One of the indelible memories I still carry from childhood was the annual hunting trip my dad took with a group of co-workers every fall. They’d head out for a week of bow hunting in the hills surrounding the Finger Lakes region of western New York with a couple of trucks loaded with sleeping bags, cooking gear and boxes and boxes of food. A week later, they’d return, all of them sporting scruffy beards and toting paper-wrapped slabs of venison.
For a grade-school kid, nothing seemed more romantic, although my dad was quick to launch into tales of sitting for hours in the pre-dawn cold and the wet, miserable treks through the bush tracking an elusive buck.
Truth is, all those years my dad never actually bagged a deer, and for a pretty fair archer I look back now and realize that for whatever reason, he never really had the stomach for bringing down any of the many animals I’m sure they spotted in a week of hunting. Nor did he encourage us kids to plan on joining their hunting party when we were old enough to buy a license, although I’m convinced that had more to do with the après-hunt libations they no doubt consumed, rather than any sensibilities about killing wildlife.
Meanwhile, out West, elk and deer season begins next week in states such as Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Not only does it mean that tens of thousands hunters are gearing up for days and weeks in forests and rangelands in search of game, it also signals the release of dozens of obligatory columns about the appeal of hunting from the region’s newspaper columnists who cover the outdoor sports beat.
You can pretty much expect one of two chestnuts: Either a glorified paean to the thrill of the hunt, or the annually recycled “a-good-hunter-is-a- prepared-hunter” screed that’s little more than a glorified infomercial for Cabella’s, Gander Mountain or Sportsman’s Warehouse.
However, one columnist who departed from those time-honored categories is Roger Phillips, who covers outdoor sports for the Boise-based Idaho Statesman. Phillips recently wrote a provocative column titled, “Hunters are the original locavores.”
Not being a dedicated hunter myself, I hadn’t thought about that angle, nor was I aware of how strongly outdoor enthusiasts are picking up on that theme as a way to leverage support for the endangered pastime of hunting.
Phillips wrote, “Among the thousands of camo-and-orange-clad hunters roaming pine forests and sagebrush hills in search of game [are] a few new hunters who didn’t grow up in hunting families, have never killed an animal and couldn’t care less about antlers.There’s an under-the-radar movement of people who are seeking something better than shrink-wrapped meat of dubious origin, and they’re willing to kill for it.
“They’re called ‘locavores.’ As a lifelong hunter who kills, cleans, butchers and cooks his own game, it’s no revelation that there is a tasty, healthy, four-legged food source right out our back door, and it’s interesting to see people without hunting backgrounds learning to take advantage of it.”
Ex-veggie on the hunt
Phillips went on to note that several prominent writers and hunting advocates have embraced a similar meme. For example: Jackson Landers, author of “Hunting Deer for Food,” describes himself as a “locavore hunter.” Landers, a Virginian who was born into a vegetarian family and didn’t eat a cheeseburger until he was 10, decided to take up deer hunting hunt deer when he was 29 as a way to feed his family because he had hardly any money for food.
[“Landers] looked at hunting from ethical, environmental and economic angles before buying a rifle and searching nearby woods for white-tailed deer,” Phillips wrote, quoting him as saying that, ‘Having a real need to feed your family will erase any doubts about what you are doing. The deer dies so that you and the people you are feeding can live. This has been the essence of predation since time immemorial. It is utterly rational, natural, and I think, moral.’ ”
Phillips also referenced Washington-based outdoor writer Bruce Barcott, who wrote an intriguing article in Backpacker magazine last year about his experience as a first-time hunter (seewww.backpacker.com/hiking-and-hunting/destinations/14747). He described himself as “a backpacker, a car camper and a bird-watcher. I’ve thrown bait and flies at Alaskan salmon and Rocky Mountain trout, climbed Cascade volcanoes, paddled Sierra rivers and I’m a skier of catholic taste. But I’ve never been hunting.
“Like a lot of Americans these days, I’m trying to live closer to my food,” Barcott wrote. “I’m eating backyard vegetables and buying eggs from my neighbors. I decided it was time I met my meat.”
Phillips stated that “Killer Hunt”was “probably the best hunting story I’ve read in years. Barcott described his preparation and his hunt in wonderful detail. He explored with fresh insight the divide between hunters and people who enjoy the outdoors but don’t hunt.”
Most importantly, he wrote, Barcott’s story “bravely and honestly” described his emotions after killing a three-point buck.
“I feel happy. Proud. Fulfilled,” Barcott wrote. “The two minutes and 10 seconds that elapsed between the time we spotted the deer and when I pulled the trigger were among the most intense, primal, and profound moments I’ve ever spent in the outdoors. I can’t explain those feelings. But I can’t deny them, either.”
As citizens of Consumer America, most of us don’t spend a week or two tramping through the woods on the hunt. We forget that no matter what your diet, living creatures have to die for us to eat, and nothing brings that reality into sharper focus than subsistence hunting to put meat on the table.
Phillips closed his column with the following gem: “Hunters often judge their success on whether they harvest an animal. That’s an obvious measure of success, but those who enjoy every moment of the experience, whether it’s a communal meal around a campfire or a misty sunrise on the forest, free themselves from the anxiety of having to kill an animal to feel as if they’ve had a successful hunt.”
Just as raising livestock isn’t only about slaughtering animals for food, hunting—and hunters—can hardly be defined solely by how many carcasses get hauled back to town.
To read the entire article on hunters as locavores, log onto http://www.idahostatesman.com/2011/10/09/1832067/hunters-are-the-original-locavores.html.
Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator