Saturday, February 7, 2009

Books about hunting that shape my beliefs

Ever since I started hunting back in 2006, I have been lusting after insights. Why do I love hunting so much? Why is it right - or at least not wrong - to kill animals and eat them? Within various hunting practices, where should my ethical boundaries lie, and why?

Some of my beliefs, of course, come straight from my upbringing - being a kid in family that raised animals for meat. Some have come from the blogging community, particularly Phillip at The Hog Blog, who has challenged some of my core assumptions and forced me to rethink them (sometimes in some fairly painful comment exchanges).

And for further insights, I look to my bookshelf. When Boyfriend started hunting a few years before I did, he began ordering stacks of books. Some were how-tos, because he's a master at teaching himself how to do things. Some were whys. I probably hadn't killed more than once or twice before I told him I wanted to dip into his book pile, and that got me started on my own book-buying binge.

I am not done reading about hunting, not by a long shot. So consider this the first installment in a series about the books that have shaped my thinking about hunting the most ... so far. Everything you see below is a book I recommend, even when I have fairly critical things to say about the content or the author. I don't think you have to agree with a person 100 percent to respect him or her.

Got a book to recommend? Please let me know in a comment. I often find books by following a chain - one writer quotes another, and I rush to order that person's book too. There is a really fantastic Algonquin Round Table of hunting writers out there. But I also like to stretch and find authors who aren't necessarily members of the hunterati. Keeps me on my toes.


A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold (1949)

I believe this is the first hunting book I read, and while its content is least fresh on my mind as I write today, I can tell you it is a solid foundation for the hunter/conservationist who aspires to be thoughtful, conscientious and ethical. If you read about hunting at all, you've probably seen Leopold's work quoted frequently. I was a blank slate when I read this, and now that I've formed more of my own beliefs about hunting, I'd like to re-read it a little more critically.

Meditations on Hunting by Jose Ortega y Gasset (1942)

This was originally written by the Spanish philosopher as a long-winded introduction to the book Twenty Years a Big Game Hunter, which no one ever talks about anymore. Now it is published as a slim standalone volume. (And I've just got to say that if someone wrote an introduction that outshone my book, I'd be a little irritated about that - it's like a bridesmaid looking hotter than the bride. But I digress.)

This is also a must-have for any thinking hunter, deeply thoughtful and often quoted. Perhaps the most famous line from the book is this: "One does not hunt in order to kill; to the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted." There is, of course, way more to it than that - but I'll let you see that for yourself.

Like A Sand County Almanac, this was one of my earliest readings and I'd love to re-read it, now that I'm no longer a blank slate.

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan (2006)

This is not a book about hunting or hunting ethics, but rather a look at our food supply in America and what's wrong with it. Pollan dissects the origin of four different meals, including a meal of hunted wild game (for which he actually learned how to hunt).

I read this book after the end of my first season as a hunter, and it convinced me that I needed to get as far away as possible from factory-farmed meat, and made me realize just how important wild game is to my diet and health. After finishing the last page, I never again bought a pack of chicken thighs at Costco. Most of our meat at home now is game we've hunted, though we occasionally supplement it with organic/natural/pastured/cage-free animal products.

Of course, we still eat factory-farmed meat when we dine out. And twice I have succumbed to rotisserie chicken at my local supermarket. (The last time I did that, I got appendicitis the next day, so I can't shake the stupid, superstitious feeling I was being punished.) But whenever I have the chance to opt out of that food choice, I do. Read this book and you'll see why.

Woman the Hunter by Mary Zeiss Stange (1997)

This book rocked my world. It was the first hunting book that I bought, which gave me license to do what I love to do with books - fold page corners and write notes everywhere, which is my way of having a conversation with a book. The writing is a somewhat academic - as in footnoted - look at perceptions of women in hunting, and an attack on eco-feminist notions of hunting as a male and therefore violent preoccupation. But this ain't just a chick book; it is filled with intriguing insights about hunting in general, and defenses against anti-hunting propaganda. I would recommend it to any male hunter.

The first insight I got from this book was a revelation. Hunting had increased my love of, and respect for, animals, and I didn't really understand why. But when Stange wrote about the relationship hunter-gatherer cultures have with animals, it matched all the feelings that had been developing in my little brain. It felt like I had found a home in my roots as a human being. (Click here for the post I wrote after that light-bulb moment.)

