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In Praise of Hunting, Especially Today

It is the close, intimate contact with the natural environment that reawakens the rhythms of life and death.

The coronavirus pandemic and the responses to it have shone light on the fragility of the nation’s food supply chains. A handful of industrial-scale facilities provide the U.S. with most of its meat. Rising prices and nationwide shortages of beef, pork, and chicken have resulted from disruptions at only a few of these plants. 

News of shuttered meatpacking plants is driving an increased interest in hunting and fishing. Many state wildlife management agencies report brisk sales of fishing and hunting licenses. It is too early to tell if the uptick will persist, but if it does, it will be one of the few positive outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic.

The shortages and rising prices of meat are a reminder of what Aldo Leopold, conservationist and author of A Sand County Almanac, warned about: “there are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” When Leopold wrote those words in the late 1940s, the number of Americans involved in agriculture was already in decline. Still, many lived close to the land and provided some of the food their families ate, whether from gardens, farms, or hunting. 

Now less than 1.5 percent of Americans are employed in farming and ranching, while the number who hunt has halved in the last five decades. Industrial-scale agriculture and globalization have laid waste to family farms, while urbanization, shifting views on the ethics of hunting, and transience have all contributed to the decline of hunting. Many anti-hunting advocates celebrate this trend, but the decline, like the loss of small-scale family farming, has not been without consequences. 

Hunting license fees and taxes on guns, ammunition, and fishing supplies account for 60 percent of funding for state wildlife agencies, many of which have already slashed their conservation budgets. And there are even deeper and more consequential problems stemming from the decline in hunters. Chief among these is the growing disconnect between humans and the natural world that sustains them. It’s a disconnect that lockdowns and social distancing may deepen, as more people, especially young people, disappear into the mind-numbing and attention span-destroying black holes of social media. 

In his book On Hunting, the late philosopher and writer Roger Scruton says that with his discovery of hunting, his life began anew. It is in the land, community, and soul-affirming joys of the hunt that Scruton finds renewal. In his eloquent defense of the hunt, he argues, “in the age of the machine the rhythms of life are beaten down by hammer blows and driven into the unconscious, where they dwindle and die. Unless you reawaken them.” For Scruton and for many others, it is the close contact, indeed intimate contact, with the natural environment that reawakens these rhythms of life and death.

Hunting, perhaps even more so than farming, binds us to the land and to the natural and human communities that inhabit it. To hunt and to hunt well, like farming on a human scale, is to know and understand the land and its inhabitants and in turn the most human parts of ourselves. In his book Heartsblood, David Petersen argues that “the hunt is, or should be, a quiet deeply personal rite, an active sacrament that reconnects us to our human/humane roots and realigns us with wild (being the only true) nature, our one and only home: past, present, forever.”

While the kind of hunting described by Petersen contrasts with the communal fox hunt, both Petersen and Scruton agree that hunting grounds us in—and reminds us of—what sustains us: the land. It is hunters, the best of them, who often know the most about their prey and the state of their environment. Almost all the pioneering conservationists, from Theodore Roosevelt to Aldo Leopold, were hunters. It was the hunt that made them look closely at the land and the game that moves through and over it. The predator-prey relationship brings with it a kind of intimacy that demands attention, care, respect, and awe. It is not an accident that our earliest art painted on cave walls more than 30,000 years ago depicts the animals that our ancestors fed on, feared, and revered.

If an increased interest in hunting, especially among the next generation of hunters, can be sustained, it will bring more women (women make up an increasing percentage of hunters) and men into the natural world and out of—at least for a few hours or days—the virtual world of screens that dominate so many lives. More hunters will not only mean more funds for conservation, but more women and men who pay close attention, even briefly, to the natural world. They will, as Thoreau says, turn away from the “pretty toys which distract our attention from serious things.” 

Michael Horton is a foreign policy analyst who has written for numerous publications, including Intelligence ReviewWest Point CTC SentinelThe EconomistThe National Interest, and the Christian Science Monitor.