Public Spaces

Whenever I look back on my childhood one of the things I am most grateful for is that my father owned a little bit of land and had good relations with his neighbors who owned quite a bit more. All together this meant the Dwyer children had access to about 400 acres of woods and fields. It was one hell of a playground.

I grew up hunting on our property, first rabbits, then squirrels and deer. It seemed like enough until I was in high school and made friends with classmates that also hunted but didn’t have access to private land like I did. By necessity they hunted on public land and it was through them that I learned there were not just hundreds but thousands of acres we could hunt if we were willing to make the drive.

As young adults often do we kept odd hours during those years, which meant we could often hunt on weekdays. There were many afternoons when we would have huge expanses of land to ourselves and at times it felt like it was our own personal hunting preserve. We rarely ever had to deal with other hunters and so we became spoiled in a way I would not realize until years later.

When our eagerness to test new places took us farther and farther from Louisville we found ourselves on unfamiliar public land that was not as quiet as our wildlife management areas back home. It was then that we started having experiences that changed my view of public land hunting once again. We would slog into a prime duck spot hours before sunrise, only to have other hunters show up at the last minute and set up just a few yards away with no apologies. I had a father and son walk right through my turkey spot and actually nod to me as they passed by. It was frustrating and the only reason we didn’t have any altercations was because we showed remarkable restraint for 20 year-olds.

In recent years my career has caused me to join the ranks of weekend warriors and now I find myself on public land that is sometimes too crowded to tolerate. I have had several mornings where I got up early only to cut my hunt short when someone showed up and started marching through the woods like Redcoats and ruined my stalk on an animal. Just a couple of months ago my nephew and I were standing at the truck loading our rifles and an older gentlemen pulled in, hopped out and trotted off into the spot we had planned to hunt without a word of greeting. Maddening.

It is has been said of Kentuckians that the land is our birthright. I believe this is true and for that reason I never make a fuss when my fellow outdoorsmen forget their manners. We are all stewards of nature and so long as it is not being abused, I can tolerate a lot. Besides, I am one of the lucky ones. I have plenty of private land to hunt on as well and hunting in public spaces is something I only do occasionally. For others this is all they have and perhaps this makes them a bit overzealous. Or at least this is what I tell myself.

To make a larger analogy, there are other public spaces where we see a similar dynamic. Places like parks, town squares and city streets. Those can also be abused. We hear about the political rally for a cause we don’t agree with or someone erecting a religious display that seems to violate our Constitutional rules and we demand they honor some silent pact to only use those spaces respectfully. But one man’s respect is another man’s oppression. I think that too often we are claiming harm simply because we feel entitled to these physical locations and hold them sacred. In some sense they are but they are also the best places to practice a tolerance worthy of hallowed ground.

Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. He is also active on Facebook and Twitter. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky

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29 thoughts on “Public Spaces

  1. I grew up hunting..on private land. The rancher sold hunting permits to his property at a very cheap price. On 50K acres, we provided cheap “anti rustling” insurance. Everyone’s car was know and strangers were checked out. I’d expect few rustlers would want to stay around when a few guys with rifles showed up asking questions. When I moved to the east, I couldn’t adapt to the higher density, and frankly, the number of idiots. That and I just don’t really understand tree stand hunting. Seems unsportsmanlike.

    I’ve never really had an issue with folks using the public square. You want to put up a display during xmas, fine. As long as it’s tastefull. You want to protest that? Fine. Be polite and don’t block the streets during rush hour and we’ll all get along nicely…..

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  2. Mike,

    Overall, I agree with your post, but I quibble this part.
    We hear about….someone erecting a religious display that seems to violate our Constitutional rules and we demand they honor some silent pact to only use those spaces respectfully. But one man’s respect is another man’s oppression.

    I don’t think that example works well. We have pretty clearly defined rules on that. A public space can be used for religious displays, but then it must be a limited public forum, where other religious displays, from other religions, can also be set up. If the relevant governing body doesn’t want it to be a limited public forum, then there can be no religious display. To say, “You have to respect my desire to put up a religious display on public space, but desiring to put up your own is oppressive to me” does not work. The emphasis on respect goes both ways.

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      • “Which laid out pretty explicitly the relationship between public spaces and expressions of faith.”

        The Constitution is (sometimes maddeningly) concise, but it’s not explicit. Congress can’t establish a religion, nor prohibit people from freely exercising their own. (and due to (correct) court interpretation, this has been extended to governments at all levels)

        Private citizens putting creches and fsm noodles in the plaza is exactly at the space in the middle. In most ways, it’s no different than wanting to put food trucks around the plaza. Where it does get dicey is when the city or state governments are actively involved, and/or there are several competing and mutually exclusive claims on the public space.

        I mean, it’s pretty clear to me that hauling around one of those trailer billboard signs that said ‘God is Totes McGotes’ is an expression of faith public spaces totes legit under several aspects of the first amendment.

