Meditations on an elk hunt

Yesterday I went on my first hunting expedition. Don’t worry – nothing was killed! We just drove around a lot, walked around a little, and failed to shoot an elk.

Hunting garb. The orange is really important!

Since I’ve started eating meat again (infrequently, strictly game or home-grown, never store bought), I feel that ideological consistency demands my participation in the process of turning a living animal into a food product for human consumption. Also, getting up really early to go do something special is its own kind of adventure (my wake-up call was at 4:30 am).

There were five of us, three of whom were just along for the ride, although I did carry a .45 with me “just in case” (the odds of me actually shooting something were about 1 in 5,000; the fact that I had a handgun and not a rifle further reduced the odds to about 1 in 50,000). I guess having a gun on my hip just made me feel cool.

Carrying a firearm is a shortcut to feeling like a badass

On the ride to the east pines, where we would be hunting, energy drinks were consumed and cigarettes were smoked. I sipped coffee from my sock-insulated mason jar and annoyed everyone by rolling my window all the way down.

Dawn was breaking as we reached our destination and the light on the mountains was spectacular.


Two people stayed in the car and the rest of us fanned out to search for our quarry. I didn’t think much about the elk as an individual as I prowled the landscape, feeling predatory. I did think about it later though, and was a little taken aback by my theoretical willingness to slay a majestic animal. There was all sorts of intellectual justification at work; humans are predators, meat-eating is an integral part of our culture, it’s cold and money’s tight and meat is a great winter protein and calorie source, the suffering of the animal would be as brief as possible.

Snow cactus

But not too very long ago I didn’t eat meat at all. The difference, I believe, is cultural. When I was living in a city, eating meat was no more than an indulgence. The relationship of the thing on the plate to the living animal it had been was tangential at best. “Meat” seemed abstract, unnecessary. And the attitude of meat eaters (who were still the majority by far) in Seattle, a progressive city with many “alternavores” often seemed oppositional, smug about their ability to feast on flesh and dismissive of vegetarians as sentimental, bleedy-hearted fools.

Here, however, meat-eating is not a statement. It’s a way of life, and people aren’t squeamish when confronted with slaughter and butchery (god, that just sounds lovely, doesn’t it?). I’ve even met a cohort of Seventh Day Adventists (a traditionally vegetarian, pacifist Christian denomination) who hunt!

Animal lover, hunter

Cultural flexibility comes easy to me. And while there are some things that still make me skin-crawlingly uncomfortable (casual use of what I, in my residual PC squeamishness, refer to as the “N-word”, for instance) I’ve adapted readily to many facets of life in conservative, rural America. What does this say about me? Is the ethical foundation of my character really that shaky?

I like to think not. There are some things that I hold constant: I will never be comfortable with  racism or homophobia, casual or otherwise. I believe that reproductive freedom and family-planning services are fundamental to a healthy society and essential to women’s and children’s dignity and well being. I also believe that government regulation and taxation are necessary, if not quite evils, bummers. But when it comes to eating animals, my speciesism kicks in, and I find it easy to change my perspective.

I love and respect animals deeply, and I would never wish suffering or cruelty upon another living creature (although there are arguably some humans who deserve it). However, all of us distinguish to some degree between those we hold dear and those who fall outside the circle of our moral consideration. We differentiate between pets and livestock. Between civilians and soldiers. Between the victims of a car crash in our own town and the victims of an earthquake halfway around the world. Between American babies in the womb and malnourished babies in sub-Saharan Africa. Between the charismatic, beautiful Siberian tiger and the grotesque, bizarre-looking Chinese giant salamander, both of which are critically endangered (have you even heard of the Chinese giant salamander?).

Chinese giant salamander

Simply put, our circle of empathy can only accommodate so much. If we were to have equally strong responses to every instance of tragedy and suffering, life would be simply un-livable. Those of us who aren’t sociopaths would be weighed down by crushing despair. A good life, and a coherent response to evil and injustice in the world, requires us to be selective in our sympathies, to pick our battles. I used to use silly, reductionist logic when confronted with a battle I didn’t identify with: protesters outside restaurants decrying their use of foie gras, for instance, or people with animal rescue operations. Although I was a vegetarian and an animal lover, people came first in my moral consideration, and still do. How could you, like, care about animals when people are suffering?

These people care more about geese than you do

Unfortunately, though, suffering is not a zero-sum game. We can’t eliminate human suffering and then move on to other species. Everyone is moved by something in particular; we can’t all be equally concerned with prison reform and food security in Sudan and early childhood education in the American south and LGBT rights and the protection of artists and dissidents in China and Tlingit language preservation and the conservation of the three-toed sloth.

