The Irreducibility of Hunting
An Article submitted by Mr. Mitch Kendall



Dr. Lee Foote
Associate Professor
Dept. of Renewable Resources
University of Alberta

This article first appeared in "Fair Chase" the publication of the Boone and Crockett Club

I would be flattered for my gravestone to read "A good hunter; a trusted
companion; an engaged and contemplative soul who lived his dreams".
Inevitably we "do" but a small proportion of the things we plan, wish to, or
dream of.  There are too many engaging options swirling around for us to
partake in more than a scant few of them.  What hunter doesn't daydream of
African safaris, barren ground caribou hunts, Arizona javelina; speargunning
for tuna in the California kelp forests, or dove hunts in Mexico? I suggest
that we should carefully choose those few we can afford then partake with
all our being to wring the very essence of the hunt out of these touchstone
events.


In the western, privileged, consumer countries we have unprecedented and
almost incomprehensible access to resources.  We live in a way where simply
articulating our ankle unleashes the equivalent of a 200-horse team pulling
our chariot; where our chariot can bring home the edible, wrapped portions
of a large ungulate without us breaking a sweat or a spear point.  Indeed,
our hunting heritage may have brought about altered tooth structure,
bipedalism, stereoscopic vision, language development, social behavior,
tool using and even sex roles. We embraced these aspects of humanity with
aplomb but it raises an important question - what relict behaviors and
instincts do we share with our ancestors and how do we fit them into city
life full of parking lots, mortgage payments, canned food and movie
theaters? 

Most of us have seen the lashing tail and flicking ears of a housecat eyeing
an unreachable birdfeeder; it requires little imagination to link tabby to a
leopard stalking an impala.  So why should we hesitate to acknowledge as
instinct the quickened pulse and urgent whispers of hikers happening onto a
herd of deer?  It follows that those who hunt and think about their actions
may be finding authentic outlets in which to exercise their instinctive
drives.  Might this explain the depth of commitment and satisfaction that
hunters find in their pursuits?  These are things we draw from our deep
senses but as modern creatures we need to go one step farther to absorb and
processing the meaning embedded in the act of hunting to mesh it well with
our new-found culture.  After all, we spend relatively few of our waking
hours engaged in the hunt each year. The remainder we are expected to be
gentle and civil citizens.

We are jerked backward and forward in time even as we unthinkingly munch
South American nuts coated with German chocolate wrapped in aluminum foil
from African bauxite mines and sold in North America; we are twitching like
that window-watching cat as we sit in front of a big screen and vicariously
live the panic of a tailback in full flight from a predaceous linebacker.
Are these sensations authentic? . . . undoubtedly yes, because perception is
reality in regard to interpreting our senses.  We have all the tools,
however deeply buried in our brain stems, to relish the fatty, oily richness
of cocoa oils just as distant relatives relished the kidney fat of a
mastodon calf.  Our instincts are engaged and some flickering primal sense
gratifies us with a small endorphin rush for passing that Brazil nut over
our tastebuds.   Elation awaits us for reaching the virtual cover of the end
zone uncaptured. We are not alone in our vicarious pursuits - what hunter
hasn't pondered the dreams of dogs in their whimpering, leg-twitching sleep.
Those canine practice chases must be just as real as a young boy's dreams of
a Gretsky slapshot or Jordan jumpshot.  But that is where it ends.  Right in
our heads.  That is no place to live, no rabbit fur, no hat trick, no
three-pointer, no safari. 

I would advocate spending time in pursuits that we not only have the
instinctual tools with which to immerse ourselves deeply, but also those
where our intellectual tools can be brought to bear.  This is important for
us to make sense of what we have wrought.   Neither of these tasks is easy
but the rewards are commensurate with the effort.  I am talking about
thinking through the endeavor of hunting with intent. 

Birdwatching, like baseball, gets one only halfway to this goal.  Hunting is
the focused intent to find, interact with and try to kill a chosen animal,
sense the well-earned elation, use it to fuel our bodies, share the
symbolism and absolutism of meat, tell and retell the events to others.
Dwelling upon and learning from the experience brings us full circle.  There
may well be other activities that can do this too.  Active participation in
(as opposed to merely watching) most sports reaches these steps to some
degree; observe, physically act, learn & grow. Elemental physical sports
with great doses of anticipation, uncertainty and interaction with other
identified forces come to mind - boxing, sailboat racing, whitewater
paddling.   However, the differences between the meaning of a hunt and the
meaning of team sports seem profound in their subtlety. 

