The Old Religion
Terry Wieland wrote, “There have always been hunting Gods. There has never been a God of racquetball.” Mr. Wieland knows full well what he means by what he has written. I doubt many of the anti-hunting crowd would have a clue. And therein lies the rub, the threat to the future of our wildlife as well as the future of hunting. And, by the way, the future of fishing and trapping too and maybe pet ownership, the use of animal by-products like leather, and medical research using animals. Our enemies have a totally vegan asylum in store for all of us. And they will be the guards on the wall keeping us in.
It is standard fare to see and hear the swooning, cooing urbanites mooning over images of current day Bushman, Inuits, Maasai, or Sioux hunting the muskox or beluga whale. The deer or elk or eland. No matter that snow machines and .30-06’s bring down the muskox in the hands of the Inuit today. Or pickup trucks and .243’s pursue the deer in the hands of the Sioux. Or that the African tribesman kills the eland while with calf, in the spring, with no limit on the take. Our swooning anti-hunting friends say it is all OK because these are the original peoples hunting their age-old prey.
The cave and rock paintings of 20,000 – 40,000 years ago in South Africa, Namibia, Spain, and France or the desert canyons of the Snake River or Arizona show the ancients’ spiritual connection with the animals they hunted for food, clothing, shelter, and tools. It is how it should be in the minds of our urban, disconnected friends who hate us Americans and Europeans participating in the same pursuits. Why? Why is it we can’t and these others are OK? How is it that red, brown, and black-skinned hunters are somehow legitimate but we white-skinned hunters are hated and reviled as interlopers of no justification? The last time I checked, those cave painters in Spain and France were likely our predecessors, predecessors of our own white-skinned ancestors. I believe this double standard has to do with guilt.
These poor anti-hunting creatures have been taught and told that they are a member of a race who has the corner on all evil and they must feel guilty for all the real and the numerous imaginary transgressions of their own race. They so badly want to set themselves apart from the rest of their own race and feel cleansed of this self-assigned guilt. If they demonstrate their ability to condemn their own race, they will be seen as valid and informed, generous, and self-aware, above all reproach. They live for verification of their moral, intellectual, and social superiority over all others and get such a high from their affected piety for their sanctified positions on such matters. They revel in being in on a secret that the unwashed masses are not.
Their behavior is of a supremacist cult, superior to all else and all others. They pursue the power to silence and make illegal, activities that define others who dare to be different from their chosen few. Tyranny comes in many guises. Think of others who have decided they are the only right ones and seek to force all others to mimic their one and only “right way.” Do a few nightmares come to mind?
For 40,000 years humans of all stripes had shared similarity in placing religious status on their wildlife and the pursuit of that wildlife that sustained their persons and all of their families and tribes. There have always been Gods of and about the hunt as well as the hunted. The pursuit, the kill, the consumption and use of the animals killed, and the animals themselves were first respected above all else, then revered and loved, and then sometimes imbued with a status of a religious bearing. All humans, all tribes did this in some form. And, to the surprise of our urban friends from the Styrofoam world, all hunters from all tribes, men of all colors, still do these things today.
Our anti-hunting citizens wouldn’t be surprised to see a Cheyenne or Aborigine hunters, about to set out on a hunt for meat, going through his rituals, physical and emotional, that define his preparation for the hunt or when kneeling at the side of his dead quarry. They would be startled and incredulous to know that a white hunter in Ohio or Hungary goes through that very same process.
The “big three” are relatively new religions, appearing comparatively recently. Islam and Christianity appearing only 2,000 years ago. Judaism about 4,000 years ago. Again, that is only 5% to 10% of the total known time for which humanity has had many facets of its religions steeped in the inclusion of the wildlife on which it depended upon for survival. And that status persists up to the current day with many tribes. Does anyone believe that 40,000 years of cultural and spiritual memory would be simply cast off completely just because new religions of a claimed “higher value” came along. Does it make sense that the spiritual connection, the love and respect for those creatures that sustain us, would no longer tug at our souls as we pursued them or sit next to their warm, dead bodies lying on the ground next to us? It tugs at us regardless of what religion we claim. It tugs at us regardless of what year we hunt, whether 2,000AD or 10,000BC. It tugs at us for the same reasons that tug caused us to respond with the creation of spiritual and religious structures 40,000 years ago. Nothing has changed within that embrace of hunter and hunted. It has nothing to do with modernity. It has to do with our souls, with our human spirit, with the sacred dance of life and death shared with those wild others we hooked our spirits to so many thousands of years ago.