I actually emailed Stange after finishing the book, hoping to spark an email conversation, but I didn't get much back besides a stinging rebuke for misspelling her name in my blog post. Oopsie. Sorry! Oh well.

In Defense of Hunting by James A. Swan (1995)

This is one of a bunch of books that came out at a time when anti-hunters were really on the attack, not just rhetorically, but physically - they were actively disrupting hunts. Because I spend a lot of time defending hunting, this was a must-read for me.

I will say honestly that Swan, who is a psychologist, is just a bit too mystical for a cynical earthbound girl like me. But I nonetheless found myself folding page corners, underlining passages and writing notes in the margins, because the book is filled with fascinating tidbits such as this one:

The Sufis, a Middle Eastern spiritual sect, teach that there are seventy-two paths to God and they are all equal. One of these paths is the way of the hunter.

Nifty, eh? He also gave me my first clue to why women are so into bow hunting - click here to see the blog post I wrote about that.

A Hunter's Heart, collected by David Petersen (1996)

This book is a compilation of deeply honest essays about hunting, and it is my favorite of several such books. I could flip to any page and find something that interested me, and in that random fashion I eventually devoured the whole book.

Interestingly enough, I recommended this to an anti who commented on one of my blog posts and he promptly bought the book and began quoting from it in his debate with me and my comment posse. My point? The book is that honest, an unvarnished look at what we do. And if you read this blog much at all, you know I'm a big fan of painful honesty.

Bloodties by Ted Kerasote (1993)

As I read more and more hunting books and essays, there was one name I saw quoted almost as often as Leopold or Ortega y Gasset: Ted Kerasote. I had to get this book.

It is a look at hunting ethics written in three parts: the first a look at subsistence hunters in Greenland, the second a look at trophy hunters and the third a look at Kerasote's own life as a hunter. I struggled the most with the third section, in which Kerasote indulged in an almost stream-of-consciousness description of going through the seasons for about 20 pages without making a point. As a journalist, I'm a big fan of getting to the point. But ultimately I appreciated the window into his way of hunting, which is deeply spiritual and pure.

More on purity in the next book...

Heartsblood by David Petersen (2000)

I had a love-hate relationship with this book. Obviously I loved it enough to include it in this list. But Petersen, more than any other hunting ethics writer, left me with the impression that there is one way to be a true hunter, and if you don't hunt that way there's something wrong with you. It's the equivalent of saying the only way you can believe in God is to join a priesthood. And it pisses me off.

Petersen attacks some hunting practices - particularly high-fence hunting, but also people who don't hike a gazillion miles from the road - as viciously as the antis do, which I just don't think is helpful. I could go on about this at great length, but I'll keep it to this: In all my reading (see especially Andrea Smalley below), discussing (think Hog Blog) and thinking, I have come to the conclusion that the degree of challenge in hunting is a spectrum and it's folly to say, "We're going to draw the line here: Your challenge must be this difficult to be considered acceptable." Taking an animal's life is taking an animal's life - either we condone it or we don't. (Albert, this is the book that was on my mind when I typed a screed posing as a comment on one of your recent blog posts.)

OK, so why am I recommending this book when it clearly got under my skin? One, I actually like being challenged. It keeps me sharp. And two, there was just a lot of good stuff in here. Petersen is the first writer I've seen address something I've always wondered about: Why is it verboten to kill baby animals when in fact babies are prime targets for predators in nature, and making them prime targets is ultimately good for a species?

Petersen slaughters that sacred cow, and every word he wrote in that chapter - charmingly titled, "The Bambi Syndrome Dismembered: Why Bambi (and Bambi) Must Die" - made sense to me.

He sounds like I guy I'd love to argue with over bourbon in front of a blazing fire - a good-spirited argument. I'm just not sure he'd feel the same way, because I am 100 percent sure I wouldn't pass his hunting purity test.

Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin (2009)

This book has zip to do with hunting, but Grandin writes about animal behavior in a way that makes me better understand not only the animals I hunt, but myself as well. In particular, she helped me understand why I am so devoted to hunting - which is expensive, time-consuming, challenging and never guaranteed to be successful - when I could just get meat at the grocery store. Click here to read the blog post I wrote about that just a couple weeks ago.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond (1999)

Again, nothing to do with hunting, but a fascinating look at the move from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural societies, and why humans in some regions fared far better than others in this quest.

