Creek - Outdoor and Nature Writing by Ward M. Clark
Modern hunters seem
to find they are answering that question frequently. Sometimes the
question is put by the genuinely curious; sometimes it is a hostile
demand for justification. In the first case, the answer is complex
and thought provoking. In the second, the answer is simple Ė
ďbecause it suits me to do so.Ē Hunting in and of itself requires no
justification. The hunt is not only natural and healthful; itís an
inextricable part of our heritage as human beings.
Man is and has long been a terminal predator, as marvellously
equipped for hunting by our intellect as a lion is by his claws and
fangs, as a wolf by his swift legs and pack instinct. No matter
whether humans today hunt directly, or employ middlemen to prepare
their prey for them on farms and meat packing plants, the fact of
our status as predator is in our very DNA. We owe the very fact of
our world-conquering intellect on the hunt, on the stimulus that
drove us to overcome the handicap of our clawless, blunt-toothed
bodies, to develop weapons to match the feats of the greatest of
animal predators; we owe our great brains to the access to
high-quality diets of meat, marrow, and fat that predatory behaviour
But, the question remains nonetheless. Why, now, do we hunt?
Some hunt for the meat. A good reason in itself; game meat is lean,
healthy, and free from additives; the process of obtaining it
provides exercise and time in the outdoors, away from work pressures
and the temptations of couches and televisions. The fruits of the
hunt, properly cared for, are welcomed on the most discriminating of
Some hunt for the camaraderie, another fine reason; for many of
these, the actual hunt is secondary to the outing with friends,
sharing the campfire with others of like mind and feeling. Another
good reason; it is in the enjoyment of fine companions that we grow
as social animals. The annual ritual of the mountain elk camp is a
vital part of the year for many.
But, there is frequently another reason. A reason thatís more
compelling, and at the same time harder to explain.
Henry David Thoreau, in the great classic Walden, wrote ďGo fish and
hunt far and wide day by day -- farther and wider -- and rest thee
by many brooks and hearth-sides without misgiving. Remember thy
Creator in the days of thy youth. Rise free from care before the
dawn, and seek adventures. Let the noon find thee by other lakes,
and the night overtake thee everywhere at home. There are no larger
fields than these, no worthier games than may here be played.Ē
Thoreau spoke for many hunters in those words, hunters who hunt not
solely for the meat, or for the company, but for the ageless,
timeless experience of the hunt itself.
For itís true that for some of us the hunt is an answer in itself.
Itís enough to awake hours before the dawn, and to know the utter
silence of a late autumn morning. To hear the crunch of snow under
your boots as you begin the hike into the distant, silent mountains.
To smell the pines along the trail, and see the silent sentinel
spruces on the ridges, barely glimpsed in the pre-dawn dark. Itís
enough to sit, shivering, at that best spot on the top rim of a
remote basin, watching the east grow bright, waiting for the first
rays of warm sunshine to break though the trees and drive away the
bitter cold of night.
But those moments, treasured as they are, pale before the ultimate
goal of the hunt. Itís a part of the hunterís soul, to carry the
knowledge that somewhere, out among the pines, in the dark timber or
the frost-covered meadows, a bull awaits, and the chance of the day
may bring him within your awareness. The snap of a branch, the
ghosting shape of antlers through the aspens, the sudden ringing
bugle of a bull elk, as he appears, suddenly, where no bull was a
moment before. His breath plumes out in the cold as he screams his
challenge, and your hands and will freeze momentarily in awe of his
Itís enough to know that the day may bring the chance of a stalk,
through the darkness under the trees, along the edges of the golden
grasses of a meadow, creeping, creeping, under the streamside
willows, silently, slowly, ever closer, testing the wind, watching
underfoot for twigs, whispering a silent prayer to the forests and
fields to allow you to close the gap, to make the shot.
With luck, youíll raise your rifle or draw your bow, and make your
shot. More often than not, though, the bull escapes, to play the
game of predator and prey another day, in another valley.
You canít buy moments like that; you canít find them on the
Internet, or at the movie theatre. When the alarm rings in the icy
cold of a pre-dawn tent at 9,000 feet, this type of hunter doesnít
groan at the prospect of climbing out of the warm sleeping bag;
instead, the prospects of the day are enough incentive to brave the
cold, to pull on wool and leather, to step into the pitch-black
outdoors, under ice-chip stars. It is with pleasure and anticipation
that this hunter begins a day that will likely end back at the same
tent, in the freezing dark, hours after sunset, at the end of a long
hike out of the wild.
For hunting requires a level of participation unknown in any other
human venture Ė hunting requires a communion with the very primal
forces of Nature, taking life so that life may be. Hunting requires
a contact that the non-hunter can never know, a contact with life
itself. The hunter eschews supporting his or her life through a
middleman; knowing the cost of oneís diet, engenders respect for the
lives that must be taken to sustain oneís own life.