Religious and spiritual experiences always include mysteries, those enigmas, those issues that defy explanation, even when placed under the closest scrutiny and observation. Our pursuit of wildlife with the gun, bow, fly rod or trap are filled with mystery, with the unexplainable. When I prepare to go on a hunt, I feel as if I am going home. Home to the place I am supposed to be. That wild place and all the wild creatures as well as its plants, weather, topography, night sky, smells, sounds, and vistas. All of the interactions are spiritual. The sight of a red squirrel or a martin or a fresh bear track is spiritual, in spite of the fact that these are all animals I am not pursuing. But, they are valuable to the experience and what they were doing before and after I saw them: that is the mystery, the magic. And there is the silence of the wild places. Silence so deep and wide it has a weight on the ears, even a whispering sound if you strain your ears enough. One can hear the silence if you listen. Silence is precious in our modern world.
While hunting or fishing or trapping I have had encounters with some wild others and have wanted to be able to ask that creature, “Where have you been today? Where do you sleep?” To the goose, “What have you seen over the miles of the migration? Where have you traveled?” To the elk, “Where did you winter last year? Did you see the calves torn asunder by the wolves and bears last spring? How do you evade them?” I saw a fresh bear track while elk hunting last fall and instantly, I forgot the elk for a few moments and formed all my questions I would ask that bear of his unknown mysteries if only we could talk together. “Where was your den last winter? The winter before? Are there many of your kind in this mountain range?” Mysteries, unknown and unknowable.
I will stand astride tiny streams that will unite into the mighty Columbia in a week or so, at least the water passing under my boot at that moment will unite. The mystery is that the stream never relocates, just the water in it. The stream stays in place and intact if man’s effects don’t destroy it. The stream is the structure and chemistry the water moves through and shares. And that swirl in the shallow current? That little bulge of a fleeing wild creature as it swims under a canted flat rock? That is the wonderfully mysterious by-product of both the stream and its water.
If you are quick, you can trap the wild thing with your hand and lift it into the light. You can see it as it squirms a bit showing the vertical par marks of a young trout. And for a moment you have reduced that beauty and mystery to possession. When you release that beauty it will go on about its mysterious business of living in that tiny stream. There it is, that element of mystery and beauty. This trip, all hunting trips really, are all about beauty and its possession, ephemeral possession as with the trout or permanent as with the bull elk you pursue. Permanent as you intend to kill him and take him and his spirit and a piece of his wild place home. His flesh will feed you and yours. His antlers and some hide you use to create a trophy for your residence, the better to hold his beauty and the beauty of his wild place near to you so you never forget tiny details of your experience in his wild place, the place you call home.
Much to the chagrin of those that claim hunting is a murder, an execution, easily done with a gun, the majority of hunting trips end without a harvest of the pursued game, especially big game. Most hunts have success rates of 15% or 25% and the really good ones, maybe 50%. So, hunters set out every year knowing 50 or 80 out of every 100 of them will come home empty. So why go? Because we must. We must see the martin. We must see the bear’s track. We must hear the elk’s bugle. We must hold that tiny fish, a beautiful piece of wildness, for a moment before we let him swim back under his rock. We must feel the storm come and catch us out just a little far from camp and feel the cold and wind tug at us, test us, before we make it back to safety. We must feel the pain of climbing steep country with our sweat falling into our boot tracks. Why? Because we are all of the tribe. All hunters are of the same ancient tribe. We are of the wild place and brothers with the wild others that live there. We are, in our soul, of those tribes that came before us and nothing has changed for us. Because, by bear track or storm, we know we are alive as at no other time and we are one with these places and creatures and forces again.
While we are “out there” we live within the surrounding wild environment, buried inside it, submerged, casting our attentions about inside that world. We exit that environment only when we leave it. We are not like tourists in Yellowstone, who find themselves in a foreign place, looking out through car windows into that foreign place, the natural world. They never enter into that world as the hunter does, immersed and aware. They look at the wild buffalo herds or the flowing rivers as if watching a film, just oohing and ahhing at it as if on a movie screen, totally disconnected from their ancient heritage and anxious to get to the next restaurant for their next snack or trinket purchase. What riches they are missing.
Aldo Leopold said it well. In Sand County Almanac, he was discussing his “Deer Swath”, an opening on his farm deer frequently crossed. “The deer swath was pointed out to a series of weekend guests for the purpose of watching their later reactions to it. It was soon clear most of them forgot it quickly, while others watched it as I did, whenever chance allowed.” He pointed out that it was the hunter that watched the opening. He observed “….the non-hunter does not watch.” “When the deer hunter sits down, he sits where he can see ahead, with his back to something….The non-hunter sits where he is comfortable.”
Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote a wonderful essay titled Meditations on Hunting wherein he discusses beauty and how all of our pursuits in Nature are about the pursuit of beauty. He also describes something about hunters and hunting (fishing and trapping are included here) that may explain modern hunters’ feelings of connection with his own species’ long-term history, that connection with the ancients. The feeling of what those ancients felt spiritually and physically.
From, Meditations on Hunting:
“It is not, then, walking and walking, climbing cliffs, going down into gullies, sneaking quietly, waiting patiently, or being a good shot that the hunter must essentially do, but rather-who would guess!-the least muscular of all operations: looking. But this hunting look on which the whole task of the hunt paradoxically depends is not, as is evident, any old look.
Merely to look, without reiteration or enhancement, is to direct the sight to a point in the surroundings where we suppose beforehand the object in question is. The radius of the look is projected by the attention, which seizes on that point, leaving the rest unattended. Our attention, which is what aims our vision, seizes on that spot on the horizon because we are persuaded that what interests us will appear there. This attention to the preconceived is equivalent to being absorbed in one point of the visible area and not paying attention to the other points.
The hunter’s look and attention are completely opposite to this. He does not believe that he knows when the critical moment is going to occur. He does not look tranquilly in one determined direction, sure beforehand that the game will pass in front of him. The hunter knows that he does not know what is going to happen, and this is one of the greatest attractions of his occupation. Thus he needs to prepare an attention of a different and superior style-an attention which does not consist in riveting itself on the presumed but consists precisely in not presuming anything and in avoiding inattentiveness. It is a “universal” attention, which does not inscribe itself on any point and tries to be on all points. There is a magnificent term for this, one that still conserves all its zest of vivacity and imminence: alertness. The hunter is the alert man.
But this itself-life as complete alertness-is the attitude in which the animal exists in the jungle. Because of it he lives from within his environment. The farmer attends only to what is good or bad for the growth of his grain or the maturation of his fruit; the rest remains outside his vision and, in consequence, he remains outside the completeness that is the countryside. The tourist sees broadly the great spaces, but his gaze glides, it seizes nothing, it does not perceive the role of each ingredient in the dynamic architecture of the countryside. Only the hunter, imitating the perpetual alertness of the wild animal, for whom everything is danger, sees everything and sees each thing functioning as facility or difficulty, as risk or protection.
What Ortega is saying, I believe, is that against the dullness of a life in the modern world, man has lost his alert status. When he rediscovers it in his pursuits in nature there is a strange familiarity, a genetic memory that is tweaked and he feels he has returned to a state of mind long lost but very familiar. The ancients had to be alert at all times, night and day. They had to be prepared at all times to detect, pursue, and capture the prey they depended upon for meat. They also had to remain alert for those creatures who hunted them for meat and be prepared to fight or flee and evade man’s predators every minute.
Again Ortega: Even Plato, in the Republic, reports, Socrates, trying to search for and define “justice”, embarks in depth and with a thrill of delight on the metaphor of the hunt.
Socrates: Now then, Glaucon, we must post ourselves (we philosophers) like a ring of hunters around the thicket, with very alert minds, so that “justice” does not escape us by evaporating before us. It is evident that it must be there somewhere. Look out then and do your best to get a glimpse of it before me and drive it toward me.
Socrates: Look how obstructed and overgrown the woods are. What a dark and hard-to-see place! But there is nothing to do but go forward.
Socrates: By the devil! I think we have a track, and I don’t think it will escape us now.
In fact, the only man who truly thinks is the one who, when faced with a problem, instead of looking only straight ahead, toward what habit, tradition, the commonplace, and mental inertia would make one assume, keeps himself alert, ready to accept the fact that the solution might spring from the least foreseeable spot on the great rotundity of the horizon.
The hunter is the alert man in the absolute outside of the countryside, the philosopher is the alert man in the absolute inside of ideas.”
Jose Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Hunting
That alertness, that state of mind. One can feel it switch on as you start up the trail. You can feel it! Not excitement, although there is some of that. But it is deep inside you, something that you can feel taking over your consciousness. It is a switch that turns on as your boots hit the ground when you take off up the mountain. All your senses turn on in a new burning intensity. Your ears turn up their intensity to hear. Even your sense of smell, although greatly inferior to the prey you seek, switches on. If a herd of elf has passed through the dark timber in front of you they can leave a scent to be detected. Your eyes slow down and dissect tiny details you don’t look for or see in other situations. You know the quarry will be seen only in small pieces, not as the whole animal. It will be the crook of the hind keg. The shape of one ear. A piece of an antler in a sea of brush. A movement so small and fleeting may be noted, yet you study the featureless terrain where you thought you saw it for 10 minutes when you aren’t sure you even saw it to begin with. You know how colors and shapes will be right there before you but to resolve them into an animal? Not easy.
