For some people, hunting for “sport” implies frivolity: killing for fun.
For some, it suggests wastefulness and a lack of respect for animals: taking a whitetail’s antlers and cape for a trophy mount, and leaving the meat to rot.
Those are two reasons I don’t call hunting a “sport.”
When I talk or write about hunting and why I do it, I want people to understand what it’s like for me to take a deer’s life. I want my words to bring them to where I kneel beside the fallen animal, my hand on his still-warm shoulder. I want them to feel some faint ripple of the soul-deep wave that shudders through me.
I want my words to bring them to where I stand in the kitchen, separating muscle from bone and, later, sautéing tender slices of backstrap. I want them to sense what that venison means to me, taken so close to home, from woods I know.
I don’t want them thinking I get my jollies through a rifle scope.
For some people, “sport” implies a contest between hunter and hunted, or among hunters.
For some, it suggests highly structured competitions like professional team sports or the Olympics.
Those are two more reasons I don’t use the word.
When I talk or write about hunting, I want people to understand what it’s like for me to be in the woods. I want my words to bring them to where I sit watching sunlight break through frosty pine needles, to where I kneel and reach out to touch the edge of a fresh deer track. I want them to see ferns and moss. I want them to feel the immediacy of that connection to the earth that feeds us.
I don’t want them thinking I see animals as opponents. I don’t want them thinking Astroturf. I don’t want them thinking I’m out to bag a bigger buck than the next guy.
Many hunters, of course, use the term “sport.”
For some, it is simply habit—a word they grew up using, a word they’ve read a million times in books, in magazines, and online.
For some, hunting does feel like “fun,” or like a contest with animals, or like a competition with other hunters.
For some, the word is an important link to the late nineteenth century, when “sport hunting” denoted the importance of skill, and adherence to a rule-bound code of respectful, chivalrous conduct. Unlike the “market hunter” and the “pot hunter,” the “sport hunter” would never stoop to snaring or poisoning game animals. And “sport hunters” the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and George Grinnell were laying the foundations for America’s wildlife conservation legacy.
Fair enough. I don’t waste time arguing that people shouldn’t call their hunting “sport.”
But I do object when people insist that “sport”—or “recreation”—is the right term for virtually all modern hunting, including mine.
Take my friend Jim Tantillo, for instance, a professor of philosophy at Cornell University who wrote his dissertation on hunting. He maintains that hunting falls into two categories: hunting for survival, and hunting for other reasons. So far, so good.
If you hunt for survival, he says, then “hunting is work.” But if you choose to hunt, then “that very choice makes it fundamentally a form of recreation.”
I don’t think the language fits. “Involuntary” and “work” aren’t quite the same. And “voluntary” and “recreation” definitely aren’t the same.
A gardener may opt to grow a substantial portion of his family’s food. A volunteer EMT may squeeze herself into mangled cars to save lives. Both act by choice. And both probably enjoy aspects of what they do. But I doubt any of us would call their actions “recreation.”
In some dictionary somewhere, perhaps “recreation” means nothing more than “voluntary activity.” (In mine, it means “refreshment” and “enjoyable relaxation.”)
At some moment in time, perhaps “sport” meant nothing more than “rule-bound.” (Today, my dictionary says it means a host of different things, including “athletic activity,” “amusement,” and “recreation.”)
In the end, however, the meanings of words do not really exist in dictionaries; they exist in use and interpretation. Nor are meanings locked in history; they are constantly changing. (If I was the first to pen the lyric, Don we now our gay apparel, no modern American would picture cheery Christmas duds.)
As you can probably tell, I’m not interested in coming up with a label that applies to everyone’s hunting. I doubt such a word exists, except for “hunting” itself.
What I’m interested in is making my hunting comprehensible to others. And in a world like ours, where discussions of hunting are already full of pitfalls and confusions, “sport” and “recreation” only get in the way.
Notes: First, thanks to all who responded to my recent questions about “sport” on Facebook and Twitter. Your thoughts were of great help. Second, my apologies for the hiatus between posts. I promise that my attentions are being devoted to a good cause—I’m in the thick of book edits.
© 2011 Tovar Cerulli