Hunting with style

Climbing writer Doug Robinson wrote (in paraphrase) that technology forces itself upon the landscape, while technique looks for a way through.  Climbing is on matters of style an illustrative pairing for hunting, especially in the 21st century, where the later is on the cusp of a new wave of popularity which will likely substantially reinvent the pursuit.  In 30 years I expect hunting norms to have drug the laws which govern its practice far from where they are today.  Climbing remains largely unajudicated, aside from raptor closures and ongoing ambiguity about fixed anchors in Wilderness areas, but starting half a century ago was subjected to substantial and in many cases overwhelming ethical debates, which have passed through consensus into the background structure of the pursuit.  Hunting has in North America been adjudicated for so long that ethics, to say nothing of style, is most often discussed in a stunted fashion, tied narrowly to the propogation of the discipline with an uneasy, if not outright hostile, relationship with any broader cultural import or responsibility.

Robinson made is name in the 1960s, at the vanguard of the clean climbing movement in Yosemite.  Two decades before camming units became commercially available, the move away from pitons to nuts, chocks, and hexentrics was an intentional leap, which put environmental and aesthetic concerns above ease and security.  As Robinson wrote; “Personal qualities- judgment, concentration, boldness, – the ordeal by fire, take precedence, as they should, over mere hardware.”  This set the tone for subsequent ethical debates, with things like chipping holds having since become (in North America) anathema by consensus.  The substance of the prohibition of explicit hold modification is more significant stylistically than environmentally, as things like gardening out cracks and scrubbing vegetation off boulders remains common practice, as does reinforcing chossy rock so climbers don’t pull off too many holds.  Then again, maybe climbing at Rifle is inherently poor style.

The relevant point is that climbing, the most obviously, inherently absurd and pointless of all outdoor pursuits, is also the most aesthetically pure, and that purity and coherence is maintained by consensus rules which promote and prioritize, even venerate, style.  And by style here, we mean recognize that technology has, decades if not centuries ago, exceeded exponentially the challenges imposed by the world and its means.  This is not to say that in mountaineering the gradation of acceptable helicopter access are entirely settled, but when someone like Uli Steck or Liv Sansov wants to enchain peaks in good style, they do so entirely human powered.

Hunting is far more tentative concerning matters of style.  The closest the community gets is when technology forces the hand, on fair chase matters such as drone use (which most western states have banned), and “tracking” scopes which auto-correct for user error.  But hunting is experiencing perhaps the most significant and most concentrated growth in technology since the iron age, with a corresponding paradigm shift in mindset.  And this is the key point when it comes to intentionally defining style, the recognition that technology itself is meaningless, and the way it alters user perceptions and practices, and thus redefines the activity itself, is of central importance.

With hunting, laser rangefinders are an ideal example.  Their existence helped create long range hunting, with both bows and rifles.  Prior to exact yardage being available at the push of a button, hunters were limited by their skills judging yardage, and more commonly to the range within which the speed of their weapon made such judgments more forgiving.  Now, more people are shooting further, more accurately (one assumes), and more often.  Distances viewed as rarefied 15 years ago, such as 400 yards with a rifle and 60 yards with a compound bow, are today approaching the common.  Truly functional ability at these distances does not enhance success in a linear fashion.  Anyone who has spent plenty of time chasing animals knows that different species provide different cut points, with big jumps in efficacy happening in a 20 yard jump.  Whitetails, for example, are wary enough that getting within 30 yards is exceedingly difficult outside an ambush situations (e.g. blind or treestand), with a 50-80 yard distance being by no means simple, but far more consistently achievable.  Similarly, mule deer have eyes and ears and a general tolerance for disturbance which makes being within 3-400 yards exponentially more probable than closing under 200.  In the former case, fastish compound bows and rangefinders make for many more possible shots, while in the later case rangefinders open up the possibility of many conventional rifle chamberings being accessible for their owners to at least develop the skill to take shots at deer who are unaware, or at least more relaxed.

The ethical complication with technology in hunting is that ease often goes hand in hand with humane-ness.  There is a compelling case to be made that taking a leisurely, studied, longer shot at an unaware animal will result in a clean kill more often than a pressured shot using a hasty rest at an animal which might turn at run at any moment, even if the distance is half or less.  At the same time, questioning how much chance ones prey has to even notice the existence of the hunter must be allowed.  There is a stylistic difference between shooting a goat at 400 yards, who knows you are there but has yet to learn to worry about such distances due to terrain and circumstance, and an elk 800 yards away feeding along a meadow, with hardly any plausible chance of detecting humans on the ridge across the canyon.  Well done polls generally show that those who have never hunted are sympathetic to the pursuit if two conditions are met; the animal will be consumed by the hunter, and they think the animal has a reasonable chance of escape.  This should not just be relevant as a means to minimize public hostility; the stylistic imperative of keeping the hunt in hunting should be relevant on its own terms.

