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The nature of the hunt

Article by Chas S. Clifton

Hunting – October 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Lit from behind by the rising sun, a big mule deer buck trots up one of Poverty Mountain’s shoulder ridges. When he stops, the sun transforms his breath into glowing fog. Braced against a boulder, I try to find him in the rifle scope, the optically focused sun exploding into my eye.

Ten minutes later, I am kneeling by the deer’s head, thanking him. My hunting partner and I will spend the rest of the day getting him off the mountain.

Although hunting is one of humanity’s oldest activities, it’s condemned by many modern people. And I speak here not of subsistence hunting (although some extremists condemn even that), but of hunting by people who have other sources of food as well.

As I see it, in a world struggling to find a new attitude towards Nature, nothing separates the players as much as their attitudes toward wildlife, attitudes fostered by religion and spiritual perspectives.

Much of the modern world’s attitude begins with Genesis, in which God tells the first people, “Be fruitful and increase, fill the earth and subdue it, rule over the fish in the sea, the birds of heaven, and every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Other Old Testament passages serve to reinforce the message: the animals were put here for us.

But more recently, a moral perspective has developed that sees killing animals as entirely vicious and hunters as essentially ignorant victims of circumstance — or at least that’s how they see hunters who belong to hunting cultures like those of pre-contact North America. The rest of us who hunt are simply regarded as depraved and perverted.

Thus, under pressure from decades of such moral disapproval, a number of contemporary thinkers and writers have brought forth a view of hunting’s value based on spiritual values and aligned with modern environmentalism.

Historically, Christian moralists approved of hunting — but with certain reservations. The “Hunting” entry in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, declares that hunting is morally permissible. “Catholic theology classifies the capture of a wild animal as a title of ownership… However, unnecessary cruelty must be avoided, such as making captured animals suffer for a long time.” Priests, however, were forbidden to hunt frequently or clamorously (for example, riding to hounds) because such conduct does not conform to clerical decorum.

Protestantism scarcely modified that view. When it did, the modification most frequently came as a condemnation of hunting for being an insufficiently sober and industrious activity.

In 1885, the editor of a pioneering American conservation journal, Forest and Stream, looked back a decade or so and recalled how “a man who went ‘gunnin’ or fishin” lost caste among respectable people just about in the same way that one did who got drunk.” Frivolity was the sin, not killing.

And, of course, Enlightenment science and philosophy continued on the same course — less the divine sanction.

But today, many Christian thinkers are too busy coping with repeated assertions that the “Judeo-Christian ethic” is responsible for environmental destruction to worry much about hunting specifically.

As Christianity Today noted in its report on the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, “The Christian presence at the forum was swamped by a plethora of feminist, universalist, and monist groups who argued that a new religious paradigm must replace the old one, which was shaped by patriarchy, capitalism, theism, and Christianity. Many blamed the ‘old paradigm’ for the environment’s destruction.”

Obviously, opposition to hunting is gaining ground these days — even though some opponents embrace incongruous logic. Or as a writer, an acquaintance of mine, recently put it, “It must be a part of our New Age to pretend to admire ‘primitive’ cultures — their artwork and dances — but to be appalled by the act of killing and eating a deer or elk…”

Through the ages, ambivalence has permeated Christian attitudes toward hunting. But no such ambivalence toward hunting marks what is now called the animal-rights movement. As Peter Singer, one of its most influential thinkers, has written, “We didn’t ‘love’ animals. We simply wanted them treated as the independent sentient beings that they are, and not as a means to human ends.”

BUT IF ALL SPECIES should be treated equally, and some of them are carnivorous, what is wrong with humans also being carnivorous? Where is the separation?

Singer responds, “It is odd how humans, who normally consider themselves so far above other animals, will, if it seems to support their dietary preferences, use an argument that implies we ought to look to other animals for moral inspiration and guidance! The point is, of course, that nonhuman animals are not capable of considering the alternatives, or of reflecting morally on the rights and wrongs of killing for food; they just do it. We may regret that this is the way the world is, but it makes no sense to hold nonhuman animals morally responsible or culpable for what they do.”

The key phrase here is, “We may regret that this is the way the world is.”

