Barry Lopez and Rick Bass on Hunting

Seven perspectives on the hunt.

( Parabola )


Why I Hunt

In the fall, it's what I want to do. It would be unnatural and dishonest to sit on my hands; I'm a hunter, a predator (in the fall), with eyes in front of my head, like a bear's or a wolf's or even an owl's. Prey have their eyes on the sides of their heads, in order to see in all directions, in order to be ready to run. But predators--and that's us, or at least some of us--have our eyes before us, out in front, with which to focus, to a single point.

For two months of the year--or until I have killed one deer and one elk--that's what I do. I want to be out in the woods, walking quietly, walking slowly--or not walking at all but just sitting in some leaves, completely hidden and motionless--waiting, and waiting. To not pursue the thing one wants would be a waste of one's life.

In the fall, I can do things I couldn't do in my normal, civilized life. I can disappear into the woods, and over the next mountain, the next ridge. My roaming has meaning--it's no longer just roaming, but hunting. The year's meat supply is in question. My meat, my family' s meat, not some rancher's heifer from Minnesota. Meat from my valley, where I hope to live and die--where I cut firewood, where I pick huckleberries, where I walk, where I watch the stars-- my valley.

For these two months, I am after something: something tangible, something that's moving away from me, and something that I must have, for the coming year. It's as simple as that.

Over the next ridge. The new life of stores and towns falls away, and the old life returns. There's a loveliness to looking ahead--looking straight ahead--that only hunting brings out.

The other ten months are okay, too--I can be the artist, can loll around eating grapes and reading poetry, but the fall comes like a splash of water to my face on a hot, dusty day; and the dust, and my new ways, new feelings--the ones bound by rules--are washed away, leaving the old ways revealed.

I keep eating those lovely candlelit dinners--grouse and potatoes, and the red, almost purple heartthrob steaks from elk; fried trout for breakfast, and homemade huckleberry jam . . . I feel alive . . . I draw immense strength from those meals, strength to live my life, and it feels good. I can eat about a pound and a half of meat a day. The cancer studies for this kind of diet alarm me, but I have to trust that they apply to fatty steroid beef, and cattle that must have been raised in pesticide fields. I was seven miles into the mountains when I shot last year's elk, and I carried him out in three trips over a twenty-four-hour period.

Into those same dark woods I go each year, looking straight ahead, and stopping and listening, and turning my head . . .

Of course, it's possible that there's a greater life force that judges us; and of course, sometimes I feel guilty about being a hunter, a killer--a killer of deer and elk, though not moose, because they're too easy, and not bears, because . . . well, bears themselves are meant to hunt. During part of the year they're predators, not prey. it seems unnatural to hunt predators.

I'm scared, sometimes, that all the animals I've killed--few as they are--add up, and that I'm liable for them.

I wouldn't mind paying for them with my life someday--we must all give up our lives--but sometimes I get scared I may have to pay afterward, in the afterlife, for my gluttony, my insatiable hunger for clean meat, and so much of it.

Nonetheless, I've studied it, and have come up with this: I am who I am, and I've come from the place we all came from--the past--but I still remember, and love, that place. Some of us are glad to be away from that place, but I'm not one of those people--not in the fall.

The worst day I ever had hunting was when I shot an elk in the neck, where I was aiming, but it made me feel strangely ashamed, after it was over. I broke the elk's neck, the way I always try to do--that instant drop--but he groaned when I walked up to him. He couldn't have been feeling anything, and I hope it was just air leaving his lungs--but it was still a groan.

For a fact--or rather, for me--hunting's better than killing. It takes a while, after it's over--sometimes a long while--before you can think of it as meat. You can't go straight from a living animal to 250 pounds of elk steaks. There's too much knife and ax work involved--and you' re the one that has to do it--skinning the animal, and pulling the hide back to reveal your crime, the meat--and already, sometimes, the call of ravens drifting in, black-winged shapes flying through the treetops, past the sun . . .

Instead of trying to make that instantaneous conversion--which I cannot do--life to meat--what I do is pray, sort of. I give heartfelt, shaky thanks to the animal as I clean it--ravens calling to ravens--and I do this with deer and grouse too, and even, if I can remember--which I don't always--with fish. A man or a woman who apologizes for hunting is a fool. It's a man's or a woman's choice, and he or she must live with it.

I don't do it for profit or gain; and rarely do I tell anyone about it after I've done it.

I watch ravens in the off-season. I think ravens have more of a soul than humans--and I think ravens understand the hunt better than I ever will. Sometimes ravens, in Alaska, lead hunters-- wolves, or humans-- to prey, and then they eat the pickings from the kill.

