We live in interesting times. I think everyone who has ever lived has had this thought on his or her mind. Our times are always interesting. I guess because we’re living them and not any others.
But to be alive in this century is to see what happens when the bulk of humanity is removed from the life processes that produced us and all other life on the planet. Our lives are very much alienated from the rest of living things. We know ecology only from what we see on television or read in books. Most of us don’t give much thought to how an overpopulation of deer can destroy a forest, and most of us don’t realize that coyotes are boon to songbirds when they kill feral cats.
Nature is an abstraction. It is what lies beyond the greenbelts and stands of concrete and steel. Never mind that all of those things came from nature itself, and that all things are part of nature. Not a single thing that exists that you can see, touch, hear, smell, or taste is anything but nature or nature with some sort of refinement on it.
Ever since we domesticated fire, we’ve had abilities that other creatures never could. With fire we can cook meat. With fire we can clear a patch of scrub and allow new growth to come in. And that new growth is good nutrition for ungulates. And ungulates are good nutrition for us.
But we’ve come a long way from knapping flint into arrowheads and making fires with little sticks. We now have the capacity to change the climate or obliterate most of the world’s biodiversity with a few rounds of nuclear missile exchange.
With this alienation has come a desire for an ethic, and as the world becomes more and more interconnected and more and more secular, there comes a questing for what is the true moral way to relate to the world. In this modern age, ideas about animal rights have come to the fore. More and more people are choosing the vegan or vegetarian diet, but from I’ve read, it has a high attrition rate.
But there are questions about animals now that weren’t asked in the past. I don’t think this is a bad thing at all. We should be asking these questions. At one time, it was acceptable to dissect a live dog on a table, and his plaintive howls would be dismissed as being nothing more than those coming from a machine.
But I don’t think we will ever have a world in which no animals are used for food or killed to protect crops or manage their populations. The idea that this utopia will come to pass is an utter pipe dream. We no longer live on the edge of wilderness. In fact, no one really does anymore. All that is wild and free really exists only because civilization either allows it or has no good reason to destroy it.
And that which we allow to exist must be managed.
I must confess now that I am what is called an adult onset hunter. I grew up hunting squirrels in woods with my grandpa, and I went deer hunting a few times as a teenager. But I didn’t feel connected to it.
What’s worse is that I went through a bleeding heart stage during my college years. I was disgusted with the Iraq War, Republicans, and “gun culture.” I wanted nothing to do with killing animals.
Around that same time, I watched a beloved dog die of brain cancer.
I began to think about animals more and more. I read far lots of books by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson about animal emotions, and I deeply admired his sensitivity toward animals.
At some point in graduate school, I began to question the new animal rights ideas. I began to think more and more about the evolution of our species. We really weren’t much of anything until we learned to be efficient predators. We started hunting before we were fully modern. Homo habilis was hunting for meat 2 million years ago. And we know that humans were living off big game pretty much where ever we were.
It’s an odd story that this one lineage primate would wind up competing with lions and wolves as the top predators, and it’s even odder still that we’ve largely dominated over them. That is what you get with a big brain, opposable thumbs, and a desire to hunt for meat.
So if humans have spent that much of our evolutionary past as hunters and if we have all these game populations to be managed, isn’t ethical hunting the morally responsible thing to do?
Hunting is in my ancestry, and you don’t have to go to Olduvai Gorge to find it. One of my ancestors was a German-speaking frontiersman by the name of Sommers (now Summers). He became a well-known bear hunter in the Northwest Virginia frontier and is said to have killed twelve bears before noon on a single day. He made his living as market hunter and fur-trapper but lost his fortune after investing in some bad public bonds.
My family on both sides were hunting people. I come from the general sort of yeoman farmer-hunter-trapper that once populated most of America but lived long and legendarily in the Alleghenies. Both my grandfathers kept foxhounds at one point on their lives. My mother’s father was running hounds until his health began to fail, and my father’s father kept Norwegian elkhounds for hunting squirrels and varmints. They both loved hunting deer in the bleak November rutting time.
I hunt because I am human, and I hunt to remember my ancestors, to honor my grandfathers and their grandfathers before them. It is a deeply personal thing that only someone who has had a grandfather who took them hunting can truly appreciate.
Five years ago, if you had told me that I would be a hunter with a crossbow, I would have told you to get lost. Crossbows were illegal for all hunters but the disabled in West Virginia anyway, and I was really worried about wounding a deer a with an arrow.
It was then that I became aware of the broadheads with expanding blades. When these broadheads hit the deer, they expand and make a pretty large hole in the animal. If you hit it in the right place, it quickly bleeds out and dies. There is none of this sticking the animal with an arrow and letting it suffer for a few days or weeks before it dies of infection.
Further, West Virginia did legalize crossbows for general hunting purposes– for bears, “wild boar,” and white-tailed deer. I also discovered that the new crossbows were as accurate as a rifle at short distances.
So with a crossbow, one can quickly and humanely kill a deer. All you have to do is be able to shoot a gun.
And to sit quietly and watch the deer.
The truth is most of hunting isn’t killing. It’s only the culmination of the act. Most of hunting is observing the animals, reading its sign, and scouting out its habits. You get to appreciate the deer as deer. You almost see them as a nation unto themselves, like a rebel band that lives at the edge of society but is never fully dominated by it.
I can think of no greater satisfaction than watching a homely three-point buck smack down some chestnuts on a balmy October evening.
It’s not about killing the deer. It is coming to know the deer.
And that is why I hunt. I seek not the glory in the suffering of creatures, but I seek camaraderie with the old ways, the ones that are being lost now and have continued to winnow away as each generation passes.
For a limited time, I am part of it.
And then I return to the alien world of man once again,