The conclusion here is that if hunters do not police themselves on technology, the culture at large will do so for them, either by reducing hunter opportunity to compensate for ever increasing success rates (if 50 of 100 tag holders, on average, kill something where before it was 10 in 100, soon there will only be 50-60 tags given), or by constraining hunting methodology, most likely via ballot initiative.  That hound hunting for mountain lions or bears is more efficacious than spot and stalk or baiting is not in the end behind these methods being banned in numerous western states, it is the perception of their not being sporting.

I’m quite out beyond the fringe in not viewing hunting as categorically different, in either the ethics or the metaphysics, from something like climbing a mountain.  They’re both extractive activities, if the definition is viewed broadly.  If the rarefied and aesthetically sacred nature of climbing gave the community pause enough to build their rules to at least in part maintain future challenge and mystery, it seems reasonable to expect hunting, whose trust in the mystery that is our world is through the killing of charming creatures far more explicit, to do the same.

There is plenty of precedent here.  Alaska forbids helicopters for transportation to and from hunting areas, which goes a long ways towards functionally safeguarding specifies such as sheep.  Plenty of states have made at least partial attempts towards keeping primitive weapon seasons intact; things like allowing muzzleloaders to only shoot round balls, and forbidding optical and magnified sights on muzzleloaders, shotguns, and bows.  Regulating center-fire rifles provides for few if any straight forward options; I’ve never heard anyone discuss something like an upper limit on scope magnification or cartridge velocity.  Other areas of stylistic growth are obvious, just painful to contemplate.  Hunting has, for a long time, been far too wedded to trucks, ATVs, and horses.  The best way to keep wilderness wild is to make access physically harder, and the plain good this does for large animal populations makes it all the less justifiable that hunters haven’t done more to lead the charge on closing roads and generally making access tilt more in the animals favor.

Guiding is another area where hunting has refused to look at itself.  The extent to which the practice is accepted can be traced directly to the colonial era, which provides examples that should give us all pause.  In climbing hiring a guide is widely accepted, if you’re looking to break in to the pursuit without killing yourself, or a rock climber learning to swing tools, or a sport climber learning to plug gear, or an alpine skier wanting to learn about avalanches.  If you’re a climber using a guide to push above your skill level on a regular basis, and not just for educational purposes, you’re viewed as a tyro at best, a poltroon at worst, and generally not taken seriously.  Given how much of hunting has to do with finding the animals and learning the terrain, paying someone to shortcut all of the for you, be in by hiring someone to lead you around in the traditional manner, or by paying someone to e-scout and provide you with a portfolio of photos and waypoints, is nothing short of cheating.  And when it comes to animals who for most serve as symbols for how the world could be better, cheating to kill them should not be ok.

The idea with style is not for laws to force action, it is for norms to change and force a consensus.  Hunters venerate the biggest set of antlers or longest and fattest bear not just because the masculine imperative compels it (though anyone who doesn’t think this remains enormously significant is kidding themselves), but because the oldest of a species is often the craftiest, the most difficult to find, the most likely to detect you, as well as the rarest.  Shooting a six point bull elk requires both the skill of long study and practice, as well as the kind of luck made only by many days out in the field.  And that recognition of patience and a multi-year, even multi-decade learning process is rarely far from the surface of a good hunting story.  Hunters are just good at hiding such things.

I’d like to see that narrative brought to the fore, and the rest of the hunting universe squared to match it.  There should be no bones that walk in access is stylistically preferred to flying in.  There should be veneration and preference given to hunting in areas which due to terrain and game density are more difficult than other places.  There ought to be no apologies needed for shooting “lesser” animals, such as non-males, and particular attention given to the choice to move away from technology, while still doing all that is reasonable to ensure a consistently clean kill.  Just like climbing, hunting is great because it units primordial necessity with the most refined and elective modern absurdity, and by hunting with style we can make hunting great again.

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10 thoughts on “Hunting with style

  1. The first thing I feel like saying (screaming, actually), is that ‘hunting’ is such a generic term that is at risk of becoming utterly meaningless. My own take that I have the ethical responsibility to kill, butcher, take out, process, and cook some of my food comes from my belief that I, as an adult, should be able to do unpleasant (because killing is unpleasant), inconvenient, potentially dirty and messy things, and not always leave it to someone else to sort out for me. I also have the belief that, hunting in a specific way brings me closer to the image of myself as a person that I think I should be. I said before here that I think that most, all, our relationship with the landscape is a projection of our feelings. Yet, projection or else, being able to come as close as possible to animals without breaking the peace of the moments means a lot to me. The explicit aesthetics are that hunting is chasing, not simply killing, and hunting relies on knowledge and skill, to keep as much silence and stillness as possible.

    But I cast only one vote.

