Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Two Exceptions Taken

"My own experience is that the more we study art, the less we care for nature. What art really reveals to us is nature's lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition. Nature has good intentions, of course, but, as Aristotle once said, she cannot carry them out."
-Oscar Wilde

Wilde produced so many clever, insightful passages, but now and again he comes off as an arrogant buffoon. (On the plus side, the quote suggests that Wilde, were he still with us, would not be a proponent of Intelligent Design...so there's that.)

+++++

"Violence and brutality aside, if you were ever unsure of how ridiculous hunting can seem in modern terms, [artist] Angela Singer spells it out. Singer has explored the notion of the hunt and its trophies for a number of years and while her subjects explicitly reference the idea, her process pointedly undermines the esteem of hunting for trophy.

Trophy hunting in New Zealand does not have the social prowess as in Britain, but is still very much a red-blooded sport. It represents a regressive urge to connect with the natural and instinctive animal self and is emblematic of macho stereotypes of man-as-hunter."
-Anna Jackson, writing on the sculptures of Angela Singer in NY Arts

Really, Anna, we should talk. I have a feeling you might rethink your characterization of hunters and hunting...or at least allow for some anomalies.

Knee-jerk, reductive reactions to any complex subject are frustrating. I'm assuming that Jackson is a vegetarian; if not, she should have acknowledged this contradiction. She also embraces the now common stereotype of the hunter as a trophy hound. Certainly, the majority of hunters will mount at least one of their animal kills (whether head, rack or whole hide), but a great many find the idea repugnant, and are instead concerned with the meal and the experience.

But Jackson characterizes that experience as "regressive." Is connecting with the "natural" and "instinctive animal self" a bad thing? What of shitting, sex, and the feeling that possesses you in those (hopefully) rare moments when your life is in imminent danger? What of meditation or "spiritual" ecstasy?

I'm not a typical proponent of hunting; my views on the "issue" are nuanced and often contradictory, but when a person calls hunting "ridiculous" and "regressive" without explaining their perspective, my hackles rise.

13 comments:

jason said...

HH -- You may already know this, but I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (which isn't exactly the philosophically enlightened portion of the country), and nearly every male I knew hunted, and nearly every young male in school couldn't wait until they were old enough to get their hunter's safety certificate so they could start hunting. And for every single one of them, including the most thoughtful among them, it was most certainly about the trophy. Yes, they ate the meat all year long, yes, most of them respected the animals (or at least thought of themselves as doing so), but it was always about the size of the antlers -- a competition for trophies -- nothing more. In fact, the only exception to this stereotype that I've ever seen (for a contemporary non-native American hunter) is from your writings here, but this is just my experience.

No, perhaps there's nothing wrong with connecting with the "natural" and "instinctive animal self," but the difference between shitting and killing an animal, is that killing the animal causes pain and suffering to the animal. I realize that killing is a natural part of living (even vegetarians must kill something in order to live), and if I were faced with the choice of my family either starving to death or having to kill, then I would kill. But if we can live healthy, happy lives without causing particular instances of suffering, should we not try to do so? Is it worth causing pain to another in order to experience a certain brand of meditation or "spiritual" ecstasy? I'm sure we've gone round and round on this one before, but these are just some of the thoughts off the top of my head.

andiscandis said...

Hey babe, you know I respect your foodstyle and I'm pretty sure I know the answer already, but I'm gonna poke the bear a bit.

The only animals I can remember hearing you talk about hunting/eating have been deer, salmon, and ducks/geese. All the standard "trophy" kills, no?

If the goal is to consume meat with minimal environmental impact, what's wrong with a good squirrel stew? Muskrat? Possum? I mean, those are all abundant on the Eastern Shore. They don't make for as good a story, though. ;-)

jason said...

HH -- Thinking about this some more, and partly in response to what andiscandis wrote, I'm most interested in the answer to this question (which is directed towards people who find it undesirable to cause unnecessary pain to animals):

Is it possible to simultaneously both minimize environmental impact and alleviate unnecessary pain, suffering and premature death of non-human animals?

For starters, I guess it would be a matter of eating locally-grown food, so as to minimize pollution from transportation, but does your stance also have something to do with a land resources argument? That is, is part of your justification for killing animals that a fully vegetarian diet requires too much in land resources and is therefore too destructive to the environment?

So then, if possible, what would it take to minimize environmental impact without hunting? I guess this would have to be specific to one's geographical location, considering that perhaps there are places where a vegetarian diet is unsustainable (or un-growable) without long-distance transportation.

