When I interviewed Western writer David Petersen for a magazine article several years ago, I really only had one question to ask him: Could hunting be morally defended in the 21st century?
At a time when few people seem concerned about that question — either they’re already convinced that hunting is barbaric, or just the opposite, that it’s a right that ought to be exercised with as few restrictions and as easily as possible — Petersen has spent much of his life examining what it means to kill in order to eat.
You might call him a hunting ethicist, and a documentary by Belgian filmmaker Christopher Daley, On the Wild Edge: Hunting for a Natural Life, explores that notion. It premiered at the 2016 Documentary West International Film Festival and is now available on DVD.
Petersen believes that the instinct to hunt is not only morally defensible, it is also part of what makes us human. In the documentary, Petersen is shown in mid-hunt. But there are no close-ups of a kill shot, no camera zooming in on a trophy animal. What we see is the painstaking work of stalking a wild animal — an elk, in this case — and not with a high-powered rifle, either. Petersen hunts with a longbow he made himself.
In Petersen’s view, this is the most honest and rewarding way to hunt. He is not a purist about his method, though. His challenge to hunters, as well as to everyone else, is that they — and we — take killing animals seriously.
A former U.S. Marine helicopter pilot, Petersen has edited some of Edward Abbey’s journals, letters and poetry, while also writing nine books of his own. They’re the kind of books you share with your old college friend who’s now a PETA member, (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), as well as with your uncle, who likes to joke that PETA stands for People Eating Tasty Animals.
Petersen points out that there are hidden ecological consequences to becoming a vegetarian or vegan. He denounces our reliance on fossil fuels, and worries about how we degrade wildlife habitat just by living on developed land, which is something that everyone does. But he reserves his harshest criticism for his fellow hunters — for those who devour what he calls “horn porn” on The Outdoor Channel, which Petersen derisively labels “The Outhouse Channel.”
Not surprisingly, he’s against “hunting” any trophy animal that has been raised on a game farm, and he disdains expensive technology that skews the hunting experience. He’s also against the idea of paying vast sums of money to kill big game in an exotic location. Because the best moments of hunting, says Petersen, “have nothing to do with killing, but everything to do with an honest engagement with life.”
The predatory instinct to kill and eat animals may lie in our DNA, he says, but hunting involves an underlying spiritual aspect of our nature that must be grappled with and acknowledged. If it isn’t, he warns, hunting is in danger of becoming mere sport, falling victim to corporate profiteers and ignorant attitudes.
Hunting faces tough challenges, Petersen believes, but they don’t come from urban liberals with PETA memberships. Fewer people hunt every year, wildlife habitat is shrinking, and access to public and private land to hunt is being whittled away throughout the West. Hunting could simply die out on its own.
Disaffected with modern life, Petersen and his wife, Caroline, moved to the Rockies in 1980 in order to live closer to the land. Cancer claimed Caroline’s life during the making of the film On the Wild Edge; a voiceover eulogy by Petersen remembers her struggle during her last days. Petersen, now 70, talks about their younger days together — before he grew his formidable white beard — back when he began hunting right out his back door.
There’s plenty to savor visually in the film. A squirrel crosses the frame. Petersen holds a pair of binoculars up to his face, and waits. The camera pans across a mountain vista where, strictly speaking, nothing’s happening. Seldom has so little action been so stirring to watch.
Petersen’s hunt in the film ends in failure. Despite his efforts, he fails to bag an elk. But from another perspective, his hunting expedition is a resounding success. It’s the culmination of a life spent deeply attuned to one place on earth, a backdoor wilderness filled with quaking aspen and rugged terrain that allows for both physical hardship and spiritual immersion, and the satisfaction that comes from both.
And Petersen, we learn, will succeed the next time he tries to track and shoot an elk with a bow and arrow. Once more his freezer will be stocked with elk meat for him to eat. And after that hunt, as after every hunt, Petersen says, he never forgets to say, “Thank you, elk.”
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.