27 Dec Why I Hunt
I hunt because when I am in the field, my grandfather is still very much alive, walking with me, watching me, guiding me, and stopping to point out an odd plant, or scat, or shine around a hole in a tree that a squirrel is actively using for a home.
Though I may be hunting by myself, I am never really alone. The generations of teachers and hunters that led me to this place are in the snap of the dog’s tail, or the wind in the trees, or the new blooms in the spring. Someday I will be there for someone in the same way, and that makes me happy. I’ll sit with the old men because I earned it by living a good life, and we will watch the new generations of men, women, boys, girls, puppies and old dogs experience what we saw, and our joy will be great.
If the ecclesiastical idea of heaven is a leisurely home in the clouds without pain, contrast, or effort; I’d rather choose to be among the woods and cycles of cold stillness and warm budding ecstasy. The souls I miss and their dogs will already be there waiting for me, anyway. And my deepest hope is that those I leave behind can go there and find me in the same way when they need me.
I hunt because doing so is a perishable skill that requires the respect of maintenance and cultivation. Hunting reminds me of my smallness amongst the largeness of nature and my responsibility for its protection. I hunt because though I feel joy in the practice, I also feel acute sadness for causing a death that I cannot immediately replace, but that encumbers my conscience with the responsibility to restore more than I took from the bounty given to me.
The process isn’t always joyful. Sometimes the process is sitting in a nursing home re-telling hunting stories to one of the wise ones you both know will never leave the room alive. Sometimes it’s burying a dog you love more than most people, with whom you shared years of your life and whose heart and aging hips never hesitated to bust ice to fetch a downed duck, and without whom you are not sure how you’ll make it through the next day. Sometimes it’s witnessing an old farm with its tangled fencerows, ponds, and hardwoods bull-dozed to make yet another shopping mall and bury, forever under stucco and asphalt, the life it once gave.
I hunt because I enjoy the process—loading the truck, mapping the route (at least those that I couldn’t drive blindfolded), oiling the guns, sharpening the knives and seeing the excitement in the dogs, even the night before. This isn’t unique to me. African Masai lion hunters dance and leap around a fire the night before a hunt. I don’t do that, mostly because I’m a bad leaper, but I deeply understand it. If it were of my culture to hunt lions with spears, I would surely do the same—and hope it helped.
I do not hunt because I have a perverse bloodlust for killing, nor does hunting satisfy some deep-seated masculine insecurity or psycho-sexual fetish. In fact, if hunting does anything, it imbues continued reverence and humility for and towards nature. I or others eat what I kill and I take great pride and care in doing so. I don’t, and will never understand those that believe they have a right as humans to do otherwise. I suspect those who view hunting in that way have never actually hunted or were not introduced to hunting in a manner that focuses on the duty of giving over a lifetime, not the taking of the moment. We as hunters do ourselves no favors by dancing about and high-fiving after the death of an animal, particularly on video. That’s a recent practice I’ll not repeat or tolerate. It’s not a touchdown or a home run, or getting laid—you just took a life to perpetuate your own, hopefully in a beautiful place and in a manner that honored the animal—act like it.
I admit to feeling challenged to remain patient and even directly attacked by some potentially well-meaning folks opposed to hunting. I don’t presume to have all the answers, but my blood does boil at the hypocrisy of a verbal assault from an anti-hunter carrying a leather designer handbag who just ordered a chicken salad. Do such people believe they are somehow not complicit in death because it’s done wholesale on an industrialized farm? I suspect if the cow or chicken had the gift of a voice, it would say otherwise. Vegans, I can at least respect as they have taken a position, though one I respectfully disagree with, in their daily choices and habits. At the end of the day, I think it is important to remember that the long-term preservation of wildlife is an achievable aim with room for multiple, rational, scientific approaches. Verbally, or even physically tearing one another apart wastes time, energy, and moves the focus away from preserving wildlife and wastes it on emotional differences. I cannot, nor do I aim to control the thoughts or values of others, but I will continue to the best of my ability to remain open-minded and compassionate about other’s views on the subject and demand the same treatment of my own.
To an extent, I find it sad that in our modern culture this explanation is required. However, I am mindful of the diversity of experiences, values, influence of propaganda, and sometimes blatant ignorance that exists in people whose culture and upbringing may be different from my own. So if you hunt, write this essay for yourself, at least in your own mind, and be able to calmly explain it when some echo-chamber bumper sticker philosophy gets chucked your way. Hunter and non-hunters owe it to the animals to find a way, at a minimum, to co-exist, and ideally, work together. If you do not hunt, please read this essay and those of others with an open mind. Consider you likely have more in common than not when it comes to respect for the sustainable preservation of nature. If you need some additional perspective, consider the late William Tapply’s essay for Field and Stream of the same title. He inspired me to write my personal version. Rick Bass also did a brave job for a piece in Sierra Club Magazine. and my friend Darren Jones was part of a short film that shows what words can’t.