Sports games are defined by rules concocted by humans to provide a
challenge.  An arbitrary bar height, a ticking clock, a chalk-delineated
area of field.  As we are engaged in sports games there is no abandonment of
culture to move back in time to ancestral preparations of body, mind and
equipment.  Quite the opposite, we must use a fair proportion of our senses
simply staying within the bounds of the rules because any lapse and we
forfeit our goal.  With hunting, there is an absolute touchstone goal that
cuts across the entire activity- killing one's quarry.  The finality of
killing is an absolute consideration in hunting that is not duplicated
elsewhere in sport with the possible exception of bullfighting.  Though
ethics and social norms are woven into the selection and methods of killing,
there is an absolute finality and gravity in deliberately stopping a heart.


A culture has developed around most forms of hunting but as late as the
beginning of the 20th century culture, rule minding was still a minor point.
Passenger pigeons were taken with dynamite, ducks with rock-laden punt
canons, bears with snares, and bison from trains.  Few objected to any means
used in achieving an animal's demise any more than the cat is denied its
mouse for the unsporting means of taking it in an enclosed dustbin.  Rules
have tightened about hunting as a way of prolonging the opportunity to hunt
in the face of swelling human populations and more efficient technology.
Even today where technology and population lag, Inuit hunters may harpoon
seals, noose rabbits, and snitch eggs from goose nests.  Canada's Woodland
Cree set snares for moose, and shoot sharptailed grouse on their leks.  A
Denesulfine hunters may shoot a dozen swimming caribou at a good crossing
and tow them from their motorboat's transom back to camp for dog food.  As
human populations increase, these activities will diminish and laws, band
rulings or taboos will likely crop up pragmatically to prevent their
recurrence.  To most people geographically or generationally isolated from
eating wild-killed meat these activities seem barbaric, heartless and  . . .
uncivilized.  When "uncivilized" becomes a pejorative it speaks volumes
about how far cultures have drifted from a natural way of living.

By way of contrast, a young, ethical, sophisticated dentist that wade-fishes
a stream with an expensive fly rod to catch and release several dozen trout
causes few emotive ripples from people that have lost their nature
connection.  Point of fact, however, his unintentional hooking mortality
(about 10% usually) will likely kill two trout.  Fifteen-inch trout in the
north are probably 10+ years old; three times as old as those caribou that
were shot while swimming.   The trout were not used and he accepted no
responsibility for their death.  He has behaved in a far less defensible
(some would say honorable) manner than a Tuktoyuktuk girl who eats eider
eggs for supper.  Her hunting, her eggs, her pride, her nutrition, and she
remembers where she got them!  To the raided goose she is no different, no
less natural, than the grizzly bear whose tracks she crossed as she searched
the river's edge. They are both hunters driven by and gratified by the same
exact events, killing and eating an egg.  She has maintained a clear
behavioral connection all the way back into the inky depths of our evolution
and she has helped carry it forward one more generation.

All this natural interplay aside, are there other compelling reasons for
hunting in a modern era?  There seems to be no clear link to evolutionary
fitness in the short term, or is there?  What does it mean for someone to
say "I am happy" or "I am content"?  For most, hearing a family member say
that is deeply pleasing, especially if both have played a part in the state
of being happy.  However, ultimately people must look within themselves to
recognize happiness.  They give themselves permission to be happy, then they
have the sense to reflect on this condition enough to say "I am happy".
Often the distractions of living in a bustling crowded environment that is
divided into or hour time blocks doesn't allow people to ascend to the
total happiness plane.  Even if they manage to get there, distractions
rarely allow them to settle down enough to relish the condition and roll it
around in their mind.  Some people learn that getting well away from other
humans is the first step toward being able to hang onto their happiness and
actually enjoy the privilege of being.

I, like many readers herein, am most uniformly, unconditionally and purely
happy when I am actively hunting.  I am also most acutely aware of it
because there are almost always long quiet pauses built into the process.
The setting is not devoid of distractions; it is only devoid of the
demanding sort that can't be ignored.  These are natural reflection periods.
For one thing, there is a pure escape from the socio-cultural material
world.  There is no discrimination between hunters based on the weight of
their wallet, the expense of their wristwatch or the kind of vehicle that
transported them to the field.  Those commonly used economic measures of
happiness are stripped away and afield we are all equal.  There is an
elegance to sampling the nuances of the surroundings, and the process of
getting outside of one's body, area and epoch to try on different
perspectives like one tries on clothing.  It is a way of being-in-the-world
and feeling connected to the elemental attributes of heat, cold, muscle
contractions, precise hearing, deep hunger and the exercising of very primal
parts of the brain that hearken back to dark and pure urges.  Whatever
endorphins or internal gratification feedback loops are at work here, they
seem to be hardwired, but it takes some peeling back of the urban cultural
layers to get to their honest core. 

