Hunter as Naturalist: An Oxymoron?

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Antlers embellish the walls of our homes, our barns and, in previous centuries, our castles. They are stark testaments to status and skill, souvenirs of adventures in the wild, and striking, one-of-a-kind natural art. In “Racks: A Natural History of Antlers and the Animals That Wear Them,” accomplished hunter David Petersen profiles the noble creatures — deer, elk, moose, caribou — behind this storied emblem, offering facts and stories and chronicling his own sense of wonder regarding antlers and their bearers. First published in 1991, the 20th-anniversary edition of “Racks” includes insightful postscripts that further ponder the ancient, natural act of hunting and the inextricable bond between hunter and hunted.
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To get within striking range of a deer, a predator must understand and strive to defeat this remarkable animal’s superb senses. This is the challenge of the human hunter as well.

The following is an excerpt from Racks by David Petersen (Raven’s Eye Press, 2010). A self-described “campfire philosopher,” Petersen is the former Western Editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS and the author of nine books. David and his wife, Caroline, live in a self-built cabin in the rural Colorado Rockies, where they garden, gather wood to heat their home, and hunt for dinner and philosophy. In recognition of Petersen’s ongoing work to protect public lands, fish and wildlife habitat, the Colorado Wildlife Federation named him Conservationist of the Year in 2010. This excerpt is from Chapter 8 of Racks, “The Hunter as Naturalist: An Oxymoron?”

Like yin and yang, deer and deer hunting are inseparable — so it is now, so it has been since the dawn of humanity. And so, I am here to argue, it should be.

But only if it’s done right. Which increasingly it is not.

What follows is intended primarily to objectively inform the approximately 80 percent majority of Americans who (unless they’ve been understandably tainted against hunting by the Outhouse Channel or similarly bad examples) hold no strong opinions one way or another.

I am a hunter. Not merely “a person who hunts,” but someone to whom this ancient, natural and honorable activity is an essential and deeply meaningful part of life. As such, I take no small umbrage at uninformed and unfounded attacks from anti-hunters or, on the other side of the philosophical coin, at the disgraceful behavior of some who pass themselves off as hunters these strange and sickly days.

When I speak kindly — even affectionately, of “the hunter” — I refer to the man or woman who stalks unobtrusively through forest and field or sits quietly alongside game trail or watering hole, and who eats what he or she kills, no exceptions, whether making meat is the primary motive for hunting or not. While I acknowledge the grunt work and patience required to lure in and shoot a bear over bait, there’s no woodsmanship involved in it — no hard-won skills, no real challenge, no compassion, no sense of fair play and, ultimately, no point, even when the meat is eaten (and bear meat can be delicious — the pork of the wild kingdom).

During Colorado’s month-long archery season for deer and elk each fall, I become a hunting bum, pushing aside all else that’s push-asidable in order to spend every possible minute roaming the steep conifer and aspen forests that frame my mountain home. My primary goal at such times, though not my only goal, is to kill an elk or a mule deer — primarily for meat, though antlers too are greatly appreciated. After a lifetime of practice, I’m passably good at it.

For the remaining 11 months each year, I study wildlife and its habitat and do what I can to help protect both. I like to think of myself not just as a hunter but as a hunter-naturalist-conservationist.

Is this a moral hypocrisy? Is the concept of hunter as naturalist and/or conservationist a rude contradiction in terms? Am I a liar and a fool for publicly professing to care a great deal about the welfare of wild animals, then turning around once a year and not just hunting and killing, but finding deep solace and satisfaction in the overall experience? To expand the question, were Teddy Roosevelt, George Bird Grinnell, Aldo Leopold, Ernest Thompson Seton, John James Audubon and so many others among our most important early naturalists and wildlife conservationists hypocrites because they too were hunters?

I think not. To the contrary, autobiographical accounts suggest it was hunting that first awakened in these men, as it would in me some decades later, a compelling love of nature and an insatiable curiosity concerning its workings.

Born on the south edge of Oklahoma City in the mid-1900s, from earliest childhood I longed for field and stream, river and lake, the mountains and contact with wildlife. In satisfying this chronic outdoor itch, my father, who worked 12 hours a day, six days a week keeping bread on the family table, was little able to help. Fortunately there were other males in the family and the fathers of friends who were qualified and to varying degrees willing to pinch-hit. Harlis Harper was primary among them. A second cousin, Harlis lived “out in the country” as we city kids referred to anywhere not yet covered over by blacktop and bricks. If I was 10 at the time, Harlis was no more than 20. On occasional well-remembered Saturdays during fall or winter, Harlis would pick me up in his old Mercury hot rod and we’d drive for an hour or so to some brushy, tree-filled place, often a Dust Bowl-era deserted farm. There Harlis would lead out across grassy field and in amongst tangled hardwoods in search of quail, squirrels, cottontails and, as I would gradually become aware, something less obvious.

“There’s more to hunting than just stomping around trying to scare up something to shoot at,” I remember cousin Harlis saying more than once, quietly, as if reminding himself as much as informing me.

Harlis’s idea of real hunting was in fact the opposite of thrashing around. Rather, we would walk slowly and quietly and stop often, standing still as statues, listening, looking, breathing in the clean country air, then move slowly on. And when we did spot an animal ahead, whether it was game or not, Harlis (and I by example) would stand for long moments, or kneel if we could afford the movement, just watching, listening, connecting silently with what philosopher Paul Shepard calls “the others” … those nonhuman animals among whom we evolved and that pre-agricultural, pre-religious humanity always viewed as demigods.

Thus gradually were awakened in me the broader possibilities of hunter as observer, observer as appreciator, appreciator as student — in short, hunter as naturalist.

Expanding beyond myself: Who and what exactly is he or she, this so-called hunter-naturalist?

The hunter-naturalist is a woodsman or woman of the traditional, “old-fashioned” persuasion. He knows and respects the natural world and enters it without fear. Instead of a GPS or streamers of bright-colored engineer’s tape littering his trail to guide him safely back to camp, he relies on map, compass, terrain features, the sun, the moon and stars, an attentive eye, memory, himself.

At home, the hunter-naturalist may or may not have trophies of the hunt decorating the walls, but he’s certain to have bookshelves filled with field guides — birds, mammals, trees, wildflowers — plus stacks of magazines less hook-and-bullet and more natural history in content. Plus photos, paintings, likely some “unremarkable” antlers, skins or similar tokens of meaningful time and adventure enjoyed in nature.

Afield, the hunter-naturalist pays attention to and consequently knows something of the meanings of the many and various wildlife vocalizations — territorial, all’s-well, intraspecific squabbling, mild alarm, flat-out panic. He can recognize the rustling sound of a squirrel gamboling in dry leaves and the sharp, arboreal snap of a brittle branch breaking under the weight of that same squirrel or a hard-landing bird. He knows the Chuck-chuck-chuck … thunk! of a liberated cone bouncing down through the limbs of a tall pine and coming solidly home to earth. And he can tell each and all of these quite similar sounds from the hard, heavy Crack! of an elk hoof on a fallen limb.

Further, the hunter-naturalist knows whether it’s an elk or a deer (and in areas where both species of the latter abound, whether whitetail or muley) that has spooked and fled just ahead — knows just from the distinctive sounds each makes running. Likewise, he can tell the bird-like coalescence chirps of cow and calf wapiti from the similar but sharper bent-note calls of the red-shafted flicker and other woodpeckers.

While the hunter-naturalist values his hunting weapons as fine tools and sometimes even art, he does not worship them as icons, nor does he consider ballistics charts as holy scripture, but reserves his true reverence for nature. He knows where local species of wildlife eat, drink and nap, and when for each. He knows when they breed and when they give birth. He knows the influences upon elk and deer of full moon and approaching storm. He can follow a scant blood trail — by flashlight if necessary — and, more important, has the conviction to stay on it, come hail or high water, until the job is finished. He can read a cervid track for freshness, direction and speed of travel, and even, under favorable circumstances, wager an educated guess at the sex of the maker. And he may well prefer the wild, funky, barnyard scent of elk to any chemical potion man (or wo-man) has ever concocted.

The hunter-naturalist-conservationist approaches hunting not as just another form of competition for bragging rights or, worse yet, as a way to bolster his insecure maleness, but as an invaluable learning experience, a pilgrimage.

And all of this — the sights, the sounds, the smells, the reverence felt, the knowledge earned, the whole wild shebang — means a great deal to him and, increasingly, to her.

As soon as I was old enough to drive and had saved enough to buy my first (well-used) car, I took to going fishing and hunting on my own at every opportunity I could arrange — the former oftentimes with like-minded school friends, the latter most often alone. (It remains much the same today.)

I remember, on Fridays during deer season, driving 45 miles after school to hunt whitetails for the remaining two hours until dark, my weapons a Ben Pearson recurve bow and a quiver of handmade cedar arrows, then crashing for the night in the cold, cramped backseat of my car with coyotes yipping all around. Then up before daylight to hunt all day Saturday. And again on Sunday morning. God but I loved it all even then, even the modest misery, as I do yet today. And in direct opposition to my young city life, I never felt lonely or lost when in the woods alone. I never felt afraid. And much the same today, big cities unsettle and at times terrify me.

It took me four years of hard trying and learning to kill my first deer, a beautiful November doe that walked beneath the oak limb upon which I was balanced, shivering in my boots. My arrow split her heart and she died running, having never gotten out of sight. I remember being simultaneously elated and saddened when I approached the suddenly stilled form — an emotional conflict I have since come to know well, and which I often hear thoughtful hunters echo.

I am now officially old and remain a traditional bowhunter, a reference to values as well as to gear: longbows and recurves, having no wheels, pulleys, cables, sights or any of the other high-tech encumbrances found on today’s more popular compound arrow-launching devices. While I’m not sure I would claim that traditional bowhunting is somehow “better” than methods depending on more “efficient” weapons, for me it is infinitely more satisfying. I like things simple and slow and not too easy. But that’s personal preference. In the end, it isn’t the weapon that separates the slob from the serious hunter, but knowledge, skill, ethics and attitude. Attitude and the actions it determines.

That, I guess, explains why I’m so troubled by the culture-and-advertising-induced trend among contemporary hunters to rely ever more heavily on technology in a self-defeating effort to make hunting as easy and certain as possible. To me, this seems bass-ackward. To make my hunting as primitive, natural and challenging as possible, I vigorously eschew gadgetry. If some years I fail to fill the freezer because I can’t get myself to within a few breath-holding yards of a deer or an elk or a pronghorn and set up an unobstructed shot, so be it. The weather is generally halcyon during the early bow season, the woods and wildlife undisturbed, so that just being out there is reward enough. Meat is a bonus. Meat and antlers are a compounded blessing.

And looking back across my own life, my spirits soar to see — which I do most every year — a father and son or grandfather and grandchild or uncle and nephew afield together: moving slowly, talking in whispers if at all, the eager youngster emulating the sage elder’s every move. Harlis and me, round and round forever.

What a contrast this is to those blowhard gangs of good old boys who roll into small western towns each fall towing trailers stacked high with all-terrain vehicles. Typically and sadly for them, few of these equipment-laden sports will ever venture far from where some variety of wheels can carry their atrophied lungs and spirits. Precisely because they prefer riding over walking, most are poor physical specimens and sadly unskilled in woodsmanship or ethics. Consequently, they tend to be more of a threat to themselves, other hunters and the scenery than to wildlife. (ATVs and off-road motorcycles are tremendously destructive to landscapes and watersheds.)

But this condemnation applies only to an annoyingly visible subspecies, not to the entire family of hunters. Most hunters, the “silent majority” if you will, are at least serious and conscionable if not downright reverential about their hunting. They are thoughtful predators playing a proper and important role in the natural scheme of things. It is, after all, the predators, human and otherwise, who have sculpted the incredible defenses of today’s antlered species. Predator and prey — it’s a quintessentially symbiotic relationship, as Darwin was among the first to recognize. Like so …

Those animals born with, or that somehow acquire, physical features or behavioral traits that provide them with an environmental advantage over others of their kind tend to eat better, live longer, breed more successfully and pass on their genes (and, it may be argued by ethologists, their learned behaviors as well) more successfully than those of their species less well adapted to their environment. In the face of this stiff competition, the less fit are slowly squeezed out and the species is thus refined. Among prey species, the weak, sick, lame and situationally disabled (like stuck in the mud) are preferred by predators for good reason: They’re the easiest to catch and overpower. Thus and so, the most vulnerable and therefore expendable individuals are the first and often only ones to fall. And in their individual falling, they strengthen the species, just as pruning revitalizes the tree.

“It is the wolves that keep the caribou strong.”

Through this long, slow winnowing process have evolved the most masterful self-defense organisms in the animal kingdom, the Cervidae. There is no better eye-ear-nose-reflex package going than the deer (all deer species). To get within striking range of a deer, a predator must understand and strive to defeat this remarkable animal’s superb senses. This is the challenge of the human hunter as well. And because the traditional bowhunter must get closest of all, he engages the greatest hunting challenge.

But rifle hunting too is necessary in order to maintain balanced and healthy deer populations in most parts of North America. On their own, archers could never get the job done — there simply are not enough of us and our weapons are too limiting.

Yet either way, bayonet or bomb, it’s still killing, and a stiff moral code is implied and, increasingly, neglected. I don’t mean to imply that hunting is morally busted, but only that is has some low tires, some grinding gears, a few loose spokes.

What can we who care — hunters, non-hunters and anti-hunters alike — do to repair what’s wrong with contemporary hunting while at the same time assuring for posterity a plenitude and diversity of wildlife and wildlands for all time to come? Because frankly, without the financial and political support of hunters across the past century and more, we’d have precious few big wildlife or waterfowl left to protect.

We who wish to deserve to call ourselves true hunters can start by examining our personal motives for walking about with bows or guns, looking to kill. We can, we must, police our own ranks — our family members, our friends and ourselves included — and take a hard line to excise the slob-hunter cancer that taints, weakens and threatens someday to destroy democratic hunting in America.

True hunters must support mandatory hunter safety and ethics education and help to make it increasingly effective. We can lobby for more, and more strenuous, game laws and enforcement, backed by swifter justice and stiffer penalties for violators. We must strive to shape a strong example for today’s young people who may become tomorrow’s hunters — or, should we fail them — tomorrow’s anti-hunters. In short, we need a cleaner, leaner, more athletic hunting paradigm that includes no place for motors in the backcountry.

Non-hunters can strive to keep open minds and try to understand that slob-hunters, in all of their perverted and highly visible forms, neither speak nor act for the majority of hunters, and that the “antis” at best are biased and at worst, like the worst of preachers and politicians, too often are dissemblers waging a dirty fight.

In the end, animal rights zealots, if their true interest is in fact the long-term well-being of wild creatures rather than, as it appears, attempting to impose their moral code on me, can try to set aside their emotionally clouded and myopic disdain for all hunting and all hunters in favor of doing what is necessary to help wildlife in the long run. Cripple or destroy hunting, and you cripple or destroy wildlife’s major, in some cases only, pillar of social, political and financial support.

Done right, hunting is as traditional and natural as making love (another unpopular activity in some censorial circles). The keys to its continued acceptance by a largely urban and non-hunting public are education, ethics, responsibility and sensitivity. Deer and elk are not mere moving targets, and hunting them entails far more than a trip to the meat market.

Reprinted with permission from Racks: A Natural History of Antlers and the Animals That Wear Them, published by Raven’s Eye Press, 2010.