Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Challenged to explain: Why I hunt

Being what you're raised to be is pretty much the easiest thing in the world - it's autopilot. Making a major life change, though, is something that makes you think a lot. Why, at the age of 41, should a journalist-turned-professor buy a shotgun, learn to shoot it and invest thousands of hours and dollars in a lifestyle that isn't strictly necessary for her survival?

It is a delicious question, because exploring it reawakens the still-fresh memories of every "first" I've experienced as a huntress. Read more...

And I think about it often, because part of what I do now is explain to non-hunters - or at least try to explain - why we do this. Why we are willing to kill animals when we could just buy meat at the grocery store?

Tonight, though, I answer this question in response to a fellow hunter. Arthur at Simply Outdoors issued a challenge to write about why we hunt, and then Kristine at Gun Safety Innovations rose to it, and man, they touched a nerve.

So here are my reasons:

1. Shouldn't I be doing this myself? When I was a kid, my family raised chickens, rabbits, pigs and even a few goats for eggs, milk and meat. I cried the first time I witnessed a slaughter, even though the rooster in question, Henry VIII, had attacked me in the chicken pen, leaving long, deep scratches down my 7-year-old back. But when Mom put chicken pot pie on the dinner table that night, I was hooked. I saw the connection between life, death and the food on my table, and I embraced it.

The last slaughter of my childhood was memorable. I was 17, it was Christmas Day, and my family was desperately poor. We slaughtered some chickens for dinner. My mother, to this day, bitterly remembers the unmistakable stench of dead chickens dipped in boiling water to facilitate plucking. She hated it, but for me it would be the last time for 24 years that I would take responsibility for the food on my table.

I always felt a bit of nagging guilt after that - I was a careless meat eater. Defrost, run out of time, meat goes bad, oh well - toss it. I had no connection to my food. When my boyfriend started hunting and invited me to join him, I knew it was the right thing to do.

2. Challenge. Wow, hunting is hard! I have always savored the invigorating feeling of a challenge, whether it was writing a story that 300,000 people might read as a young newspaper reporter, moving 3,000 miles across the country all by myself as a 31-year-old or diving headfirst into the incredible complexities of hunting. Shooting, shot size, training, licensing, regulations, packing, decoys, camo, calls, holy-cow-what-time-am-I-waking-up?, animal identification, animal behavior, scan the sky, don't move too much, uh ... how do I pee when I'm on a boat with five guys? ... watch the water, mount, aim, shoot, cripples, searches, death, plucking, skinning, dressing, cooking, eating, thinking, explaining...

Honestly, I think I would just curl up and die if I didn't have new challenges facing me all the time. Hunting is so complex that I know it will keep my hyperactive brain busy for decades to come.

3. Health. The more hunted meat I eat, the less hormones, antibiotics and farm-animal cruelty I ingest. Beyond that, I strongly believe that meat from animals that live normal lives is just healthier. I'm a big fan of Virginia pastured-chicken farmer Joel Salatin, and he wrote something in one of his books that really struck me:

If you have a cholesterol problem, your doctor will tell you to do several things: cut down on animal proteins (meat, eggs and dairy products), exercise in order to metabolize the excess calories of your body (isn't that a euphemistic way of saying "fat"?), eat salad for lunch instead of meat and potatoes. A good doctor will also tell you to identify and then reduce stress in your life. The stress-cholesterol connection is clear.

He then goes on to note that the way farm animals live now is precisely the way doctors are telling us not to live: high stress, no green food, no exercise. Salatin contends that the meat and fat of animals raised in this fashion is less healthy than that of animals that live more normal lives - just as the composition of our bodies is unhealthy when we live this way.

And if that isn't good enough reason to eat game meat, try this: Industrial meat just has no flavor. American livestock is corn-fed mush, and Americans have been brainwashed into thinking that monotonous flavor is a good thing. What most people call "gamey" is really a reflection of the animal and where it lived, whether it's a mallard that dined on acorns or a boar that roamed about eating wild oats and juniper berries all day. Eating game meats is like drinking wines and savoring the differences between each one. Once you've gotten used to it, everything else tastes like Wonder Bread.

4. Connection to nature. Here's what I said on Kristine's blog that made me realize I would not be going to bed tonight at the early hour I'd hoped for: Hunting wakes up part of you in a way that will make you think you've been asleep your whole life. That's the gift I never expected from hunting.

