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for people who care about the West

Hunting: Get used to it

 

Let me state right off and as unapologetically as possible that I am a member of the "hook-and-bullet" press - a field editor of the venerable Outdoor Life magazine, which along with its sister publication, Field & Stream, are America's original conservation magazines. Both have been in business since before the turn of the century, and today have combined paid circulations of roughly 3.5 million. By contrast, the culturally correct Outside magazine - which novelist Jim Harrison recently observed has become a magazine about equipment - has been around for about 25 years and boasts the relatively small circulation of just over 475,000.

I mention these figures not to denigrate Outside, on whose masthead I have also appeared as a correspondent for well over a decade now, but simply by way of making certain observations. Nor do I mean to suggest that publishing longevity implies editorial or moral rightness. It is safe to say that, by a mysterious process of numerical reduction, almost everyone who reads this essay in under-20,000 circulation High Country News is more likely to be familiar with Outside than with Outdoor Life. Similar names notwithstanding, the two latter publications are as substantively different from one another as, say, a pair of inline skates is from a gut pile.

On the other side of the demographics game, and in what is almost the perfect Big Apple story, an urban journalist friend who works for the New York Post went to his corner newsstand recently and requested a copy of Outdoor Life - just to see what I was up to.

Like many businesses in the city these days, the newsstand observed a non-English-speaking hiring policy, and the attendant handed my friend a copy of a magazine called Out, a publication that concerns itself with a different kind of hunting altogether. "No, no, this isn't what I'm looking for," explained the journalist. "Outdoor Life." Next the attendant handed him a copy of Outside. "No, no, that's not it either, Outdoor Life, it's a magazine about fishing and ..." then my friend blurted out the word "... hunting."

Browsers at the newsstand stopped dead to regard the man, their expressions running from revulsion to loathing. He'd have attracted less negative attention if he'd defecated on the sidewalk, a canine act to which New Yorkers are far more accustomed than they are to the mere mention of the filthy business of hunting. Indeed, he'd have been less conspicuous if he'd requested a copy of the Kiddie Porn Journal. All of this to say that you cannot buy a copy of Outdoor Life at a newsstand in New York City, though you can buy Out and Outside at nearly any of them.

Until I went to work for the magazine, I hadn't read Outdoor Life myself since I was a kid, and didn't know anyone else who read it either. I was kind of curious myself about who these millions of readers were. Now, for the past two years, I've written a monthly column for the magazine, wandering around the countryside with my yellow Lab, Sweetz, living out of a 1972 Airstream trailer, hunting game birds and fishing, and generally hanging out in the American outback. I tend to think of this gig as a kind of Travels With Charley, a Shotgun and a Fishing Rod, or Charles Kuralt Goes Hunting and Fishing.

My job dictates that I spend a great deal of time visiting Western towns that are about as far removed from New York as it is possible to get. It is here that many of our readers live, literally and/or imaginatively, and it is here that Outdoor Life is always prominently displayed.

These towns represent the true American hinterlands, relentlessly unfashionable locales that are not in any geographical, cultural or spiritual proximity to Aspen or Santa Fe, and that in spite of satellite television, video movies and the World Wide Web remain, by definition, provincial. They are places like Westby, Mont., population 250, and their inhabitants are primarily working class; most have never been to New York or any city larger than, say, Minot, N.D., population 35,000. They have never heard of Outside magazine, and do not care about downhill skiing or snowboarding, mountain biking or rock climbing.

They are hog farmers and wheat growers, schoolteachers and grain elevator workers, cafe waitresses, motel managers, part-time strippers (yes, that's right, they dance on weekends atop plywood-covered pool tables in small-town taverns).

There is nothing particularly heroic about these people's lives, or even necessarily interesting; they pump gas at the local co-op, or work the cash registers at the local market, or tend bar at the local watering hole - which quite often, along with the senior citizen center, are the last going concerns in these fading Western outposts.

