Had I, he asked, ever wounded an animal but failed to kill and recover it? If so, how did I deal with that?
I haven’t known any of the deer I’ve eaten.
I may have been intimately familiar with how whitetails moved through that stretch of woods. I may even have seen that particular deer before. But I haven’t spent an extended period of time getting to know the individual animal, letting him get to know me.
This comes with the territory of hunting wild creatures. But what are the implications?
Over the past few weeks I’ve been talking with folks around New England about all kinds of things. Not surprisingly, one of the recurring themes has been the killing of animals: what it means, the conflicted feelings it evokes, how I and others handle it, what we make of it, and how we integrate it into our lives.
We have talked about commonalities between raising animals for food and hunting them. People have talked about the sadness they feel when slaughter day comes for the chickens they raise, or the wave of deep shock that rolls over them when they kill a cow: emotions very much like what some hunters experience at the end of a successful hunt.
Yet a difference has also been noted. As one friend put it, “When you take a deer, aren’t you killing a stranger?”
Yes, I am indeed killing and eating a stranger.
I respect and admire deer. I feel compassion for them. I feel an intense relationship with the particular animals I kill and with the venison that results, but it is clearly a predator-prey relationship. It is not a relationship of mutual affection. It is not friendship.
And that has me wondering: Emotionally speaking, what are the differences between hunting wild animals and slaughtering domestic ones?
For thousands of years, cultures around the world have surrounded hunting with ritual. There is, after all, something fundamentally unsettling about violence toward animals, especially large fellow mammals. What shifts, I wonder, happened in those rituals when people started herding?
Today, our modern culture is far more comfortable with the idea of farming animals than with the idea of hunting them. Hunting somehow seems more extreme.
In at least one way, though, isn’t a homestead-style farm slaughter more troubling?
I know hunters who can’t imagine raising animals for food. Some simply prefer, as I do, to see animals living free, rather than in captivity. But others know they couldn’t bring themselves to raise an animal—getting to know his or her individual personality, quirks, and moods—and then betray that relationship by killing.
There are many reasons why I hunt rather than raising chickens or other animals. There’s my distaste for the distance and forgetfulness inherent in our industrial food system (wherein we buy the meat of strangers who were raised by strangers, slaughtered by different strangers, shipped to us by still other strangers, and sold to us by yet more strangers). There’s my love of being outdoors, focused on woods, landscape, and the ways of wild creatures. There’s the unpredictability of hunting, the appeal of uncertainty. There’s the fact that having domestic animals makes it harder to take off for the weekend—chickens won’t ride shotgun the way our dog will. The list goes on.
But I still buy local poultry, raised and slaughtered by others. And I wonder: In part, do I hunt because I’d rather not eat friends?
© 2012 Tovar Cerulli
Dear Community Food Co-ops of North America:
Maybe you’ve noticed. Adult-Onset Hunting™ (AOH) is spreading.
In the five months since my initial warning, additional reports have come in. In February, Monica Eng of The Chicago Tribune wrote about her first steps in becoming an “ethical carnivore.” Her symptoms are classic AOH. In April, Yes! magazine sent intern Alyssa Johnson into the field. Then came the news from Palo Alto: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg may be afflicted.
What, you ask, does this have to do with community food co-ops? A lot, I think.
Consider Monica Eng’s words, for instance.
She cares about “sustainable food” and ecology, and isn’t keen on “giant toxic manure lagoons” polluting rivers and streams. She obviously cares about animal welfare, too, since she objects to animals being “crowded” and being forced to eat “unnatural diets.” And she wants to eat healthy food, not meat pumped full of “non-therapeutic antibiotics.”
Compare that with the criteria food co-ops often use in deciding what meat, poultry, and fish to sell:
- It must be wild, or raised in a humane way, ideally in free-range conditions.
- Production must be sustainable and environmentally friendly.
- No hormones or antibiotics can be used.
See what I mean?
So, how about it: Why don’t food co-ops start selling hunting and fishing licenses?
You don’t have to stop there, of course. You could also stock:
- crunchy granola bars for munchy hunters,
- tie-dyes and batiks in camo colors,
- organic lure and cover scents, building on product lines in your incense and aromatherapy sections,
- Birken-Stalk hunting shoes, as soon as the company catches on,
- and, naturally, books on hunting, food, and vegetarians-in-crisis.