Do you ever watch comic-book superhero movies? You know the moment where they realize they have abilities and capacities they never dreamed of? Hunting is exactly like that. I see things now that I never used to see: When driving, I spot game that is invisible to my passengers. Where I used to see weed-covered fields, I see habitat. When I gaze out the window during meetings at work, I see not just birds, but mallards and cormorants and pelicans, identifiable as such even when they're just specks in the sky because their flight patterns have been etched into my brain. When I watch neighborhood cats lie in wait for newly hatched birds in my back yard, I see not cruelty or tragedy, but the cycle of life. When I see a hawk dive into a field and emerge with empty claws, I commiserate - and congratulate the mouse. When I see the hawk rise with a small rodent in his grip, I congratulate the hawk.

Life as we know it is ephemeral. Civilization is a house of cards that can collapse quickly in the wake of a well-placed virus or draught. I love the life that society and civilization offers me - music and art and books and fine food and drink. But I recognize this kind of life is a gift, and the only life guaranteed to us is one in which we can survive only by engaging with our environment, eating what we can and avoiding being eaten by anything bigger or stronger. Hunting connects me to that. It ensures I don't forget what I am - just one of many animals who make their home on this amazing planet.

No, I don't have to live this way. But I'm sure glad I know how.

Now, for the cruel part - tag! If I could pick one person whose answer to the question "Why do you hunt?" I really want to see, it would be Albert at The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles. Albert, I know you're slammed with some projects that are really important to you, but some day when life eases up a bit, I hope you'll do us the honor of telling us why you hunt.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


Blessed said...

The reasons you hunt are similar to mine - you are more articulate than me but I'm working on my post about why I hunt too, hopefully sometime next week I'll get it done!

SimplyOutdoors said...

Well thanks for the link and I'm glad my post helped stir something deep inside.

You told the reasons why you hunt with way more passion and thought then I did. I even found myself nodding my head to some of your reasons.

Awesome post. Reading it makes me want to hit the woods right now!!!

Marian Ann Love said...

A great post Holly - you have evolved into a great outdoor huntress and I'm very proud of you!

Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful post Holly and so much of what you said is true. I have to say part of the reason I have moved from being someone who wouldn't care to hunt to someone who probably will is posts like this one. If hunting means this much to so many people I'd be stupid not to try it and see what it could bring to my life.

Anonymous said...

By the way, I wanted to add that I second your nomination of Albert to write a post on this subject. I imagine he'd have a lot of great things to say.

The Hunter's Wife said...

Holly, your post always seem to draw me in from the passion you have to your style of writing.

From the non-hunter :)

Tom Sorenson said...

You know, I thought I knew why I hunted - but after reading your post here - how powerful! I agree with everything you say, I just couldn't put it into words the way you did. Great job! I'm updating my post about this to include all the blogs I've read on this topic.

Anonymous said...

Nice work, Holly! Of course.

Arthur named me in that challenge as well, and it's kinda hung me up. I honestly can't remember a time in my life when I didn't hunt, and it's so much a part of who and what I am that trying to explain in words is a real challenge. It was very cool to see from your perspective, as a new hunter and part of a very different world than the rural south where I got my start.


Holly Heyser said...

Thanks, everyone! I truly feel blessed - to be a huntress, to be a new huntress especially, to have a forum for writing about it.

And I can't tell you how important it is to me when people tell me I say the things they've struggled to describe.

I think hunters often walk around wondering if others feel what we do, whether it's the stab of remorse when you see what you've killed or the unrivaled exhilaration of stalking or luring prey. Knowing these are shared experiences fills me with a very strong sense of kinship with all of you.

Anonymous said...


Great post. I 'hunt' (in quotes because I actually never do the hunting - i film the action) because it allows me to have a unique relationship with nature that I otherwise wouldn't be able to have - I become part of the forest and it comes alive around me, I become part of the food chain instead of simply taking from it. And finally, It allows me to leave all the concrete of the city behind and find some peace and quiet.

I honestly couldn't care less if we get a kill or not. As long as I get to go out there and be a part of that process i'm happy as a clam.

p.s. thanks for the blogging advice...as you can see i'm putting it to work right away!

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks! I don't know if filming video is like shooting stills, but I've found the best conditions for the gun are the best conditions for the camera, so you probably know more than you think.

I'm with you on that leaving-the-city stuff. I'd like to unplug and spend about a week in the woods right about now.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Such a great piece, i really should take your course!

i really liked the bit about becoming more aware (or should that be stopping being less aware?)

The thing about 'anti hunters' that i find difficult to fathom is that for many of them their stance is a default setting, they don't know why they are are anti hunting. They just are. Most of the time their debating tactics aren't honed enough to really get into it, as they are talking from an 'article of faith' position the antis i get to play with usually default to pulling faces, tutting and finger wagging. None of which have ever convinced anyone.

Hope you're both doing well