Heart of Home: People, Wildlife, Place

  • Cover of Heart of Home: People, Wildlife, Place

  For many years I was a vegetarian, an avid anti-hunter, who cursed the arrival of the orange-clad mob in the fall that violated everything that was pure and gentle. I was cheered on by many writers, including Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, who urged a gentle alliance with nature, not a violent blood sport.

I was also inspired by Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass: "I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained ... They do not sweat and whine about their condition ..." Amen.

But when I open up the pages of many nature-writing books today I find another type of nature writing. Hunting is in, or one could say, hunting is back in vogue. After all, Hemingway made the stalk and kill an art form through the fictional voice of the "great white hunter" in The Snows of Kilimanjaro and in Death in the Afternoon, a classic nonfiction text on the grace and "beauty" of bullfighting.

Even the late iconoclast Edward Abbey, his feisty prose a blistering mixture of redneck truisms and liberal taboos, was known to pick up the deer rifle along with the monkey wrench.

Now while we won't be seeing a wild game cookbook from Terry Tempest Williams or a manual on dressing out grizzly bears by Doug Peacock on bookshelves anytime soon, there is a trend afoot in the canyons of New York literary circles.

At the forefront of this trend is Ted Kerasote. The Wyoming writer pens the EcoWatch column for the magazine Sports Afield, the beacon of the nature writer/hunter that has included recent articles by Rick Bass on pheasant hunting and novelist Richard Ford on hunting with his wife Katrina. Kerasote's new book of essays from Villard, Heart of Home, solidifies his place among the top nature writers in America.

Kerasote has eloquently framed many of the hardest questions we can ask regarding our relationship to nature and our responsibility to the many plants, fish and animals with which we share this planet.

"Should the hunter who hunts a deer 10 miles from his home be called a consumptive resource user, and his neighbor who flies 10,000 miles to Antarctica to watch penguins be termed a nonconsumptive user of the planet's resources?" Kerasote asks in the essay "A Talk About Ethics." Hard questions such as this one are at the core of Kerasote's talent.

Hunting is a reoccurring topic for Kerasote. His earlier book, Bloodties, which examined our culture's relationship to hunting, helped spawn this new genre of literature within the nature-writing canon.

Perhaps the most unexpected addition to the literature is Mary Zeiss Stange's book Woman the Hunter, which gives a much-needed voice to the 2 million women hunters in the United States.

Zeiss Stange writes, "It had begun to occur to me that unless I participated in some way, at the very least imaginatively, in procuring meat, I would feel impelled to give up eating it. I could not let the blood be on somebody else's hands, the dirt under somebody else's fingernails."

Richard Nelson also explores new ground with his book Heart and Blood, Living with Deer in America. His reverence for deer is apparent, but he also accepts responsibility for their death as part of a cycle of life. "Death is the rain that fills the river of life inside us all ... Nature is not fed by mercy."

Unlike many of us lapsed vegetarians, Kerasote is an active participant in those deaths that sustain him. In "Knowing November," the author sends a freshly killed elk's spirit on its way with a song. "Fly on, fly on, you who feed us. You who scent our breath, who shape our limbs, who let us see. What can we say of this trade that is no trade?"

Although none of these writers could ever convert me to buy a rifle, or kill an elk, through their prose I'm beginning to comprehend how hunting is another form of connection to the natural world, and yes, as odd at it might sound to this lifetime environmentalist, an important step toward preserving the best of what is wild.

Stephen Lyons, author of Landscape of the Heart, published by Washington State University Press, lives in the Palouse area of Washington.

Books mentioned in his review include Woman the Hunter, Mary Zeiss Stange. Beacon Press, 1997. 240 pages. $25, hardcover, and Heart and Blood, Living with Deer in America, Richard Nelson. Knopf, 1997. 432 pages. $27.50, hardcover.