Some years back I wrote an article for a U.K. waterfowling website, which site I let have the article gratis. Well, that little article has grown legs, as it has been reproduced in several academic point/counterpoint publications, all of whom actually paid me for secondary/tertiary/variousotheriary publishing privileges.
That being the case, it seemed logical to reproduce it here.
Modern hunters seem to find they are answering that question frequently. Sometimes the question is put by the genuinely curious; sometimes it is a hostile demand for justification. In the first case, the answer is complex and thought provoking. In the second, the answer is simple – “because it suits me to do so.” Hunting in and of itself requires no justification. The hunt is not only natural and healthful; it’s an inextricable part of our heritage as human beings. Man is and has long been a terminal predator, as marvelously equipped for hunting by our intellect as a lion is by his claws and fangs, as a wolf by his swift legs and pack instinct. No matter whether humans today hunt directly, or employ middlemen to prepare their prey for them on farms and meat packing plants, the fact of our status as predator is in our very DNA. We owe the very fact of our world-conquering intellect on the hunt, on the stimulus that drove us to overcome the handicap of our clawless, blunt-toothed bodies, to develop weapons to match the feats of the greatest of animal predators; we owe our great brains to the access to high-quality diets of meat, marrow, and fat that predatory behavior allowed.
But, the question remains nonetheless. Why, now, do we hunt?
Some hunt for the meat. A good reason in itself; game meat is lean, healthy, and free from additives; the process of obtaining it provides exercise and time in the outdoors, away from work pressures and the temptations of couches and televisions. The fruits of the hunt, properly cared for, are welcomed on the most discriminating of tables.
Some hunt for the camaraderie, another fine reason; for many of these, the actual hunt is secondary to the outing with friends, sharing the campfire with others of like mind and feeling. Another good reason; it is in the enjoyment of fine companions that we grow as social animals. The annual ritual of the mountain elk camp is a vital part of the year for many.
But, there is frequently another reason. A reason that’s more compelling, and at the same time harder to explain.
Henry David Thoreau, in the great classic Walden, wrote “Go fish and hunt far and wide day by day — farther and wider — and rest thee by many brooks and hearth-sides without misgiving. Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth. Rise free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures. Let the noon find thee by other lakes, and the night overtake thee everywhere at home. There are no larger fields than these, no worthier games than may here be played.” Thoreau spoke for many hunters in those words, hunters who hunt not solely for the meat, or for the company, but for the ageless, timeless experience of the hunt itself.
For it’s true that for some of us the hunt is an answer in itself. It’s enough to awake hours before the dawn, and to know the utter silence of a late autumn morning. To hear the crunch of snow under your boots as you begin the hike into the distant, silent mountains. To smell the pines along the trail, and see the silent sentinel spruces on the ridges, barely glimpsed in the pre-dawn dark. It’s enough to sit, shivering, at that best spot on the top rim of a remote basin, watching the east grow bright, waiting for the first rays of warm sunshine to break though the trees and drive away the bitter cold of night.
But those moments, treasured as they are, pale before the ultimate goal of the hunt. It’s a part of the hunter’s soul, to carry the knowledge that somewhere, out among the pines, in the dark timber or the frost-covered meadows, a bull awaits, and the chance of the day may bring him within your awareness. The snap of a branch, the ghosting shape of antlers through the aspens, the sudden ringing bugle of a bull elk, as he appears, suddenly, where no bull was a moment before. His breath plumes out in the cold as he screams his challenge, and your hands and will freeze momentarily in awe of his magnificence.
It’s enough to know that the day may bring the chance of a stalk, through the darkness under the trees, along the edges of the golden grasses of a meadow, creeping, creeping, under the streamside willows, silently, slowly, ever closer, testing the wind, watching underfoot for twigs, whispering a silent prayer to the forests and fields to allow you to close the gap, to make the shot.
With luck, you’ll raise your rifle or draw your bow, and make your shot. More often than not, though, the bull escapes, to play the game of predator and prey another day, in another valley.
You can’t buy moments like that; you can’t find them on the Internet, or at the movie theatre. When the alarm rings in the icy cold of a pre-dawn tent at 9,000 feet, this type of hunter doesn’t groan at the prospect of climbing out of the warm sleeping bag; instead, the prospects of the day are enough incentive to brave the cold, to pull on wool and leather, to step into the pitch-black outdoors, under ice-chip stars. It is with pleasure and anticipation that this hunter begins a day that will likely end back at the same tent, in the freezing dark, hours after sunset, at the end of a long hike out of the wild.
For hunting requires a level of participation unknown in any other human venture – hunting requires a communion with the very primal forces of Nature, taking life so that life may be. Hunting requires a contact that the non-hunter can never know, a contact with life itself. The hunter eschews supporting his or her life through a middleman; knowing the cost of one’s diet, engenders respect for the lives that must be taken to sustain one’s own life.
