I have been a hunter for as long as I can remember. As a child, this meant squirrel safaris with BB guns or slingshots, “afield” with my friends in backyards and woods accessible by bicycle. More occasionally it meant outings to farms with my uncles and cousins after quail or dove (“buhds,” they were called categorically). I learned a lot about the rudiments of adult responsibility from these outings. One could lose an eye to a BB gun or a slingshot (and once, I very nearly did). And it was indelibly impressed upon me that even a single-shot .410 or a .22 rifle was not a toy and could easily kill a person. The cardinal rules of gun safety were drilled and re-drilled on each outing. Later, I would learn to abstract them and apply them to life more generally. How many life mistakes could I have avoided if I had taken the time and care to be sure of my target and what was beyond it?
A misbegotten and reactionary foray into vegetarianism during high school was inspired by my reading an essay on the subject by Leo Tolstoy. His argument ran roughly as follows: you know that you can be perfectly healthy without eating meat; so, if you eat meat, you are doing it to gratify your appetite at the expense of the lives of animals. That made sense to me, but, more significantly, it was a convenient platform for my teenaged moralism. My family had moved by that time to the sprawling metropolis that is southeastern Virginia, and venatiary opportunities were few and far between. My shotgun was sitting neglected in the closet anyway.
I abandoned vegetarianism in college, forced to do so, I felt, by the lack of options in the college refectory. “Man cannot live by cheese pizza and iceberg lettuce alone,” I reasoned with myself. Tolstoy had obviously not been an undergraduate at Sewanee.
After quick transgressions with fish and chicken, my gustatory horizons expanded beyond my scruples and once again encompassed hamburgers and pepperoni. Circumstances coalesced, as they will, and I returned to the field and have done so with increasing frequency as the years have gone by. I have done my bit for land management in Texas by removing from the landscape quite a few of the twenty-first century’s great, invasive destroyer: the wild hog. The Rio Grande Turkey has found its way into my bag, and I have even taken an Aoudad — my only foray into “big game” hunting, not counting the Greater Kudu I killed accidentally with a car one morning in the South African veldt. But my favorite quarry remains “buhds” — typically dove, duck, and, once every few years, the quail that have been rapidly disappearing, along with their habitat, from their historic range in the southern United States.
I am haunted to this day by Tolstoy’s logic, but the distinctions have grown ever subtler in my mind and have been seasoned by Hooker’s three-legged stool. God gave animals to man for food after the flood (Gen. 9.3), and we know that God came to earth and tucked into at least fish (John 21.9-13) and lamb (Luke 22.8-15).
Jase Robertson once mentioned on Duck Dynasty (a show and a phenomenon that fascinates me) that he prefers not to eat meat that he hasn’t killed himself. That sentiment haunts me too, and it has to some extent exorcized the ghost of Tolstoy from my consciousness. It injects into the economy of food an element of personal responsibility for the usually unconsidered blood-letting and violence that makes eating meat possible. And it makes hunting subversive within the context of globalization and the hegemony of corporate food production over individuals and families and of investment banks over corporate food production.
Clergy have been forbidden to hunt by a number of councils down through the centuries. But the reasons seem to have little to do with killing animals. In 1563, for example, the Council of Trent drew a distinction between “clamorous” and “quiet” hunting (Session XXIV, 12). The former generally involved large and expensive packs of dogs, stables of horses, and the privilege of land-access and partying, as well as servants to see to all the foregoing, and so it was forbidden to the clergy; whereas “quiet” hunting involved none of these things and hence was allowed. Similar concerns, under the banner of secular class resentment, seem to have motivated the popular outcry against fox hunting in the UK several years ago. Fox hunting may be cruel, but our real problem with it is that it is the preserve of the privileged few. And at any rate, cruelty is a concept that is very quickly relativized in the context of the animal world. A bullet is a comparatively quick and painless end when one considers the destiny of animals left to their own devices in the wild.
The Spanish philosopher (and hunter) José Ortega y Gasset once said, I am told, that man does not hunt so that he may kill. Rather, he kills so that he may have hunted. This distinction may be lost on the non-hunter. But hunting for me is as much, or more, about eating with integrity and spending time with friends in the primary reality of creation. It is about the delight and deep satisfaction born of the necessity of becoming familiar with the way animals behave, with what they eat, with how they interact with the weather and with the topography, and with one another. My most satisfying duck hunt was one on which I never fired my gun. I sat in the cattails as dawn broke and “talked” to the ducks with my call, heard them talk back, and watched them circle overhead and come in to land among the decoys, apparently satisfied that I was one of them.
I once spent days driving and walking over land that I had been hunting for years, ostensibly looking for hogs, but finding none, and realizing that I was in fact bidding farewell to hills and creeks that I loved, that had become a secret part of myself, and that I would see no more because my friends, the owners, had decided to sell the ranch. I sat in my truck and wept.
Or there was the time, years ago, quail hunting with my cousin in south Georgia, riding home at the end of the hunt, with the smell of pine trees and horses and saddle leather and gunpowder mixing in the air, the mule wagon creaking rhythmically along the ruts behind me, the woods green and golden and brown as the sun was setting. My uncle’s recent death in a car crash, not far from the place we were hunting, weighed heavily that afternoon. But I was also rejoicing at the recent birth of the fifth generation of that land’s stewards, my cousin’s beautiful little girl. I was so contentedly intoxicated by the atmosphere that I almost fell out of the saddle, the two-man limit of quail in the wagon a mere punctuation mark at the end of the day’s eloquence.
The French Dominican priest and World War II resistance fighter, Raymond Leopold Bruckberger, once wrote concerning America:
Here, the land has not yet entered into communion with man, and man has not penetrated the mystery of the immense natural forces that shelter him. This land is terribly in need of blessing. The land is perhaps the promised bride of man, but she is not yet his. Most often she refuses to give herself or submits against her will. The land and man do not know each other in the flesh and in the spirit.
God has entrusted to us the task of being faithful and wise stewards of the land, not just gazing longingly at her contours, but coaxing them firmly and gently into fruitfulness. We are meant to be custodians of the mystery of nitrogen and minerals and water becoming stalks of millet and corn, husks of rice, or sunflowers or pine trees. Individual opportunities to realize this vocation are becoming increasingly rare and precious, as they are offloaded onto the algorithms of autonomous machines, irrigation systems governed by photo cells and barometers, GPS-guided combine harvesters, and industrial feedlots run by clocks and computers.
Last weekend I rose hours before dawn, put on my boots, and drove out into the countryside. I took out my shotgun, shouldered a dozen decoys, and followed a familiar network of furrows through a soybean field to the edge of a pond. The wind was chilly out of the north, and the clouds were low as I set up and marked the minutes to legal shooting time. Before long I heard a familiar rush of wings from behind me as a flock of Blue-winged teal dove low over the spread, circled around, and came back in. I missed more than I hit that morning, but that is beside the point. Back home, as I was dressing the birds, their blood and feathers warm and sticky and beautiful on my hands, I thanked God for the intricate mystery of it all, for the life that had been theirs and was now mine, for the food they were becoming, and for land and friendship and water, and for the grace of divine nourishment at every level of the world’s being.
The image above is “Beaver Creek Quail Hunt” (2009) by Torrey Wiley. It is licensed under Creative Commons