Some of these places are physical: the jagged shale cliffs where only the sheep hunter has trod, the black timber where the elk hunter stalks in the footsteps of his ancestors with his every human sense working at its peak, the seemingly inhospitable cypress swamp whose many treasures have sustained life for millennia to those who learn its secrets. Some of these places can’t be merely visited, though—they must be experienced.
The hunter sees features in land that the farmer ignores, knows the sounds of the forest and the calls of the birds. He feels the direction and force of the wind, the temperature of the air, feels the ground under his feet and knows the phase of the moon. The hunter knows these things because he does not observe the natural world as a visitor, he becomes part of it. José Ortega y Gasset called humans “fugitives from nature”; maybe it’s time that we stopped running.
The meat that feeds my family primarily comes from the fields, hills and bottoms of the Southeastern Coastal Plain, a sweeping geological feature that arches its way through much of the southeastern United States. When I hunt this land, I do so as the latest in an unbroken line of men and women dating back to the waning days of the Pleistocene period. We see their mark on the Earth in the ceremonial mounds that they built, and see their history in the tools and pottery that we discover with each significant rainfall.
I hunt from the commanding view of an ancient burial mound on the site of what must have been a significant community of hunters. Hunting the same ground that was hunted by the Archaic people, the Creeks, and the early pioneers of my own ancestry is a constant reminder of our role in the food chain. To the tortured souls who live without connection to the Earth, killing one’s own food may seem like a barbaric relic of an embarrassing past—but to us, who live amongst visible reminders of who we are as people, it would be unnatural not to do so. Excavations of local archaeological sites reveal that 90 percent of the indigenous hunters’ diets consisted of the same whitetail deer that feeds my family today. Who am I to break a tradition that has sustained man’s bellies and souls through the ages?
When I venture from home to hunt the other great lands of this nation and others, I do so in places that non-hunters rarely step. Observing human-habituated wildlife from the paved “viewing areas” of a national park, or even the confines of a photo safari vehicle, provides little real connection to the natural world. Hunters hike for days to reach the most remote valleys, sit freezing over frozen marshes before the sun’s rays break the horizon, crawl on their bellies to enter an undisturbed meadow. The animals in these truly wild places flee at the snap of a twig or at the slightest hint of an unfamiliar scent. On these journeys, I’ve witnessed the supernatural abilities of Shona trackers, belly-laughed with Wyoming cowboys and broken bread with Maine lobstermen. The traveling hunter breaks through the barrier of the mere visitor and becomes an active participant in the local culture—hunters share a universal language that makes this possible.
A hunting trip can be as simple as a weekend camping excursion onto public land, or as complex as an alpine expedition. Preparation for the latter hunts often begin many months in advance, especially when the terrain will be imposing. To hunt the greatest of game—mountain species—combines all of the elements of an extreme sport: punishing physical training, an iron mindset, painstaking equipment selection, and a willingness to sacrifice comfort for what the journey offers. But, unlike the alpine climber that picks his way up an approach in the safest or fastest method available, the hunter treks with a four-dimensional focus. The hunter interacts with the mountain physically, but he also interacts with it as a habitat. He or she must trek quietly with the wind in his face, conscious not to skyline himself and ever-cognizant of the surroundings. The hunter’s mind cannot wander.
Being in these places, pursuing the same game that hunters chased generation upon generation gives me an instant connection to the hunters in whose footsteps I walk. Whether they hunted mammoths with a spear, deer with an atlatl or bison with a bow, I feel the tension that gripped them as they stalked, the adrenaline that surged through their veins when they spotted the game, and the primal elation that they felt when they stood over their kill. It doesn’t matter if the hunter is dressed in a loincloth, furs, buckskin or the highest-tech camouflage, the emotions are the same. To hunt is to transcend time.
To stand on a mountaintop is a great feeling, indeed, but to do so kneeling over a wise and majestic animal whom you’ve outfoxed in life’s greatest chess game is an entirely separate dimension of humanity. That moment is the culmination of months of training in the gym; practice on the rifle or bow range; long, painful days and short, fitful nights. The climber can remember the view, but the hunter can relish that moment each time he prepares the meat for his family or admires the horns on his wall. The hunter will forever be connected to that place, to that animal, and to the hunters who passed there before him. To match wits with a creature that is determined to defeat you at all costs in the most inhospitable terrain and conditions imaginable is man’s most fundamental victory. Is that animal a trophy for me? You’re damn right it is.
