Hunting and the “Honorable Harvest”

(I wrote the following as I was working on a book on mindfulness in nature that is now in the editorial process at Texas A&M University Press. I wound up not using it, but I do think it has some useful things to say.)

Before there was agriculture there was hunting and fishing, and there are still communities whose food primarily comes from the fish they can catch and animals they hunt. For many other people, hunting and fishing are not necessary for subsistence but are activities that provide a break from everyday life and an opportunity to spend time in nature. While the number of sport hunters may be falling, in Texas there were 1.25 million hunting licenses issued in 2017,1 and ranchers still make money off deer leases. Fishing and hunting can reflect a very wide range of motivations, attitudes, and relationships with the natural world. As a result, hunting in particular elicits a polarized range of views. A 2014 nationwide survey of U.S. residents found that 87% of respondents agreed with hunting as a way of obtaining food, but only 37% agreed that trophy hunting was acceptable.2

Catching fish and hunting game can be done sustainably and honorably, according to a set of informal guidelines drawn from Native American beliefs and practices. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes the Honorable Harvest as guidelines that are not written down but are simply acted upon in daily life. Her listing of the guidelines is as follows:

“Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them. Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life. Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer. Never take the first. Never take the last. Take only what you need. Take only that which is given. Never take more than half. Leave some for others. Harvest in a way that minimizes harm. Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken. Share. Give thanks for what you have been given. Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken. Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2013, Braiding Sweetgrass, P. 183

Imagine if these ideas of the Honorable Harvest were printed within each year’s Outdoor Annual, published by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, to promote a sustainable and respectful harvest in which each angler or hunter comes into the field as a member of a community, rather than as a stranger with neither kinship nor responsibility to that community.

Many already approach these activities with a strong emphasis on respect and sustainability, including many middle-aged and older hunters. An example is Brad Chambers, a friend who is a naturalist and a hunter who only shoots what he plans to eat. He told me about the intensity of his attention and focus when he is hunting, saying that at those times he notices much more than when he is just walking in the woods. While in a blind with his binoculars he’s watching all the wildlife, not just game species. Brad, who shares my interest in reptiles, remembered a time he was sitting very quietly on a log while hunting. A brightly-ringed coralsnake emerged from that very log and foraged for food while Brad no doubt sat in amazement and delight. Coralsnakes are secretive and shy, and an opportunity to watch one in this way is a rare treat.

Harry Greene is another hunter, also a retired professor and acclaimed author and researcher, who thoughtfully explores the implications of being a “born-again predator” in a chapter of his book, Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art (2013, University of California Press) He came to subsistence hunting during retirement after studying rattlesnakes and other predators during a long career in the field. Spending hours in a blind near a pond in central Texas, carefully waiting for an opportunity for a shot that will kill a deer quickly and with minimal suffering, he thought of the ambush predators he has studied. “Can I be as effective as the natural-born killers who have long held my interest, let alone carry out the task with equal grace?” (Pp.106-107). To be an omnivore – to eat meat at least sometimes – involves either subsidizing an industrial meat production that Greene finds repulsive or else taking on the role of predator. 

Now we have a younger generation of hunters who may not have grown up in hunting families and might at first have had no interest in hunting. Like Harry Greene, many of them are deeply concerned about industrial meat production, with its antibiotics, crowding of livestock, pollution of nearby land and water, and the energy required to transport animals for processing and then shipping of products.3 For them, it is more environmentally friendly and healthier to eat what they hunt. And these hunters, like some in the older generation, are likely to have a close connection to the land, appreciating and caring for the whole community of plants and animals, not just the game that they hope to bring home. Perhaps they will be among those who carry on the tradition of the Honorable Harvest.

1 Thompkins, S. There’s Safety in Numbers for Texas’ Hunters. San Antonio Express-News. (accessed 10/29/20)

2 Byrd, E., Lee, J.G., & N.J.O. Widmar. 2017. Perceptions of Hunting and Hunters by U.S. Respondents. Animals, 7(11), 83.

3 Kuipers, D. 2020. Field to Fork. Orion, Vol.39 No.3, Pp. 30-35.

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