I realize this may be a tough row to hoe. A lot of food co-ops started out as strictly vegetarian enterprises. The decision to start selling fish, poultry, and meat has been tough for many co-ops and their members. Believe me, I understand what you’ve been through.
Hunting may seem like alien cultural territory. But consider what one food co-op, just an hour from here, says about how co-ops began: “Early human societies learned to cooperate and work together to maximize their efficiency for hunting, fishing, gathering foods, building shelter, and meeting their individual and collective needs.”
Hmmmm. Hunter-gatherer societies as the original food cooperatives.
If it really is alien cultural territory, all the more reason to go there. I’ve noticed that a lot of food co-op mission statements mention a commitment to “diversity.” And ideological diversity, after all, is the hardest and most important kind to practice.
A Mindful Carnivore (Member, Hunger Mountain Food Co-op)
© 2011 Tovar Cerulli
Seven days a week, I got up around 5:00. I went to my computer. I stayed there. If I woke up at 2:00 and couldn’t get back to sleep, I got up then.
No, I did not rest a lot, and no, I was not a lot of fun to live with. Ask Cath. I took to telling friends that I didn’t bother with the clutch anymore, I just left myself in fifth gear.
On the book front, I was thinking about my own journey into hunting, and about ethics and ecology, religion and philosophy, and the history of human/wildlife relationships in North America. I’m happy to report that I now have a complete draft of The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance. I’ll be making revisions over the next few weeks, then the manuscript is off to my editor at Pegasus.
On the thesis front, I was thinking about other people’s journeys into hunting, analyzing 28 hours of audio recordings: the result of interviews I did with 24 adult-onset hunters. (According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a full third of first-time hunters are 21 or older.) Most of my interviewees live here in the Northeast. On average, they started hunting in their early 30s and have been at it for 8 years.
If I had to sum up my findings in a few sentences, I’d say this:
- Participants spoke of hunting as a deeply meaningful way of (1) being fully engaged with the natural world, (2) experiencing connection and belonging, and (3) cultivating ethically and ecologically responsible relationships with animals and nature, especially in terms of food.
- They spoke of these things as being particularly meaningful in the context of the modern world. Hunting was talked about as a response to modern life, as a physical and spiritual remedy for the disengagement, disconnection, irresponsibility, and unhealthiness of industrial society and industrial food systems.
- Participants also talked about the mixed feelings that accompany (and should accompany) the act of killing, and about the ethical imperatives of killing swiftly and making use of animals, especially as food.
In talking about being fully engaged, interviewees described the magic of listening as the forest wakes at dawn, and the wonder of seeing thousands of ducks rise up off a coastal bay. They spoke of the meditative, reflective experience of sitting quietly for hours on end, waiting. They spoke of the excitement of seeing an animal and of the intense, fully present alertness required of the hunter.
In talking about connection and belonging, they spoke of feeling connected to land, nature, and animals, to spirit, to other people, to our ancestry as a species, and to something deep within human nature.
In talking about responsibility, they spoke not just of hunting, but also of gardening, foraging, raising chickens, and keeping bees. They spoke of all these practices as ways of living well, of understanding our impacts on animals and nature, and of cultivating a deepened sense of what it means to eat.
In talking about the modern world, they spoke of how our fast-paced, money-driven lifestyles diminish our experience of being alive. They spoke, too, of how our high-tech, industrialized society disconnects us from the earth that feeds us, and of how it harms nature and animals, especially in factory farming. (I was sitting at my computer as I wrote up these findings. I was totally plugged in, my arms locked in a bent position. The irony did not escape me.)
The basic beliefs apparent in all this talk—about the value inherent in feeling connected to nature, for instance, or about the moral importance of treating animals humanely—are, of course, shared by many non-hunters.
Naturally, there was diversity in how people talked. Some participants, for instance, emphasized the importance of having a hands-on connection with their food sources, but never mentioned spiritual connection. Not surprisingly, those who lived in Massachusetts and along the central California coast spoke of local hostility to hunting, while those who lived in Maine, Vermont, and Alaska spoke of much greater acceptance.
