The Academic Hunter

Our flat-coated retriever pup (born 29 Dec 2011). Photo by friends & FCR breeders, Blazingstar.

Fall is hunting season. The leaves have been stripped from the trees by the onslaught of prairie winds, and snow is threatening (or in our case, blowing sideways as we speak). Next fall I, too, will be out on the waterways in the chill of early dawn, waiting for duck and geese to bag a wildland meal. I’ll take my dog exploring in the uplands, searching for partridge and grouse for the winter larder. But for now I’m still learning. Deciding what gun to get. Trying to train my happy but wild retriever girl. Wondering how to reconcile the elemental nature of hunting with the detached and analytical ideal of the academy.
As a child I wanted to fish. My best friend always went with his dad, so they took me ice fishing and got me a tackle box – complete with maggot bait – for my birthday. I was ecstatic with the little red plastic container of lures and fishing line. My mom was less than enthusiastic about the maggots and banished them to the garage. My dad doesn’t have an outdoors bone in his body, but he bravely took me fishing when I wanted to try. I caught everything from water weeds to bits of wood. My dad was always wading out to free my line. Somehow I could never get it quite right.
I’ve always loved the outdoors and food. The first led me to study physical geography, the second to gardening. The two together got me interested in the ecology of food production, and my impact on landscape and economy through the food I ate. It occurred to me that – to truly be an omnivorous locavore (more difficult than expected in the middle of industrial farm country) – I’d have to get my own meat. Unlike in more enlightened cities like Vancouver, I’m not allowed to keep chickens within city limits, which would be the logical first choice. Since I’m apparently terrible at fishing, the logical second choice was to hunt. Which has opened up a whole new world – particularly since my family has never hunted, and I’ve always been what I’d consider a nerdy, unathletic person (with glasses of course).
Laid out in my mind like Halloween loot sorted by flavour are all the academics I know who hunt – subdivided by scientific discipline. None in math, chemistry, or physics, where office & lab work is the norm. A few in geography – but not many. More in biology. Most in forestry and conservation. Perhaps it’s a function of the type of person drawn to each discipline (indoors vs. outdoors?), and the knowledge gained by studying in each of these fields. In broad brush strokes, the geographer hunters love landscape; being out in the wild & collecting food is a welcome bonus. The biologist hunters are ecologists, considering our place in the food chain and the effects of hunting on animal populations. For the forester hunters, however, hunting is more of a state of mind, with the ecological implications or appreciation of landscape often coming in second or third.
As mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been reading David Adams Richards’ ‘Facing the Hunter‘; I also just finished Georgia Pellegrini’s ‘Girl Hunter‘. The two couldn’t be more different. Richards is a well established writer, one of only three Canadians to have won the Governor General’s award for both fiction & non-fiction. He opens a window into the blue collar hunting culture of the Miramichi region in New Brunswick. Pellegrini, on the other hand, is a high end New York chef who went to an upper class private school – stilettos come up a few times in her (beautifully written) narrative. Her hunting style seems largely a sport of privilege to which she gains access through an enormously wealthy group of people.
Richards feels alienated from the writing establishment in Toronto because the hunting lifestyle and its innate connection to the land is often ridiculed at writerly dinner parties. But Pellegrini is lauded via her blog for the novelty of the boutique, upper class ‘fly in-fly out’ hunts that send her across the continent – and overseas – in search of the best game. Her over-the-top recipes – rather than the hunt itself – become the final goal.
My approach lies is somewhere in the middle. I’m not steeped in hunting tradition like Richards, but am more focused on landscape and ecology than Pellegrini. I’m well aware that hunting can be a cold, bloody and dirty pastime. My aim is to become more connected to place and more aware of my food source by working for it, to become part of the landscape instead of just studying it from afar as a dispassionate observer. In some ways an academic background is a help, given that I teach students about ecology, food webs, conservation and environmentalism. It’s also a hindrance, though, as I’m often guilty of excessive analysis & planning, forgetting the essential unpredictability of the wild and the necessity in some cases of instinct over intellect.
I suspect that many academics imagine hunting to be solely the realm of rednecks and right wing conservatives. They may be surprised to learn how many of their colleagues hunt. It’s more than just a blood sport designed to evoke a visceral reaction, but can help us make a place in wilderness and the environment as a whole.

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