The majority of the meat that feeds my family comes from animals that I have pursued, taken, skinned, aged and butchered with my own hands. I know where the animal lived, what it ate, where it drank. I know that it never saw a fence that it couldn’t cross or ate a meal that had touched human hands. No antibiotics, no feed lots, just nature. Not only is that meat healthy, it is totally sustainable thanks to the greatest system of wildlife management that the world has ever known: the North American Model.
How about a place remote enough that your digital leash won’t work, a place that will make you not care? While disconnecting from the virtual world, you will find yourself connected to the true world. The world that tests you, humbles you, sometime even scares you. I dare you to worry about work or finances when the rain is blowing sideways on the mountain or when you’ve locked eyes with an alert buck. Hunting throws evolutionary switches that take us back to the simple task that we were designed to do, and away from the constant sensory pummeling of the modern world.
Make no mistake about it, hunting can result in death; I am unaware of a food source that does not. Meat, of course, requires the death of an animal. As hunters, we have a duty to ensure that such death occurs as quickly and ethically as possible. I have no issue with meat farmers, but, given the choice, I would rather live free and die in fair chase than to have lived a hopeless, domestic existence that condemned me to a certain death before I was even born. The deer, elk or quail exists in its natural habitat until the moment of its death, while the cow may find itself knee deep in a manure-filled feed lot until its time comes. But what about vegans? They live a cruelty-free existence, do they not? I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but the harvester does not stop for the rabbit, the fawn or the mouse that lives amongst the crops. We have destroyed acre upon acre of pristine habitat to make way for row crops, organic or otherwise. Unless we all become subsistence farmers, scratching out a plot for our meals without machinery or chemicals, feeding man will mean the death of animals. The hunter is no more cruel or unnatural than the fox, the bear or the hawk. And yes, I’ve watched the hawk hunt for sport.
Man has existed as part of the cycle of life since the dawn of his existence. To believe that one can exist outside of this cycle, this web, is a delusion that only man could invent for himself. Those of us who have tapped into this force within ourselves feel an indelible connection to our species and to our place in the order of things. We hunters do not exist in parallel with the natural world, but within it. I have often heard others remark that they wish they could travel to the past to witness a particular place or time: to watch the endless herds of bison or to see the great cities that existed before European contact with the New World. Hunting allows me to interact with those lost days in ways that I cannot explain, ways that a photograph or video cannot capture.
Hunting is what man does. In a world that lives adrift, hunting can be our anchor chain to sanity. There are those who would take this connection to our past, to who we are, away from us. Many of them are well-meaning folks who just don’t get it, while others are deranged zealots. Regardless of their aim, it is time for us to push back. We will push back with facts, by telling the hunter’s story, one of humanity’s oldest stories. We who know the wonder that is hunting, we who are connected to our food supply, will be ambassadors to the open-minded and ill-informed, to the ignorant and to those who have simply lost their way.
Photo credit: Tony Bynum
NRA has stood in the gap for decades to protect the rights of all Americans to control their own safety and security. Hunting has always been part of NRA’s cause, but often not its focus. The organization is stepping into the void now to fight another battle, to preserve a part of humanity that predates the most rudimentary arms, to preserve a part of our lives that existed long before the concept of individual rights was ever theorized. Stand with us, be a voice of reason that will not be silenced, call out the hypocrisy and hold the other side accountable to the truth. Get out and see and feel the places as only a hunter can.
"The hunter's horn sounds early for some, later for others. For some unfortunates, poisoned by city sidewalks and sentenced to a cement jungle more horrifying than anything to be found in Tanganyika, the horn of the hunter never winds at all. But deep in the guts of most men is buried the involuntary response to the hunter's horn, a prickle of the nape hairs, an acceleration of the pulse, an atavistic memory of his fathers, who killed first with stone, and then with club, and then with spear, and then with bow, and then with gun, and finally with formulae."
— Robert C. Ruark