BTW, I was checking out your updated website and have developed a crush on Totem : Wolf. Good stuff.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Jason:

Indeed, I do remember your telling me about the Michigan roots and, yes, as I sadly admit whenever this subject comes up, most hunters do like to compare "rack" size. ("I got a ten pointer last season. How'd you do?") In the case of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), the quintessential American trophy animal, this rack-oriented attitude is all that much more wrong-headed; conservation, the deer's suburban/exurban reputation and the gourmand are all better served if hunters shoot does rather than bucks.

And, yes, I look on the trophy aspect of the hunt as unfortunate, and certainly something I do not participate in. As I've written here before, I find it disgusting that my father always wants me to pose with my kills for album photographs. The "hero-money shot" snap is disturbing in many respects, rendered appropriate only by misplaced social custom (although shots of the animal alone are still beautiful, even in death).

I hesitate to say, though, that a hunt is about "nothing more" than the trophy, even for the Michigan folks you describe. If they ate the animal and claim to respect their quarry, other factors may be at work as well. I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt.

As to the second part of your comment, you know I'm in total agreement with you...and that, yes, there is an inherent contradiction there. But because I like to be as rational as I can, I've chosen to be vegetarian 364 days of the year. Actually, if I go hunting or fishing on the 365th and do not kill anything, I'm vegetarian full-time. (Although this year I did collect and eat clams in the fall, so there were two exceptions!)

I suppose I cling to the annual ritual because I am torn. I don't need to eat meat - even if certain seafoods still make me salivate uncontrollably - but I have as much problem with the moral arrogance of most vegetarians as I do the moral blinders of most hunters. I'm stuck in the middle, and so find it valuable to act as an awkward bridge between the two perspectives/moral choices.

Furthermore, I find that hunters often have a much better understanding of animal behavior and their local ecosystems than even highly educated wildlife biologists (those lacking hunting experience). That knowledge will vanish with recreational hunting and fishing and, for all the good intentions of animal protectionists, their general ignorance (often astounding and self-defeating) - of the animals they wish to protect and of the cause-and-effect of particular environmental actions - makes the loss of blood sports potentially catastrophic for the very species that hunters pursue so doggedly.

Man evolved alongside other species as a natural predator. If we remove ourselves from that portion of the equation - killing only second-hand, as consumers - the species which have, over thousands of years, adapted to reasonable predation pressures from Home sapiens, will explode in population, then collapse, ridden with disease of all sorts. We've seen this time and again in areas (or states) in which hunting was restricted to the privileged or banned outright. Ultimately biodiversity is the loser.

But, in terms of what I wrote in the above post, all of these details are secondary. What "raises my hackles" is the writer's off-hand dismissal of a very sensitive, controversial subject. But, hell, maybe I'm just an ass. I mean, I take it for granted that abortion should be a woman's right, and that certainly will "raise the hackles" of many an American. That said, were I to write an article about an artist making work on the subject, I would be sure to give a little time to the issue.

Andicandis:

Well, this is mostly an issue of semantics, I'm afraid. When I bitch about trophy hunters, I'm talking about hunters who hunt in order to bring back a head, rack or mount for the wall, not those who happen to hunt species, for food and experience, that trophy hunters target also.

But you do have a good point. The species I most frequently hunt are also those pursued by trophy hunters. But, yes, I have killed and eaten squirrel, muskrat, and rabbit. My mom likes squirrel especially, which is a very good addition to a Brunswick stew. And, truth be told, the hunting of squirrels and muskrats makes for excellent stories...even if most God-fearing belt buckles would turn away, embarrassed for the poor fool who traffics in those tales. I find that attitude stupid, though, as it reflects a ranking of animal worth - deer at the top, squirrel at the bottom - that I do not accept.

I hope the little one is treating you and Brent well..and that the snow is good lookin'.

andiscandis said...

No matter what you're hunting, your efforts are better than mine. I have yet to find an untasty animal, although I try not to eat meat all that regularly. Let me know if you happen to kill a bison. They're extra eatable and I'll absolutely come help.

By the way, that's not the answer I expected.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Jason:

OK. Very cool ideas that I'd like to address...but I'm at the day job today and so might not get to it for a while. Good stuff, though.

Oly said...

Umm... just wondering... but... What does squirrel taste like?
Seriously.

I'm guessing it has a nutty flavor due to its diet.

:)

I have to say one time I was watching this documentary on Mongolia and seeing the guinea pigs on the skewers being roasted and it looked fantastic.

But for some reason the type of hunting they do-- spearing the kill (think it was)-- seems much more fair, too, to the animal.

