Tuesday, March 08, 2005
I occasionally irritate friends by highlighting their environmental transgressions. It's only fair, then, that they should return the favor by challenging me to defend hunting.
I consider myself a conscientious hunter. I eat no meat, including fish, unless I catch it or kill it myself. I kill only a few animals a year and catch fewer than ten fish. Otherwise, I live on a vegetarian diet, aiming to minimize my contribution to the environmental degradation wrought by the meat industry. Moreover, I hunt only species biologists deem to have "surplus" populations, such as white-tailed deer (and, then, only does), mallard ducks (only drakes), cottontail rabbits, and some species of squirrel.
Unfortunately, there are also surplus "trash hunters," and I will defend neither their ignorance nor their abuse of the hunter's ethical contract (see my post on the New Jersey black bear season). For me, hunting is a reasonable and thoughtful activity, not at all at odds with being "green."
Laughing, drinking beer, telling dirty jokes and tall tales - all of these things are associated with the "hunting tradition," but I wince when I witness such self-consciously masculine behavior in the field. The dealing of death is no laughing matter. I will gladly share "good times" over the resulting meat meal, but the activity of hunting is, for me, a time of inner quiet and outer awareness. The camaraderie should take place before or after the hunt; save the stories for the grill or a winter evening football broadcast, but do not offend the sanctity (and gravity) of the hunt with such boorish behavior.
I'm therefore disturbed by the word "sport" when it is applied to hunting or fishing. "An active pastime or endeavor" is one of the given definitions of "sport" and, in this application, it accurately describes a range of activities, including hunting, fishing, rock climbing, or basketball. But "sport" is more closely associated with balls and strikes than with bag limits. In my own (undistinguished) athletic career, more than one coach told me to "have fun out there" and reminded me that "to excel at the game, you gotta enjoy it." But the killing of an animal is no "game" and, though the hunt can be considered enjoyable, "fun" isn't the word I would use. In fact, the experience is often deeply emotional and distressing.
But let's be honest, I could give up meat altogether and never again have to convince anti-hunters that white-tailed deer hunting benefits the environment or that I honor and admire the creatures that I kill. Why do I continue to do it, then? I must admit that a significant part of the appeal of hunting is existential. Those first difficult moments after you execute a large ungulate are transfiguring; your own mortality is highlighted and a sense of oneness with the natural world preoccupies you. Your intimate connection to the brutal deed, and to the slain animal, reduces the ego, opening you to a more universal experience of the universe. To use Dr. Morris Berman's analogy, the experience removes the respectful hunter from the vertical worldview and allows him to reside as part of the horizontal stretch, if only for a few hours. My love and respect for the natural world is rooted in the time I have spent outdoors, but particularly in the time that I've spent hunting. Birdwatching, a pastime I enjoy a great deal, might afford me an encounter with wonder, but hunting always seizes and wraps me in the beautiful, ambivalent mess that is the Everything. It is hunting, above all, that humbles my spirit, and makes me profoundly grateful for life, in every sense.
Three news items have me thinking about hunting and death today. SWORDS, robotic killing machines, have made headlines recently. The United States military will begin using these death toys in Iraq later this year. Last week, reading an issue of Outdoor Life Magazine, I came across this article on remote-control hunting. This morning, on my subway ride to work, I read that the makers of the videogame, "JFK Reloaded", are offering a $100,000 prize to the gamer that can most convincingly re-create the 1963 Dallas assassination of President John Kennedy.
There is a common thread. "JFK Reloaded" allows us to kill a digital Kennedy as often as we like, trying to make that "perfect shot." To enjoy such a game, where the target is not a faceless "enemy" but instead a well-known person who was assassinated relatively recently, the gamer must abstract (or even debase) his or her sense of morality. Our culture, as any religious zealot will tell you, is experiencing a moral schism. Murder, even for our soldiers in Iraq, is becoming an abstraction. From fist to blade, blade to spear, spear to arrow, arrow to bullet, bullet to...what? How can you describe a system whereby the man-boy assassinating a digital JFK on the computer screen might as well be gunning down Iraqis with a SWORD or slaughtering a big buck on a Texas game farm? For that matter, is not the murder of the pixel proxy similar to the pricking of a Voodoo doll? A clear association is made by the gamer; the digitized image on the screen - your quarry - represents a flesh-and-blood human. But when you pull the plastic trigger and assassinate JFK, that's that. You can turn off the gaming console and hit the sack. No police will show up at your door. No posttraumatic stress disorder will accompany your return to civilian life. No bang. Just a click.
The disconnect between animal and meat on the plate is but part of the problem; with every passing month, the disconnect between hand and killing becomes more ingrained in our culture and, as I see it, such a trend does not bode well for empathy. With less empathy and compassion in the world, abstraction of the "other," already a natural inclination, becomes that much more easy. Terribly, this leads to more violence.
Photo credit: Titled Forum Project