 The complete absorption in some fully occupying task is fulfilling.  All but
the most jaded, unthinking, vicarious-livers know the satisfaction of being
fully engaged in some demanding task, be it casting a fly precisely while
balancing in cold water, racing through moguls on a snowboard, gluing up a
tedious 900 piece model airplane, devouring a challenging book or stalking
on red-alert through an Acacia woodland.  Activities of total absorption.
These are what psychologists call "flow-experiences" and they share certain
attributes, including a complete unawareness of one's feelings, a loss of
the sense of time (My god! Where did the last 3 hours go?), a deep sense of
calm, a peacefulness, and maybe exhilarated exhaustion after the activity is
over. These flow experiences may be so valued by adults because they are so
rare.  We are fortunate if we have 50 hours of fully engaged flow
experiences out of the 8760 hours available each year - less than 1% of our
time.

 Children seem much more capable of being fully in the moment and often are
so deeply preoccupied with a game, contest or a painting that when they
finally look up they are overly tired and famished with hunger.  Some
behaviorists contend that play during adolescence is preparation for life's
more serious endeavors as an adult, particularly related to physically
procuring food and competing for mates.  So, have we prepared ourselves
during childhood for something we never get around to as adults? Maybe we
love the involvements that let us return to the blissful carefree
unawareness of childhood. Through hunting we can re-enter the zone of
engagement that we carry instinctively in our bones, that we practiced as
children and now reconnect and implement as adults.  

 

Hunting is one of the most honest behaviors we can access and even then, it
is not always possible to reach the full-out screaming immersion of the
six-year-olds' Ferriswheel experience.  Sometimes our adult baggage creeps
in and ruins the experience, or more tragically, we never get around to
participating in the core activities. 

There is one overriding reason hunting provides a better, more dependable
passage into being fully connected, leading to a better chance of entering
flow-experiences.  In hunting there is an intended quarry; another entity as
fully and honestly engaged in the activity of pursuit/evade as the hunter.
When hunting with commitment, one is lured or channeled into the most
complete level of engagement.  It is the difference between waltzing alone
or with a partner.  If one is hunting with a dog, falcon or even a close
cooperative companion, there is a second cooperative spirit that pulls one
in demanding the effort to participate fully. 


However, it is primarily the purity and completeness of the hunted animal's
drive to elude, deceive, escape, or even attack the hunter that is the
lovely expression of millennia of evolution preparing it to survive.  This
evolutionary response is what makes clear the steps the hunter must make to
keep the dance from being a mockery.  We must follow through with our best
effort to kill our quarry and this for the sake of the evolutionary process
that brought both of us to this point. These flow-experiences are not
independent of the final milliseconds of subduing quarry. In the long
pageantry of anticipation, preparation, practice, apprenticeship, travel,
pursuit, killing, possessing, processing, sharing, consuming, telling,
re-telling, analyzing, speculating and appreciating, the actual kill is one
step on a long winding staircase.  Without it though, things would be quite
different and some subsequent steps would not be reached.  Hunting without
the intent to kill is not hunting any more than a dress rehearsal is not
theater.  Without an appreciat-or there is no art appreciation.  Without
prey there is no predator.  Without predators, grouse become chickens, deer
become goats; wildfowl become barnyard dabblers and mice become small
hamsters.  


On a hot September fencerow with dozens of doves streaking past and a very
warm shotgun barrel I am sure to be reeling with the euphoria and pure
engagement of a predator. I am so very very alive and I relish the sway
between periods of calm quiet and the subsequent crouching, spinning and
shooting.  This teeter-totter of being fully engaged interspersed with
introspective boredom can make the hands on my watch spin frantically until
I look up and realize the sun has set and my stomach is rumbling.  It is
time to return to the ordered and clock-metered life with three-squares and
a foam pillow.  The bumpy ride back from pasture to gravel to pavement
completes my transition back to the civilized realm and is accomplished with
a grin and some satisfaction, not because I may have brought eight ounces of
bird to earth but because I succeeded in leaving my routine role, my common
sphere.  I stepped out and back in time to exercise instincts long dormant.
The sense of satisfaction, all bag aside, was in seeing life and death in a
very different way for a few hours and the fact that I will carry this
rejuvenation with me in reliving and anticipating my next experience.
Hunting continues to renew us, give us humbling mortality insights, and
provide hope for our next role escape.  There are so very few things in our
lives that yield these most precious of gifts: renewal, humility, insight,
and hope.  We must treat hunting with the same reverence we hold for our
religions, our children, and the world's greatest works of art.


BCWF ALERT
John B Holdstock
BC Wildlife Federation
Kelowna, BC
 

The world is run by those who show up.

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