This man cares more about Chinese artists than you do

Similarly, our everyday choices reflect a limited capacity to care about things. Among the most committed vegetarians I know, all drive cars and consume agricultural goods whose production entails the death of animals. I don’t know anyone, no matter how zealous their social advocacy and support of social justice, who doesn’t use fossil fuel in some form or wear at least some clothing made in a sweatshop. Total ideological consistency is a full-time job, and often an extremely isolating proposition. I think the greatest hope for our communities, and for human society in general, rests on the fellow-feeling we share with our neighbors. If we can understand and respect those with whom we share geographical proximity, and thus concerns critical to our daily lives, our circle of empathy can gradually expand. But getting wrapped up in ideological absolutes creates a type of solipsism that can lead us to be dismissive of others who don’t share our beliefs. And I think that’s really, really dangerous.

Hence, I try to blend in here as much as possible. To avoid ruffling feathers. To demonstrate my respect for people and their way of life, and in doing so to foster mutual receptivity and create space for dialogue about what’s important. There are some things I’d never compromise; I’ll never make a racist or homophobic remark just to “fit in”. But I’ve found that hunting and eating animals is something I’m at least tentatively comfortable with, something I can justify without compromising my basic morality.



About ea

Reluctant technophile, immoderate lover of words, food, cogitation, the sensory world. We are not done evolving and there is no free will.
This entry was posted in Culture, Nature, Out and about, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Meditations on an elk hunt

  1. ” But getting wrapped up in ideological absolutes creates a type of solipsism that can lead us to be dismissive of others who don’t share our beliefs. And I think that’s really, really dangerous.”

    “Similarly, our everyday choices reflect a limited capacity to care about things. ”

    The danger cannot be mitigated, only transferred geographically.

    See history 210

    • emilya says:

      Yeah, I don’t know if the danger can be mitigated. I like to think it could, but it seems to me that our moral and ethical development, to paraphrase the great Barbara Tuchman, has always lagged behind our technological capabilities, whether in the area of weapons, government, or whatever. I think arrogance, selfishness and a tendency towards violent assholery is unfortunately part of our “human nature” and will usually prevail when pitted against our tendencies towards cooperation and peace. At least until we become potshuman and something else takes the helm…

  2. “I think the greatest hope for our communities, and for human society in general, rests on the fellow-feeling we share with our neighbors. If we can understand and respect those with whom we share geographical proximity, and thus concerns critical to our daily lives, our circle of empathy can gradually expand. ”

    Yes but the surface approach is a dangerous position to collect an interpretation and consider it “the state of things”…. for you cannot know what is going on behind the closed doors, and in many cases most do not want to know.. yet that is where the power comes from.. Eventually it has to come round though, the issue cannot be skirted forever… for it is that vague intangible almost illogical essence that drives one to even hold fast to the structure that is… in the hopes of catching a glimpse.

    Needless to say, the issue is generally always: money / assets , sex, access rights.
    A decade is nothing… yet in a decade one can easily become consumed.

    I’m just trying to say that the more you begin to identify with the group and rely on them for understanding the more there is risk that some over-riding meme hijacks personal volition in the name of keeping group coherence.
    And then the seeds of destruction are sown.
    a decade is nothing when it comes to revealing the truth.


    Many people are “private” and what goes on in their privacy is their own business… yet at the same time it is not… least of course their private matters have no affect upon how they will be feeling psychologically, and thus how they will behave towards the group.

    In my eyes it’s merely a competition: which group can “convince” the other groups to accept the insights it has gathered from it’s unique experiences. Consider an individual as a “group” and go to a bar, observe how people talk / what they talk about… for generally all it ever will be is this competition. When you win this competition you gain the camaraderie and “respect” of your peers, and thus earn favor that is a form of capital that can be used to further goals. When the goals are mutual and require hard work it makes it all the more easy to hide the true motive from those whom have given you their favor.

    But like i said, often the motive is merely just sex or some object or access right… so pretty limited in terms of grandiosity.

    The competition is a weakness, a distraction… and in the end, probably the last bastion for people to claim they are special in some way.. all the while getting their asses handed to them by augmented machines who leave all doors open and whom have very clear and direct expressions about what they intend and what they know.

    Im ranting.