Early hunters knew this very well, as they revered their primary prey. For example, Plains Indians referred to the bison as “uncle” and “brother.” Paleolithic cave drawings of game animals and hunt scenes are rendered with a loving reverence that is still evident today, thousands of years later. Modern hunters are much the same. Enter a hunter’s home, and you’ll likely find framed prints of deer and elk, waterfowl sculptures, photography of upland birds.
To some it seems contradictory; to express respect, reverence, even love for an animal that you pursue, hunt, kill, and eat. It’s true that this seeming contradiction is as hard for hunters to explain as it is for non-hunters to understand.
Perhaps the answer lies in the very understanding of our role in nature. nature has but one law; life feeds on life, and life gives life to life. People who obtain their steaks, chicken, and burgers from supermarkets and butcher’s shops can lose sight of this fundamental truth, and perhaps they would prefer to have that process sanitized in just such a manner. In our modern, urbanized society, many like to imagine their own existence is bloodless, clean, and sanitary. But such an outlook is self-deluding.
The hunter knows very well the cost for the steaks that grace his plate. A year has been spent in preparation for the hunt, planning, caring for equipment, and practicing marksmanship. Without complaint or reservation, the hunter has arisen before dawn, as described above, and walked the many miles to where the game awaits. In the bright sun of a meadow, in the twilight of dusk, or in the shadows of the forest he has made the stalk, taken the shot with painstaking care, and dressed the animal. He has packed out quarters of elk, perhaps a two or three-day process, often through rough, grueling country. The hunter has cared for hides and antler and meat, and the price for the meal of elk steak is ever with the one for whose life the elk’s life has given way.
Most of all, the hunter has seen the sudden transition from a living animal to an inanimate food source, from animate life to meat for the table. The non-hunting urbanite likely has never seen this take place, and would not care to do so; but the hunter knows, with bittersweet regularity, the price that must be paid for continued existence.
It is for this very reason that the hunter reveres his prey. The intimate, timeless knowledge that Life springs from Life can only lead to reverence for the source of that Life. The bull elk in the dark timber, ghosting through the trees silently as smoke, will live on in the blood, bone and sinew of the hunter waiting on the ridge above; and the hunter, in his turn, will return to the Earth, to nourish the soil, to give rise to the grasses that will feed the elk. And how can the hunter not revere the greathearted bull, revere the magnificence of the great deer that will go to feed the hunter’s family in the winter to come? Reverence for the game, reverence for the wellspring of life, reverence for the great, largely unknowable cycles of the Earth, all come from the intimacy with Nature found in the hunt.
Hunting is indeed what makes us human; hunting is what led humans to cooperate, to plan, to anticipate, to form society. The first great turning point in Mankind’s development was when two unrelated families found they could hunt large animals by working together, and so be more efficient at obtaining high-quality food; thus was the first tribe born. Hunting has made us what we are.
It’s unfortunate that the non-hunter often cannot see past the fact that the hunt results in the death of an animal. The death of an animal, it’s true, is the goal of the hunt; but a greater goal is to be found in the overall experience, of which the actual kill is only the climactic moment. The hunter’s soul often thrills as much, if not more, to the blown stalk, the bull that senses something amiss and vanishes into the mountains like a puff of smoke on the breeze, leaving no trace in his wake. Fond memories include the grouse that explodes from underfoot at the worst possible moment, the squirrel that set up a warning chatter in the penultimate seconds of a carefully planned approach. The vista of a great gulch viewed from the rim, with a herd of elk grazing peacefully, undisturbed, and totally unapproachable on the far side. And, indeed, in the final moment of success, when the hunter approaches, cautiously, the downed bull, lying still now against the bed of needles; the heart-pounding thrill of success, weighted against the bittersweet regret of the necessity of taking the life, facing the final truth that for life to be, another life must give way.
Life feeds on life, and life gives life to life. The hunter in success understands this great truth as no other human possibly can.
We hunt to pay homage to nature, to life, to the earth. To make our annual pilgrimage to our beginnings, to lay hands on our heritage as members of the biotic community. To affirm once more that life feeds on life, and life gives life to life. We hunt for the gift of an elk to a family, the gift of life from the earth. In the hunt lies an affirmation, a recognition that we too will one day return to the earth that has fed and nurtured us, and the elk will then feed on the minerals and nutrients returned to the soil from our bodies. That affirmation alone is enough for many of us who hunt, to send us once more out of our tents, trailers, and ranch houses, out into the freezing darkness under the glittering stars, to climb an unseen mountain for the chance at an elk.
Hunting has a fundamental truth that few non-hunters understand.
It’s not about death. It’s about life.