You know you must divide a featureless sagebrush expanses into quadrants so you can dissect that expanse completely and effectively. In thick timber you use the binocular. Those of a more urban nature would ask, “Why look through a binocular into a thick woods?” “It is too thick to see anything.” Ah, a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees. You are looking between the trees into the little alleyways that reveal themselves to the hunter’s eye. These narrow, vertical slices of the forest sometimes allow you to see a hundred yards into that world of tree trunks separated by equally vertical unseen passages deep into the forest where an ear flick, an antler shine, or a beige elk rump or black mule deer forehead may reveal themselves.
You must sort out the sounds you detect. A twig snap. The thump of a hoof-fall. Some of the sounds are not subtle or faint. The stampede of an elk herd in timber might sound like a landslide. The elk bull’s distant bugle may only sound like a faint bird call as the throaty grunts don’t carry distance well and only the whistle is heard. The roll of a rock or the crashing rhythm of a buck on a scree slide as he flees away from you or, maybe, toward you. The slap of antlers on the tight brush of mountain maples as the buck bursts from his bed.
These are the reasons you are on alert at such a high level, silent and watching with intensity that you seldom experience in your life away from the hunt. And you feel more alive than at any time. And you are back there in time with the ancients where success determined life and death for them and their families.
The wild creatures move at such a slow and cautious pace when acting as the hunted or the hunter. Their pace is at nature’s paces not modern man’s race of impatience. I have seen deer stand motionless for 10 minutes when they have caught my movement or thought they had caught my movement but weren’t sure what it was or if it had happened. Motion is their first source of detection after scent or sound. If they detect movement of an unsure source and the hunter that causes that movement freezes like a rock, that deer will inevitably lock up motionless and stare. Sometimes this statue stare will persist uninterrupted for 5 or 10 minutes. If left unsatisfied, the deer will sometimes blow or snort or foot-stamp trying to get a reaction. Often they will feign satisfaction that all is well and turn away seemingly no longer concerned. Then suddenly, they will twist their head around and resume the stare trying to catch you relaxing and moving.
This level of patience is needed by hunters when seeking the sighting of hidden or obscured animals. A level of patience, alertness, and persistence and time invested far from the frenetic pace of our babbling urban world. A deer never hesitates to spend many minutes locked up seeking confirmation and identification of a visual cue of danger. What are 15 minutes for a deer whose life depends upon a correct assessment. Modern man never experiences such events. Too impatient. All his alertness is switched off and smothered.
The hunter though must slip back thousands of years to reassume the posture of his ancient ancestors and his quarry and use this caution and patience and re-install his alert mind.
Respect. And reverence. And love. We hold our pursued wild creatures and the experience of their pursuit in respect and reverence. The meat we harvest we care for without any waste permitted. We only harvest when that animal has a population status where harvest does not affect that species’ sustainability. We pay for the care and law enforcement protecting these creatures and many other non-hunted species. We donate extra funds every year for research and the protection and procurement of habitat for wildlife. Members of the tribe that hunts, fishes, and traps, my tribe, has contributed billions of dollars in the last 130 years to create the wildlife recovery we have seen on the North American continent since 1880. Our sideline-sitting, ignorant, carping, lying, and self-aggrandizing anti-hunting organizations have contributed next to nothing.
How did this happen, this revolution in wildlife recovery in North America? Who did it? What did it require?
There was a small group of very rich, very concerned big game hunters at the core of the original efforts. Their central figure was Theodore Roosevelt. Why take on this headache? Why start an effort which would require much of their time and a not small amount of their personal treasure. They had all the money they needed to have all the hunting they could want in their lifetimes. They didn’t need to take any action. Not for themselves or their own lifetimes. They could just sit back and let others face the destroyed wildlife and most of the rest of our natural resources. They would be dead long before things really got bad. Who cares? Right? No, it was NOT right in those men’s eyes.
Those men did it for us, those unborn to their world. Us! They thought of us who would be born 50 or 100 years later in 1937 or 1987, 50 or 100 years after they first met to form their first organization and plan an a conservation effort. A plan still going strong almost 130 years later. The leader of the group was Theodore Roosevelt and that first conservation organization? The Boone and Crockett Club.
These men were witnessing the killing of the last of the big herds of bison in the west. The blood of those last bison was still wet on the ground. They had seen how our nation’s fascination with Manifest Destiny was capable of taking a previously thought unlimited natural resource, the bison, and destroy it in less than 40 years. An estimated population exceeding 30 million animals. They saw parallels happening with other wildlife and natural resources like trees, minerals, soils, and water.