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      • Kazzy,

        I don’t think it is that clear which is why these kinds of cases end up in front of the Supreme Court with semi-regularity. The analogy I wanted to make here was that there are a lot of unspoken pacts between the people who use public spaces. For example, most of the people I run into while hunting public land play by the same rules I do. A few misguided individuals have a different idea of how they should behave. Their actions do not violate any kind of written rule, but they violate several unwritten ones. Still, I believe we have to let those actions pass because that is the true spirit of public spaces.

        In places like town squares, a satanist display next to a nativity may be perfectly legal, but it makes many of uncomfortable. In much the same way though, discomfort or not, I believe we have to let those things stand so long as they are still legal.

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      • My confusion, . Ya know, as I started to read this piece, I actually wondered, “How the hell do hunters avoid shooting each other?” I know some where orange or other easily identified clothing, but I also know some go full camo, up to and including “gully suits”. It seems like a recipe for disaster. And maybe they do shoot each other and we just don’t hear about it. But it would seem that some established norms for behavior and the like would be important.

        The question really is: How are these communicated? Do those guys who walked right across your perch — are they adhering to a different norm? Or are they just clueless? If they are clueless, how do you/we clue them in?

        This is why I tend to frown upon “unspoken agreements” or “silent pacts”. Perhaps my work with young children has biased me, but unless things are explicitly laid out, it is hard to expect or demand compliance. We do this in some ways but not in others. Presumably, the space where the religious displays are set up are understood to be off-limits to hunter (I sure hope they are, regardless of my feelings on religious displays on public property). Similarly, the spaces where hunters hunt are understood to be off-limits for religious displays (if only to avoid the baby Jesus ending up in the crossfire).

        But we don’t always do this. So we end up with all the tricky cases we see today. Should a town council meeting start with a prayer? Well, given the purpose of a town council, it seems inappropriate. But can a public park — where people are invited to convene and connect in a peaceful and respectful manner — be a place where like-minded individuals opt to pray together? Sure.

        So, I would advocate that we first seek to better define the purposes of these various spaces. This space is for hunting and that space is for group gatherings and over there is where the laws get made. Then the hunters can follow the rules for hunting and the group gatherers can follow the rules for group gatherings and the law makers can follow the ru… oh, fuck it… they’re just going to do whatever the hell they want anyway.

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      • Kazzy,

        In KY (and in most states) you are required to take a hunter safety class before you can start hunting. In those classes they cover things like making sure you are actually shooting at an animal and in a safe direction. This helps a lot but of course every year that are many stories about hunters shooting one another.

        The kinds of ‘violations’ I see are more to do with no giving someone adequate space. My local WMA is divided into numbered tracts and my rule is that if I see a car parked at one I go to another one. Other hunters will just march right in. My worst story was one time where I parked in an empty parking area, hunted for a few hours without seeing anyone, and then left. When I returned to my car there were 12 other cars parked there. That was an eery feeling.

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      • The hunting class sounds like a good idea. And, come to think of it, the only close friend I have who does hunt (in MD) has mentioned something similar. If I remember correctly, he also spoke about not only a limit on permits available, but also permits only being offered for select days. There is a distribution system of sorts (Lottery? First come, first served? I’m not sure…) and you put in for your preferred dates. This, I assume, is to limit what you describe. It would seem to be a method of standardizing against unspoken agreements which not everyone agrees to follow. Of course, it wouldn’t shock me to learn that Maryland is more regulated than Kentucky, given what I know about the states more generally.

        I imagine that the knowledge that there are more people than one can see in their area when hunting could be a rather disheartening feeling, perhaps to the point of robbing you of the enjoyment. I also imagine that learning after the fact that your presumably human-free area was in fact crawling with people could be all the more unsettling.

        Nothing will guarantee that a hunter never gets shot by a fellow outdoorsman. But surely there are reasonable steps that can be taken to make it less likely that don’t detract from the quality of the hunting.

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      • A lot of states use a lottery system or ‘first come, first use’ system for hunting areas but KY has resisted this. There is a public dove field near me that I tried to use one time. It is 40 acres and I was told that the limit is 2 hunters per acre. So that’s right, potentially 80 hunters ringing around one field blasting away. Needless to say I chose to go back home.

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    • I’m with you then. At least most of the way. I’d prefer no religious displays at all, so it doesn’t appear the government is endorsing religion (there is a certain nervousness for non-religious folks about second class status). But I don’t get too worked up about it as long as it’s not exclusive, especially since atheist and “freethinker” (I really hate that term; it’s so supercilious) are getting into the game, so that non and anti-religious displays can go up, too. A baby Jesus next to a sign that says “Embrace the Enlightenment” is more likely to make me smile than to upset me.

      But I don’t think those who want an absolute ban on religious displays in public are a very numerous group.

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  3. This is the case which Prof. Aitch cited. It’s right on point for the discussion concerning laws that look neutral on their face but which are in reality aimed at prohibiting a particular church from doing a particular thing. In this case, live animal sacrifice, which is generally not considered a very nice thing by most folks. But maybe in the future it won’t be live animal sacrifice but something you might like better, perhaps a bris, or chanting and live music during ceremonies, or even playing the church’s carillon.

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