Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hunter Safety--Why Hunt?

I was vegetarian for over a decade. Before the weekend of April 10-11, I had handled a firearm only once. (It was at a Boy Scout camp when I was 12 years old.) Wildlife is a passion of mine. I support reintroduction of wolves to New England. I believe that there should be an almost complete moratorium on commercial fishing. I even volunteer as a salamander crossing guard during the early spring to help the cute little wrigglers make it to their vernal pools without getting squished by automobiles. So why would a tree-hugging, bleeding-heart like me show up on a chilly Saturday afternoon in spring with a dozen eight-year-olds, their dads and grandpas to pass guns around and talk about how best to shoot Bambi?

Truth be told, I've never had a philosophical or ethical argument against hunting. Humans have eaten other animals since before we were even human. Despite what the local PETA chapter told me, the preponderance of evidence suggests that our species evolved as enthusiastic omnivores. Animal life, by its definition, is required to feed on other life, and for hundreds of millions of years we, animals, have killed in order live. I cannot claim that hunting is wrong without indemnifying my fellow animals. I see little reasoning behind the idea that taking the life of a rabbit or deer is fundamentally different, in moral terms, from digging up and eating the roots of a wild leek or parsnip. All these creatures are miracles. They are all composed of cells wondrously working away at the chemical reactions that sustain them. They share our common ancestry in the great family of life. In a very real sense they are our brothers and sisters.

So perhaps the real question I should answer then is, "Why vegetarian?" I refused to eat meat for two reasons. First, I believed that a vegetarian diet was gentler on the ecosystem than an omnivorous one. Second, I had never actually killed an animal myself.

My first reason I now believe to be well-intentioned, but flawed. Yes, a given amount of ground can produce more calories of corn than it can of cow, but it does this at great expense. The grains that civilization is built upon (corn, wheat, soy), are hard on our land. The methods we most often use to grow them are a far greater environmental atrocity than taking the life of a single deer. The Michael Pollan set have made this case far better than I can here. Suffice it say that I now believe that a compassionately raised or wild creature who is killed skillfully and with gratitude here in my town is kinder, better, more sustainable than buying a package of (even organic) tofu that was raised in California on an industrial farm.

My second reason, that I had never actually killed a (vertebrate) animal myself, grew from my desire to viscerally understand my own role in the drama of life. Indeed, this is one of the major goals for the foraging family project. I do not want to move through my life as a spectator. I do not want my food sugar-coated, literally or figuratively. I'd never figured out a way to connect with the lively creature that had be butchered and Styrofoam wrapped in my supermarket. Without that connection, how can we feel the gratitude that we should.

Several summers ago, I was present as a friend of mine slit the throat of a sheep. We had not eaten in days, and I was profoundly hungry. My hand was on the sheep's ribs, and I was privileged to feel the warmth and life of this animal fade. I helped to pull its skin off like a jacket. I cleaned out its entrails. I cut and cooked and ate its organs. We ate every part of that animal that we could. That moment of death was profound and unnerving, as it should be. If there ever comes a time when it is not, I know that it is time to stop taking animal life.

My real question is, "Why have so many of us lost this sense of reverence when taking the life of a plant?" They are creatures, same as us. They are fragile and beautiful like us. A species of plant is just as irreplaceable once it is gone as an animal. Plants have the same impulse to live and pass on their genetic heritage. Who can help but admire the dandelion reaching out through a concrete sidewalk to unfurl its blossom of sunshine?

I do not know that I will every hunt, but I would be proud to if I did. To step out of the illusion that we can eat without causing suffering and death is hard. I think of the Buddha's first Noble Truth: Life is full of suffering. It is inescapable. I would rather live in the truth than in comfort.

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