It at least gives them a fighting chance to get away.

How do you feel about that?

The whole point of ammunition hasn't exactly leveled the playing field, but made it pretty next to impossible odds for the lil' furry creatures.

(wonders now if hammy-sters be tasty...)

Molly Schafer said...

Wow. I haven't read HH in awhile, always an interesting discussion going on.

There are so many potential threads to this discussion but I will say I agree with HH that most of the hunters I know and grew up with are also the most thoughtful conservationist I know. The duality of it has always intrigued me. This practice goes beyond individual hunters and is the basis of several organizations. Pheasants Forever works to preserve and create pheasant habitat so that there will be more pheasants--to kill. Add to that the fact that pheasants are a non native species to our country and the issue gets pretty slippery.

I think the exsistence of organizations like Phesants Forever, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, etc. speaks to a good amount of hunters also being interested in conservation and not just trophy crazed jerks (although there are many of those as well.) Rocky Mountain Elk was founded by hunters to insure a wild future for elk in North America. Hunters often take the time to understand animals and their habitats gaining an appreciation for the animal and the natural world that many hamburger eaters never have and I do think that is important.

I found this part of your response to Jason interesting -
"Man evolved alongside other species as a natural predator. If we remove ourselves from that portion of the equation - killing only second-hand, as consumers - the species which have, over thousands of years, adapted to reasonable predation pressures from Home sapiens, will explode in population, then collapse, ridden with disease of all sorts."

But would like to add that american prey animals did have predators other than man. Mountain Lions, wolves, and birds of prey were nearly annihilated by man. There are a few reasons for this, one of them being that these predators were seen as competition as we were hunting the same prey.

I also take some issue with the idea of "man evolving as a natural predator" but that is a different can of worms. Speaking of worms, people never seem to get as upset about fishing as they do about hunting.

bioephemera said...

Just yesterday I was asking someone if they'd ever personally shot a mammal or bird. (Yes - quite the surprise). Most of my peers have killed - but not as hunters; as researchers working on lab mice or rats. I haven't personally killed anything more complex than a fish, never having been in a position to shoot something I'd eat, nor in a job where I'd have to guillotine a rodent (avoiding those labs in grad school helped). But I've gutted birds, deer, piglets, etc. And I've taught dissection to several hundred students. I'm pretty well familiar with dead meat.

So I wonder about your philosophical position - although there is certainly symbolism in your determination only to eat meat you kill, for the average person, it's impractical as heck. And I wonder if it isn't the killing - which is often done at a distance, almost like a video game - but the butchering that you so carefully document on the duck post, that is more effective psychologically in conveying the reality of what meat is. I think it's less hypocritical to be unwilling to pull the trigger, than it is to be unwilling to handle and process the carcass of the life that died to feed (or cure, or teach) you. Honestly, I'd like to see everyone take gross anatomy before they're allowed to shoot trophies or eat meat - which is completely impractical, but appeals to my sense of symmetry.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Holy God...a lot of activity on this one. Thanks for all of the response. As always, I'll answer one at a time.

Jason:

Is it possible to simultaneously both minimize environmental impact and alleviate unnecessary pain, suffering and premature death of non-human animals?

I think you begin to answer this in your own comment. Yes, I think it possible, and, yes, it requires a vegan, locally-grown diet.

That is, is part of your justification for killing animals that a fully vegetarian diet requires too much in land resources and is therefore too destructive to the environment?

For me, personally, no. As a general rule, yes.

I am essentially a "full" vegetarian. One or two small animals (clams included) a year doesn't really make much of a difference when you're considering resource use. I fear that my diet is dominated by commercial veggies and fruits, even though I shop organic and local as much as possible. But I eat a banana most days of the week, and I have a sneaking suspicion those "local" brussel sprouts aren't actually from around here.

Long term, though, there is the talk of petri dish foods, and that would certainly go some way to minimizing the resource use required to feed the paying mouths. The issue is, at root, political and philosophical, though, since we already produce enough food to feed the world several times over, yet distribute the produce only to maximize profit and sustain the industry.

Thank you for the good word on "Totem:Wolf."

Andicandis:

I highly doubt I'd ever kill a bison. Maybe if I have a family of eight one day....

Should I do so, though, I'll drop by with some back-strap for a bison fondue.