Underlying the animal-rightists’ objections to hunting, whether by two-legged, four-legged, flying, or swimming predators, is a fundamental disgust with Nature that casts the hunter as the bad guy.

This attitude pervades contemporary society. The New Mexico writer Stephen Bodio in his memoir Querencia describes relaxing with some “very good, very civilized friends” and watching a PBS nature documentary. “The usual cheetah began the usual slow- motion chase after the usual gazelle. The music swelled to a crescendo then stopped dead as the action blurred into real-life, speed, dust, and stillness. Betsy and I raised our glasses and clinked them. Our hostess had left the room and her husband looked at us, puzzled. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘You’re the only people I’ve ever seen who cheer the bad guys in the animal shows.'”

The attitude Bodio describes, reflects an underlying belief that the material world is a botched job.

But that idea did not begin with twentieth-century animal rightists. In Western thought, it can be traced back to the Pythagoreans, some early Gnostic Christians, and to the Manichæans, another Middle Eastern religious group with Christian roots.

Among Gnostic Christians, material creation was commonly seen as the inferior production of a false god who used the enticements of the material world to lead humans astray. To lessen their ties with the world, therefore, both Manichæans and Gnostics were frequently vegetarians, who often avoided sexual intercourse and particularly the conception of children — because in their viewpoint, procreation only served to trap more divine souls in this evil, material world.

At their most extreme, Manichæans ate only fruit such as melons that separated naturally from the plant or vegetables that had been gathered by lower-ranking believers.

Today a sort of neo-Manichæism pervades the hunting debate. Advocates of the spiritual position, that all killing is bad, drift toward a dualism of absolute good and absolute evil, and their rhetoric strikes a sustained note of rage.

Fundamental to the animal rightists’ argument against hunting is the old Gnostic teaching that humans are not really part of nature but are trapped in it and owe it nothing.

Consider Ron Baker, author of The Hunting Myth, writing in The Animals’ Voice, “Obviously there is a great deal of difference between predation in nature and human self-gratification and ecocide on the other! Natural predators evolved as meat-eaters and must kill in order to live… Predators don’t kill to be wantonly cruel. They kill because they must and there is no dishonor in that.”

Let us merely consider his assumption about “evolution.” Take the whitetail deer, for example.

Found from the Atlantic Coast to the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains, the whitetail developed during the Pleistocene period. Archaeologists, meanwhile, date human migration from Asia into North America as occurring during the late Pleistocene, perhaps 20,000 years ago or more.

For tens of thousands of years, therefore, North Americans have been hunting deer. Thus, whitetail deer evolved with humans as one of their “natural” predators.

So how long, we might ask, must humans be interacting with the “natural world” before their actions are considered “natural”?

Or, as the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset asked, since humans’ hunting is directly derived from their hominid ancestors’ ways, at what time did humanity cross the line and step outside “nature”?

But the neo-Manichæan dualist is always troubled by the “wild” component in humanity. Hear the words of Edward P. Smith, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, speaking in 1873 to a group of Otoe chiefs who had traveled from Nebraska to Washington, D.C., to ask permission for a buffalo hunt.

Smith responded, “We must do one thing or the other, either let you continue wild as you are now, or make you like white men; and nothing keeps up this wild living like hunting.”

Now compare the words of the well-known animal-rights spokesman Cleveland Amory: “Hunting is an antiquated expression of macho self-aggrandizement, with no place in a civilized society.”

IT IS INTERESTING TO SPECULATE what the Otoe chiefs would have said to Cleveland Amory.

In my opinion, Amory, Commissioner Smith, Baker, and others who would so separate humanity from the natural world and assign it to a different moral order are on slippery ground.

Although evolution may explain why our brains are larger, or why our ability to access information is greater than that of our fellow creatures — as yet scientists cannot weigh and measure our morality. Men merely assume that they are morally superior to all other animals and to their own human ancestors. But if such moral superiority really does exist, than why do modern societies teeter on the brink of nuclear and environmental destruction?

For their part, outdoor writers, never tire of citing statistics about the actual growth in some animal populations since the bad days of the 1890s to 1920s, when market hunting began to be curbed. Whitetail deer and wild turkeys, for example, are far more prevalent than a century ago, whereas the numerical decline in waterfowl, for instance, can be laid at the feet of pollution and habitat destruction rather than hunting.

