Exploring the gap between what we eat and where we get it.

Starve-Proof: Jonathan Wilkins on Hunting, Resiliency, and Black Duck Revival

• Swinging hammers, digging holes

• The romance of cracked hands

• Squirrel hunting is upland hunting

After talking with Jonathan Wilkins, founder of Black Duck Revival, I came to the realization that he doesn’t see the world like most people, at least people nowadays. His observations are both down-to-earth and profound. Take, for example, his description of why he loves waterfowling:

“What draws me to it is the more romantic aspects of the pursuit—learning to be happy when you're physically uncomfortable, dealing with cold and wet, and cracked hands. You’re looking towards empty skies and finding enough fortitude that when the opportunity does present itself, you can take advantage of it.”

It’s borderline poetic, and generally not the way a waterfowling guide speaks. But, it turns out being a waterfowl guide is just a fraction of the life he’s built, only a glimpse at the full picture. After buying and renovating an old church and turning it into a duck camp and brand called Black Duck Revival, he began hosting clients for hunting, cooking, and general educational experiences, which has led to opportunities for writing and more educating. Long story short, Jonathan is building something wholly unique.

His efforts are fed by a very unique worldview, one built on self-reliance and capability. In our conversation, we talked about how he used this worldview to build his business/brand, the resurgence of hunting and wild foods, and how he’s built his lifestyle around the outdoors—not the other way around 

Here’s guide/educator/writer/hunter/angler/entrepreneur Jonathan Wilkins.


Steve: When did you decide you wanted to be a guide?

Jonathan Wilkins: Well, that's still developing. It was not the original intent. Originally, I just wanted to find a place I could use as a duck camp for myself, my friends, and whatnot. I tried to figure out a way to recoup some of the cost by essentially Airbnbing it and doing a short-term rental situation when I wasn't using it. East Arkansas is a destination for waterfowl and I had a group of people out for a couple of days. We hunted specks and we hunted ducks in the timber. These layers just started to develop. Eventually, I said, "You know what? I'm going to try and do that for a season, put together some really cool hunts, and create these holistic experiences."

The idea just kept developing. I had done stuff like this before, just by knowing Hank Shaw for about 10 years—I think the first wild game dinner I did with him was maybe 10 or 11 years ago. He’ll come down for events in Arkansas, and I usually sous-chef for him. Then, I had my own place, my own ideas about what was important to me, and I decided I was going to put these experiences together. It’s been fairly well-received.

That actually brings up a good point. “Waterfowl guide” seems a little reductive for you. It seems like you do a lot of things well—hunt, guide, cook, write, etc.

Well, that's very kind of you. I guess I've been referring to myself as an outdoor educator—writer cook, guide/hunting facilitator. Black Duck Revival is a place, a point of specificity. But, it's also developed into this brand, a culmination of my points of interest in things that I think I'm good at.

I've done a lot of different things. I've done a lot of different kinds of manual labor. I've worked in restaurants on different levels. I've been an entrepreneur. I had a landscaping business and I had a little restaurant of my own. I've designed a restaurant for people. I've roofed houses and worked for myself building decks and fences. I was a professional firefighter for a few years. 

I've just done a lot of stuff, which is part of my value system. I believe in capability and the intersection of thinking and physically doing things. I feel like I've spent the last 15 or 20 years of my life figuring out where that balance is right for me. I'm very unsuited to work in an office, but just swinging a hammer all day on top of a roof nailing shingles, I don't find fulfilling, either.

As a writer, I feel like having a lot of experiences makes me better at my job. Do you think that’s true for you?

I put a lot of value in this idea of being a “Renaissance man.” To me, that's part of being a capable person. We could even take the genderized part of it out, and describe it as a person who values being able to do more than one thing competently. You're learning how to juggle things. You're learning how to perpetually stay in a state of refinement. As you continue to go through the refining process, hopefully, you're taking off the extraneous stuff and you're figuring out how to get to the essence of experiences and activities. 

Part of the benefit is that you can keep other stuff in balance. I've got this business and I'm trying to make it successful enough to be sustaining. I've got a family. I've got ambition. I also have the everyday drudgery of trying to maintain things. I guess as I've found my way into—I hesitate to say the outdoor industry—I'm figuring out what I'm good at in that space and where I can bring value to hopefully myself and other people.

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Wilkins

Is part of being a “Renaissance man” about simply having a backup plan? 

I feel like my life is largely influenced by having to make this work. To me, a backup plan suggests a level of stability that I don't think I’ve had a whole lot in my life. I was talking to the outdoor writer Hal Herring a while back. He's maintained a career as a writer while simultaneously getting the bills paid. As you probably know, writing doesn't pay well most of the time, so Hal does forestry work. He's been on this sagebrush restoration project. He described the idea of making yourself “starve-proof.” Worst case scenario, you can swing a hammer, or you can dig a hole, or you can write, or you can cook a cheeseburger or wash dishes. It's more about an appreciation for resiliency. I would say that’s what I’m building.

