“My feeling is, if you can’t catch your dinner in a swamp, you’re probably too stupid to live.”
The village of Jeffersonville sits at the western edge of New York state about eight miles from the Pennsylvania border. With its population of 350, this small hamlet is nestled among the northern hardwood forests and dairy farms between the Delaware River and the Catskill mountains. This is folk country. Farmer-folk, town-folk, good Christian folk and even some lefty liberal-folk coexist together to preserve their way of life and keep the tiny economy of the area limping along. Everybody hunts around here. Hunting is a heritage and a rite of passage. Like any entrenched cultural tradition, hunting in this area comes with its own set of values, routines, and norms. But, clearly, Joseph Frye isn’t from around here.
The one-hundred-year-old farm house on the outskirts of town is a homestead for Joseph and his wife Nuneh. They live here with his two sons by a previous marriage and their three cats. To the side of the house, a large garden lies dormant in the November frost, but a greenhouse out back still provides produce for the family.
Nuneh greets me at the door. She’s welcoming and far along in her pregnancy with their first child. It’s lunchtime and the piquant scent of venison chili drifts through the house. I’m invited for lunch and I readily accept. As we sit around the kitchen counter eating bowls of chili, I ask Joseph about his work. Joseph is a bowyer and a fletcher. These terms, which used to need no explanation, mean that he is a maker of bows and arrows. He makes simple handmade wooden bows from hickory, oak, maple, Osage and bamboo. He also makes hand-fletched arrows, glass knives, leather quivers and other hand tooled leather pieces.
Hunting for food with handmade weapons is Joseph’s cultural tradition. “I grew up what you call southern poor,” he says. “That’s a kind of poor that you just don’t have around here. We got to eat one meal a day because it was provided by the government but anything else we wanted, we had to catch in the swamp. Now, there are a ton of good things to eat in a swamp. My feeling is, if you can’t catch your dinner in a swamp, you’re probably too stupid to live. I started catching frogs with sticks when I was young, but I guess I just naturally gravitated to a bow because it extended my range.”
Lunch is over and the table cleared. Joseph and I are going hunting. This is what I’ve come for. Once we enter the forest, Joseph comes alive. He didn’t say much at the house, but now he seems eager to share his knowledge and philosophy. He tells me that he’ll have to get within twenty yards of a deer to be able to kill it with an arrow. The challenge is in tracking and outmaneuvering the animal; getting close enough to take the shot. Animals are just like humans, he tells me. They’ll always follow the path of least resistance. When you find a well-worn path in the woods, you’ll find all the animals following that path. He calls in the superhighway in the forest. Suddenly, Joseph stiffens upright and inhales a heavy stream of forest air into his nostrils. He’s using sound and scent as his primary senses in the woods.
He notches an arrow and we travel on down a faint trail of matted fall leaves and broken twigs that only Joseph can see. We continue talking softly as Joseph scans the forest for his prey.
RA: When did you start hunting?
JF: I grew up hunting in the swamps to help feed myself and my brothers and sisters. We didn’t have a car but the landlord did. If we wanted a ride into town to go to the grocery store, he would take half of our welfare money for that. So instead of having one hundred dollars a month, we had 50 dollars a month to feed three kids. So, that whole capitalist system just didn’t work for us. We tried to grow what we could, but really it was hunting and fishing that enabled us to survive.
To me, hunting is just how you take care of your family. That’s what I learned. Even if you don’t have a five-figure income, you are responsible for yourself and for your family. That’s what you do. At this point in my life do I have to hunt for economic reasons? No. I could shop at Walmart, but I don’t want to. I could buy meat at the grocery store, but it doesn’t taste right to me.
It’s too full of hormones from the feed it’s given that’s grown from GMO seed and then sprayed with all kinds of pesticides. I grew up eating mostly wild meat…. I guess I’m just sensitive to the taste now.
RA: What do you want to teach your kids?
JF: Above all, I want my sons to be warrior poets. Not just warriors — warrior poets. Warriors are a dime a dozen, anybody can pick up a gun and go out and shoot. But, to understand that violence is not always the answer, that takes a higher level of thinking. I believe that violence should only be the solution of last resort. But, if you do have to resort to violence… you should be VERY good at it.
RA: That seems a little menacing.
JF: I do have an anger problem. I didn’t use to be like that. I didn’t get like that until I was in law enforcement. Before I was in law enforcement, I was a bartender. I was around people all the time, but after 10 years of seeing the bad things that people will do to each other, I just lost all faith in humanity. It took me a long time to trust anyone again.
RA: Do you believe in God?
JF: I’m an Odinist. I follow the old gods, particularly the Norse gods. The Norse gods never ask anybody to kneel, they believe in protecting hearth and home. You always protect your village, and you always protect your family. When I was young and going to a Christian church I always said I didn’t want anyone telling me what to believe. I wanted to read it for myself and make up my own mind. So, I got beat a lot for being a heretic. The more they beat me into being a Christian, the more they turned me away from it. Don’t get me wrong, there are some good Christians out there, I know. But, it’s just not my path. I’m not a “get on your knees and bow” kind of guy. A God of peace and love is not my kinda God.
RA: What do you want people to know about you?
JF: I believe that while we are on this earth we should give back what we take from it. That’s why I like to teach a class on woodland skills to anyone that is interested. I teach people to get into the woods, to enjoy the woods. Because if they’re not out there, they won’t enjoy it. I’m teaching people to be the conservationists of the future. No conservationists… means no woods.