Regulated recreational hunting in the United States has not caused any wildlife species to become extinct, endangered or threatened. But according to John Reiger, the former executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society, anti-hunters “would prefer to condemn the hunter who shoots a dozen ducks every waterfowl season in a swamp that in many cases only sportsmen’s money has preserved from the dragline and bulldozer, rather than the developer who obliterates another swamp and takes it out of wildlife production forever.”

A simple recital of success stories is not enough, however. A spiritual justification for hunting is necessary in modern times.

The notion that “wild” might also be “sacred” was supported by the nineteenth century Romantic Movement. And long before that, in ancient pagan traditions, hunting was a sacrament, instilled with magical and mystic reverence.

Today, revived pagans, who are modern people who uphold old pagan traditions, believe that man is an essential part of nature — not a being above or apart from nature.

As contemporary writers seek to express the value of hunting, many of them are integrating these ideas — that the “wild” is sacred, and that man is an essential part of that “wild”. As a spiritual justification for hunting, this concept moves beyond the “old paradigm” viewpoint of man’s dominion over the earth — yet also flatly refutes the moral condemnation of “humans-as-predators” found among animal-rightists.

When we look at hunting’s place in the modern world, we see that for a large number of people, whether they hunt or not, whether they sanction the activity or not, the old “domination” rationale is no longer adequate to guide our relations with wild animals.

People opposing hunting are most likely to do so on the grounds that it causes pain and suffering. Animal liberationist Peter Singer applied this argument primarily to factory farming and medical experiments on animals. Although he does not acknowledge this fact, many hunters would go at least part way with him. My own father, who taught me to hunt, stopped eating veal years ago.

But compromise and partial agreement are rarely good enough for absolutists.

YET THERE ARE DANGERS in viewing the world as black and white. To show how alienation from nature can go too far, writer Stephen Bodio is fond of citing John Crowley’s novel Beasts, about a society whose members withdraw into a huge building surrounded by a preserve, feeling that they, as humans, have damaged the earth enough.

Such an action, Bodio writes, would be a crime, “a denial second in enormity only to an atomic war where we would take many other species with us.”

Bodio argues that hunting encourages biophilia, a hands-on fascination with and participation in the natural world in all its aspects rather than a squeamish withdrawal from some of them. “Hunting, done well, breeds involvement a lot better than looking at nature pictures does. My Audubon Society activities are more driven, my knowledge of threatened creatures and places is made more intimate by my hunting and fishing.”

One can only hope that attempts to rewrite the cosmos to fit an old Manichæan moral scheme are doomed to failure — before wild animals are replaced with shopping malls and monocultural fields of soybeans to feed the tofu market.

To appreciate nature, we must be willing to enter the animals’ lives. Mysteries are always paradoxical, and this one is no exception. We enter the cosmic give-and-take; we admit our sometimes predatory nature, and we let the wild into ourselves, a true form of holy communion, a participation.

In a recent Reed College commencement address, Gary Snyder said: “I think the developed world can still find a way to be fully part of this planet — civilized, technological, hyper- intellectual as it is — at the same time becoming ‘nature literate,’ knowing the details of nature well, and fully at home with the wild, both within and without.”

Elsewhere Snyder writes, “To acknowledge that each of us at the table will eventually be part of the meal is not just being ‘realistic.’ It is allowing the sacred to enter and accepting the sacramental aspect of our shaky temporary personal being.”

Personally, I fear that to lose the attitude of humans and animals sitting at the same table and taking turns at the feast — would be an abandonment of our participation in Nature.

We can no longer afford to think of Nature as “out there” and separate from humanity — and, I would add, from divinity. Nor can we pretend that nature will always heal itself without us.

For some of us, an occasional sacred hunt immerses us in these connections. It is our pilgrimage to Eleusis, our sojourn in the desert, our journey to the mountain, our vision quest.

Chas C. Clifton, a former outdoor magazine editor, hunts in Colorado, lives in Wetmore, and teaches English at the University of Southern Colorado in Pueblo. This article is adapted from his award-winning essay which originally appeared in the San Francisco-based magazine Gnosis: A Journal Of The Western Inner Traditions.