Not all of these folks are hunters, of course, but one thing they have in common is that they generally have hunters in their families - brothers or uncles, cousins and in-laws. Hunting, the gathering of game for the table, has always been an accepted part of their lives, as essential as it was to the Native Americans whom they have displaced, as natural a part of the basic fabric of their lives as lovemaking, childbirth and death.

"Get your deer yet?" is the fall topic of cafe conversation all across the Western hinterlands - not particularly highbrow stuff by the standards of urban cafe society, certainly, but there it is: "Get your deer yet?"

"Not yet, but I'm workin" on one. How 'bout you?"

"Got me a little spike yesterday morning. Ain't gonna make the record books, but it's meat in the freezer for the winter."

"You betcha!"

Human beings have been hunting for a very long time, at least a half-million years, and to this vast majority of "middle" Americans, the pursuit requires no moral explanation, no debate, no validation. The people who inhabit these small towns, who grew up here and have not been squeezed by the proximity of urban centers, or by the influx of urban refugees into more fashionable regions, don't know or care that High Country News is exploring some of the issues that arise from hunting. Possibly we (and I say "we" because, hook-and-bullet writer or not, I can ride the fence on this one) need to investigate the matter to put our own minds at ease, to come to terms with something that might seem barbarous to those of us who are used to acquiring our meat shrink-wrapped in styrofoam.

By the same token, there is no such thing as an anti-hunting movement in the hinterlands; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals does not have field offices in such places as Crawford, Colo., and if it did its representatives would not be vilified as enemies so much as simply ignored as hopeless and ineffectual eccentrics - kind of like sentimental maiden aunts. Indeed, the anti-hunting movement is a city phenomenon, but you can't hunt in the city - at least not game animals - and anti-hunting is really not much of a sport.

Applying the same skewed cultural yardstick, if you went into the cafe in any one of these small Western towns, tapped on your water glass and announced that it had been decreed by university philosophers, urbanites and suburbanites that from this day forward there was to be no more hunting, the patrons would appreciate the joke by simply laughing you right out of town. They might say, "You must have got your deer already!"

Their lack of interest in questions about the morality of hunting might seem to imply that true rural Westerners are heartless killers who give no thought to the animals they hunt. This is not so. Most of them harbor a deep love and respect for wildlife and animals, but they also understand on a purely visceral, non-intellectual level the relationship between predator and prey; they watch nature at work every day in all seasons all their lives, and they tend not to allow themselves a whole lot of angst over their role in the natural processes of life and death.

As long as there are human beings on earth they will hunt. It has always been that way, and always will be. Period. Get used to it. Any argument that mankind has now finally advanced to such a degree, become so civilized, our sensibilities so refined that we can no longer tolerate the essential savagery of hunting, can be easily dismissed by a quick flip through the daily newspaper.

Sure, there have always been good hunters and bad hunters, slob hunters and ethical hunters, poachers and sportsmen. Some of these rural folks of whom I speak are poachers, no question. Some of them are grossly unethical hunters and their neighbors know who they are. But the heartlanders would consider a notion that hunting should be banned altogether because someone in the community got caught poaching, breaking game laws, or simply behaving like a cretin in the field, as akin to banning automobiles because someone got a speeding ticket, or worse, killed another on the road.

Just as all hunters shouldn't have to take the rap for every swinish atrocity committed by the slobs, neither should whole communities, whole cultures, be censored, dismissed, or held accountable because others of us who do not live, or even visit there, are so far removed from the rhythms of their lives.

The presumption runs deeper than that: popular culture is so far removed from the natural rhythms of the countryside that we are no longer able to understand something that human beings have done since they first walked on earth. Unable to understand, some condemn it.

When we lose the hunters we will also have lost the countryside, the game and our own humanity; we will have lost everything.

Jim Fergus lives in Rand, Colorado, when he's not traveling to other small towns in the West.

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 [email protected].