The works of Andrea Smalley

As far as I can tell, Smalley - a professor at Northern Illinois University - doesn't have anything out in book form (unless you count her dissertation, The Liberty of Killing a Deer: Histories of Wildlife Use and Political Ecology in Early America, which is not available on Amazon, though she was kind enough to email me a copy of it).

But she's written two papers that I really enjoyed: 'I Just Like to Kill things': Women, Men and the Gender of Sport Hunting in the United States, 1940-1973, and The Modern Diana: Women and the Making of Modern Sport Hunting, 1870-1920. Each is a look at the portrayal of women hunters in hunting publications, written so even-handedly that I honestly have no clue whether she hunts or not.

The Modern Diana (2008) looks at how women were used to rehabilitate the image of hunting at the turn of the last century when it was coming under attack, legitimately, because of the decimation of various species (and less credibly, in my view, by the nascent bleeding-heart anti-hunting movement).

This piece contains some fascinating history that really influences my thinking about modern hunting ethics debates:

(The) clear line hunters drew frequently dissolved upon closer inspection. Outdoor writers and activist sportsmen often disagreed about what constituted true sportsmanship in hunting. In the Adirondacks, for example, debates raged in the 1880s and 1890s about the "hounding" of deer. Hunting deer with dogs was either the epitome of sport or the crassest exploitation of game, depending on the commentator. At a New York Game Association meeting in 1885, one member wondered aloud how deer could be hunted if not with hounds. It was the dogs, he thought, that “made the sport.” Others maintained that “still hunters,” who ambushed unsuspecting prey, were ultimately responsible for the reckless slaughter of Adirondack game. Proponents of still hunting, however, insisted that the practice was the only sportsmanlike method because it forced the hunter to “match wits” with his quarry. Likewise, many faithful adherents to floating, jacklighting, and crusting upheld their methods as sportsmanlike.

I Just Like to Kill Things (2005) looks at how women were systematically and aggressively pushed out of hunting after World War II, again as seen through portrayals in hunting periodicals.

Both papers look like they'd make great chapters in, or starting points for, a book, so I'm really looking forward to seeing what else Smalley produces.


There are still many books on my must-read list: Querencia by Stephen Bodio, Dersu the Trapper by Vladimir Arseniev, The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game by Paul Shepard, and ... well, you tell me. If you're an avid reader, what's the must-have on your bookshelf?

I don't know about you, but I can do only so much pig hunting before the 2009-10 duck season begins. I've got some time to read.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008


Albert A Rasch said...


Thank you very much for sharing your must reads with us. As soon as I can I am going to get the Leopold and Ortega Y Gasset.

I've been expanding my contacts throughout the blogsphere and I am embarrassed to say that in some cases, I just ain't smart enough to comment. Like here: Prolegomenon: Hunting as Sport

It's time to go back to school!

BTW, I really and truly appreciate the time and effort you take to keep us informed. Your thoughtful and thought provoking commentaries are always an education!

Your humble friend,
Albert A Rasch
The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles
Proud Member of Outdoor Bloggers Summit
Southeast Regional OBS Coordinator

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks, Albert!

But give yourself some credit - it's not that you're not smart enough to comment on that blog; it's just that those people are speaking a language in which you are not trained.

I'm not trained it it either, and that doesn't trouble me a bit. That was an academic debate in which I did not recognize hunting as I know it. I prefer a philosopher like Ortega y Gasset who manages to be brilliant, but still, as my students say, "relatable."

Blessed said...

I tend to find myself picking up books of short stories and essays about hunting - easy reading, that still makes me think some but mostly just lets me enjoy other people's outdoor experiences. I did however really enjoy reading books like some of the others you have listed here back in my other life - when I was going to college and working at the newspaper as the managing editor, before I was married with a mortgage, a car payment and a kid so I'm thinking that maybe it's time to start challenging my mind, convictions and ideas again by picking up some of these types of books. I still have an active brain, I need to engage it some more!

Oh and since I'm talking about lofty things like challenging my thinking and reading books that make you think I have to recommend "Misery Loves Company" it's a must-read picture book for any seasoned waterfowler - especially those of us who hunt where it gets COLD, but you would still enjoy it! If you haven't read it yet, pick it up some day when you need a laugh!

Josh said...

