By Chris Eberhart
For decades hunter numbers had been declining. More and more hunting was seemingly being pushed into a peripheral existence, with its very own media limited to a small segment of the population. It almost seemed as though hunting had become its own club, difficult to enter or even understand from the outside. The anti hunting crowd predicted the demise of hunting as the demographic shrunk and aged. There seemed to be a lot of misunderstanding and lack of communication between hunters and non-hunters. Hunting was deemed by many to be an anachronistic pursuit. This has changed over the last couple of years with hunting rather suddenly becoming more mainstream, currently experiencing an overdue comeback, with hunter numbers holding steady and even increasing. So what is happening?
Let’s start with the problem. If you look through hunting magazines over the last twenty-five years, the general impression was of guys driving their four wheel drives trucks, or ATV’s, through the mountains, holding photos of big antlered or horned animals, chewing tobacco and drinking beer, but almost never butchering, cooking, and eating their game. Of course, this is over simplified, but it is also the image a non-hunting friend shared with me in a conversation about hunting. This is also the image a large portion of the non-hunting public had, which has lead to many people becoming even anti-hunting. The interesting aspect of this sentiment is that a lot of people are more anti-hunter than they are anti-hunting, because of experiences with bad hunter behavior, both real and imagined. The unfortunate circumstance is that although bad hunter behavior in the form of poaching and other egregious activities is done by only a tiny criminal element it is a favorite subject of the media. So generally things looked grim for hunting, even as long time hunters dutifully hunted for food and never really strayed from the course.
Hunting though is always influenced by the general culture surrounding it, especially regarding acceptance, methods, and ethics. And, while hunting was muddling along as the only group really paying for conservation but also having image problems, America was changing. Local food co-ops were popping up across the country. The cliental of these stores were (and still is) largely vegetarian and even perhaps vegan. The point however is that the focus was on good healthy local food. When the focus is on healthy local food, and even perhaps reducing a carbon footprint, thought naturally turns to what can be grown locally. In northern regions it is almost impossible to live as a vegetarian from what grows only locally. The logical next step is to think outside the box and realize that the deer living behind the organic farm is quite organic itself, and a great source of protein. A new form of foodie was born, the Locavore. A logical step for a locavore is to become a hunter.
At the same time the slow food movement has been slowly taking hold in America, both as a counter to fast food and as a simple celebration of good food and a nod to the sensual pleasure of eating. The slow food movement is largely influenced by tradition. That was based both on past American and European food tradition. In both cases wild game cooking is considered the best of haute cuisine and staple of our immediate ancestors. In short, wild game cooking has become fashionable. And, probably to the surprise of many a long time sportsman, Whole Foods shopping suburbanites and the food they eat are key to the future of hunting. When they agree that wild food is a good thing hunting is a sure thing.
This leads to some philosophical connections that are very important. If you can recognize that hunting is about food you can also recognize that hunting is a natural condition, since we need to eat to live, and the most natural way to get food is to hunt it. This leads us to other current trends, all of them in the direction of natural living. Thinking about natural living is a big deal right now. The first trend is the rise of the Paleo Diet. The Paleo diet is a low carbohydrate diet roughly summarized by: eating like a caveman, or like humans did before the current agricultural era. It is easy to make the next step in this diet and make natural wild game a part of your diet. The best way to do this is hunt it yourself.
Another interesting development is the connection between natural running and hunting. The book “Born to Run” brought both running and particularly natural running into focus. Running has been booming the last few years, as it always does when there is an economic downturn. The connection between running, our development as humans, and role hunting plays in our evolution and basic morphology is clearly outlined in that book. This doesn’t directly create hunters, but it does get millions of runners thinking more positively about hunting. And there are more runners than hunters in America. Accordingly, if the opportunity then arises to hunt, the chances of a runner heading out hunting increase.
Even further along the philosophical lines of things that effect the future of hunting is the current sexual revolution happening in America. I’m referring to the sudden popularity the “Shades of Gray” books, and resulting increase in acceptance of sexuality as a natural expression of normal behavior. This might seem like a stretch to some, but there is a clear connection between hunting and sex when you accept natural human behavior along with its sensual pleasures. At a very basic level a successful hunter is able to provide for his family. As natural predators hunting well meant survival for or species. I don’t want to get moralistic people bent out of shape with putting it bluntly, but sex for meat was one of the original deals. The hunter capable of providing for his family was a man to be respected and his reward was procreation. Sex, hunting, and eating meat are all necessary aspects of being human and very pleasurable activities to boot.
I’m going to stop right here, because a discussion of all this could be a book by itself. The takeaway is that changes to hunting taking place in America are mostly positive. There will be more people returning to hunting because it is simply natural to humans. Those who claim an evolutionary advancement that precludes hunting are just full of themselves and their arguments are basically denial of their own position in nature. The fear that hunting will somehow disappear is largely imaginary. Even in places where hunting has been forbidden, (in Kenya for instance, where game populations have been decimated outside the parks where hunting is forbidden) when survival is on the line people will be out hunting, no matter what. Hunting being primarily about food is good development.
The best development is that the image of the drunken hunter (or loudmouth rock n roll star) out behaving badly is in many cases being replaced by the image a conscientious hunter who respects his quarry and ultimately accepts the pleasure of the hunt, which includes the entire process from field to plate. The shift is long overdue, and finally brings real hunting back into focus, the kind of hunting most of us were doing all along.
Picking up on these trends several writers have come out with great books recently. I recommend all of these if you are interested in the developing state of hunting.
Steven Rinella’s “Meateater” is the story of a lifelong outdoorsman who gives us an honest look at his own hunting life and focus on food. His combination of experience, adventure, philosophy, and honesty is appealing to hunter and non-hunter alike. Steven has become the new voice of hunters, appearing on countless television shows that have otherwise been off limits to hunters for decades.
Tovar Cerulli’s “The Mindful Carnivore” tracks his own life and experiences as he transforms from vegan to hunter. This book is very important for long time hunters to read. The current changes that are taking place will catch some long time outdoorsman by surprise, especially when they begin sharing their woods with non-traditional compatriots, who approach hunting with different goals and aren’t necessarily clear on traditional rules of conduct. Adult onset hunting is a growing theme. This book is thought provoking for hunters and non-hunters alike, and Tovar has his finger on the pulse of change.
Georgia Pellegrini’s “Girl Hunter” also tracks her personal path into the world of hunting. This one also has the twist of being a woman in a domain still largely dominated by men. Though her “discovery” of hunting and “revolutionizing” of eating is a bit much at times, but her focus of food is solid and welcome. More and more women have been taking up hunting, for countless reasons, and her perspective on women in American hunting culture is quite interesting.
Hank Shaw’s “Hunt, Gather, Cook” is more of a general beginner’s guide to the outdoors. He too came to hunting later in life and as the title implies concentrates on the food aspect of hunting. He shares his experiences and gives a lot of advice on how to get started in the outdoors. His recipes are simply fantastic. When I read this book I found myself remembering my hunting beginnings as a child, contrasted with his starting hunting as an adult. It is hard for me to imagine having to get into hunting from scratch. Hank took me to that experience. If you are just beginning hunting this is a great book, and if you are interested in the art of cooking wild food it is even better.