Oly:

Squirrel is best used in stews, I think. It is a dark, rather oily meat...if you've eaten wild rabbit, think of that taste, but with a darker flavor. Most people don't care for it, but it's by no means bad. People might like it if it wasn't, well, squirrel. My father used to serve guests crow and, so long as they thought it was goose or some more accepted meat, they raved about it. The few who found out the species, however, immediately lost their appetite. Most of our food prejudices are ridiculous. (And, no, squirrel doesn't taste "nutty" in my experience.)

I understand your logic regarding "the fighting chance," but I disagree for two reasons.

1) Give most people a boomstick and tell them to bring back a dinner, and they will return empty handed. Shooting - especially shooting on the wing - is not easy, although some people are "naturals" at it, just as some athletes are good batters from the get go.

2) Too many animals are not killed as is, and struggle/suffer with serious injuries and handicaps after having been "winged" or "clipped." If we were all using spears, the number of cripples would increase greatly (and therefore the amount of suffering).

Molly:

Well said. I agree with everything you write, but am curious as to why you take issue with the idea of man having evolved as a natural predator? It seems to be that that is incontrovertible, and I'd be interested in hearing more from you on this.

Bioephemera:

Sadly, too much of the killing is acttually done by hand. When you shoot a bird with steel shot - lead shot was rightly made illegal when biologists realized that it was poisoning raptors and other creatures preying on "game" birds with retained shot under their skin - it often cripples the creature, but does not kill it. (This is a point of much debate among hunters who do not want their quarry to suffer unnecessarily, but who also do not want eagles poisoned.) I often end up ringing the neck or squeezing out the breath of the birds I've killed. It can be a traumatic experience. When I was young, I sometimes cried as I killed a shocked, injured mourning dove. (The birds gasp for air as the human hand suffocates them by forcing all oxygen from their small lungs.)

But, yes, generally you're onto something. The butchering is integral to the process and is the "step" when the "reality of what meat is" is most apparent. Your suggested requirement for would-be carnivores sounds good by me...but as you point out, I'm into impracticality.

Michael said...

I've been watching this discussion grow, and I wanted to add a couple of things.
First off, most large game animals (ie high meat to kill ratio) in the US are also 'trophy animals.' Thus, meat hunting is inextricable from trophy hunting. As an example, my girlfriend's family in Montana are big hunters that regularly kill deer and elk. Every year when hunting season rolls around the talk turns to meat. Racks and trophies are byproducts that are displayed, but mouths start salivating at the thought of grills, ribs, and home-made BBQ sauce.
On that note, a surprising number of people rely on wild game for much of their dietary protein. Studies on the Hudson River have shown that a large portion of lower income folks are pulling dinner out of the PCB tainted water (this is especially true for 1st generation immigrants). While working on the river I asked some eel fisherman if they were concerned about PCBs. They shrugged it off as if I had asked them if they were concerned about getting eel guts on their boots.
Lastly, as a once and future farm worker, I find the notion of the vegan farm to be absurd. Animals are an integral and ancient part of human agriculture. Though we have dismembered our traditional practices to create our current industrial system, it is ludicrous to try to reassemble the pieces without the inclusion of our animal partners. Animals complete the farm circuit. They turn waste into food and fertilizer, supply petroleum-free, sun-powered energy, help to control pests, and provide many materials that are crucial to anyone hoping to be even mildly responsible and self-reliant.
Most of our problems with meat production are problems of scale and method.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Michael:

Good point about the meat to kill ratio. Thank you for highlighting that.

As for fishing on the Hudson and East Rivers...yes, indeed. The fishermen (and, increasingly, this includes men and women) are pulling everything from flounder to striped bass out of these waters and taking them home to feed families. I've talked with some of them about the fish and all claim they are perfectly safe to eat. For the most part, they are right but, as you point out, most don't have a choice.

Your third point is interesting. I agree with the argument as you present it, although I don't see why a "vegan farm" couldn't include the livestock species for their contribution to the "circuit" and opt not to slaughter or milk them. (That wouldn't be cost effective, but most vegans are relatively "privileged" anyway.)

But more interesting still is the dilemma you raise (perhaps w/o meaning to). City living is considered the most "environmentally sound" - because of the smaller eco-footprint - yet most city dwellers are ignorant of the farm processes you allude to and, more importantly, are totally dependent on the goings on outside city walls. How will that be reconciled.

It seems to me that the community supported agriculture (CSA) solution isn't bad. Urban green markets are also a plus, but this discussion only reveals more serious, deep-seated (or, in this case, deep-seeded) cultural failings involving lifestyle choices and work weeks. Oh, vey...

Michael said...

I'm afraid that was poor word choice. Upon later reflection I wished that I had written "animal-free farm" rather than the poorly characterized "vegan farm."