Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 is about the vast and growing difference between the top and bottom echelons of our society. The highly educated elite live in a kind of a bubble, sharing less and less in the way of values and experience with those on the lower half of the income scale.
While I’ve never thought of myself as the “highly educated elite,” I did manage to hang on long enough at my fancy-pants college to get a degree, and most of my friends, for most of my life, have come from the pool Murray’s talking about. Literally, I’m certainly one of “the great unwashed.” Figuratively, probably not.
Luckily, for those of us not sure just how we fit in, Murray designed a quiz to help us figure it out. Had I taken that quiz four years ago, when I was safely ensconced on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I certainly would have rated “hopelessly mired in elite isolation.” But recent experience has given me different answers to some of the questions. Have you or your spouse ever bought a pickup truck? Why yes, yes we have. During the last five years, have you or your spouse gone fishing? Maybe a hundred times. Have you ever held a job that caused something to hurt at the end of the day? I’ve hauled oysters until everything hurt.
And those things have done more for me than earn me a less contemptible score on Charles Murray’s quiz. They have given me common ground with a lot of people whose background, interests, politics, priorities, and ideas are different from mine. And I am the better for it.
I remember having a disagreement, years ago, with a friend of mine in New York. She expressed surprise that my parents, both irredeemably godless, had nevertheless chosen to raise my brothers and me as Jews. We went to Hebrew school, we went to temple on holidays, we got a standard-issue Jewish education. I explained that, first, Jews go out of their way to accommodate the godless, there being an awful lot of them in the tribe. And, second, it was the community, and not the religion, that my parents valued. And if you want community, there aren’t many places to find it. Religion and ethnicity are about the only two issues a community will coalesce around in this country. (The secular humanists have been trying to disprove that for decades, with no luck so far.)
“Fie!” my friend said. Okay, she didn’t really, because no one ever does, but that was the gist of it. She said that she considered her circle of friends to be the community in which she was raising her son.
That didn’t sound like the kind of community I had in mind, but I had to think about why. The answer I came up with, which I’ve stuck with all these years, is that, in order for a group to count as a community, it has to have people you disagree with. It has to have people you have nothing but that one community characteristic in common with. It has to have jerks. If you cherry-pick your members so that everyone gets along, and everyone likes everyone else, and any small political or ideological differences get discussed coolly and respectfully, that’s no community. That’s a circle of friends and, while it makes for great dinner parties, it is of limited utility as a stand-in for the world as a whole, the place children need to learn to navigate.
For most of my adult life, I’ve had an interesting and vibrant circle of friends. We’ve had great dinner parties. But, as Charles Murray pointed out, coming to Cape Cod, buying the pick-up truck, going fishing, and hauling oysters has expanded my circle. My new, expanded circle includes people I disagree with. It includes people I have nothing but that one community characteristic in common with. It even includes jerks.
And it includes hunters.
Hunting, more than anything, has introduced me to people I would never otherwise have crossed paths with, and I love that I can sit down with someone who may be worlds away from me politically or ideologically and talk about whether it makes sense to try the National Seashore in Truro for deer. Or how to cook a sea duck. Or what kind of dog is best for flushing pheasants.
Or whether there’s meaning to be found in being out in the woods with a gun, in search of dinner.A Mindful Carnivore, and has just published a book of the same name (or almost the same name — a book contract entitles you to a definite article). Had I never left New York, I’d never have met Tovar. Although he, too, spent time in Manhattan, he spent most of it counting the days until he could move away. I miss it so much I hesitate to go there because I’m afraid I’ll never come back. Tovar misses it not at all.
Tovar could, I think, be fairly described as crunchy. He’s an ex-vegetarian. He lives in Vermont. He takes feminist literary criticism seriously. He’s thoughtful and upright and thin. And I’m guessing he’d have to answer yes to the defining question of crunchiness: Are you now or have you ever been a wearer of Birkenstocks?
The Mindful Carnivore is about how Tovar went from a boyhood catching and eating fish to a manhood of veganism, and how he came eventually to see hunting as consistent with the values he had developed over the course of that transformation.
Tovar and I are both adult-onset hunters (an excellent term; his coinage). We both take the idea of killing very seriously. Neither of us would hunt unless we were convinced it was moral. But the similarities end there. Tovar’s story is one of a search for meaning. As he considers it, he says “I would be hunting to confront the death of fellow vertebrates, yes. And I would be hunting to learn about myself and the place I inhabited, to be nourished by the land and participate in its rhythms, and to answer a call for which I had no name.”
I, on the other hand, hunt simply to eat.
Tovar quotes Ted Kerasote, who says hunting should be “rooted in reverence,” and I think there are many, many hunters who agree. Almost everyone I’ve read on the subject finds some kind of meaning or satisfaction in being in the woods, or the marsh, or the fields, and it’s clear to me that I’m the outlier. I don’t look for meaning because I don’t think life has any other than that with which we endow it with our words and deeds. I am as godless as my parents, and I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body. I don’t even really understand what the word means.
All this is by way of saying that Tovar and I approach hunting from very different angles. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know Tovar touches a nerve with a lot of hunters, and I’m glad he’s there to articulate ideas that are clearly important to many people – people I talk to, people in my community.
But don’t let all this give you the impression that Tovar’s book is unrelentingly philosophical. It isn’t. Its seriousness is punctuated with humor and periodic questioning whether all that seriousness is warranted. One of my favorite parts is when he first starts deer hunting, and goes deerless for a couple of seasons. At one point, he comes in from another fruitless hunt, irritated. “I was failing as a hunter,” he says. “not only failing to bring home meat, but also failing to find meaning in the pursuit.”
No meat, no meaning. Welcome to my world!
Tovar visits Cape Cod regularly because his Uncle Mark, who I had the good fortune to meet on Tovar’s last visit, lives here. This year, Kevin and I hope to bring both of them out on our boat, maybe in search of bluefish or striped bass. When we’re out there, I look forward to talking to Tovar about some of the bigger issues he finds in fishing and being out in the great outdoors, because otherwise I would probably be thinking about what’s for dinner or whether it would be OK to pee off the stern when we have guests, and Kevin would be thinking about sex.
Maybe I should ask Charles Murray if he wants to join us.