The Tao of Hunting: In Defense of the Most Ethical Food

by Darrin on October 28, 2011

Vast fields punctuated by lonely trees. A golden retriever starts running in a random zig zag, sniffing the ground in front of him. Like a thunderclap, a rooster pheasant flutters up and away into the setting sun.

Last week, I travelled to North Dakota to go bird hunting with my dad and his two dogs, Winchester and Browning. (And in case their names didn’t give it away, they are hunting dogs through and through!)

On the one hand, the timing was kinda bad. Through some strange butterfly effect, my post “The Five Failings of Paleo” started blowing up like an atomic bomb just as I was frantically packing and trying to get last week’s post ready to go. It ended up getting linked to all over the interwebs, inspired some heated debate, and culminated with my first ever guest post, on Richard Nikoley’s blog Free the Animal. With my only connection to the online world the 3G on my iPhone, I wasn’t really able to be involved with it as much as I would have liked to.

(Incidentally, MANY of you are new readers, and I’d like to give you a big WELCOME!)

But I gotta admit, it was great to get away from it all for a while.

I’ve been hunting on and off since I was legally allowed to bear a firearm, and I think that it’s something that most people should try, particularly those of us who eat meat.

Despite our modern culture’s aversion to hunting (especially us city slickers), it really gives you an appreciation of what is on your plate that you just can’t get by picking up a cellophane-wrapped roast from the supermarket. Instead of being a barbaric activity enoyed by bloodthirsty sociopaths, hunting is perhaps the most ethical and sustainable form of food acquisition around.

The Ethics of Hunting

I grew up in the sticks of Minnesota. That was my life. And part of that was growing up in a family (and town) that was big on hunting.

I did some bird hunting, and went deer hunting for a couple years, but pretty much gave it up during high school and college. I suppose I snobbishly thought myself above such a blue-collar activity and aspired to be a cultured city boy instead. Like many people, I found hunting “weird,” and not the sort of thing I would ever really want to do again.

But as I got older I wanted to spend more time with my family, and get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city every now and then to places where you could actually see the stars in the sky at night.

And so I started hunting again.

I got some resistance from some of my friends for actually wanting to go hunting. And although I would have been with them a few years earlier, I no longer felt like there was anything wrong with it. In fact, I had realized that it was perhaps the most ethical and sustainable way of attaining food.

There seems to be a common belief that raising animals on a farm and slaughtering them is more ethical than hunting them in the wild, but this is mostly the result of most people’s strong desire to not know where their food comes from, and their misunderstanding of the people who do want to have that connection.

Here’s a video of a presentation by author Jonathan Safran Foer that really sums up what I think to be the problem with most people’s aversion to hunting. The whole video’s worth a watch, but check out 47:30, when someone asks him what his opinion is of people who think that hunting is simply a more direct route towards acquiring food.

Foer, who seems to be a pretty calm and collected guy, appeared to struggle to control his anger and disgust over this question, basically saying that hunters don’t hunt to get food, they do it because they enjoy killing things.

This assertion is completely ignorant, and could only be uttered by someone who has never hunted. If we did it only for the joy of taking a life, we would leave our kill where it laid and spare ourselves the time and money necessary to haul out, clean, and butcher the carcass.

We wouldn’t be interested in fair chase, or hunting in a way that gives our prey as good a chance of escaping as we do of killing them. We wouldn’t be interested in conservation and would instead indiscriminately poach and hunt animals to extinction. But this rarely happens.

Instead, hunting is one of those activities that taps into a deep part of the collective unconscious due to its close psychological connection with our preagricultural ancestors. But unlike things such as breathing, eating food, drinking water, and having sex, this is one part of our past that most of us don’t take part in any more.

Like those actions, hunting is something that is coded in our genes. We aren’t wired to enjoy killing as much as we are wired to enjoy getting food. In fact, I’d compare it to the modern hobby of gardening, which is a much more socially acceptable activity in urban areas, yet it is tapping into the same primal part of the brain as hunting.

Ancient Rituals, Modern Practices

Later in the same talk, Foer throws up his hands in exasperation as the questioner keeps pushing him on the subject, stating that hunting is really just a small niche, and that we should be instead focusing on modern factory farming and its effects.

I’d agree with him there, though take it one step further. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with eating meat in and of itself. Humans are omnivores, and the animal kingdom is full of meat-eaters. That we would put up animals’s lives on a pedestal and proclaim them inherently more sacred that those of plants is ridiculous, and indicates more our own fear of death and, as a result, more our dislike of seeing the death of species closely related to us.

But I don’t want to digress too much on a philosophical tangent.

However, I agree that factory farms are abysmal. If you haven’t read Fast Food Nation or seen Food, Inc., you really ought to.

Although I’m not big to push organic/grass-fed/pastured/etc. food, it’s mostly because I’d rather see people just get started on improving their health rather than getting it right from the start. Due to budgetary concerns, I still get most of my conventionally-raised food from the supermarket, and certainly wouldn’t judge anyone else for doing likewise.

Whatever your opinion of factory farming, hunting solves the problem by opting out of it altogether.

My Trip to NoDak

I grew up in a state just next to North Dakota, though I hadn’t been there until this trip.

Everyone I knew who was from the state and everyone who had visited there told me I wasn’t missing out on anything. They told me it all looked the same, with huge fields and very little trees.

Then I got there, and guess what… they were all right!

But instead of being turned off by the place, I found it really beautiful. Now maybe it’s because I’m still a country boy at heart and love escaping the concrete jungle whenever possible, but I found NoDak to be a really peaceful and great place, perfect for getting away and unwinding.

Now, duck and pheasant numbers were down, and I’m quite honestly a pretty crappy shot with a shotgun, so we didn’t exactly bring back an epic haul. But that didn’t really matter.

I found waiting around in waist deep water hiding from circling ducks to be exciting. I found stalking through thick overgrowth in the hopes of kicking something up to be immensely enjoyable. Hunting is just as much about this as it is about “making the kill.”

As you try to get out of your head and focus on your senses as much as possible, you enter a state of consciousness that is not at all unlike meditation, when you focus all your conscious focus on one point while trying not to fight any thoughts that come up.

One of the biggest parts of the “Move Smarter” commandment on this site is actually getting out of the gym and doing something physical outside. By using your body outdoors, not counting reps and weight, and not being so attached to the outcome, you simultaneously make physical activity much more enjoyable and get to reap the benefits that spending time working out actually provides to you.

Do Something New… Try Hunting!

Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that he would eat only meat that he hunted himself this year. And rather than being fueled by a bloodthirsty rage, he wanted to learn how to be “thankful” for the food he eats.

Hunting, just like gardening, can give you a much more direct connection with your food. It can make you understand that life keeps changing forms as time marches on. It makes you realize that you are taking something from the world in order that you can survive. And I think that makes you appreciate much more the importance of doing something big and making a positive difference in the world as repayment.

If you have a shooting range near you, you might want to look into practicing or taking lessons. You might even want to buy your own gun. Eventually, I suggest going on a hunting trip yourself and making it a point to eat something that you yourself hunted.

You never know, you might just find that you enjoy it.

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