The things that are true about hunting have been true forever. No matter our relatively recent displacement from the world—by various urban conspiracies of concrete; by the industrial production of beef, chicken, and pork; by the fossil fuel-driven delivery of food thousands of miles from its source—the essential mechanics remain unchanged. Being alive means eating. And eating (if we act according to our intended role) means killing. In the trophic flow of energy, mouth to mouth, life is traded for life. The philosophical debates about how best to relate to our food sources have neither subtracted from nor added to this irreducible argument. To live, you have to shoulder a few deaths.
The world is itself. And the terms of our relationship to the world are imposed upon us, dictated by the laws of evolution and ecology, by the inarguable pull of our biology. Debate, if you must, whether we evolved as predators, but when you walk into a field, the whitetail does will still jerk up their heads, swivel their ears forward. They will raise their tails and bounce into the underbrush. They will never stop being prey just as you will never stop being their predator. Deny it, repress it, the world knows you better than you know yourself.
Today, of course, most projects that take us into the environment require only that we stand by and watch—that we exist as passive subjects in a world of objects. In order to fulfill his project, the photographer needs only scenery, maybe some half-tamed wildlife. The climber or hiker needs only a clear trail, maybe a bit of solitude. In the act of hunting, however, we’re no longer photographing the world from a distance; no longer hiking through it. As hunters, we are a part of the world, pieces within pieces, gears inside gears, no more nor less important than any other piece. Consider the beautiful, messy, complicated, bloody web of things eating and being eaten. When we’re hunting, particularly during the stalk, the world is no longer simply scenery. It is who and what we are. It is us.
In this context, the value of hunting largely lies in its capacity to return us to the world, to the context in which we evolved, to the conditions from which modern circumstances have alienated us. Only when we’re hunting do we truly feel that we are aspects of something larger. Stepping out the door on a cold morning, frost on the ground and breath blooming blue around us, we judge the wind, we consider the light. The cacophonous rattle of our feet through dry grass. A magpie flushes from the bracken. An elk bugles in the distance. We step forward into it, and there is suddenly nothing else in the world.
Later still, if we’re very lucky indeed, we might find ourselves kneeling beside the bugling bull, pulling the viscera from the body cavity, surrounded by steam and the smell of an elk in rut. The blood goes tacky and cold on our hands. The essential question: Is it better to live in ignorance or awareness? Is it more ethical to know firsthand how it feels to kill the animal you eat (the pleasures of a job well done; the sorrows of seeing a fellow creature lying dead on the ground), or should you shunt those issues aside, go about your day unbothered?
The urge to hunt other species, to eat them, is as much a part of who we are as our ability to string words together into a sentence, our knack for knocking rocks together into sparks. But we are also today, even more than consumers, a nation of judgment passers. If there is a theme to our age, perhaps it’s this: Privilege affords us the right to pronounce. There are those in the world—living their entire lives surrounded by steel, glass, cement air-conditioning and a few treasured house pets—who would presume to pass judgment on issues about which they effectively know nothing. Is it possible for most of us to be any further removed from the world, from the realities of eating and being eaten, than we are now? No, no, no.
But here is the truth: There is blood on our hands. And if you are a hunter, you know that the blood on our hands is more sacred than the blood in our hands.
I am a hunter, and all other aspects of my life accede to this first, irreducible fact.