Post-modern Sport Hunting

post modern sport huntingHunting is a serious thing.  To send a grouse earthward in a flurry of feathers over a birdy dog on a frozen Appalachian slope, then slide it into your hunting coat is to put in your pocket a tangible piece of something intangible. In principal at least, we realize that  the prospect of death is incidental. Jose’ Ortega y Gasset noted, I do not hunt in order to kill. I kill in order to have hunted.

In Hunting, as in other sports, there is a skill set requisite to being successful. This skill set would include awareness, attention, patience, perception, etc. As we develop and refine those skills we come to know and understand wild ways on a level far beyond the horizon of the many. In the end those things add up to an understanding of the land that does not lend itself to novelty.  Woodsmanship is the language through which we read the land. It is important that sport hunting is distinguished from market hunting and poaching only through its essential premise – fair chase (reaffirmed by law in that game cannot have economic value). It is only through that premise that shooting game for sport may have any value at all. Sport hunting has to be a deliberate submission to nature, carrying a requisite skepticism for expedience.

Over the past few decades a hunting industry has emerged. An economic juggernaut, it purveys all sorts of gadgets which, to varying degrees, lend some type of advantage to we the predator. In principle these things might assist a woodsmanship. But have we allowed them to become substitutes for it? We talk about our love for nature then immediately put a thousand buffers between that interface. We are diminishing the chase that we praise as substantial and fair.  What message are we sending?

To be sure, I don’t know of any hunter who would argue that hunting needs more technology, or even that hunting is improved by it. I suspect the majority of us would agree that at some point the integrity of the thing is inverse to expedience. But where is the line? I suppose that it is a gradual one, a gray scale between immersion in the land mechanism and dependence on technology. For perspective, consider these words from Aldo Leopold, published in 1948: “The traffic of gadgets adds up to astronomical sums, which are soberly published as representing ‘the economic value of wildlife’. But what of cultural values?” If this more than six-decade old statement was considerable then, where do we stand now? I do not presume to know the answer. As with any ethical matter, there are no cut-and-dry boundaries, only a visceral sense of what is right and what is wrong.

I’ll venture to express a few of my own convictions, and the reader may come to his or her own conclusions.

Not being endowed with cryptically colored fur or feathers, we don’t stand much of a chance against the sharp eyes of our prey. For that reason camouflage seems reasonable. It is also a natural mechanism that has been used by both predator and pray since the dawn of time. That is, it has a natural analog: an analogous feature or behavior used by animals.  To be sure, anyone who has ever owned a dog knows of its affinity for rolling in carrion. That instinct is one that they have retained from their kinship with wolves who exhibit the same behavior to mask their own scent, and there lies the natural analog.

Firearms certainly do not have a natural analog. On the other hand, the use of gun powder harks back to the days when hunting was essential for sustenance and has since become part of the culture and heritage of hunting. But firearms also bring to the table an element of skill: marksmanship.

Like firearms, the use of game calls goes back a long way and their use also requires skill. Game calls also encourage a familiarity with the communication of the game pursued. So there is skill and experience necessary to extract utility from them. Perhaps there there are two criteria that may assist in determining whether a gadget assists woodsmanship or is a substitute for it: Does it have a natural analog? Does its application require some skill to derive its utility?

Many of the items we take into the field have no natural analog, nor do they require skill to use effectively. Scent-eliminating technology requires no effort to extract utility. And while natural cover scents may mask scent, modern fabrics are designed to eliminate it. Instead of honing one’s skill in order to combat game’s senses, we depend on a modern, synthetic substitute to buffer us from the challenge of eluding detection. Sure it can be effective, but is it not too painless? Range-detecting optics are another example. They represent a painless substitute for good judgment. Game cameras?

The virtue of sport hunting may be maintained even with the occasional application of technology. But it is the incremental dependence on synthetic materials and technology to expedite pursuit that should summon concern. In sport hunting, the quality of the experience is, to a large extent, inverse to degree of expedience. It is worth examining the question whether the criteria for success is being shifted away from skill and towards purchasing power with a corresponding dilution of woodsmanship. With each modern tool comes an incremental erosion of true sport and fair chase. Unlike spectator sports there is no league to set standards or prohibit performance-enhancing drugs. There is no crowd to criticize or applaud sportsmanlike conduct. There is no referee to blow the whistle when a hasty shot has left game crippled. At some point we have to define for ourselves how much too much is.

I hope we can all critically consider the direction of modern sport hunting, that we can recognize that its virtue is not indestructible and that, like athleticism, woodsmanship is a skill set to be pursued and refined over time through discipline and practice. John Calvin left us with a quote that seems now more timely than ever: “…we should beware lest we pervert into impediments things which were given for assistance”.

Hunter S. Bridges