There was no conservation ethic within the hearts of the vast majority of Americans. The understanding was, “It is here for the taking and I am going to take all I can, the devil take the hindmost.” Roosevelt’s core of concerned men knew this unabated destruction could not be, must not be, pursued against all resource bases in the nation. Losing the bison was one too many disaster for them. Our nation’s future would depend heavily on those resources being properly used and their use extended as much as possible. They had a spiritual relationship with the wildlife but also a serious practical concern about other resources. Unfortunately, too many Americans had a slash and burn mentality and this was all wrapped up in a perceived “freedom” issue, their freedom. They were not going to take kindly to any reigning-in of their appetites.
George Bird Grinnell, editor of Woods and Stream magazine (precursor of the magazine, Field and Stream today) conceived the concept and invented the word “Conservation” in 1884, the wise use of resources without waste and for renewable resources like wildlife and trees at least, within constraints of sustainability. He printed this concept and details for its role and implementation in Woods and Stream. Roosevelt had been a fan of Grinnell and his magazine since Roosevelt had been a young man. Roosevelt seized upon this concept as his masthead for the revolution he was hoping to lead.
Theodore Roosevelt founded the Boone and Crockett Club in 1887. The club board included Grinnell, Lacy, Pinchot, and several other shakers and movers who all were big game hunters and who were dedicated to the principles that ultimately became the blueprint for the North American Model for Wildlife Conservation.
These hunters rallied the nation, transformed its soul from Manifest Destiny to conservation not just for themselves or for their time. They did it for our benefit, those of us alive today, now, unborn and over 100 years in the future. They did it for us. They accomplished a miracle. They helped create state game laws, outlawed the commercial sale of dead wildlife, instituted license and permit fees to fund the enforcement of game laws, and set aside 230 million acres in parks, reserves, and National Forests. They began wildlife science courses for training a new type of professional, future wildlife scientists, the first at Yale University. This was all led by these hunters.
And I should add, later, in 1937, in the depths of the Depression, hunters, fishermen, and trappers stepped forward again. It became obvious that more funding was needed, and sportsmen wrote, proposed, and guided the law through Congress, the Pitman Robertson Act, which taxed sportsmen at 15% on all guns, ammo, and other hunting equipment. In the middle of the Great Depression, a new self-imposed tax? Unheard of generosity in hard times. This law and later expansions of this law has since raised billions for the state game and fish agencies. It is still going strong. The sources of these dollars? All from the wallets of hunters, fishermen, and trappers.
Finally, sportsmen founded their own specialized organizations, such as the first, Ducks Unlimited in the late 1930’s targeting waterfowl recovery. The real blossoming of these groups started in earnest in the late 60’s through the mid 90’s with such groups as Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, National Wild Turkey Federation, Safari Club International, Dallas Safari Club, Trout Unlimited, The Mule Deer Foundation, Pheasants Forever, and a dozen or more others.
This last voluntary founding of organizations and fund-raising blitz by hunters, fishermen, and trappers has resulted in more billions of dollars in habitat easements purchased, research and enforcement assistance for State Fish and Game agencies, and habitat improvement. Just one of these groups has done more on the ground for wildlife than any one of the phony wildlife groups of the anti-hunters.
The snide, sneering know-nothing anti-hunting organizations would surely mock the names of these sportsmen’s groups. Their ignorance is rooted in their living in the tiny islands of urban America which no longer have much to do with their own country’s constitutional grounding, its ethic of self-reliance and hard work, nor its wildlife recovery. And certainly the religious and spiritual aspects of the hunters’ and fishermen’s relationship with wild creatures is totally lost on these urban fools.
There are many people with no connection to the outdoors and her creatures who support or tolerate the concepts of hunting, fishing, and trapping as long as it is seen as scientifically balanced with wildlife populations and sustainable use, fair, humane, and ethically executed, and these activities of sportsmen make an appropriate contribution to sustaining wildlife. Even some of those duped by the dishonest pandering of the organizers of the anti-sustainable-use organizations can become informed and enlightened to the true history of the last 120 years and turned to be supporters or at least tolerant of sustainable use of wildlife. We sportsmen have be grossly remiss in efforts to educate our citizens as to what the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is and what it has achieved.
Somehow we must reach those who are not totally duped by the Ponzi Schemes of organizations like PETA and HSUS. We must educate all those who will listen that the spiritual brothers of our wildlife, the sportsmen, have been the real stewards of this wildlife for the past 120 years. We must find ways to recruit support from those non-sportsmen who have been standing on the sidelines. Without this expansion of funds and political support for scientific management of wildlife, wildlife will pass from our planet.