Most participants grew up in non-hunting or anti-hunting families. But a few grew up in active hunting families and simply didn’t start hunting until adulthood. The contrasts between these two groups—and the reactions of a few other lifelong hunters who have reviewed summaries of my results—have led me to some speculations on the different ways we talk and think, both about hunting and about why we hunt.
But enough for now.
The short story is that the thesis—“Meat and Meanings: Adult-Onset Hunters’ Cultural Discourses of the Hunt”—will be filed with the UMass-Amherst Graduate School in June. I just need to make a few final edits, based on helpful suggestions offered by committee members Donal Carbaugh and Benjamin Bailey during my defense.
For anyone who really wants to read the 140-page academic text, I’ll happily share it. For those who prefer something shorter and more reader-friendly, I plan to find homes for a couple of related magazine articles.
I hope my findings will prove useful to fellow hunters, to non-hunters who want to understand why some of us hunt, and to hunter education programs, wildlife agencies, and conservation organizations interested in reaching out to existing adult-onset hunters or recruiting new ones.
I have a hunch that adult-onset hunters may be of increasing value in public dialogues about hunting. Many of us can talk and listen across the hunting/non-hunting divide. We might prove to be useful ambassadors, especially if—as sociologist Jan Dizard has predicted—hunting continues to “edge nearer and nearer the center of our ‘culture wars.’”
In April, I discussed my research at the Northeast Fish and Wildlife Conference. In June, I’ll be discussing it at the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences Conference. I’m looking forward to seeing where these conversations lead, and to putting the finishing touches on both the thesis and the book manuscript.
In the past couple weeks, though, I’ve been enjoying some time away from the computer. For one thing, my limbs have straightened out again.
© 2011 Tovar Cerulli
Just before the New Year, I was talking with a hunter I know. He mentioned how much he enjoys preparing venison for non-hunters. So often, they’re surprised by how good it tastes. Only one thing bothers him. After they declare it to be delicious, they’ll say, “I expected it to be gamey.”
“I’m so tired of people saying they expect it to be ‘gamey,’” he told me. “Venison is about the nicest meat I can imagine.”
A few nights later, a couple of friends were here at our place for dinner. Among the dishes on the table was a bowl of venison meatballs. I told one of our guests how fond Cath is of that particular recipe. “Oh,” he asked, “does it help get the gamey flavor out?”
The gamey flavor. What is with that?
Is this notion stuck in people’s heads because they’re freaked out by the idea of eating wild animals? Is it rooted in cultural and economic history, in the feeling that game-consumption is a sign of poverty?
Are people speaking from experience? Have they been subjected to horrendous cooking? Have they been traumatized by eating venison that was poorly processed, or was “aged” until it turned green? (For a not-so-scientific investigation into the effects of such handling, see “The Taste Controversy Ends” from the U.S. Venison Council.)
I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe, in my decade as a vegan, I simply forgot what domestic meat tastes like.
Cath and I do eat plenty of local chicken and turkey, but when it comes to red meat, venison is the only flavor I really know. When the weather warms, I’ll be slicing thin strips of backstrap, sautéing them lightly, and serving them over fresh salad greens from the garden. Cooking venison this way doesn’t get rid of any of the flavor, thankfully.
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with beef, but I expect it might taste farmy.
© 2011 Tovar Cerulli
More than a year ago, it was known—and reported in a widely read New York Times article—that a growing number of U.S. citizens had the condition. According to a recent article in Toronto’s National Post, a number of Canadian citizens have contracted it as well. The geographic epicenter is unknown. Though early reports suggested that AOH is most commonly contracted in cities, recent research indicates that it is even more virulent in rural areas.
Experts suspect that AOH may have lain dormant in the American psyche for generations, feeding off 19th-century stories about Daniel Boone.
The most recent outbreak appears to be a mutation, triggered in part by widespread interest in knowing more about one’s food sources than is psychologically healthy. One pathological example often cited by both experts and adult-onset hunters is journalist Michael Pollan’s twin desires to visit cattle feedlots and to shoot a wild pig.
When fully developed, the primary symptoms of AOH are unmistakable: an otherwise normal, heretofore-non-hunting adult repeatedly goes to woods, fields, or marshes with a deadly implement in hand, intent on killing a wild animal.
