“Hot!” I shout, not as self conscious as I was the first time I yelled it out. It’s the cue to my fellow archers that I am about to shoot. I’m at the archery range at Washington Park. There’s four other people on the dozen lanes. The one furthest away has a compound bow. Its more powerful, more accurate, with all kinds of high-tech options. His arrows have little glowing lights at the nock, the tail end. He can see exactly where they hit even at 75 yards.
Three lanes closer is a couple, taking turns with a recurve bow similar to mine. He is more experienced, teaching her, and there is as much flirting as archery going on.
A couple lanes closer still is a Native American man in his 20s. He has a store-bought horse bow, shorter than mine, but he tells me proudly that he made his own arrows.
I have a fiberglass and wood bow with 32-pound pull. That’s the draw weight-how much energy it takes to pull the string back and get ready to fire. That puts it in the low to moderate range. Good for target shooting but not appropriate for bow hunting. Which is fine because my targets have always been paper.
Zen and the Art of Archery, originally published in 1948, first introduced me to the meditative joy of archery. While the sword gets all the glamor, in truth the samurai regarded being a skilled archer as at least as important. There’s a festival in Kyoto I once got to attend, Yabusame, where archers on galloping horses shoot arrows at three targets. Participants were clad in samurai armor, with the two-meter-long Japanese bow, galloping by targets and loosing arrows. The only discordant touch was many wore eyeglasses. For spectators’ sake, it was better they shatter the mood than let a myopic arrow fly.
It is the warrior tradition around the world that makes the bow such an iconic tool. Other hunters and warriors may have gotten by with blowguns, or atlatls, bolas, slingshots or yo-yos. But from the samurai, to the Mongols, to the Greeks, the Nubians, the Egyptians, the Scythians and on, archery was an essential skill.
Archery has been a hobby for me for decades. I incorporated it into The Master Mind, making the female lead, Diana Wynne, a skilled archer.
As with so much of human history, the first known evidence of archery comes from Africa. At Subudu Cave in South Africa they have found arrows estimated to be 64,000 years old. Though bow and arrow are associated by most with Native Americans, there’s debate as to just how long ago arrows first flew in the Americas. Some believe the first arrows were fired 20,000 years ago, others put it as recent as 500 CE. But there is no doubt it became an essential tool of indigenous peoples from the Artic to the southernmost parts of South America.