Early hunters knew this very well, as they revered their primary
prey. For example, Plains Indians referred to the bison as ďuncleĒ
and ďbrother.Ē Paleolithic cave drawings of game animals and hunt
scenes are rendered with a loving reverence that is still evident
today, thousands of years later. Modern hunters are much the same.
Enter a hunterís home, and youíll likely find framed prints of deer
and elk, waterfowl sculptures, photography of upland birds.
To some it seems contradictory; to express respect, reverence, even
love for an animal that you pursue, hunt, kill, and eat. Itís true
that this seeming contradiction is as hard for hunters to explain as
it is for non-hunters to understand.
Perhaps the answer lies in the very understanding of our role in
Nature. Nature has but one law; Life feeds on Life, and Life gives
Life to Life. People who obtain their steaks, chicken, and burgers
from supermarkets and butcherís shops can lose sight of this
fundamental truth, and perhaps they would prefer to have that
process sanitized in just such a manner. In our modern, urbanized
society, many like to imagine their own existence is bloodless,
clean, and sanitary. But such an outlook is self-deluding.
The hunter knows very well the cost for the steaks that grace his
plate. A year has been spent in preparation for the hunt, planning,
caring for equipment, and practicing marksmanship. Without complaint
or reservation, the hunter has arisen before dawn, as described
above, and walked the many miles to where the game awaits. In the
bright sun of a meadow, in the twilight of dusk, or in the shadows
of the forest he has made the stalk, taken the shot with painstaking
care, and dressed the animal. He has packed out quarters of elk,
perhaps a two or three-day process, often through rough, grueling
country. The hunter has cared for hides and antler and meat, and the
price for the meal of elk steak is ever with the one for whose life
the elkís life has given way.
Most of all, the hunter has seen the sudden transition from a living
animal to an inanimate food source, from animate life to meat for
the table. The non-hunting urbanite likely has never seen this take
place, and would not care to do so; but the hunter knows, with
bittersweet regularity, the price that must be paid for continued
It is for this very reason that the hunter reveres his prey. The
intimate, timeless knowledge that Life springs from Life can only
lead to reverence for the source of that Life. The bull elk in the
dark timber, ghosting through the trees silently as smoke, will live
on in the blood, bone and sinew of the hunter waiting on the ridge
above; and the hunter, in his turn, will return to the Earth, to
nourish the soil, to give rise to the grasses that will feed the
elk. And how can the hunter not revere the greathearted bull, revere
the magnificence of the great deer that will go to feed the hunterís
family in the winter to come? Reverence for the game, reverence for
the wellspring of life, reverence for the great, largely unknowable
cycles of the Earth, all come from the intimacy with Nature found in
Hunting is indeed what makes us human; hunting is what led humans to
cooperate, to plan, to anticipate, to form society. The first great
turning point in Mankindís development was when two unrelated
families found they could hunt large animals by working together,
and so be more efficient at obtaining high-quality food; thus was
the first tribe born. Hunting has made us what we are.
Itís unfortunate that the non-hunter often cannot see past the fact
that the hunt results in the death of an animal. The death of an
animal, itís true, is the goal of the hunt; but a greater goal is to
be found in the overall experience, of which the actual kill is only
the climactic moment. The hunterís soul often thrills as much, if
not more, to the blown stalk, the bull that senses something amiss
and vanishes into the mountains like a puff of smoke on the breeze,
leaving no trace in his wake. Fond memories include the grouse that
explodes from underfoot at the worst possible moment, the squirrel
that set up a warning chatter in the penultimate seconds of a
carefully planned approach. The vista of a great gulch viewed from
the rim, with a herd of elk grazing peacefully, undisturbed, and
totally unapproachable on the far side. And, indeed, in the final
moment of success, when the hunter approaches, cautiously, the
downed bull, lying still now against the bed of needles; the
heart-pounding thrill of success, weighted against the bittersweet
regret of the necessity of taking the life, facing the final truth
that for life to be, another life must give way.
Life feeds on Life, and Life gives Life to Life. The hunter in
success understands this great truth as no other human possibly can.
We hunt to pay homage to Nature, to Life, to the Earth. To make our
annual pilgrimage to our beginnings, to lay hands on our heritage as
members of the biotic community. To affirm once more that Life feeds
on Life, and Life gives Life to Life. We hunt for the gift of an elk
to a family, the gift of life from the Earth. In the hunt lies an
affirmation, a recognition that we too will one day return to the
Earth that has fed and nurtured us, and the elk will then feed on
the minerals and nutrients returned to the soil from our bodies.
That affirmation alone is enough for many of us who hunt, to send us
once more out of our tents, trailers, and ranch houses, out into the
freezing darkness under the glittering stars, to climb an unseen
mountain for the chance at an elk.
Hunting has a fundamental truth that few non-hunters understand.
Itís not about death. Itís about life.