Book Review: A Hunter’s Confession, by David Carpenter
Author’s Note: A free review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Greystone Books. Like all of their titles, the book was printed on acid-free, 100% post-consumer recycled paper without chlorine.
To be perfectly candid and transparent, I must start this review by saying I am wholeheartedly opposed to hunting, for a variety of reasons. I have discussed in previous posts the ways in which hunters “trash” the environment, but I have also explored some of the ways they help to preserve it. Nonetheless, I have no love for hunting. Perhaps it was, as a young child, seeing my father’s friends dress a buck in the back of their pickup truck, in our driveway, that turned me off to hunting animals for any reason (food, goods, sport). More likely, it is my lifelong love of and respect for all animals and repugnance for the taking of life.
So it was with great interest that I read David Carpenter’s A Hunter’s Confession, which wears its ambivalence to hunting on its sleeve on all levels. Carpenter, an English professor and writer of fiction and non-fiction, tries his hand at memoir-cum-confessional-cum-apologia in this book, tackling the long history of hunting and the love-hate relationship we have with it. Through recounting his own story of hunting and the moral qualms he felt in his pursuit of it, Carpenter seeks “to narrow the gap between those who did and those who didn’t, between those who speak well of hunters and those who disapprove of them. You might say I have one boot in the hunter’s camp and a Birkenstock* in the camp of the nonbeliever” (3).
A-Hunting He Will Go
As life-story and expose, A Hunter’s Confession begins with Carpenter’s first experiences of the tradition, which played such a key role in family bonding in his Canadian home. “Blasting away at unsuspecting wildlife,” he explains, “was almost the only ritual a father and son performed together. And we loved it” (13). We see him learning the trade and thrilling with the high-adrenaline adventure of pursuing wild creatures–and blasting, blasting away.
The second chapter, “Skulking Through the Bushes,” moves from personal history to human history and the evolution of hunting in our species. Whereas we began as wandering gatherers of fruits, nuts, tubers, and grasses, eventually we learned to scavenge carrion in the wild and, with the development of tools several million years ago, to hunt living animals. As always, though, Carpenter is keenly interested in the moral implications that hunting and its history have for us. These coincide with the practical implications as well, specifically the consequences hunting (or lack thereof) can have on the environment.
To this effect, he quotes approvingly the great American conservationist and hunter Aldo Leopold. Leopold argued that hunting has three benefits: it “reminds us of our distinctive national origins and evolution” (i.e., as hunter-gatherers), it reminds us of “our dependency on the soil-plant-animal-man food chain,” and it teaches us self-control and fair play in the ethical restraints of “sportsmanship” (55).
The Thrill and the Agony of the Hunt
While Carpenter makes a case for hunting’s benefits for human eco-consciousness, he also recognizes how the sport’s history is a divided one, between subsistence and sport (i.e., pleasure) hunting. That division seems to play out in him as well, which we see most clearly and poignantly in “The Dawning of Ambivalence” (chapter 4). Carpenter tackles his own ambivalence while recounting our cultural ambivalence towards hunting, including ideas of total human “dominion” over the Earth to the ways that various famous hunters (Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and others) either straddled the moral fence or jumped onto one side of it.
Yet here, perhaps, we see most clearly Carpenter’s condemnation of that speciesistic claim that humans have free reign over the natural world and can use it, and its inhabitant, with wanton selfishness–what he calls a sense of “heartless entitlement” (80). In one beautiful paragraph, Carpenter makes plain the progression of this basic self-granted entitlement from large to small, ancient to modern:
“What happens when we come to believe that animals are subjects of our dominion, merely there for our needs and not there in and for themselves, cohabitants of the planet, so to speak, is that we objectify them without the tiniest regret. Instead of prairies and forests, we end up with industrial space in which wild flora are labeled weeds. And the wild animals become targets. Who could possibly lament the destruction of a mere target?” (81)
Hunters and Hippies
Still, Carpenter plunges into the wild with his gun and his camouflage, as do millions of others like him. Meanwhile, cultural feelings shift in the 1960s and after, with a new dawning of moral consciousness and respect for animals in the counter-culture of the time. Suddenly, the idea of hunting and the image of the shaggy hunter become anachronistic, “throwbacks” (the title of chapter 5) to a “primitive” era.
Somewhat surprisingly, though, this portion of Carpenter’s memoir are just as much about how he rediscovered hunting with a few college friends and, in the process, became more engaged with life. It is a rather interesting paradox, how he steps into the hunting camp while so much of society dons the Birkenstocks of the other side.
An equally interesting chapter on women hunters follows this in “The Return of Aremis.” Here, Carpenter introduces us to several women hunters in Canada, including a mother-daughter team. A key part of this (not surprisingly) is the contrasts between the how and why of male and female hunters. The end result is a picture of women hunters as less adrenaline junkies than instinctual providers and protectors of the family welfare.
