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Suddenly, 'ethical' hunting is hip in urban America -- at least as a social statement

Craig Medred
Stephen Nowers illustration

A front-page story in Tuesday’s New York Times celebrates hunting, sort of, without ever mentioning what it really is -- a lot of damn hard work, as legions of Alaskans know.

But then the Times’ Dwight Garner appears more into hunting as a social statement than hunting as a serious food-gathering activity. He's big on the "blasting,'' "blow(ing) things away,'' "mowing down animals,'' and, of course, writing about it. After reading four new books about hunting, he concludes, "the woods this fall, these books imply, will be crawling with iPad-owning, J. Crew-wearing Natty Bumppos. Be prepared to duck.''

As if no hunter owned an iPad before Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire founder of Facebook who decided to take up hunting last year.  And as if ducking when people shoot does much good. Better to get a tree between yourself and the shooter. No telling who might be aiming low.

Still, it is nice to see the Times featuring a story on hunting that casts natural food gathering in a generally fair light, even if Garner seems intent on focusing on how strange all of this is to him and, in his view, much of the rest of urban America.

'A bizarre coming out'

Lily Raff McCaulou, he writes, "grew tired of urban life. Like a character in a Diane Keaton film, she moved to Oregon. Ms. McCauloa had never hunted....Her friends and 'hippie blue-state parents' were dumfounded. 'Won't you be the darling of the right?' her father says. To her, it was 'a bizarre version of coming out.' "

Whatever. McCaulou and Garner are clearly both ignorant of the game-gunning hippies of the 1960s in Chase, Alaska, an old hippie outpost north of Talkeetna, the tourist town now famous as the jumping off point for Mount McKinley climbs and flight-seeing tours. Further back, the hippies of the ‘60s and ‘70s settled along the Yukon River or elsewhere in Alaska, where there was and is little choice but to start shooting things and eating them -- or starve to death.

Coming north and west from the Lower 48 states, the hippies of old (not to mention a few today) quickly learned what the Athabascan Indians who came east and south from Asia instinctively knew 10,000 years before. In the north (or at least the old north), you hunt and you trap or you die. There was a lot of trapping back in the day.

Hint to Garner:  Trapping animals or shooting them is better than blowing them up, because if you "blow things away,'' there isn't much of anything left to eat. Garner himself is clearly clueless as to the business of killing things.

"Nothing wows jaded dinner guests like a braised shank of calf moose that you've recently 'harvested' and 'dressed' -- hunting euphemisms for killed, skinned and disemboweled -- before bringing it to the table,'' he writes. In the first place, most hunters know "calf moose'' are rarely shot, and big game is almost always killed, gutted and then skinned in that order.

Oh well.

"What feels counter intuitive and new here, though, is this,'' Garner writes. "Writers have largely taken to hunting, they say, for ethical reasons. They've read their Michael Pollan and Eric Scholler, their Peter Singer and Jonathon Safran Foer, and are intimate with the horrors of industrial meat production. They no longer wish to have an anonymous hit man between themselves and supper. They want to thoughtfully stare their protein in the face, to take locavorism to blood-flecked new heights.''

They want to thoughtfully stare their protein in the face?

Those are the words of a non-hunter if ever there were any, the words of a writer who has never put boots on the ground to discover there's seldom time to stare anything "in the face'' in the field. Hunting entails hours savoring -- or being pummeled by -- the natural world around you, mixed with split seconds of action. The killing happens in a flash. In that moment, there's a lot of heart-pounding bloodlust and a need to make the shot, often quickly. There's no time for thoughtful anything.

No time for thoughtfulness

I shot a bunch of fowl the other day and didn't look any of them in the face, let alone have time for any thoughtful crap. The mallards comes out of the grass; the shotgun comes up automatically and goes boom, boom, boom. Lars heads out to start rounding up the carcasses. That's how much thoughtfulness is involved.

The thoughtfulness comes later or, God forbid, after a duck goes down crippled, and Lars brings it back still alive, and I have to wring its neck like some poor sucker involved in industrial meat production. I don't like to see animals die slow deaths. I'd rather kill them fast. I've spent too much time around nature. I don't like to be like the natural world – where things often die slowly. I'd rather get it over quickly, in a humane way.

Maybe that puts me out of sync with Garner's "decidedly non-macho, non-pickup-driving embodiment of a new breed of American hunter.

"Does the kind of sensitive, ethical hunting explored in these books have, as they say, legs? Mr. Zuckerberg's personal year of slaughter ended in May. His self-improvement task for 2012, he has said, is to spending more time coding.''

Teary-eyed?

That question is posed in the last paragraph of Garner's story. I guess we are to take from the two lines that follow that his answer is that sensitive, ethical hunting is just a passing fad.

OK by me. I drive a pickup, and I'm happy to go back to being the macho, pickup-driving embodiment of the old breed of American hunter -- even if I happen to be ethical and, yes, sometimes even a little sensitive. Yeah, I can get a little teary-eyed sometimes watching sappy movies. And I don't think I'm the only pickup-driving red-state man with this problem.

All of which just leaves me wondering what it is about these East Coast wimps that makes them think tough guys can't be sensitive, or that the American hunters of old were unethical. Teddy Roosevelt -- a guy who would become president of the United States in 1904 -- helped found The Boone and Crockett Club in 1888 for nothing but ethical reasons. He and George Bird Grinnel feared American big game was being hunted to the point of extinction, which it was. They wanted to shift the dynamic from hunters killing any animal they could find to killing only big, old animals -- protecting the young and breeding populations. Thus was born so-called "trophy hunting,'' which helped drive the evolution of the conservation movement in this country and now gets regularly dissed in Alaska because of some mistaken belief "trophy hunters don't eat what they kill.''

But that's another story. The important thing to note here was that Roosevelt was plenty ethical and sensitive to conservation issues on a grand scale without being some limp-wristed pantywaist. The new East Coast crowd might have only just discovered hunting ethics, but that doesn't mean hunting ethics haven't been around for a long time.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com