Thursday, April 20, 2006

Undoing The Gordian Knot

Michael Pollan, Hunting, and The Rest Of It

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"The fact that you cannot come out of hunting feeling unambiguously good about it is perhaps what should commend the practice to us....If I've learned anything about hunting and eating meat, it's that it's even messier than the moralist thinks. Having killed a pig looking forward (if that's the word) to eating that pig, I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu eater. Yet part of me pities him too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris."
-Michael Pollan, "The Modern Hunter-Gatherer"
I'm always pleased when I come across an article that clearly conveys a concept I have been striving to articulate with limited success, so I'm indebted to a co-worker for bringing to my attention Michael Pollan's (relatively) recent essay, "The Modern Hunter-Gatherer," in The New York Times Magazine (March 26, 2006). Pollan, the author of The Botany of Desire, Second Nature, and, most recently, The Omnivore's Dilemma, is a sensitive, thoughtful proponent of hunting. But whereas most writers who wax poetic about the hunt are guilty of romanticizing and simplifying what is, in fact, quite messy(1), Pollan argues that the hunter can not be a moralist. Rather "the grown-up hunter, the uneasy hunter...recognizes the truth" that resides in contradiction, or, as Robert Kimber put it in his excellent Living Wild & Domestic, "the uncompromising romantic has to compromise with the realist."

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Before I continue, however, let me provide some background explanation of why Pollan's piece strikes a chord. As I wrote in my March 2005 essay, "Hunting JFK,"
"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 only ten or so fish. I live on a vegetarian diet otherwise, aiming to minimize my contribution to the environmental degradation wrought by the meat [and fishing] industr[ies]. I will hunt only those species biologists deem to have 'surplus' populations, such as white-tailed deer (does only), mallard ducks (drakes only), cottontail rabbits."
Environmental degradation was not Pollan's principal motivation, but his reasons for picking up a rifle and heading into the woods of northern California to stalk and kill a feral pig (Sus scrofa), an introduced species descended from the European wild hog, are no less significant. The son of "one of the world's great indoorsmen," Pollan had never hunted. He "had long felt that, as a meat eater, [he] should, at least once, take responsibility for the killing that eating meat entails. [He] wanted, for once in [his] life, to pay the full karmic price of a meal." That Pollan should feel this way is admirable. Most well-educated Westerners are now too timid, too cloaked in denial, to address such base issues. Turning again to Kimber, "If the step from hunter to herdsman-plowman was the first great step in the process of alienation from nature and self, then surely the step from herdsman-plowman to city dweller, driver of combines, and feedlot engineer has all but completed that process."

All contemporary omnivores - the vast majority of humans - are necessarily implicated in the grisly business of meat "manufacture." The pork chop on the plate is more than a tasty entree; it was recently a living animal. After stunning, assuming that process goes smoothly, the pig's throat is slit by machine (or man) and the viscera is spilt before meat preparation begins. Every pig-eater who prefers to cast such realities from her mind is afraid of more than blood and gore or even the potential for undue suffering on the part of the animal. She is, above all else, afraid of confronting her own mortality. If, on the other hand, you know what it's like to kill a fellow creature, you consume flesh with full knowledge of what brings the food to the table: execution. Pollan suspects as much, even if he remains suspicious of the "ecstatic" language used by the likes of Ortega y Gasset and Hemingway.(1)