While the women’s explanations (and rationalizations) of their hunting are intriguing, I found them no less convincing than any other arguments for hunting. For example, one woman (the daughter of the mother-daughter team) asserts that “I don’t like to kill per se; I respect the animals, but I’m hunting for food, and I’m not going to wait around for the deer to die of old age” (134). That is all well and good, but it does not touch on the fact that the hunting and killing is all done by choice; there would be plenty of other options that did not involve killing, even some of which still used animals in some way.
Killing What You Love
But Carpenter’s point here is to emphasize the difference between pleasure seeking and subsistence, and in turn between arrogance and reverence. The contrast is emphasized even more strongly in chapter 7, “The Last Great Hunter,” where Carpenter and friends go in search of a legendary woodsmen named Jojo Mitewin. This elusive aboriginal hunter serves as the foil for many of the modern hunters Carpenter encounters, who kill animals simply for the thrill of it rather than because they have to, and without the slightest bit of respect. Jojo’s refusal to reveal himself–save in a rather eerie moment when Carpenter just might come face to face with him–shows the disdain indigenous hunters have for the moderns, who are more inclined to shoot prey with high-powered rifles from the safety of vehicles than to go skulking through the bushes.
In the remainder of the book, after the climactic encounter with Jojo, it becomes obvious that Carpenter’s moral dilemma results from killing the very things you love and revere. The reverence also entails a deep recognition of the connection between the “beasts” and the human author. Carpenter’s account of a serious medical emergency while on a hunt is most telling in this regard. Bleeding uncontrollably from his nose and taken near the brink of death, Carpenter sees in his mind the blood flowing from the wound in a grouse’s neck the day before–a wound inflicted by his very own gun. Fearing for his life, he vows (to what he is not sure) never to kill another animal if only he can survive his situation.
Of course, time passes and injuries heal, and soon Carpenter finds himself back out in the wild and on the hunt at various times. But, he does so with a heightened moral sensitivity and a recognition of the importance for respect. The only way he can continue to hunt, and to defend the tradition of hunting, is by cultivating such a respect for animals and the environment. Indeed, he provides a final apology for hunting by emphasizing the reverence for wilderness that it (inevitably?) engenders in a person. While most humans become disconnected from the wild in a modern, urban technocracy, hunting is a way to bring us back into the wilderness and into connection with our wild origins and kin.
Nevertheless, Carpenter fully admits that this argument will be seen by many “as a desperate rationalization” by a “wolf in Granny’s clothing” (210). Though “the hunt is over” for him, he remains firmly and doggedly committed to the value of hunting–and its importance in our “cultured” (my word) times.
But does he ever answer that inescapable question: “How can hunters kill what they love?” Not really. And he admits this. No matter how much he supports the institution/tradition of hunting, despite the gross abuses it has been guilty of in the past, Carpenter never comes to terms with the (to me) insoluble paradox by which hunters stalk and then take the lives of the creatures they supposedly revere. And he admits this in the midst of his argument for the value of hunting with a reverential attitude, which at least shows (I think) that he is skeptical of his own argument.
And as a seriously skeptical reader, I left the book still unconvinced that any supposed merits of hunting can compensate for the lives it takes and the damage that it often does–because not all hunters are responsible or even remotely “reverential.” I can see no logically sound explanation to the claim that hunters truly love, in some deeply felt way, those animals they hunt down and kill, a process in which those same animals are often injured critically and terrified well before they actually die; “clean shots,” death in an instant, is a tricky thing to pull off, and more often the animals suffer pain and fear long before they die. If the argument for subsistence hunting is made, well, my answer to that is the same as if it is made for eating animal flesh in general: We can survive without killing animals or eating their by-products. And in doing so, we would actually be doing a better service to the animals, other humans, and the ecosystem in general, since raising livestock wastes huge amounts of vegetable food (that we could be eating ourselves) and costs much more in resources for input than we get from energy as output. So by all means, let the “hunters” indulge their instinctual predilections and skulk through the bushes after wildlife. But when you hunters shoot them…shoot with a camera, not a gun or a bow.
Confronting these important moral and practical issues, A Hunter’s Confession is a serious and sincere exploration of a hunter’s enjoyment and agony over the tradition he loves. It provides thorough historical information and weighty arguments for and against hunting. However, as the author recognizes, it likely will not create any converts on either side of the moral fence, nor get many folks to trade their boots for Birkenstocks–or vice versa. Instead, and perhaps more importantly, it may get readers of any ideological persuasion to think more seriously about the reasons they believe what they do…and the ways in which they engage with the wild, wild world.
Image credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -Midwest Region at Flickr under a Creative Commons license
*Link to a page in sustainablog’s Green Choices green product comparison engine