I loooooove a good book about how hunting relates us to our essential humanity. That's been the focus of my quest for understanding since I got past the first stage of hunting - hit the bird! - and moved on to the obvious question: Why do I love hunting so much?
But dang, when I got to the end of the latest book on my reading list, The Tender Carnivore & the Sacred Game by Paul Shepard, not only did my quest hit a dead end, but there was a gang of thugs waiting for me with baseball bats and switchblades when I got there.
These are not the words I thought I'd be writing when I started reading this book. I was pretty excited about it because it continued a theme I'd been exploring with Daniel Quinn's Ishmael, the story of the Fall from Paradise, and the notion that hunting connects us to that paradise. (Or at least that's how I saw it; in reality, The Tender Carnivore, published in 1973, predates Ishmael by nearly 20 years.)
From the first day I opened this book, I began doing to it what I do to all thought-provoking books that I love:
I know. Blasphemy to book lovers, but that's how I have a conversation with my books. They're friends, not museum pieces.
Anyway, there are a lot of fascinating ideas in here, which is not surprising, given the accolades Shepard has received for his environmental philosophy. The nut of it is that while most of us consider our species to be at its apex now - incredibly intelligent, technologically advanced, blah blah blah - Shepard contends that we were far more human when we were hunter gatherers, and that the path we've taken since leaving that life behind is leading to destruction.
And what quotable quotes!
"Culture is not gilt-edged exemption from nature."
"It is typical of the ideological approach to life to suppose that by political action we can make the human organism whatever we want it to be." (Take that, vegan animal rights nuts!)
"The loss from our culture of the hunter's attitude of the sacredness of eating is perhaps one reason that we have mistakenly come to think of killing animals as shameful."
And this one, which has a long lead-in: "Although it has long been fashionable to describe it so, the world of the hunting and gathering peoples is not a vale of constant demonic threat and untold fears. It is a life of risk gladly taken, of very few wants, leisurely and communal, intellectual in ways that are simultaneously practical and aesthetic, of solitude and human sparseness, in which men do not become a disease on their environment but live in harmony with each other and with nature. The ways of the hunters are beginning to show us how we are failing as human beings and as organisms in a world beset by a 'success' that hunters never wanted."
A success hunters never wanted. I like that. These are all notions that help me get to the root of why hunting speaks to me so deeply.
Then I got to the end of the book.
In Quinn's Ishmael (which I blogged about here), the author doesn't touch the subject of how humanity can return to a less destructive state along the lines of the hunter-gatherers. It's left in the hands of the protagonist, whom Ishmael, a gorilla, has educated about the problem. (Trust me, you get over the ridiculousness of that idea pretty quickly.)
But Paul Shepard goes there, and it's not pretty. He starts with a notion that microbes can produce a great deal of food for us, which reminds me of that scene in the Matrix where the humans are on the Nebuchadnezzar eating their synthetic glop and Dozer explains that it contains all the essential nutrients.
Wrong direction! my brain screamed. And I nearly fainted when I read this blasphemy: "Synthetic fats or margarines indistinguishable from butter can also be made from petroleum." I'm sorry, nothing is indistinguishable from butter. Shepard was clearly watching too many Chiffon margarine ads when he wrote that.
OK, it was 1973, perhaps the man could be forgiven such a statement.
Then he got to animals: "Domestic animals would no longer be kept, while private gardens with their domestic plants could be retained. ... Gardening is a health-giving form of human activity. Keeping domestic animals and pets is not. Plants are seldom seen as surrogate people, and there is little danger of the kind of projection and transference to them that are so familiar in psychiatric medicine. The essential otherness of plants is readily perceived and respected, however much they may be altered by domestication."
Whaaa? OK, Shepard's book, like Ishmael, is an indictment of 10,000 years of agriculture, but dogs have been domestic companions and hunting partners for a good 20,000 years, so I'm not sure why we have to be separated to get in touch with our inner hunter-gatherer. End factory farming, yes, it's disgusting. But ending mutually beneficial companionship? I'm not down with that.
Then he gets to the hunting. Finally, the good stuff!
Though his Utopian humans would all live in big cities, we'd all still be deeply connected to nature, which would be conveniently located at the back door of cities. Here's how it'd work:
"All hunting would be done by groups of men, preceded and followed by" blah blah blah blah blah. Are you serious?
"Meat not consumed in the field will be carried back to the city, sometimes with the help of women and older children, who also should participate in the cutting up of the game and the reverence felt for the dead animal."
Oh, so we can't hunt, but we can help butcher the meat? Yeah, I'd be happy to butcher your meat.
Then: "Girls will not participate in the hunting of large mammals, but they will spend as much time in the great wilderness as the boys. So long as human populations are overly large the woman's normal role of the gatherer and provider cannot be fulfilled."
Whoa. He didn't say anything about human populations being so large that the man's hunter role can't be fulfilled. Hmm.
I read to the end in disgust, wishing he'd kept his Utopia to himself, because he seemed so brilliant until he started painting that picture.
Was he just a man of his era?
It was just a couple years ago that an archeologist in Jordan found a tool kit that seemed to indicate that its owner had been both hunting and gathering, casting some doubt on the theory that only men were hunters and only women were gatherers.
And Mary Zeiss Stange debunked the enduring myth of "Man the Hunter" in her book Woman the Hunter, which wasn't published until 1997, but she wrote in that book that Shepard had reason to know better when he wrote his book 24 years earlier.
"What accounts for the fact that a thinker as perceptive and as sensitive as he, despite evidence before his eyes, could yet cling so tenaciously to the fundamental gender ideals of Man the Hunter and Woman the Gatherer?" she asked. "Perhaps in the face of massive environmental degradation and social upheaval, he sensed the only way forward to be the way back. The frontier is closing, he seems to be saying, and we must live to learn within these boundaries."
I think that's charitable. All I can conclude is that while Shepard - who died in 1996 - could brilliantly analyze our origins and our past, he fundamentally misunderstood the notion of free will and its effect on our future (on many counts, not just the ones I've highlighted here). His notion of the better future would be about as appealing to most people as Communism to a successful capitalist.
Personally, I'm with him on the core principle that the planet would be way better off if the human population were much smaller and still operating in tribal hunter-gatherer bands. I believe we'd be better off, too - happier, less driven by work, focused on things that matter most, connected to our environment, not working at cross-purposes with it. Even if that meant no Internet.
But I just don't see us going there willingly; it's going to take a cataclysm - one that few people short of Ted Kaczynski would wish on anyone.
That's getting ahead of things a bit, though. For now, I'm just trying to figure out how I reconcile Shepard's brilliance with his bizarre lunacy. I think I'll just stick to my hunting magazines tonight.
© Holly A. Heyser 2010