Let’s talk about hunting philosophy. Let’s use, as a jumping-off point, a piece on yesterday’s New York Times op-ed page by a man named Seamus McGraw. You can read it for yourself, but if you’re not inclined, I can pass along the important bits. The piece is a justification both of deer hunting, and of using a flintlock to do it.
On deer hunting itself, McGraw says that responsibility to keep the deer population in check, in the absence of virtually all wild predators, falls to humans and he’s doing his part. I think that’s perfectly reasonable, but he goes on to justify using his flintlock. He admits that it’s unreliable and difficult to use, and that it sometimes fails altogether. He admits that it’s more likely to wound than a modern weapon, and tells a story of wounding a deer and having to kill her with knife.
Why use it? Here’s why:
[W]hen I took up hunting, I eschewed all the technological gadgets designed to give modern hunters an extra edge over their prey. I like to believe that there’s something primitive and existential about the art of hunting, and that somehow, stripping the act of hunting to its basics makes it purer.
There you have it. Mr. McGraw wounded a deer in the name of purity. He wanted to give that poor deer a sporting chance. Never mind that, if he really wanted primitive and existential he would have dispensed with the firearm altogether and gone out with a pointy stick.
What he really wanted to do was philosophize. He wanted to have his venison, but also to make it clear that his thoughtfulness sets him apart from his fellow hunters, those Neanderthals who use things like rifles that make a clean kill easier and more likely.
The more time I spend in the woods with a gun, the more I think that hunting and philosophy don’t mix. Recently, my friend Tovar at A Mindful Carnivore wrote a post called, “Hunting philosophies in ten words or less,” I found that all I had to say on the subject fit into five: Hunt, with care, to eat.
Okay, it’s not literally all I have to say on the subject, but it’s everything important, and certainly everything that could be called “philosophy.” I’ll take a life only if it sustains me (because I eat the animal or because the animal is a threat to what I’m planning to eat or, ideally, both), and I’ll take it in such a way as to minimize its suffering as best I can.
The only ancillary issue worth mentioning is which animals I’ll kill. Because hunting isn’t a necessity for me, I prefer to hunt overpopulated, non-endangered animals, but I’ll take the last dodo if it stands between me and starvation.
While McGraw claims that using a flintlock makes hunting more primitive, I’ll go out on a limb and posit that what he really likes is that it makes it less primitive. It gives him a reason to engage his higher faculties, and it means he has enough to say about it to get himself on the Times Op-Ed page. It means that hunting is a whole-man, cerebral pursuit. So what if a doe dies a slow death?
And that’s what irritates me about so much hunting philosophy. It’s narcissism masquerading as concern for the purity of the hunt. The idea of “fair chase” is at the heart of most of it; it’s supposed to be about giving the animal a sporting chance but is really about making the hunter feel better about himself because the hunt was more challenging. The sense of accomplishment is seriously lessened if you take a deer over bait, but the deer who dies instantly at your corn feeder has it way better than the one you wound and track through the woods for hours.
McGraw’s doe would have taken the Neanderthal with the rifle, any day, even if it meant she wouldn’t have made the Times op-ed page.