Wow, cool post! I'll definitely mention it on mine. And, I'll definitely pick up a couple of these!

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks Josh!

And Blessed, I'll have you know that I was cold at least twice this year.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha haaaaaaaaaa...

Josh said...

One interesting note about the concerns people have with Petersen is that our American way of clutching the "let me do what I do, and you do what you do", which is what turns us off from him, is also an ethos. It is the center of our libertarian ethical stance, our relationship with our government, and it guides many of our social contacts. It is also our de facto 'mannerliness'.

However, since it is an ethical position, it is also a command for another - it is telling the other person that they cannot do something. It's just about the only ethical position that is inherently contradictory, yet it works so often (not all the time, though).

On another note, I'm going to pick up, "Woman the Hunter" first, I think.

Blessed said...

I don't know if I really believe that you were ever "cold" this year... cold is when it's 4 degrees outside and you're hunting in a blind on a hot water discharge lake, where you still have to break the ice on the surface to set your decoys :)

The funny thing about that day though was when hubby fell in... by the time we got back to the truck and he got his wader's off they stood up on their own!

Brandon Darnell said...

I like this post. It makes me want to do something similar on my travel blog. As I was reading your post, I already was forming it in my mind.

So, when are you going to write YOUR hunting book?

Holly Heyser said...

Good question. I'll get back to you on that.

SimplyOutdoors said...

Thanks for this post Holly.

You commented on one of my posts that dealt with this topic a few weeks ago. And while I got some great tips on there, I ran into the problem of having too many books to chose from.

With this post I can now look at all of them individually and decide where I want to start.

Thanks again.

Holly Heyser said...

Simply, your post was what made me realize I needed to write this one, so thanks for the inspiration!

Alex said...

When I first started to get curios about hunting, I read "Beyond Fair Chase" by Jim Posewitz. A short and pocket-sized little book in simple, clear prose, I think it should be a required part of hunter education. It really helped me think about what kind of hunter I wanted to be.

I also enjoyed Mary Zeiss Stange's other book, "Heart Shots," which is a collection of essays by women about hunting. The best thing about this book is the diversity of experiences, opinions, and honest emotions it contains.

sportingdays said...

Great list, Holly. I've read some of these -- but not all. I absolutely love the rich literary tradition surrounding hunting and fishing. I grew up as hunting-and-fishing obsessed city kid without a ton of access to the outdoors. So for many, many years, I mostly pursued these passions vicariously through books and magazines. My tastes and interests in writers and topics have evolved over the years, but here are a few of my all-time favorites:

A Hunter's Road by Jim Fergus (1993). Today, Jim Fergus ( is a fairly successful novelist, particularly popular on the women’s book club circuit. Before this success, however, he spent many years as a struggling freelance outdoor writer. He absolutely knocked it out of the park with his first book, "A Hunter’s Road," which, in my opinion, is one of the best American hunting books ever published. Like you Holly, Fergus took up hunting later in life and had the writing chops to compellingly chronicle his adventures. In "A Hunter's Road," he takes his wife's yellow Lab, a couple of shotguns and an Airstream trailer on a season-long, (mostly upland) bird hunting road trip across America. That idea has been pursued and attempted by several other outdoor writers -- but none as successfully or magically as Fergus. His second book, "The Sporting Road" (1999), is a nice collection of his outdoor magazine essays and is also excellent.

Pheasants of the Mind by the late Datus Proper (1994). This is a combination how-to book and intellectual exploration of pheasant hunting in America. Proper makes an interesting argument that ruffed grouse hunting in the East became an almost mythical pursuit because of the substantial literary tradition surrounding the sport. Pheasants, lacking any kind of literary tradition in this country, never quite garnered the same kind of respect and nobility, even as it became the gamebird popular with the masses.

Colter by Rick Bass (2000). This is a great dog book by Bass, who tells the story of the best hunting dog he ever owned, a German shorthair pointer named Colter. Bass himself is better known as an environmental advocate and author. He’s also a big-time hunter who has published quite a few hunting articles in the outdoor magazines.

Jenny Willow by Mike Gaddis (2004). This is Gaddis' first novel and an absolute homerun that goes down as one of the best hunting dog books ever published. It's like a hunting dog equivalent of "Call of the Wild." Gaddis is a longtime contributor to "Sporting Classics" magazine.