    I honestly do not know how I feel about some of the things you say. I naturally gravitate towards them. I know people who see hunting as a form of social bonding with their friends, a group activity with many rituals and time spent doing stuff that are an anathema to me. Is this aesthetics, that is not mine, to be condemned? I do not know (provided the shot is ethical and people behave safely). If people rely on guides (or other crutches), and are tyros and poltroons, aren’t they nevertheless getting what they want out of the experience? is that wrong? Lest I sound too openminded, I fundamentally resent the attitude of many old timers, but I have no way of saying whether they are slowly dying out or whether the people who share my aesthetics (whom I seem to find with ease, for a number of reasons) are actually the irrelevant minority.

    In any case, thanks for giving me an opportunity to reflect on this issue.

    1. This post, along with many others over the years, has a tacit goal of advancing an argument about knowledge and judgment. It’s an idea that tends to bring about emphatic (and dismissive) reactions because it’s so uncomfortable and difficult to digest.

      Broadly speaking, the last decade has seen the consensus that Truth is no longer a useful or accurate concept accelerate rapidly. Very broadly speaking, Trump, Brexit, and the nativist surge in Continental politics can all be seen as a deliberate backlash against that. People want an at least rhetorical move backwards to days when things were more certain and predictable.

      A move towards nihilism as a reaction to the dissolution of Truth is a combination of laziness and defensiveness. This dynamic is the same for something trivial like “Hike Your Own Hike”, or with something more weighty like gender binary. In either case the admission that their are no universal, objective standards is a demand that we think more, and more carefully, not less, and folks then to not like that. Declarations to the effect of “many words saying nothing” generally follow.

      (Nietzsche said all of this 130 years ago, perhaps the biggest reason why people still focus on the sexism, insanity, and influence on Nazism, because reading “On the Geneaology of Morality” and trying to take all of it seriously remains an intense and scary experience.)

      With hunting, or climbing, or hiking the crux ends up being that we have to admit that they are at once heterogenous and communal activities, that diverse participants may have nothing explicit or intentional in common while also being deeply tied together by history and context. It’s all an intense fight against the shortcuts humans have used to organize society, which is quite the task to undertake in a world of 7 billion.

      1. I keep an eye on the hunting world and to be honest it is still pretty male and pretty white. I am male and white, it’s not something I can change nor something I am worried about in the least, but in places like the US the simplest thing to raise the bar of the discussion would be to find other voices.

        I am extremely conflicted about this, because I do not think that just because white males engage in something, said activity should be de facto something that other people should aspire to. Yet it is clear that, for a pursuit that is legally legislated and controlled, the sooner other voices are opted in, the less likely hunting would be put in a place of extreme social conflict. Co-opting other voices, especially if it is done in good faith, would increase the need for a new engagement on the meaning, ethics and aesthetics of the pursuit — in my opinion more so, and more effectively than if the discussion is among a well meaning but shrinking self selected group of people. To be explicit, it would be more effective because it would bring more attention to the historical and contextual ties needed to bring people together, hopefully for the best.

  2. I would agree with most of this wholeheartedly, it is a subject ripe for discussion. I don’t think there can be any clear lines drawn, as everything down to jumping out of a tree onto an elks back with a flint tipped spear is an advancement of technology. It would seem that we’ve advance so far that the entire “point” has become moot.

    Long distance shooting does rub me the wrong way for some reasons well as outfitters. But then traditional bow hunters could easily say the same thing about any modern rifle. Personally I think horse/mules have a solid place in wilderness while others like yourself I would guess totally disagree. But then a horseman may say your “ultralight” space age gear is cheating too! What about driving from ones home to a trailhead in a vehicle, looking at google earth, and GPS units. All the lines drawn here are arbritrary really.

    There are no good or “right” answers. One thing I can say is this advancement of society and technology is one of our greatest threats to our wilderness areas. And something that not many people are guarding over except maybe Wilderness Watch. I’ve watched the USFS use helicopters to fly in materials, make exceptions for mechanized equipment, build bridges and trails such as the CDT just because some group gave them the funds. Every year it seems small bits and pieces are being chipped away from our wild area. Less trails, less bridges, less signs and more wildness are in need here but the USFS is intent on placating the lazy public.

    Look at our national parks! After visiting Grand Teton Park during the shutdown the irony is the public was still enjoying the park with no gate attendants, no interpretive centers, no rangers just the public and the land……Dont tell Trump that these parks would run fairly good with just a skeleton staff of snow plows and LE rangers.

    Its like you said our wild areas will weed out the majority of the users on their own. And elk are still elk and as long as MT success rates for elk still just hover around 10% nothing will really change. But the wildness in wilderness here will continue to be chipped away little by little.

