One urban intellectual's attempt to get back in touch with his inner woodsman.
I’m having trouble aiming the bow. I’m supposed to hold it up level, so that a series of circles and pins on the bowstrings and the bow itself line up. The problem is, my right eye is my good eye, and it’s also the one I seem to instinctively close while aiming. This is second only to closing both eyes as the worst possible way to aim.
“I’d give you an eyepatch if I had one,“ says Ray Caba, the veteran archer who’s patiently trying to teach me. “But you’ll train your eyes eventually.”
Archery is an odd thing. By turns a survival practice, a sport and an art form, it’s been with humanity as far back as the Paleolithic era, 11,000 years ago. While more powerful, precise and relevant methods of hunting have taken their place at the forefront of both food acquisition and marksmanship, archery has hung on. It’s thrilled us as both an Olympic-level sport and the weapon of choice for heroes of popular culture, from Robin Hood to Katniss Everdeen. I went to the Penn-Del Archery Club in Bethel Township, just outside the city, to see if I could figure out why the bow and arrow continue to play such a heartfelt part in so many people’s lives.
I couldn’t have picked a better place. The Penn-Del Archery Club, which provides practice space for members, as well as holding World Archery Federation tournaments, is 51 acres straight out of Sherwood Forest. The 12 original members each put in $1,000 to buy the land back in 1952, and it stands as a pastoral retreat of fields and woods in the midst of the surrounding developments. Lush with old growth, streams and boulders, it’s a far more pleasant set-up than the bare field with targets that’s used for Olympic-style shooting.
Club secretary Pat Greager is incredibly aware of how desirable the land is. “Every day, I get offers from developers who are drooling,” she says. One was willing to trade them 90 acres for their 51—“but in an area where you can’t shoot. So what’s the point?”
It makes sense that Penn-Del has spent the last 60 years resisting developers: So, in a way, has archery. While the materials that make up bows and arrows are constantly being tinkered with and improved, and the invention of the compound bow in the late ‘60s has given a mechanical edge to the sport, archery has remained essentially unchanged since those Paleolithic days. It’s not that archery resists progress—one look at Ray’s cherry-red, sports-car-esque compound bow speaks to how new tech and old practices can move hand in hand. Rather, it’s that the technology doesn’t change what you’re doing in the slightest. You’re still pulling back on a string and hoping to hit a target in the middle of nature, just as those cavemen did.
For an act that sends something hurtling away from you at 184 mph, so much of archery is about an awareness of your own body. Pulling the bowstring back requires the muscles in the back just as much as the muscles in the arms. Different bows require you pull your hand back to your mouth, your eye. Which eye are you favoring? How’s your breath? The longer you hold your arm up, the less likely you are to hit the target, so this awareness is paramount. The body needs to be in perfect alignment before you can even begin to aim.
My body is out of alignment. In addition to my remedial aiming skills, my posture is no good, and I have difficulty remembering to pull my hand back once it’s let go of the bowstring. The whole move, from notching to drawing to aiming to release, should be fluid—“Like a breath,” Ray says. When he shoots, I see exactly what he means. The motion is a full-body inhalation, only to be released with the arrow. My draw, however, is almost asthmatic, all sharp gulps and uncomfortable pauses. But I try to breathe, try to be aware of my body. Before too long, my posture is correct, and my right hand slides back after release just like it should. My aim is still terrible, but I’m learning to breathe.
I spent most of my life as an “indoor kid.” My parents tried their best to get me interested in sports, but they never clicked with me. I was—and probably still am—too competitive. Athletics weren’t just about competing with the other team, but also about competing against my teammates, judging myself against their performance. As a fat kid, rather than be reminded of how much I fell short every Saturday, I instead opted out of sports all together.
Now I wonder if things would have been different had I been given a bow instead of a baseball bat. Archery isn’t about battling another opponent. It’s not even about battling the target, as Ray says—though I’m certain that comes later, once you achieve a certain level of skill. Before you can begin to combat that target, before you can work on directing your winged missile out of your bow, you first have to battle yourself. It’s a surprisingly introspective sport, forcing you to look inward as you hope to impact something far, far away.
Which gives us an idea of why archery is enjoying a bit of resurgence, especially among indoor kids who prefer to read dystopian sci-fi novels. It may be true that most of us no longer need to hunt for our own food; peace of mind, however, is a quarry that remains oddly elusive. Archery makes it easier: The target is several yards away. The target is also in the center of your chest. To succeed, you have to align them. As skills go, that one is pretty universal.
Jared Axelrod’s new PW series, “Made New,” explores a broad spectrum of artisans, makers and thinkers who update old-fashioned practices to enhance 21st-century life. A West Philly resident, Jared is by turns an author, illustrator, sculptor, costume designer, podcaster and more.