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