    • emilya says:

      “I think the greatest hope for our communities, and for human society in general, rests on the fellow-feeling we share with our neighbors. If we can understand and respect those with whom we share geographical proximity, and thus concerns critical to our daily lives, our circle of empathy can gradually expand. ” Theoretically I think this is true, but it’s really just pretty, hollow, BS. I honestly don’t have much hope for human society. People do love the competition, and I think it resides in a similar place as predation within the human spirit. The drive to conquest and power over one’s fellow beings is as strong and at times stronger than the drive to cooperation and mutual understanding. People don’t seem to expend much energy trying to understand “the other guy’s” point of view; for the most part they seem more interested in denigrating others and defining themselves in opposition to what they see as the other’s “wrongness” or stupidity. I see it on the left and on the right and everywhere in between. The cool thing about being here is that I have the opportunity to be friends with those who have very different political leanings than I do. And as corny as it sounds, when this happens you learn we really are the same. Only different 🙂 So in a sense what I said still obtains… but it only really works if your “neighbors” have some crucial differences from you. Communities tend to define themselves along geographical and ideological lines, and many of us never have the opportunity to be in proximity to those with vastly different beliefs. So getting cozy with your neighbors can instead lead to tribalism and ideological isolation… Yeah, it’s a conundrum. All’s I know is that I’m finding a different way of relating to people, and it feels right.

  3. any ways…

    The goal for me is for people to feel like they are important and skilled and valuable and that their life has meaning.

    and to escape existential atrophy we throw machines into the mix and pull a good’ol neo-liberal fractional distillation of “the myth”..
    Forgive my crassness, but screw the “myth of the nation”.. that is for old geezers, i’m talking about “the myth of humanity”.. it’s like September 11th but a million fold!

    in then end their will be disrupted revelry that ends in thankful submission.

  4. there will***…. my finges are cold…

  5. Annie says:

    I appreciated and enjoyed reading your blog entry. Thought-provoking on a number of levels. I agree with the need to be sensitive to the culture one is immersed in; to avoid offense, if possible. (I’m a dedicated vegetarian—tending toward veganism—for ethical reasons, but recently while in Ukraine, ate chicken vegetable soup {dredged pieces of chicken out, but nonetheless……….} because it was presented to me by a shy young lady who spoke no English and would have been most disconcerted/embarrassed had I made a fuss. I must admit that I had to pray for God to help me eat it. Haven’t even eaten fish in years.) I can only imagine you must feel somewhat similar when you go to someone else’s house to eat.

    Good, mutually respectful relationships are, in my opinion, what make life rich. Sorting out what one is willing to do in order to establish and nurture them is worth serious and ongoing consideration.

    And I wonder: at what point does eating meat become less about blending in/avoiding offense and more about satisfying appetite. And at what point does that become “business as usual.”

      • emilya says:

        That last paragraph may have been misleading. It’s not really about “blending in” or “avoiding offense”. It’s more that my own mores and values are shifting to reflect what’s around me. I haven’t had an ethical problem with eating meat that’s either hunted or sustainably raised for a while now; the idea of eating flesh simply didn’t appeal to me before I came here. Meat didn’t really seem like food. And now that has changed, and I find that it makes sense for me to eat some meat. Yes, to a certain extent it is about “satisfying appetite”. And I’m ok with that. Not eating meat just isn’t important to me any more. I’m still repulsed by factory farmed meat, and won’t order it in a restaurant unless I’m 100% sure of its provenance (and even then only have once). I only buy eggs from people I know who raise their own chickens. I try to buy cleaning products and cosmetics that aren’t tested on animals. But hunting for food or raising animals oneself seems honest and morally acceptable to me.

      • Annie says:

        You are only TOOOOOOOOO funny! You must have had a lot of fun posting that one. You’re right. I done my best. And, thankfully you didn’t spend your 21st b.d. in prison doing life. ILYMI and am proud of you. M

  6. hrockwel says:

    You have lots of great, very thought-provoking stuff here, my sister. I don’t eat red meat or pork since I never ate it as a child, and still have no desire for it (but I don’t have issues with Aaron or Luke eating it). I definitely have a sensitive heart for animals but that sensitivity obviously doesn’t extend to poultry or seafood. I’ll admit I’m not nearly as conscientious about what meat and seafood I consume as I perhaps should be, but I like to think that I try to find a balance between feeding my family good food and keeping a balanced grocery budget. I don’t have an issue with people hunting for food when they need it, because it’s a good source of calories and protein – which is necessary. I do have a problem with trophy hunting. Also, I don’t have a problem with weapons, though of course with common-sense regulations and adequate training. One thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that there are very few political-type issues that are so black-and-white there’s no room for argument (with the exception of what you mentioned, in terms of ignorant loathing towards people who have a different skin color, sexual preference, etc.). Thanks for sharing your experiences and being so real with your thoughts and ideas. Love you.

  7. I wanted to say something, thought of it in the car the other day..

    “there may not be hope for all of humanity, but there is hope for you and those whom you will come in contact with”

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