Pollan's account of the boar hunt makes for good reading, but his consideration of the aftermath is especially excellent. He struggles with his confused, intense reaction to the shooting and dressing, a polite term for gutting, of the large animal.
"...the rest of the organs tumbled out onto the ground in a heap, up from which rose a stench so awful it made me gag. This was not just the stink of pig wastes but those comparatively benign smells compounded by an odor so wretched and ancient that death alone could release it. I felt a wave of nausea begin to build in my gut. The clinical disinterest with which I had approached the whole process of cleaning my pig collapsed all at once: this was disgusting."
My upbringing was very different from Pollan's. I grew up assisting in the gutting and preparation of dove, quail, duck, deer, rabbit, squirrel, and other animals. As I told a Scrawled correspondent in a recent interview,
"Some of my early memories are, quite literally, bloody...As a child pondering the blood of a slain animal, I was deeply moved, at once overwhelmed with sorrow, and energized by the realization that the neon red glowing on my trembling hands was spilt life. The more familiar I became with death, the more tied to life I felt. It was an introduction to 'the Circle of Life,' even if it wasn't at all what Disney force-fed us."
Pollan draws similar conclusions, but because his is a new experience, he searches for an explanation where those us accustomed to death do not. This search begins with an examination of his nausea.
"...[W]hat was this attack of revulsion all about, anyway? Disgust, I understood, is one of the the tools humans have evolved to navigate the omnivore's dilemma - the elemental question of what we should and should not eat. The emotion alerts us to things we should not ingest, like rotten meat or feces. And surely that protective reflex figured in what I was feeling as I beheld these viscera, which no doubt did contain microbes that could sicken me. Our sense of disgust, as Steven Pinker has written, is 'intuitive microbiology.'"
Pollan's revulsion is the product of our animal hard-wiring. Routine killing and butchering may arrest or weaken this disgust - repetition dulls all sensation - but it remains an inevitable reaction. Like it or not, we are genetically adapted to the Pleistocene lifestyle Hemingway pined for. Pollan may cope well enough in modern-day California, making a living from selling words, but he still becomes ill at the sight of undesirable innards and, when hunting, turns into what he calls "alert man"(2), a more aware animal, one making full use of its senses. Ever conscientious, though, Pollan probes further and discovers something more than genetic coding in his violent revulsion.
"...there had to be more to it than that, and later, when I did some reading on disgust, I acquired a better idea what else might underlie my revulsion. Paul Rozin, a cultural psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that many of the things that disgust people do come from animals — bodily fluids and secretions, decaying flesh, corpses. Beyond the sanitary reasons for avoiding certain parts and products of animals, these things disgust us, Rozin suggests, because they confront us with the reality of our own animal nature. So much of the human project is concerned with distinguishing ourselves from beasts that we seem strenuously to avoid things that remind us that we are beasts, too — animals that urinate, defecate, copulate, bleed, die, stink and decompose...Exactly why we would strive so hard to distance ourselves from our animality is a large question, but surely the human fear of death figures in the answer."
Ah, yes, and so we arrive again at existential fear and the reason most folks prefer to distance themselves from the killing of the animals they consume. To "[pay] the full karmic price of a meal," Pollan must not only execute the pig, but also own up to the deed. Coming to terms with killing is far more challenging than pulling a trigger.
"What disgusted me about 'cleaning' the animal was just how messy — in every sense of the word — the process really was, how it forced me to look at and smell and touch and even to taste the death, at my hands, of a creature my size that, on the inside at least, had all the same parts and probably looked very much like me. The line between human and animal I could discern here, gazing into that carcass, was nowhere near sharp...In this, I decided, was one of the signal virtues of hunting: it puts large questions about who we and the animals are, and the nature of our respective deaths, squarely before the hunter, and while I'm sure there are many hunters who manage to avoid their gaze, that must take some doing."
For years I've tried to express as much so simply, but I tend to talk around the core of the matter, relying heavily on co-opted constructs and borrowed phrases. Even when I do feel I'm in the ballpark, most folks still willing to listen dismiss my attempts as little more than morbid rambling. After all, I live in New York City and, as far as most people know, eat a strict vegetarian diet. Why am I interested in championing hunting? What sense does that make? Pollan's remarks on the "signal virtues of hunting," particularly the difficult questions raised by the killing of other animals, suggest an answer.

One sometimes hears hunters - the more literary among them, anyway - say, "I kill to have hunted; I do not hunt to kill." This hackneyed comment refers principally to the heightened sense of immediacy and awareness alluded to earlier. Pollan likens this sense to a marijuana high; in fact, it is merely our inborn predatory instinct at work. But while there is certainly much to be said for the act of hunting itself, it is the killing that for me remains the essential existential experience. The hunt allows us to access our rarely used programming, to make full use of our special abilities, but the kill is like a Zen koan, a Gordian knot undone only by willful ignorance or reliance on moral certitude.

As Pollan suggests, avoiding the animal gaze "must take some doing." To approach a fallen animal, a creature you have just killed, is difficult but transfiguring. In the glazing eyes of the dead beast, you confront your own mortality. Terrifying though this may seem, I associate these moments with a profound sense of oneness with the natural world. In accepting responsibility for the brutal deed and recognizing my connection to the slain animal, my ego is reduced. There is an exhalation of the isolated, confused experience of contemporary life, and an inhalation of the universal(3). Dr. Morris Berman's analogy is pertinent: the experience removes the respectful hunter from the vertical, hierarchical world view and allows him to reside as part of the horizontal stretch, if only for a spell.

Unfortunately, I'm no stranger to the so-called "hero shot," the photograph of a hunter standing or kneeling behind a freshly killed animal. (In the case of smaller game, like rabbit or duck, the hunter proudly displays the creature in his hands.) It's a simple enough composition, dull and undistinguished: hunter, weapon, and prey. Usually the hunter smiles broadly. Open any contemporary "hooks-and-bullets" magazine and you'll find these images on most every page. I've never cared for these photos but, because my father is an outdoor writer, I've grown accustomed to his requests for such pictures. These days, article sales depend on the quality of the accompanying photographs as much as they do the writing, so I dutifully pose and do my best to muster a smile. Judging by my father's regular appeal - "C'mon, Christopher. Let's see a happy face. Look like you're enjoying yourself." - I don't often succeed. Why should I smile? I've just killed an animal. I'm spacey and contemplative. I'd prefer to be left alone, given adequate time to commune with the creature I have killed, minus the backslapping and the misdirected camaraderie. The experience is special, certainly, but not celebratory or joyous.