  3. We share a similar mindset with this topic. Our bison hunt offered a prime example of a hunt with style versus the standard fare of waiting by the road to cross an imaginary line. Even the horse packers likely had a far different experience. There is something to be said for creating your own friction in hunting and in life. Much of this may be a result of the “luxury trap” getting used to the ease and hedonistic pleasures of a wealthy society and not having the will to put forth a greater effort than what was put out in the past. ATVs, planes and airboats are the bane of wilderness up here. You can’t fly the planes during the season to hunt sheep but guide services will fly before hand, spot and drop clients off up high the night before the season. Some hunt…

  4. I feel a little optimistic (more so than in the past) that collectively we (hunters) are slowly moving in the right direction. For too many years the only “hunting shows” to watch on TV were no more than half hour advertisements with the emphasis on a kill, and not just any kill, but something that scored at least X! No one talked about eating game, no one talked about fair chase, no one talked of conservation, no one talked about the hunt itself being the most important aspect of hunting and that harvesting something was just icing on the cake. Sadly I saw far too many hunters emulating what they were watching and ethics taking a back seat to egos.

    Unfortunately the vast majority of shows are still that way, but ever slowly you can see things changing with shows like Meat Eater, various podcasts that talk about conservation and fair chase, open discussions on hunting forums, groups growing like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, etc. I think there is a long ways to go, but for the first time I feel like things are starting to change (albeit slowly) for the better.

    Open and honest discussions amongst ourselves is the way forward.

  5. It’s interesting watching these discussions play out from my vantage point, as I live in a decidedly non-hunting culture (Los Angeles) and yet have ~1,200 square miles of deer hunting beginning a half a mile behind my house. Add in the two other zones I can hunt off the same tag and that number increases exponentially. Add in archery and I’ve now got a pretty vast territory and a season that lasts a full two months. Granted, the hunting is hard and the game is comparatively limited, but the opportunity is there. Hunting here feels like a bit of a paradox- these pretty expansive public lands with hunting opportunity surrounded by a predominately unsympathetic and uninterested (if not outright hostile) culture.
    But what truly interests me is trying to make sense of the demographics that play out in hunting vs. other outdoor sports here. Where I hunt, if I meet another hunter, that hunter will most likely be a native Spanish speaker. Every season I can count on being invited into a camp for a beer at the of the day, banda music blaring, me struggling to dig up long-lost high school Spanish skills. For someone that partakes in a degree of new hunting media, it’s immediately obvious that Sitka, First Lite, Kuiu, and Under Armor have missed this demographic (branding/identity/signalling is another topic entirely). They also apparently missed the group of 6 Vietnamese hunters, clad in military surplus clothing, that had just taken a decent buck with a Mosin-Nagant (lead restrictions be damned, apparently!). I took my turn among them hauling the buck between our shoulders on a pole.
    In the face of these hunters, the concept of consensus seems pretty elusive. I celebrate this in some ways, if anything as a bit of resistance to the homogeneity that often tends to replace unique subcultures as different forms of consensus takes hold. Deer season tends to bring a demographic into the woods that I have trouble finding there throughout the rest of the year and I welcome this.
    I can also respect the dangers that will be posed by a lack of consensus and I can see how this will likely lead to issues in the future, especially as development pushes ever-onward, fire seasons get more severe, and restrictions to use likely become more appealing. As things trend in California, I’m almost surprised hunting is still legal, period. Long term, I’m highly concerned that hunters here will never be able to coalesce into a larger voice that can mount any appreciable resistance to challenges to hunting on public land. It seems the other Western states are far ahead of us in this regard. Unfortunately, I see very little overlap between outdoor user groups and hunters here, to the point of almost being mutually exclusive. From what I gather, Montana and Alaska are in a better place in this regard, as well as in general cultural support for hunting. I strongly fear that the lack of this general cultural support and outdoor user group overlap has the potential to create real trouble for hunters in this state.

    1. Fun fact: prior to Hmong refugees in the 70s California had no squirrel season. Restrictions were put in place to keep these new Americans from putting a serious dent in the population. I struggle to imagine the intensity of effort it would take for firearm hunting to put such a dent in a population which reproduces so fast.

      1. Interesting! A quick search turns up a lot on this history, including some Hmong squirrel stew recipes that have my attention. I had no idea. My cousin married into a Hmong family in the Central Valley, which also happens to be where I’ve squirrel hunted some. Unfortunately and despite their prolific nature, squirrel hunting is illegal in my home county and through most of Southern CA. The more urban Eastern fox squirrel has largely displaced the native Western gray squirrel…and given one cannot hunt urban fox squirrels, a hunting season would disproportionately effect the native Western gray, compounding the problem…

  6. I should also give credit where credit is due and thank both you and Mike for providing excellent examples of style for someone (myself) trying to climb the experience ladder as a deer hunter. Coming from UL backpacking and ultrarunning, the solo, human-powered, fair chase aesthetic has always appealed to me but I appreciate seeing real people put it into action.

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