sandy Creek. There in the cemetery, long abandoned with sinking and tipped tombstones and a rusting iron fence partially covered by hears of rotted and rotting leave, we would sit on the big roots of a wizened cedar tree which stood sentinel over the dead and eat and drink and tell stories until our senses told us that it was time to make the hour’s trek back home. On one such occasion, not the last time but almost the last time we settled into the cemetery for our repast, we, with me in the lead, having entered the cemetery, closed the distance to the cedar tree. A few feet from the tree, in a grassy area among the tombstones, I stepped into the middle of a sleeping covey of quail. At their rise, wings actually brushing me in the process, I thought to have awakened all of the ghosts in the cemetery and was so terrified at the moment, that I thew my gun one direction and the lantern another, setting the grass on fire. In a state of terror and anxiety we beat the flames out with our coats. We each had flashlights. Once we finally realized and understood what had happened, we began to laugh at ourselves. We managed to eat and drink what we had brought. We made a covenant not to tell the story since we wanted to continue to present ourselves as fearless teenage night hunters, at least not tell it until our reputations sturdy and fearless lads, particularly in front of girls, required it. The sturdy and fearless lads are gone, and the girls don’t care anymore, so the story is being told, not at all for the first time, but for the first time in print!

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