The Compassionate Hunter

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A black-tailed deer doe munching on fireweed.
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A unique and comprehensive, fully illustrated guide to the complexity, ethics and spirit of the hunt, "The Compassionate Hunter" by Miles Olson is a must-read for beginning and experienced hunters alike. It will appeal to anyone who wishes to delve more deeply into the complex, humbling and ultimately profound reality of our relationship with the food that nourishes us.

Wild meat, hunted in a responsible way, is one of the most healthful, sustainable foods possible. Depending on how it is done, hunting can be as local, intimate and humane as it gets. And aside from this, it demands the hunter enter a world of awareness, wildness, life and death that we have lost connection to as a culture.

The Compassionate Hunter’s Guidebook (New Society Publishers, 2014) by Miles Olson is a guide for those that come to the act of hunting with pure intentions, motivated by a desire for healthy food that comes directly from the land where they live. This practical manual suggests that hunting is not a “sport” and the animals whose lives are taken are not “game.” It combines a deep, philosophical exploration of the ethics of killing with detailed instructions on every step of the process.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Compassionate Hunter’s Guidebook.

Compassion and hunting

A friend recently told me how ironic it is that some of the most impressive conservation work being done in the US is funded by organizations made up of hunters. How bizarre, she remarked, that the people preserving and protecting habitat for wild creatures are the very ones who make a pastime out of killing them. As a hunter, I didn’t find this bizarre or surprising at all; hunters have more directly invested in the preservation of healthy wild ecosystems than most other people. As someone who at one time was not a hunter, and who still remembers the popular conceptions and misconceptions around what that label means, however, I completely understood what she was saying.

Many people have a picture of the hunter in their imaginations that looks a bit like this: a macho, male, aggressive, over-stimulated, gun-toting redneck who likes to blow the heads off of innocent wild creatures for kicks: someone with no respect for nature or life. Now, I have to acknowledge that this image is based on a certain level of truth. The fact is, there is a spectrum of hunters, a spectrum of what hunting can be and can mean. On one end of this spectrum are people who head into the bush to shoot something just for the thrill of it. That’s all. They might have a picture taken posing proudly beside the grizzly bear or bull moose they have slain to document their impressive feat. They do not eat any of this animal, they just take its life for fun, as if it was a character in a video game. While this kind of conduct represents just a tiny fraction of hunters, and is illegal in many states, it does still happen. Then you have hunters who actually take the meat from the creatures they kill for eating, and at the very other end of this spectrum you have those who use all of the meat, bones, fat, organs and skin of their prey, when possible. These subsistence hunters aren’t hunting for “sport,” and the creatures whose lives they take are not part of a “game.” They are hunting so they can eat, and taking personal responsibility for all that entails with humility and respect. They have a deep respect for the animals they kill, since their own sustenance depends on those very animals. This book is about those hunters and that kind of hunting.

Hearing stories about disrespectful hunters and declaring that hunting is wrong is about as thoughtful as seeing pornography and deciding that sex is wrong. Both acts can be beautiful, sacred things, but both can also be senseless, oppressive and outright ugly. Which direction they go in has less to do with the simple, mechanical act itself and more to do with how it is approached; the integrity, empathy and respect of those involved. Hunting itself is neither inherently good nor bad. It can be a very humane and responsible way of getting food. It also has an inherent potential to crack the heart of the hunter open, to stir up from the depths of their being huge questions about the nature of life and existence. But it can also be as shallow and disconnected from emotional and energetic reality as pornography is. This all depends on perception and empathy; on whether or not the hunter is open to seeing their prey as a sentient being worthy of respect, feeling the depth of what is really going on when they choose to take its life and fully honoring the sanctity of that life.

Take, for example, the “sport” of catch-and-release fishing. Every fall I sit on the banks of my local river during the salmon run and watch, in a kind of disbelief, this strange phenomenon. If you aren’t familiar with catch and release, it is a type of recreational fishing where one catches a fish, then carefully reels it in as it struggles and fights against you, pulling with all of its force against the metal hook that has pierced its mouth or lodged into its body. Depending on the size and species, this struggle can take a good few minutes. Once you have successfully landed the fish, pulling it into your boat or dragging it onto the land, you remove the hook from its face or body and toss it back into the water from which it came, a little bruised, battered and torn.

In the fall as I sit on the riverbank and watch this strange phenomenon — dozens of grown men in hip waders torturing fish for fun — I wonder to myself: What the hell is going on here? Fish are not characters in a video game — they are living beings that feel pain. What are these guys doing?

This is where perception and empathy make a difference. Presumably the anglers that play this game with unfortunate fish don’t see the fish as having feelings, as being sentient. Or, if they do, they don’t see that as mattering. They don’t empathize with the fish; they don’t at any level feel what the fish feels, cringe at the pain they are subjecting it to for no reason besides entertainment. What is really interesting about this is that most of the men I have watched practicing catch-and-release fishing are passionate nature lovers, naturalists and outdoorsmen who truly love getting out and being in the wild. These are men who have a great deal of knowledge and respect for the natural world, men who are generally very kind people yet somehow have a certain inner switch that has been turned off with regards to these fish; the switch that controls empathy.

I am interested in living with that switch flipped on, because one experiences a shallower level of reality otherwise. Those fish do feel pain. And, in the context of hunting, when we kill something, we are taking the life of a sentient being out of this world, something beautiful and worthy of reverence and respect. If we don’t acknowledge and open ourselves to this reality, our experience is just a fraction of the truth. To approach hunting (and all of life) with an open, compassionate heart is the only way one can actually experience its full reality. It is this subtle difference in perception and empathy that distinguishes what I call the compassionate hunter. And despite popular perceptions that would suggest otherwise, a great deal of hunters fall into this category.