You seemed hesitant about describing yourself as part of the outdoor industry. Why is that?

Maybe it's not hesitation. It's just not fully representative. I definitely am in the outdoor industry. Publicity-wise, that's largely where I've been getting noticed. But, there are elements of what I'm doing and where my interests lie that would be outside of the "hunting industry." I’m interested in the culinary examination of the Black American diaspora—people, ideas, foods, methods, and influences moving across the South and then disseminating upwards during The Great Migration. 

Wild foods, to me, are part of this idea of resiliency, this connection to an American agrarian lifestyle, a blue-collar American work ethic that I think far too often is looked at as a place to be when there's a lack of options. Many of the people that this country societally reveres participated in these very blue-collared, physical expressions of self. We placed nobility on that in the past. Now, it’s only for someone who doesn't have an opportunity for education. 

I think there's a lot of beauty and value and nobility in those enterprises. In the last couple of years, when everybody went on lockdown and you started hearing this term “essential workers,” it wasn't referring to people who call themselves “creators.” It was people who were doing really tangible stuff: moving things, cooking things, providing transportation, making sure that garbage was picked up and that things could be fixed and things could be made. This idea of revival, to me, is partly a reference to a past life. I would like to contribute in some way to a revival or reimagining of people's relationships with the physical expenditure of energy and there being value in that, great value.

To me, that’s the beauty of the outdoors. It can be a thinking man’s game, but also just plain hard work.

It can be. It's just like everything else. It’s also a place where money and access can reduce a lot of the physical burden. What draws me to it is the more romantic aspects of the pursuit—learning to be happy when you're physically uncomfortable, dealing with cold and wet, and cracked hands. You’re looking towards empty skies and finding enough fortitude that when the opportunity does present itself, you can take advantage of it.

There's something undeniably beautiful about those birds committing. That, and the vocal aspects of it. That idea of call and response. There's a lot of analogies you draw from that as far as the old church. It's like even if you're hunting solo, there does seem to be some sort of, I don't know if you want to call it community, but entanglement within nature, for sure.

Given that I agree with you, it’s odd that interest in waterfowling seems to be dwindling.

Well, I live in a region that saw a big upswing in the last 15 years because of pop culture, like “Duck Dynasty.” Overall, though, it's an interesting shift. For 25 or 30 years, the majority of hunting videos centered on the Midwest and Southern whitetail hunting. Now, what's cool is these Western adventure hunts. I think waterfowling often doesn't have the sex appeal that some of these other hunts have. There's something visceral about a big elk or a buck with these big antlers. 

That shift leads us oftentimes to try and create this weird, false masculine bravado in waterfowling. You’re watching duck hunting videos, hear that electric guitar drop, and it’s “smash ‘em, boys!” Then, the display of the animals you could call many things, but it’s not respectful. It's weird, man. I'm not trying to yuck somebody else's yum. But, people have a tendency to treat them with less respect than I would like to see. Maybe we just don't place the same societal value on them because they seem so different than us.

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Wilkins

For me, personally, I love duck hunting and bird hunting in general because you get so much more interaction with the species than most big-game hunting.

I like an active pursuit. I've definitely done my share of hanging on the side of a tree, but I find less and less desire to hunt like that because it's so stationary. I always want to be poking around, picking stuff up, and looking. Take crappie fishing as an example. You’ve got those old guys that have this little boat, a simple setup, and they're out there every day just jigging for crappies. And they're putting them in the boat, right? 

There is a level of refinement that they get to experience in that skill set, turning it into a craft. They can say, "I remember..." They know that in this condition they're going to bite on this or that the turbidity of the water is going to call for this kind of color jig or when to use crickets and when to use minnows. It’s about having something that you can build, constantly sharpening that skillset, which is very different than these once-a-year, huge expenditures of energy.

You hit the nail on the head. It’s about those repeat experiences.

I'm associated very much as a waterfowl guy because I built a waterfowl lodge, but I would consider myself a generalist. I've often said that if I could only hunt one thing, I would hunt squirrels. I'd hunt squirrels in Arkansas because it would take me to all sorts of habitats. The worst day I had would still be a great walk in the woods and I would constantly be observing different things and coming across new experiences. 

The dude who introduced me to hunting told me, "If you pay attention, you'll always learn something new every time you go hunting." I remember very distinctly the first time I saw a barred owl in the daylight when I was hunting. I didn't kill a deer that day, but I saw a barred owl in a circumstance that I had never seen before. I remember the first time I saw a predaceous bird swoop down and nail a squirrel or the first time I came across lion's mane mushrooms.

There's always an opportunity. Approaching it that way has allowed me to get to a level of proficiency more quickly because it lets me participate in these activities as just a regular part of my life. I hear a lot of people talking about waiting for the opener of deer season. That's what they're waiting for all year long. As for me, I'm in this constant, undulating cycle that’s always new.

A huge thanks to Jonathan for such an in-depth conversation. To learn more about Black Duck Revival, click here. You can also check out his brand-new podcast, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever your listening preferences lie.

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