A noted author and devoted hunter shares his perspective on the impact that hunting has on ethics, conservation and public perceptions of killing and eating wild game.
Some years ago while I was living in Chicago, my brother-in-law John and his wife Simone came over from Australia for a visit. We spent a couple days up north in Wisconsin, camping, sightseeing and drinking — c’mon; they’re Aussies — and on the Sunday we were planning to drive back to the Windy City, John said he’d love to see “a typical American pub.”
Okay. We’re in northern Wisconsin. It’s September. Football season. Sunday morning. How hard is it gonna be to find a sports bar and hang out for a couple hours, right?
So, the first little town we came to, we pulled into the parking lot of a bar and grill all decked out in Green Bay Packers signage (naturally). Inside, a couple dozen locals were getting primed for a raucous afternoon of cheerin’ The Pack and hatin’ the Vikes. And by “primed,” I mean eagerly consuming a veritable ocean of beer and multiple rounds of shots.
Hey — that’s what Sundays are for.
Anyway, as we were sitting around enjoying the ambiance and a downing a couple rounds of Leinenkugels, I couldn’t help but notice that the entire rear section of the dining area was draped off with a massive canvas tarp. I figured there must be some sort of expansion going on, although with a lengthy bar, plenty of tables and chairs and an apparently unlimited supply of wings and nachos flowing out of the kitchen, I wasn’t sure what else the place might require.
Then, about an hour before kickoff, the proprietor strolled out, and with the help of a couple regulars began taking down the tarp. There was no construction going on, however. Instead, at the end of a 40-foot alley, there was a life-sized cardboard cut-out of a Vikings player propped up against several bales of hay.
Suddenly, as if on command, a group of guys (and two women, I should point out) walked over to the area — all of them carrying hunting bows and steel-tipped arrows.
To the accompaniment of lots of cheering, they took turns firing arrows at the target. Needless to say, my Aussie brother-in-law was enthralled. He made a comment to the effect that, “You Yanks know how to party!” and expressed his regrets that he didn’t happen to have a bow and a quiver of arrows on him at the moment so he could join in the fun.
I didn’t bother explaining that most American taverns don’t actually have an archery range on the premises. I mean, why tarnish a magic moment?
Hunting as conservation
I bring this up, even though it’s not hunting season, after perusing a news story about a recent speech in Madison, Wis., by Steven Rinella, a dedicated hunter and author of the intriguing book, “MeatEater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter.”
Rinella’s talk was sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Madison as part of its “MOOC” series —an acronym for Massive Open Online Courses — which have been touted as an important addition to traditional educational curriculum.
According to a story in the Green Bay Gazette, Rinella noted that a UW MOOC titled, “The Land Ethic Reclaimed: Perceptive Hunting, Aldo Leopold and Conservation,” attracted more than 6,000 students during its four-week run (and is available online at http://moocs.wisc.edu/mooc/landethic/).
Leopold, by the way, was the author of a seminal 1949 book, “A Sand County Almanac,” in which he wrote about the need for a “new ethic dealing with humans’ relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.” Leopold believed that ethics motivates people to cooperate with each other for their mutual benefit, and he fostered the idea that the concept of a “community of the land” should be enlarged to include not just wildlife but the soil, water and plants.
“That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology,” he wrote, “but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.”
Here’s the connection: Rinella told his audience that it’s been hunting that has provided him “the most meaningful experiences” he’s had in Nature.
“I won’t lie and say that if it weren’t for hunting I wouldn’t be able to eat,” he told the crowd. “I’d eat just fine if I weren’t hunting for my meat, but spiritually I’d feel I was starving to death,” he was quoted in the newspaper.
He recalled his first time sitting in a tree stand by himself, when his father decided he and his brothers were old enough to hunt by themselves. “I was dreading the day I’d have to go sit [there] by myself,” he said. “When you sit in the woods and watch it get dark, everything around you gets its chance to be a bear.”
Although I’m no hunter, I can relate to that feeling. But the deeper message is that hunting puts people in situations that are no longer part of everyday life in our comfort-driven, stress-adverse lifestyles. Rinella said that suffering from real hunger on a lengthy wilderness hunt when the party’s rations run out underscored for him the value of wild game as a resource.
“[As hunters], we all respect deer,” he noted, “but have we learned to respect all the things that go into producing that deer? Do we respect the soil, the plants that feed the deer and the water that falls from the sky to grow the plants?”
Rinella asked his audience to consider how “the other 95%” of Americans view those who hunt.
“The public ‘owns’ the wildlife — it’s a public trust,” he said, “and it’s advantageous to scientifically manage wildlife through hunting.”
Along with his MeatEater book, Rinella’s sentiment is one I heartily endorse.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator