fluidly on forearms

University of Northern Iowa

On Hunting Author(s): Eric Zencey Source: The North American Review, Vol. 272, No. 2 (Jun., 1987), pp. 59-63 Published by: University of Northern Iowa Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25124850 . Accessed: 25/10/2013 20:07

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THE PRESENT CASE

On Hunting ERIC ZENCEY

A man walks the shoulder of state route 14, a two-lane road that winds north through the hills of Vermont from Barre (“Granite Capital of the

World”) toward Hardwick (“the Gateway to the Northeast King dom”). The man wears a red wool

jacket with a black plaid design, a

bright orange peakless cap, and green wool trousers. He is portly. Firmly bound to one shoulder is the leather

strap of a rifle, and its barrel protrudes upward, a long thin snorkel bobbing above his head. It gives him a vaguely amphibious air. As I pass him at

something near the regulation fifty miles an hour, I can see that this hike is straining him; his cheeks are red and he seems, in the short glance I have of him, to be out of breath.

There is something anomalous about a man walking along a road with a rifle. To those with urban reflexes, the sight is likely to quicken the heart and sharpen the senses, for in a world of pavement and glass a man with a

gun can mean only one thing: danger. Even when there is no danger?even in open country where this sight is not unusual, even when the rifle is

strapped to a red wool shoulder and

pointed innocuously at the sky? there is something disconcerting about the vision. The man is a

hunter. His presence here along the

road means he isn’t hunting: he is out of place, away from the activity that defines him.

Hunting is an uncivil activity. It occurs outside the boundaries of civic

organization, in a landscape whose distance from the city cannot be

measured solely by the space that lies between the hunter and the nearest

high-rise apartment. The city de

pends on agriculture?the farmer’s

fields are a necessary antipode to the

apartment building. In its essence,

hunting is a stranger to both farm and

city, a stranger to the form of order that is represented in the plow and in structural steel. While agricultural societies have domesticated the

hunt, turning it variously into a for mal and mannered social occasion, or a democratic, somewhat plebian escape from routine, true hunters?

those whose lives depend on success in the hunt?survive today only on

lands that no farming tribe has ever

contested, lands in which the urban dominion that wraps the globe takes the form of a thin and tenuous juris diction over wilderness. For most of

recorded history there has been ani

mosity between farming peoples and

hunting peoples. The farmers have tended to see the animosity as being rooted in the pure uncivilized savage ry of the hunter; to the hunter, the

problem was always a basic incom

patibility of religious vision, manifest in the farmer’s penchant for owner

ship. An appreciation of the hunter’s

point of view in this, the conflict that led to the first and longest of all world

wars, is a relatively recent develop ment in western culture. One does

not need to have read Hegel in order to see that the appreciation is neither accidental nor entirely innocent of self-interest. As agriculture has ex

panded its dominion, reaching the fullest development of its potential, its shortcomings, too, have become

more apparent, a state of affairs that

seduces us into romanticizing the

simplicity and nobility of the hunter and gatherer. But romanticism is

meager reparation for four thousand

years of denigration; desire rarely does justice to its object. Because romanticism depends upon the form of memory (and the sense of loss) that comes from seeing time as an infinite series of unique moments, it does not

escape history?and history is what is at issue here. In this conflict, history

was not only written by the winners, it was invented by them, and its impo sition on the world was a crucial com

ponent of the injustice that agri culturalists visited on hunters. Today our romanticism of the paleo-hunter

only serves to affirm the complete ness of the farmer’s victory: the

secure victor can afford to be indul

gent, even generous. And yet there is a paradox here, one that Hegel might have appreciated. Geologic time

(which, with its apparently infinite

stretches, represents the fullest

development of the historical con sciousness invented by the farmer) transcends the mindset that marks off

days and hours and minutes, and in so

doing offers a near replication of the hunter’s immersion in cyclic and sacred time. And, to one mindful of

geologic time, agriculture and the urban life it supports are recent ex

periments in social organization, experiments that may yet demon strate the wisdom of peoples we once viewed as savage.

No one would mistake my portly hunter for a savage. And he is, in all

likelihood, only a commuter to the

territory of the hunt. But he has been in the woods. Now, as he walks the

road, he is out. Whenever an alien

culture intrudes upon ours, there is

incongruity, even when the intrusion is as mild as this, a part-time hunter

walking the graveled shoulder of a stretch of two-lane blacktop, far from the centers of the urban culture that

produced the road.

Hunters are men, mostly. (Of the 17.5 million Americans who, accord

ing to a census by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hunted in 1980,

only eight percent were women.) And while they pursue a variety of

game, it is the pursuit of the white tail deer, odocoileus virginianus, that

defines them in the public mind. Deer are the largest animal taken in

any great number in this country? they are ranked as big game, almost in spite of the fact that they are plen tiful?and we as a culture are drawn

to the symbolism of the large. Hunt ers are too; for many, hunting means

deer hunting, and deer season is the event toward which the year moves.

Hunting is not a spectator sport: there are no vicarious thrills in hunt

ing, unless they are found in the emo

June 1987 59

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tions the hunter feels when his quarry escapes?or is killed. No one pays

money to watch another person hunt, and the few attempts at presenting

hunting on television have been dis mal failures, scarcely drawing audi ences even on slow and rainy

Sundays. This is not just because the

presence of a camera and crew dis

torts the activity, so that the hunting that can be shown is not the hunting that is. Hunting is a private, if not

solitary, act. We see hunters only when they have ceased hunting, only when they emerge from the woods.

In the towns of Vermont during deer season they congregate in the parking lots of general stores, eating their lunches while the rest of the world

commutes to work, drinking coffee or

liquor against the chill of sitting motionless in the autumn woods.

They gather to talk, to compare, to

commiserate, to mock, and above all

to tell stories. In the group that stands this morning outside my town’s gen eral store, there is one man in particu lar whose hands gesture easily,

moving fluidly on forearms that are

pinioned against the hood of his pick up truck, which the group uses as a

coffee table. Now and again he

thumps the dusty hood of the truck for emphasis, shaking the styrofoam cups, threatening the roast beef sand

wich that lies close at hand atop its

plastic wrap. They are a raucous and.

burly lot, and were it not for the fact that I recognize my friend Frank

among them, and can greet him, I

might feel ill at ease as I pass them on

 

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