Hunting has been, for me, two parallel journeys.
One is obvious: Acquiring gear, learning how to use it, learning how to hunt. That I began this journey at age 41 has been sheer delight. I enjoy stretching my brain, and revel in the fact that I didn't leave behind learning when I finished my degree 22 years ago.
The second journey - a journey of the mind - has been equally thrilling. Until recently.
This journey has its roots in this blog, which I started on Nov. 4, 2007 - one year to the day after the first time I pulled the trigger on a shotgun.
I quickly became enamored with writing not just about hunting, but in defense of hunting. Hank would call it "the zeal of a convert," but to me, it was just a natural response to discovering that hunters, and hunting, weren't what I'd thought they'd been. At all.
When you make it your personal mission to defend hunting, one thing you quickly find out is there's one aspect of what we do that is incredibly hard to explain, satisfactorily, to non-hunters: We deeply love an act that culminates (on good days) in taking another creature's life.
Interestingly enough, while most hunters will never articulate the reason as well as Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, every hunter I know says hunting provides a connection to nature. (This oversimplified answer, of course, prompts a predictable response from non-hunters: Can't you enjoy nature without killing it?)
But why? I kept asking myself. Why do we crave this connection?
I did a little introspection and became interested in the notion of Eden. Having been raised by atheists, I did not accept the Bible's explanation for why we left Eden, but I knew Eden once existed: It was the remnant of our past that I touched every time I went hunting.
Why was I so hungry for this?
I scoured other hunters' reading lists and Amazon for things that might help me understand, and I devoured a lot of books:
Ishmael, a novel that calls into question our 10,000-year-old assumption that the way we used to live was terrifying and awful.
The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, a book about restoring that way of life (albeit with some deeply flawed visions of the future).
The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World, a book about the tension between us civilized folk and some of the last remaining hunter-gatherers.
The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability, a scathing indictment of the precepts of vegetarianism that damns the agricultural revolution in the process.
Health and the Rise of Civilization, a detailed look at the deteriorating health that accompanied every transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural lifestyles.
Slowly, the why emerged and grew, and it led to an amusing discovery: I actually have something in common with anti-hunting vegans:
Vegans are ashamed of what we are - an omnivorous species that's built its bodies and brains in no small part on the flesh of fellow animals. They want to run away from that, as fast and as far as possible. They want to evolve into something else, so they have built for themselves a diet that reflects not their bodies' needs, but the moral construct through which they view the world.
I, on the other hand, am ashamed of what our species has become: an organism relentless in its quest to dominate and control nature, at the expense of plants and animals that have every bit as much right to be here as we do. I want to run away from that - to discard 10,000 years of agriculture and embrace the very lifestyle denigrated, quite unfairly, by the agriculturalists.
In one way, this is a righteous statement: I accept the terms and conditions under which nature operates. Life feeds life. It isn't always pretty for the individual (be it plant, animal or human), but hot damn, it works really well as a system when you don't eff with it.
It is also, of course, a perfect explanation of why hunting is not only acceptable, but essential, in the grand scheme of things. Individually, you can do it or not do it, but on the whole, it is vital. It is the very stuff of life. Vegans can entertain whatever fantasies they like about how nature should work in a "moral" world, but the reality will remain the same.
The problem, though, is this: At its core, this is is still a worldview rooted in self-loathing, and that, my friends, is unhealthy.
When you really examine the concept of what it means to control and manipulate nature the way we do, you see demons everywhere. Every disposable coffee cup looks like an unconscionable waste of resources. Every car, an obscene destroyer of air and land. Every subdivision, an unnecessarily large usurpation of habitat.
I mean, seriously, can anyone argue that these are good things? Convenient, yes, but good? I think not.
Of course, I use all of these things. I try to minimize my environmental footprint: I can and do use travel mugs and canvas shopping bags. I drive a four-cylinder car. I have a back yard in which a substantial chunk is allowed to go wild, providing habitat for little creatures.
But I am undeniably a member of a destructive species that, when given the chance, is shamefully wasteful.
I used to believe that we are capable of doing better. Back in the 1990s, I used to play a computer game called SimEarth. It was super fun: You get a planet with a bunch of types of animals - primates, reptiles, fish, etc. - and you tinker with conditions that will determine which becomes the dominant "higher" life form. You can change the tilt of the earth's axis, change how much light is reflected from the planet, and after a civilization has emerged, alter the balance of investment in art, philosophy and science.
The game follows clear patterns: Your dominant species grows too large, wages wars, wrecks the planet and implodes in an epidemic of disease and/or destruction. If you're really good, though, you can maintain a small outpost of highly advanced civilization that has learned to live in non-destructive harmony with the planet.
I used to believe that humanity might be capable of reaching such an apex of civilization. But now I'm not so sure.
It was that last book that killed my hope - Health and the Rise of Civilization. I used to think the hunter-gatherers lived right, in harmony with other plants and animals. But that book showed me that all of human history has been marked by the same drive to expand beyond the bounds of our habitat.
When we needed to grow, we pushed into new territories. When there were no new territories left to fill, we pushed our hunter-gatherer diet, adding less nutritious foods like grains. When that was no longer enough, we invented agriculture - the ultimate control of fellow plants and animals. When that was no longer enough, we invented ever more clever means of extracting what we could from the plants and animals around us.
The trajectory of more more more has always been there, though it was far less noticeable before the agricultural revolution.
I had been, at the time I read that book, working up the courage to write a book of my own, about the intellectual journey that hunting had sparked in me. But the journey was taking me to such a dark place that I couldn't bear the thought of going through with it. Even if I could write it, I couldn't imagine who would want to read such a depressing tome, besides the people who think the world is coming to an end on May 21.
I became deeply depressed, so I abandoned the book. I immersed myself in work, which was, at the time, blissfully busy. I went on gun-less hikes and fruitless turkey hunts. I started to feel better.
It has taken me more than a month just to feel ready to write this blog post, and still with every new paragraph I spew out, I contemplate hitting the "delete" button.
If I actually hit "publish," I almost feel sorry anyone who reads this far. I'm not the kind of writer who enjoys wallowing in her depression. I find depression insufferable, particularly when it's my own.
But I'm looking for something.
Just as most of you have gone through the same stages of hunter development that I've been going through, I'm thinking you may have been down these intellectual roads as well.
So tell me, please: Once you discover the beauty of what we used to be, how do you gracefully accept what we've become? Because if this is just one of those stages in my parallel intellectual journey, I'm quite ready to move on.
© Holly A. Heyser 2011
Monday, May 16, 2011
Hunting has been, for me, two parallel journeys.