Compassion, of course, is not something people typically associate with hunting. After all, killing animals and having compassion for them don’t really add up, do they? The answer to this question is complicated, but my own journey and experiences have given me plenty of insight into it. Whenever I am confronted by this question, my first thought is that we might be asking the wrong question. A better question may be: Is there any way of living that doesn’t require death to sustain it? Is there really an escape from this dilemma, or is it actually hardwired into this reality; an inescapable, integral and (nowadays) hidden part of everyone’s sustenance that hunting simply makes obvious?

Yes, that’s a better question.

Hunting is different from other ways we get food because the associated cost, the loss of life, is made unmistakably, unavoidably apparent. Hunting means killing. It means blood and death. There’s no escaping it.

Buying a loaf of bread or a brick of tofu, however, don’t appear to have anything to do with this harsh reality. But if we go beneath the surface, the idea that these foods are somehow less harsh, less costly to life, quickly reveals itself to be an illusion. Allow me to explain.

There are in fact countless invisible lives that are extinguished as a by-product of modern farming; combine harvesters alone (used to harvest grain crops) are responsible for mincing any rodent, groundhog, snake or other unfortunate creature in their path during harvest. These lives are invisible to us and disappear unnoticed. They are collateral damage. This fact alone pops the bubble of guilt-free eating that many vegetarians might live in.

I want to dig a bit deeper than this, though.

It is an incredible thing that wild animals such as deer are the product of a rich, healthy, wild ecosystem. It is incredible that one can sustainably harvest food from such a place. Indeed, harvesting some animals, in some instances, is very beneficial to their home ecology. The reason I find this so incredible is that most of the food we as a society eat comes from a place that is almost the exact opposite. In order for a field of corn, soy, tomatoes or wheat to exist you need to actually remove a healthy, intact, wild ecosystem. You need to eliminate habitat for many wild animals (and, consequently, the lives of many wild animals, since their population is a function of food supply, aka habitat), not to mention the lives and homes of countless other wild plants, insects and so on, in order to plant your chosen species. There is no land that is simply sitting, empty, waiting to be planted and cultivated by the hands of humans. You have to make it produce, and this process, if we extend our empathy to all of those unwanted plants and animals that need to be removed or killed in order for it to happen, begins to level out any moral superiority the farmer might have thought they had over the hunter.

Within this framework, hunting is actually incredibly graceful. The only moment where the flow of life is disrupted is the very last: the moment of the kill. For every other moment of its life, the hunter’s prey lives in a state of completely unhindered wildness and freedom, wandering through distant lands, looking for love in all the wrong places and sometimes the right ones. In farming, on the other hand, the flow of life is disrupted from beginning to end, and in the end there is still a death, even if it’s only a carrot that is killed.

My point here is not to make a case that hunting or gathering wild plants are morally superior to other ways of getting food, but that nourishing ourselves involves a loss of life, some kind of death or killing, any way we do it. This is one of the great paradoxes of being alive and being human, and one that hunting, because of its explicit connection to this truth, brings us face to face with.

The hunter knows exactly what the cost of their meat is; they saw the whole story unfold with their own eyes. The consumer, on the other hand, can never really know how to measure the true cost of their food, what pain and loss might have been part of its creation. There is a safety in this, a protection from disquieting truths, but it’s the safety of ignorance. In this sense hunting is more honest, more raw.

Hunting can connect us in a very deep way to the web of life, to a reality that is pure, that is grounded in the timelessness of the earth and the processes of creation that furnish our sustenance. Killing creatures for food has fed and continues to feed me on many levels, and has also challenged and continues to challenge me on many levels. That’s what makes it interesting.

Gratitude Afterthoughts

I don’t know that I had ever before felt gratitude so deeply as the first time I killed a deer. I will never forget the moment I walked up to that motionless young buck lying on the forest floor, whose life I had just taken. His tongue was drooping out of his mouth, his dark eyes wide open, his face completely calm. As I looked at his face, I remember my eyes watering up and my entire body being flooded with an enormous thank you. I didn’t know any ceremony to commemorate the moment, or have any tradition to reenact that might express my gratitude. But really, the feeling was enough.

For every meal I ate that he was a part of, every piece of dried meat that I snacked on while talking with a friend, I was filled with that gratitude, with a profound sense of thankfulness and awe at the beauty I was so fortunate to be eating. Thanks to that deer, I had meat to eat. And thanks to that deer, I had food that was sacred. It came from the magic of the land.

To eat something that is sacred is very interesting, since often in our culture something “sacred” is thought to be something that is untouched, untouchable; something that must exist outside of everyday earthly existence. Of course, since so many of us think this way, we have constructed a world, or a way of being in the world, that reflects this belief.

Most food hunters, regardless of their beliefs or ideals, have a strong sense that the food they harvest is sacred. The whole act is sacred. It also happens to be one of the most primal, earthly acts of subsistence that people still feel called to experience. A sanctity that is intertwined with daily living.

A question I’ve thought a lot about over the years is how can one give thanks, or give back? Every time I have killed a creature, I have taken something extremely beautiful out of this world. I am acutely aware of this, and the gravity of it, because it was my doing.

I have never come up with a clear answer to this question. However, trying to honor the animal’s body by using it all, and trying to live in a good way, using the energy I have gained from my food with integrity and honesty: all of these things seem to be very important parts of the answer.

Perhaps part of hunting, part of the journey of being alive and killing for our food, is revisiting this question of giving thanks again and again. Doing our best to figure it out and honor the amazing process of death, nourishment and rebirth that makes us alive.

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Reprinted with permission from The Compassionate Hunter’s Guidebook by Miles Olson and published by New Society Publishers, 2014. Buy this book from our store: The Compassionate Hunter’s Guidebook.