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Apparently, most hunters do not suffer such brooding thoughts. Even Pollan, despite describing his emotions in the first moments after killing his boar as "surging and confused," admits to feeling proud and "unambiguously happy." It isn't until he sees the photograph of himself "kneeling on the ground behind a pig the side of whose head has erupted in blood," "one proprietary hand" placed "on the dead animal's flank," that he realizes how strange his happiness is.
"The man is looking into the camera with an expression of unbounded pride, wearing an ear-to-ear grin that might have been winning, if perhaps incomprehensible, had the bloodied carcass sprawled beneath him been cropped out of the frame. But the bloodied carcass was right there, front and center, and it rendered that grin - there's no other word for it - obscene. I felt as if I had stumbled on some stranger's pornography....No one should ever see this."
Some of the more seasoned hunters I know will write off Pollan's reaction as silly, indicative of a weakness borne of liberal ("sissified") elitism and a life removed from the realities of nature. There is some truth to that, surely, but what of their own unwillingness to consider the situation completely? They are just as guilty of ignoring the knot's complexity; they opt to "undo" it with denial's blade. As I see it, the ignorance of the prideful "sport" hunter is equivalent to that of the staunch anti-hunter(4).

And that brings me to an obvious distinction; Michael Pollan and I are not typical hunters. In fact, the more used to the predominantly vegetarian diet I become - it's been several years since I ate meat regularly - the less often I will hunt or fish in the future; maybe one day I will stop altogether, instead concentrating on a backyard vegetable garden. I am familiar already with the gravity of killing and the associated ego erasure. Given the power of that experience, it will always inform my art making, my writing, and the way I live my life. The insight may, like a tattoo, fade with time, but it will not disappear. Pollan, too, is unsure if he will hunt again, despite only having done so once. I am sympathetic, even if I feel he should try other forms of hunting before abandoning the practice altogether. We - and I mean all of us, not just hunters - need more voices like his, voices that challenge the intellectual hegemony of dullardism, on both the Left and Right. There are no simple answers to complex questions, and there are only so many times the Gordian knot can be cleaved by ignorance or denail.

For more, visit this interview with Michael Pollan.

Photo credits: Gordian Knot image ripped from homepage of Matthew Cadwallader; boar hunt photos ripped from Southeastern Outdoors and Suwannee River Ranch websites


(1) "I recognize this kind of prose: hunter porn. And whenever I've read it in the past, in Hemingway and Ortega y Gasset and all those hard-bitten, big-bearded American wilderness writers who still pine for the Pleistocene, it never failed to roll my eyes. I never could stomach the straight-faced reveling in primitivism, the barely concealed bloodlust, the whole macho conceit that the most authentic encounter with nature is the one that comes through the sight of a gun and ends with a large mammal dead on the ground..." ("The Modern Hunter-Gatherer," The New York Times Magazine, March 26, 2006)

(2) "Nothing in my experience has prepared me for the quality of this attention. I notice how the day's first breezes comb the needles in the pines, producing a sotto voce whistle and an undulation in the pattern of light and shadow tattooing the tree trunks and the ground. I notice the specific density of the air. But this is not a passive or aesthetic attention; it is a hungry attention, reaching out into its surroundings like fingers, or nerves. My eyes venture deep into thickets my body could never penetrate, picking their way among the tangled branches, sliding over rocks and around stumps to bring back the slenderest hint of movement. In the places too deeply shadowed to admit my eyes, my ears roam at will, returning with the report of a branch cracking at the bottom of a ravine, or the snuffling of a. . .wait: what was that? Just a bird. Everything is amplified. Even my skin is alert, so that when the shadow launched by the sudden ascent of a turkey vulture passes overhead I swear I can feel the temperature momentarily fall." ("The Modern Hunter-Gatherer," The New York Times Magazine, March 26, 2006)

(3)Although some friends tell me they have achieved a similar sensation while practicing yoga, I have not. There have been instances of immediacy, moments when, while in the midst of a yoga session, I feel a vital connection to the world around me, but these experiences are exceptional and, what's more, absent any sense of mortality. Yoga has granted me a connection, but it hasn't erased all sense of self.

(4)"I've looked at Angelo's pictures again, trying to figure out why they should have shamed me so. I realize it isn't the killing it records that I felt ashamed of, not exactly, but the manifest joy I seemed to be feeling about what I'd done. This for many people is what is most offensive about hunting - to some, disgusting: that it encourages, or allows, us not only to kill but also to take a certain pleasure in killing. It's not as if the rest of us don't countenance the killing of tens of millions of animals every year. Yet for some reason we feel more comfortable with the mechanical killing practices, out of view and without emotion, by industrial agriculture." ("The Modern Hunter-Gatherer," The New York Times Magazine, March 26, 2006)


andy Verol said...