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv (2005). This falls in the same category as "Omnivore’s Dilemma." It's not a hunting book per se, but makes the larger case about how important it is to get kids outside and involved in the outdoors. Louv –- who's an avid fly fisherman, but not a hunter –- supports hunting and fishing as important avenues to get kids outside and connected with the natural world.

sportingdays said...

I also tend to agree with Blessed. I prefer my hunting philosophy and theology in small doses, especially when it's incorporated into actual hunting stories and essays, even fiction.

I love James Swan, for example. He wrote a great article once on snow goose hunting and his special connection to that particular species. But I really had to work to get through his "In Defense of Hunting."

Holly Heyser said...

Sportingdays - Yep, I pushed myself through In Defense of Hunting, and found I enjoyed the second half much more than the first (you can see it reflected in the number of folded page corners).

You might enjoy Woman the Hunter, because Stange peppers the book with chapters that are hunting stories. So does Heartsblood, come to think of it.

Thanks for that book list, too. I've heard about Last Child in the Woods so much now that I think I'll make that one a high priority for my next book-buying binge.

Al - I actually have Heart Shots (you can see it in the bookshelf photo), but for some reason it never captivated me the way Petersen's collection did. Not sure why - maybe it just wasn't what I was looking for at the time.

Anonymous said...

Oh Good Lord! As if I needed encouragement to go buy more books. A list like this is rather like offering drugs to an addict. I can feel calling me already.

Thanks for sharing your list and why you read what you read. I will definitely have to check these books out.

Holly Heyser said...

Remember, Kristine, all things in moderation.

My purchase list is frustrating to me because I'm at the start of a long stretch where I don't have much reading time, unless you count reading my students' virgin attempts at writing news stories, which is ... well, not super satisfying.

Anonymous said...

Nice, Holly!

Appreciate the mention, but I think you were on track to stumble over this on your own anyway.

Great reading list, by the way. A couple on there I haven't tried yet.

Holly Heyser said...

Perhaps - I think my positions are pretty consistent, generally.

But in an era when people tend to get set in their beliefs and surround themselves with like-minded thinkers, I am very grateful to have friends who challenge me.

Reid Farmer said...

"Querencia" is a wonderful book that you should read as soon as you can. But you should also get Steve's "On the Edge of the Wild" which has more of the *philosophy* of hunting that you are addressing in this post.

Andrew Campbell said...

Holly: a great list! I'd agree with sportingdays about both Rick Bass's 'Colter' and Jim Fergus's 'Sporting Days' (even if he makes disparaging remarks about vizslas). Great books to go with the ones you've already pulled out.

I would also add George Bird Evans's 'October Fever' and Charles Fergus's 'The Upland Equation.'

all best

mdmnm said...

It looks as though you have most of the "why hunt" books covered. Like you, I find "A Sand County Almanac" and "Meditations on Hunting" to be seminal texts and my starting point.

Some of the suggestions for books about hunting experiences, such as the Fergus and GB Evans books are particularly good ones and there is a lot of thought and indirect explanation buried in there. Although mostly a fishing writer, I'd suggest you try a couple of John Gierach's books, some of which include a fair bit of hunting ("Fool's Paradise" and "Another Lousy Day in Paradise", probably others). He writes short essays with tons of quotable thoughts, humor, and contemplation.

I think it is also interesting to read about hunting as it has been written about over the years and might especially be so for someone who has not grown up hunting- we're all part of a long tradition that informs the way many of us think about hunting. I'd suggest perhaps Havilah Babcock and Corey Ford to go with George Bird Evans in that respect.

For a quirky book that gives a completely different perspective on hunting and offers a good look at having respect for your quarry, D. Brian Plummer's "Tales of a Rat Hunting Man" (reviewed by Bodio long ago) is really interesting.

Anonymous said...

I don't recall at the moment how I first happened upon your blog, but I do recall that the first time I read it I desired to tell you how much I disliked it. I still dislike it. The last thing I needed was one more blog to read! Other than that I look forward to new entries and wish to express my actual appreciation before I am any longer remiss. And, first thought for your list was also "Colter". Of course, I'm a German Shorthair fan on my fifth puppy now. "Colter" isn't hugely philosophical, but it is a short, engaging and sad read. I hail from Illinois, so I'm far from you, but as I just enjoyed my freshman waterfowl season this past year, your parallel trials and travails have been of particular interest. I look forward to your future.