Ravens, black as coal, shiny and greasy, flying in the sun, like winged, black devils . . . I feel as if I'm on their side, and it scares me, but it would be a lie, in the fall, to switch sides: to pretend that I'm not. I'm a killer, sometimes. I wish I weren't, but I am. I've wrestled with it but can't escape it, any more than--until death- one can escape one's skin.[1]

--Rick Bass

Rick Bass is a petroleum geologist, environmental activist, and writer who lives in Montana. His most recent book is Notes from Montana (Houghton Mifflin/ Seymour Lawrence, 1991).

II The Moment of Encounter

The most beguiling moment in the hunt is the first moment of the encounter. Wolves and prey may remain absolutely still while staring at each other. Immediately afterward, a moose may simply turn and walk away; or the wolves may turn and run; or the wolves may charge and kill the animal in less than a minute. An intense stare is frequently used by wolves to communicate with each other, and wolves also tend to engage strangers--wolf and human--in stares. I think what transpires in those moments of staring is an exchange of information between predator and prey that either triggers a chase or defuses the hunt right there. . . .

That moment of eye contact between wolf and prey seems to be visibly decisive. Here are hunting wolves doing many inexplicable things (to the human eye). They start to chase an animal and then turn and walk away. They glance at a set of moose tracks only a minute old, sniff, and go on, ignoring them. They walk on the perimeter of caribou herds seemingly giving warning of their intent to kill. And the prey signals back. The moose trots toward them and the wolves leave. The pronghorn throws up his white rump as a sign to follow. A wounded cow stands up to be seen. And the prey behave strangely. Caribou rarely use their antlers against the wolf. An ailing moose, who, as far as we know, could send wolves on their way simply by standing his ground, does what is most likely to draw an attack, what he is least capable of carrying off: he runs.

I called this exchange in which the animals appear to lock eyes and make a decision the conversation of death. It is a ceremonial exchange, the flesh of the hunted in exchange for respect for its spirit. In this way both animals, not the predator alone, choose for the encounter to end in death. There is, at least, a sacred order in this. There is nobility. And it is something that happens only between the wolf and his major prey species. It produces, for the wolf, sacred meat.

Imagine a cow in the place of the moose or white-tailed deer. The conversation of death falters noticeably with domestic stock. They have had the conversation of death bred out of them; they do not know how to encounter wolves. A horse, for example--a large animal as capable as a moose of cracking a wolf's ribs or splitting its head open with a kick--will usually panic and run.

What happens when a wolf wanders into a flock of sheep and kills twenty or thirty of them in apparent compulsion is perhaps not so much slaughter as a failure on the part of the sheep to communicate anything at all- - resistance, mutual respect, appropriateness--to the wolf. The wolf has initiated a sacred ritual and met with ignorance.

This brings us to a second point. We are dealing with a different kind of death from the one men know. When the wolf "asks" for the life of another animal he is responding to something in that animal that says, "My life is strong. It is worth asking for." A moose may be biologically constrained to die because he is old or injured, but the choice is there. The death is not tragic. It has dignity.

Consider the indian again. Native American cultures in general stressed that there was nothing wrong with dying, one should only strive to die well, that is consciously choose to die even if it is inevitable. The greatest glory accrued to a warrior who acted with this kind of self-control in the very teeth of death. The ability to see death as less than tragic was rooted in a different perception of ego: a person was simultaneously indispensable and dispensable (in an appropriate way) in the world. In the conversation of death is the striving for a death that is appropriate. i have lived a full life, says the prey. I am ready to die. I am willing to die because clearly I will be dying so that the others in this small herd will go on living. I am ready to die because my leg is broken or my lungs are impacted and my time is finished.

The death is mutually agreeable. The meat it produces has power, as though consecrated. (That is a good word. It strikes us as strange only because it is out of its normal context.)

I have been struck, considering these things, by the difference between captive and wild wolves, and I think that much of the difference-- a difference of bearing, a dynamic tension immediately apparent in a wild wolf and lacking almost entirely in captive animals--lies in their food. The wolf in the wild subsists on his earned meat. The captive is fed on the wastes of commercial slaughterhouses and food made in factories by machines. Wolves in zoos waste away. The Naskapi, to this day, believe that the destruction of their people, the rending of their spirit, has had mainly to do with their being forced to eat the meat of domestic animals.

The difference between wild meat and tame meat to a hunting culture is a matter of monumental significance. It was a fundamental principle of life that, in the case of the Indian, the white man simply never noticed and the Indians did not know how to explain. I remember the first time I gave a penned wolf a piece of chicken. And I remember the feeling in a Minnesota clearing the first time I came on a wolf kill, picked up the moose skull, and turned it in my hands.

Whether wolf and prey act according to some mutual understanding, or whether they only unconsciously participate in a fundamental drama, is something we shall probably never know. All we do know, staring up at the paintings of game animals on the cave walls at Lascaux, is that the belief that there was more to hunting than killing, and that dying was as sacred as living, was not something that one day just fell out of the sky.[2]

--Barry Lopez

Barry Lopez has written extensively on nature and the environment. His books include Winter Count (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1981) and Crow and Weasel (North Point, 1990).