Other potential symptoms include (1) a feeling of connection to nature, to one’s food, and to one’s hunter-gatherer ancestors, and (2) a re-calibration of one’s beliefs about hunting. Previous beliefs may suffer from atrophy, seizures, and even death, especially when an anti-hunter contracts AOH.
Knowing the early warning signs may protect you or a loved one from the worst effects. These early signs include:
- Excessive reading about the production of industrial food, especially factory meat.
- Esophageal spasms upon learning that the average pound of supermarket ground chuck contains meat from several dozen animals slaughtered in five different states.
- Sudden bouts of wondering why the local food co-op—with its cooler full of local, organic, free-range meats—doesn’t sell hunting licenses.
- Compulsive eating of “real food” purchased directly from farmers.
- Recurrent realizations that farmers are killing deer and woodchucks to keep organic greens on your plate.
- Impaired ability to find meaning in chicken nuggets or tofu dogs.
- Insistence on a literal reading of Woody Allen’s dictum “Nature is like an enormous restaurant.”
- An uncharacteristic compulsion to initiate dinner conversation about firearms.
- Impaired ability to see humans as separate from the rest of nature.
- Repeated contact with real, live hunters (experts suspect that AOH is highly contagious, though transmission mechanisms are not yet fully understood).
Early diagnosis is problematic, as other potential warning signs include interests in hiking, gardening, fishing, mushroom hunting, raising chickens, cooking, and eating. Even vegetarianism can be a precursor condition, particularly if your acupuncturist has recommended that you add animal protein to your diet.
Alarmingly, growing up in a non-hunting or anti-hunting family does not guarantee immunity.
Experts have begun searching for a genetic marker indicating a predisposition for AOH. Until an accurate test is available, researchers recommend following these guidelines:
- If you or someone you know exhibits 0-3 of the above signs, the risk of adult-onset hunting may be low. You are urged to watch for further symptoms.
- If 4-6 of the above signs are present, immediate action is required to prevent a full-blown case of AOH. Recommended precautions include (A) obstinate refusal to think about where one’s food comes from, especially any meat consumed, and (B) at least one-half hour per day of reading about how humans are, in fact, extraterrestrials.
- If 7-10 of the above signs are exhibited, adult-onset hunting is already entrenched. Primary symptoms will begin to appear in a matter of weeks. Sign up for a hunter education course as soon as possible and find a hunter willing to show you the ropes.
There is no known cure.
© 2011 Tovar Cerulli
Cath and I looked at the ground in surprise.
We had visited this rocky hilltop many times. It was here, some eight years earlier, that I had asked her to marry me.
We had often seen these low bushes clinging to the meager soil. We had never seen them fruiting.
The patch of green leaves at our feet was speckled with clusters of dusty blue. We picked a few ripe berries and savored their sweetness, then picked a few more, dropping them into a plastic grocery bag I happened to have in my fanny pack.
Soon we realized that the entire southern side of the hilltop was thick with blueberries. Thrilled by the unexpected bounty, we loaded the grocery bag with nearly two quarts, hardly making a dent.
But no measure of volume can gauge what we gathered that morning.
From farming done by others, we get the bulk of our calories and nutrition: fruits, vegetables, grains, chickens, and more. From our own gardening, we get a smaller portion of our food—greens, peas, beans, carrots, squash, and the like—plus an invaluable sense of involvement and connection.
From wild food, we get something else.
Whether unsought and unforeseen like that bagful of blueberries, or hunted and hoped for like the chanterelles I seek in the summer woods or the deer who steps out from behind a tree twenty yards from where I crouch in autumn, wild food is not something grown or owned, bought or sold.
It is something given. Something that feeds soul as much as body. A reminder of our oldest, humblest way of eating.
Unlike the hunted animal, remarks Bob Kimber in Living Wild and Domestic, “The animal raised and slaughtered is not a gift. We have earned that food in a different way, and when we eat that animal, we are not accepting a gift as much as we are exercising our property rights.”
To blueberry bush or fallen deer, I am not master, standing over that which is rightfully mine, but supplicant, on my knees, hand outstretched.
© 2010 Tovar Cerulli