New hardcore french writer:

"Idéologiquement Cash/Chiotte

L'aplat de niaiseries répandu sur le texte a empêché de dévoiler la puissance colérique des propos en général. Une sorte de philosophie en parfaite adéquation avec l'époque. Ni avant-garde, ni conservatisme."

To be continued:

cpbvk said...

Another fine post, HH! I've heard three recent interviews with Pollan about his latest effort, and I'm really looking forward to reading it. It doesn't surprise me that you beat me to actually doing it.

Anonymous said...

You have punched a hole in my soul, if indeed I have one. A superb piece. Thank you. B

Art Soldier said...

Wow, amazing. It's certainly a complex moral dilemma. I can relate, having come from an extended family of hunters and fishermen (Sportsmen, as they would say)from the forests and lakes of Michigan. I hunted rarely in my youth (and never successfully), but I spent a lot of time catching and eating fish, though I only do so maybe once a year now.

The thing that always bothered me when I was a kid was why it was so much morally easier to kill a fish than a deer. Of course, now it seems obvious to me -- a deer is more human-like, we can easily relate to it, empathize with it, and project are own sensations of pain and fear onto it. With fish (or insects, spiders, etc., for that matter) the identification with the thing being killed is much more difficult.

Yet, of all the hunters I've known throughout my youth, I've never come across anyone seeking anything like an existential experience from hunting. While displaying varying degrees of respect for animal life, most of them viewed hunting as a masculine and addicting form of competition -- a game where the goal was to acquire the trophy of an animal carcass.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Seems like you're popping up all over the blogosphere these days. You hardcore types are usually French as I understand it.


Yes, I figured a few of us would have something to say about Pollan's piece (and book)!


Thanks, I think. I hope it didn't hurt.

Art Soldier:

Your last paragraph is dead on - bad pun not intended. I find the attitudes of most hunters very difficult to understand or identify with. The term "sportsman," for example, disturbs me, as sport implies a pleasant diversion or game. For many hunters, the term may fit, but, though aspects of the hunt itself may be most pleasant - greeting dawn in a marsh or sitting in the woods, motionless, observing the curious behaviors of animals oblivious to your presence - the business of killing is altogether distinct.

coturnix said...

I just got "Omnivore's Dilemma" and am looking forward to reading it.

I am wondering what you think about the writings of late Paul Sheppard (e.g., The Others, The Tender Carnivore, etc.), as well as Matt Cartmill's "A View To A Death In The Morning"?

coturnix said...

I just got "Omnivore's Dilemma" and am looking forward to reading it.

I am wondering what you think about the writings of late Paul Sheppard (e.g., The Others, The Tender Carnivore, etc.), as well as Matt Cartmill's "A View To A Death In The Morning"?

Hungry Hyaena said...


I've read a few selected essays by Paul Sheppard. I find them alternately exciting and frustrating. Several times I've reacted very negatively to his stridency. Of course, I have, in the past, reacted in this way to ideas/ideals which I now, myself, embrace. It's part of the growing process, I suppose. If you have any recommendations for me, I'd appreciate them. (Post or drop me a line.)

I have not read Matt Cartmill. I'll look him up. Thanks for the suggestion.

coturnix said...

I have only read "The Others" and found it very good. I bet there is stuff in his other books, from what I have read about them, that would make me cringe as well.

Anonymous said...

i love how u just take my picture of me when you asked me and every thing you vegitaren jewes

Hungry Hyaena said...


Thank you for the carefully constructed response. Oh, and thanks, too, for throwing in a healthy dose of unrelated prejudice. And, of course, for writing hateful things while remaining anonymous, the true sign of a coward. You know my name. Won't you tell me yours?

Anonymous said...

bitch lisen here u can stfu and take my picture off yor wepsite and no its not cowrd its just was was 2 lasy 2 make a user name and no i dont know ur name coward

Hungry Hyaena said...

And too lazy, apparently, too spell correctly or to ask nicely if I would remove your photograph. Assuming you're a nice Christian boy - based on your unprovoked swipe at Judaism - you'd do well to follow the Christian precept, "Love your neighbor as yourself." But I digress...

If you'd taken the time to read the post before lashing out in the comments section, you'd realize that I'm not a strict vegetarian (so your label is inaccurate), and that I am a hunter. The essay wrestles with the moral complexities of thoughtful hunting and is not a simple condemnation of the activity or of meat-eating (in principal).

Finally, I credited your photograph to the website from which it was obtained, but if you do not want the image to appear, I will happily remove it and replace it with another. The trouble is, I don't know which photograph is of you. If you tell me, I will replace it.