September 13, 2017
In The Modern World, Why Do We Hunt And Fish?
Mountain Journal columnist Marshall Cutchin wrestles with the questions of stalking animals for sport, sustenance and seeking a deeper connection to nature
No Feet lived a short and worried life, made more so by the fact that my son enjoyed scooping him out of his small glass bowl and petting him.
As a parent who had done more than his fair share of worrying and shortening
the lives of fish, who was I to judge? But the day that No Feet didn’t recover from his petting was a fine
opportunity to insert a memory about respect for life in my son’s brain. I’m glad I didn’t let my own
history prevent me from completing this responsibility.
Wildness, which might include virtually any sense of chaos or entropy or any unexpected jolt we get
from facing something that is not part of our daily surroundings, gives us opportunity to ask ourselves all
kinds of questions, some pleasant, some difficult. It is being confronted by something with which we
can’t immediately identify that opens up the imagination to both wonder and fear, often at the same
There is a thrill in stalking and gaining the upper hand on game animals that is not easily replaced in the human experience. If not a part of our DNA, then it is at least a part of an RNA expression conditioned by many thousands of years of practice. Unless we want to deepen our cycle of satisfaction and shame, we shouldn’t seek to constantly beat ourselves up for behaving like the animals we are. But nor should we be dismissive about its source. Few of us truly depend on game animals for food anymore, unless we live in a part of the world where it is a necessity.
I question myself more than ever when it comes to fishing. The older I get, the more I sense that the
self-questioning is key to fully appreciating what I am doing. I question the morality of causing pain, the
impact of my presence on the wilderness, the greed implied with the thrill I get from interfering with an
animal's life. I doubt I would ever fish again if it didn't cause me to pause and place myself in some
insignificant, unknowing role. Granted, it’s a vantage point that has to be earned.
It is not only right but necessary, at a time when plant and animal species and in fact diversity itself is
threatened by global environmental change, that we question how far we have to go to satisfy this
“primal urge,” as hunting non-apologists like to call it. We’ve set up venerable if not always perfect
institutions, both ethical and physical, to help us sublimate urges like these: single-sex education,
religion, employment, government. That too is an important part of the human experiment, and one
that occasionally produces marvelous results.
And yet how many of us step back to think, when we hold a fish up to take a picture of it as the trophy
and ourselves as the victorious angler, that we may be, at least in some ways, misappropriating that
animal’s life? And how far will we take that misappropriation?
Will we leave it on our phones as a
private reminder of a wonderfully challenging and rewarding day, or will we send it to friends? Will our
friends send it to their friends, and will we post it on Facebook where our barely connected network
identifies us through the image of a fish? What has the fish become at that point? More often than not
it has become a lifeless shape, figuratively (since that’s all that matters in this moment) drained of blood and energy and any connection to its own life experience and the wildness from which we’ve extracted
it. It’s lost almost all of its otherness.
But what of the urge to hunt, to fish, even to stalk wildlife with a camera or in a Land Rover? What of
the pleasure of harvesting wild plants, even visiting a fragile landscape to take in the awe it gives up so
easily? All of these are in their own ways consumptive activities. They all have a cost. Do we need to
sublimate all those urges, or rank them by some agreed-upon measure of cost, or benefit?
quantitative scale is useful, but it doesn’t give us the full measure. I think the answer to that comes in
the form of humility. The moment we cease asking ourselves these questions--about what we take from
the world and what we give back--is the moment we become less than we are capable of. It’s the kind of reflection that intelligent grown-ups ought to do on a daily basis.
"I question myself more than ever when it comes to fishing. The older I get, the more I sense that the self-questioning is key to fully appreciating what I am doing...The moment we cease asking ourselves these questions—about what we take from the world and what we give back—is the moment we become less than we are capable of. It’s the kind of reflection that intelligent grown-ups ought to do on a daily basis." —Marshall Cutchin
Each of us has urges, some of them hardly repressible, that make us less than human if we deny their existence. And within the bounds of morality, and of species survival, or at least with regard for our freedom to act not impinging on the freedom of others, we should be allowed the joy they offer.
As a friend said recently, “Being a grown up I can eat ice cream for
dinner, but these sorts of questions often make it less fun.” But we’re not just debating excess calories.
And taking the life of another animal, or causing it to at least fear for its existence, is for most of us an
excellent conduit for self-doubt.
Up until the last couple of centuries, fishing and hunting wasn’t primarily a sport. But we’ve created a
culture defined by the label “sportsman” that has been both celebrated and attacked from the moment
it was birthed. And therein lies the problem, and perhaps an essential solution, to the conundrum of
fishing or hunting ethics in the 21st century.
Those activities that place our own egos, our own sense of
relative self-worth, most at risk, have a value that is hard, if not impossible, to measure. In fact we
normally avoid that depth of self-evaluation at all costs, as our sanity demands. But we have a choice
about whether or not to fish or hunt, and with it comes not only a thrill that is virtually impossible to
explain because it is so deeply encased in our bones, but the obligation to self-question.
This solution doesn’t fit neatly into either the pro-hunting or anti-hunting camps, and it doesn’t lend
itself to an obvious role in the necessary evolution of our culture.
But if you care about the role of
fishing or hunting in the human experience--especially in your own experience--you owe it to yourself,
and to the people around you who are privileged to judge your behavior, to welcome this
self-questioning with humility and even reverence.
It goes beyond the debate over whether sentient
beings deserve the same rights as humans, or whether vegans and animal-rights activists are hypocrites,
or whether hunting or meat-eating are examples of unnecessary human cruelty, beyond political
correctness or incorrectness. In fact it goes beyond any sort of sanctimonious rationale and to the heart
of the activity itself.
"It goes beyond the debate over whether sentient beings deserve the same rights as humans, or whether vegans and animal-rights activists are hypocrites, or whether hunting or meat-eating are examples of unnecessary human cruelty, beyond political correctness or incorrectness." —Cutchin
By not embracing hunting and fishing as an opportunity to question your own motives and effect, you’re denying a large measure of their value. You’re surrendering it to a highly objectified world where its essence is judged through images shared by friends once- or twice-removed, where the semblance of wonder and fear is more important that the emotions themselves. I suspect that you’re likely also hastening your sport’s demise in a world that is vastly different socially, ethically and environmentally than the one that sportsmen once imagined.
I certainly can’t pretend to imagine what the future of hunting and angling are in such a complex and
fast-changing world. But neither am I eager to see sports that have asked so much of me, and given so much to me, slide off into our collective memory as selfish ideas practiced by selfish people.
I prefer to
believe that there is a core of thoughtful participants who will elucidate a new ethic that doesn’t
measure the value of an activity by the number of its participants, but by the contribution of those
participants to a more meaningful interaction with wildness. And that way we can take our place,
however large or small a place that is, in a future that values an authentic, passionate relationship with