What does it mean to hunt? Is there room, in our modern world, to tote a rifle into the woods and kill an animal? Orion, one of our cherished constellations, hunts the Pleiades. Yet the fact that he will never catch them is comforting. Perhaps it's not the hunt - people "hunt" with cameras now - but the killing that is hard to stomach, although I've often stared up at the night sky and urged Orion on.
Let's not fool ourselves: These are guilty days for the meat-eater, even for the so-called subsistence hunter (subsistence used to mean you were forced to hunt, or starve; now it means you're choosing not to visit certain grocery aisles). Documentaries like Food, Inc. and books like Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals depict the horrors of the domesticated meat industry. It is hard to look meat in the eye-of-round after knowing a few facts from either one of these rather earnest potted histories of concentrated food production. We can no longer kid ourselves: Animals suffer terribly to be placed on our dinner plates. Perhaps no one has condemned the practice of eating meat more persuasively than J.M. Coetzee, in Elizabeth Costello. His narrator says the slaughtering of animals is worse than our crimes at Auschwitz. You don't have to read Imre Kertesz's Fateless to feel something more than a twinge of horror at Coetzee's comparison.
So. In walks David Carpenter with his gentle, old-fashioned memoir of a hunting life. His narrative is told with comic gusto, his own youth recalled in a sort of boys-own dramatic fashion. Hunting got him close to the men in his father's world, and he took from these men attitudes and instruction on how to be an adult. To hunt and kill correctly is a rite of passage. And it is a social act. Carpenter is mainly a bird hunter, with an odd deer thrown in, and he has mixed feelings now about his boyhood idols, Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway. "Their books," he writes, "were put there to make young men like himself feel like animals were there for his shooting pleasure." They made you, he says, single-minded about hunting.
Carpenter's adult yarns are spun out of kills mainly by friends (including Richard Ford and Raymond Carver; I could have heard a little more about how Carver handled himself in the woods). He teaches in the North and gets to hunt with some aboriginal friends. In his fifties, Carpenter had minor surgery on his nasal cavity, but a hemorrhage soon after threatened his life. He compares his bleeding nose to the blood issuing from a grouse he'd just recently shot. He makes a deal with God, and writes, "Can I say that my departure from shooting wild game is due to a sudden religious conversion? I doubt it. My hemorrhage and its aftermath seem to have precipitated a decision not to hunt that was already forming."
And so begins his true confession. Carpenter realizes he has been, for many years, an ambivalent hunter. Double-mindedness crept in and now he aligns himself with how some aboriginal friends approach the hunt. He speaks of a respect for the kill, and an understanding between the animal and the hunter that puts the animal's soul at peace. He is against trophy hunters, and hunting from moving vehicles, against the most widely practised forms of hunting today, practices that strip the reverence of the animal away from its death. In this regard, Carpenter is a romantic.
I am sure there are some people in this great land who kill in a noble way, but most of the hunting trips I've witnessed have been savage and wasteful and without any spiritual side at all. And is it fair to animals (on the respect-meter) if we're the ones always killing them? Carpenter is aware of this, too. His own discovery of mortality made him get close to the agony of animals, aligned with the worst horrors humanity can inflict upon itself (see Coetzee).
Carpenter no longer carries a rifle or a shotgun, but, interestingly, he did not beat his weapons into plowshares; he gave his guns away. He still fishes and he will enthusiastically sit down and eat a meal of wild game shot by someone else (there's a recipe for curried goose). Perhaps this is the complicated double-mindedness he possesses these days. Competing beliefs that, of course, mirror very closely most our own less-than-dogmatic ways in the world.
Carpenter's memoir includes several dangerous moments with nature: He hears a wolf nearby, a cougar stalks him and he stumbles upon a wild old man of the woods. These altercations happen in a flash, which mirrors a truth about hunting: You rarely see an animal. You spend days alone, until you think perhaps every living thing has been wiped off the face of the planet, that maybe you yourself are responsible for this apocalypse. You march around alone and wet and hungry until it is almost too dark for a shot; you're left with wind and bog, Orion's belt hanging above you in the sky, and then - what's that? is something moving? You raise your barrel and squeeze and pray.
Michael Winter has killed caribou, ducks, rabbits, grouse and one whiskey jack. He's eaten, and written about, them all.