The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Do hunters appreciate nature more deeply?

Woolly aphidThere's so much to talk about in chapters 11 and 12 of Walden that I'm not quite sure where to focus my energy.  I could take the easy way out and write about chapter 12, how the mouse that Thoreau befriended is like the tree frog that lives beside our spigot and the phoebes we watch heading into the barn with bugs for their chicks.  Or I could go in the opposite direction and tear apart Thoreau's belief that "all sensuality is one; all purity is one", by which he means that in order to be spiritually pure, we have to mortify our senses with plain food and drink and complete chastity.

But I'll instead take the middle road and write about a tangential topic that I found more interesting:

Butterflies on clover"...when some of my friends have asked me anxiously about their boys, whether they should let them hunt, I have answered, yes, --- remembering that it was one of the best parts of my education --- make them hunters..."

"We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected.  This was my answer with respect to those youths who were bent on this pursuit, trusting that they would soon outgrow it."

Honeybees on thymeIn fact, Thoreau believed that he owed his own deep appreciation of nature to a boyhood spent with a gun in his hands.  He wrote that hunting and fishing "early introduce us to, and detain us in a scenery with which otherwise, at that age, we should have little acquaintance."

Long-time readers of the blog will know that I've gone through an extensive series of thought processes about hunting.  When I was in elementary school and lived on my parents' farm, our closest neighbor would go out and kill turkeys and deer, and we kids would vilify him for it, calling him Gargamel.  (Gargamel is the evil enemy of the smurfs, in case you didn't watch the same cartoons I did as a child.)

Flea beetleSoon after college, I spent a few years wandering around peoples' land telling them what plants and animals they had, and I began to realize that the hunters I bumped into were (usually) more in tune with the wild areas than the city folks who came out to enjoy my interpretive hikes.  The latter liked the easy and fun ecological stories, but the hunters had a deeper appreciation for the entirety of the ecosystem, along with a vested interest in the land that made them want to protect it.  (I also decided that hunting was an excuse for macho men to spend time looking at butterflies and flowers without being deemed sissies, but that's not as relevant to this post.)

Honeybee on cloverYears later, I learned to kill, gut, and cook deer that wandered into our garden.  I slowly morphed from being a pure preservationist who believed that the best thing humans could do to nature is to fence it off and leave it alone, to a permaculturalist who believes that humans are a part of nature --- still bound to protect it, but from within, not from without.  In the process, I felt like I developed a deeper appreciation for wild things, and an acceptance that nature doesn't have to resemble a museum-perfect painting to be valid.

While those epiphanies probably would have come anyway if I'd never picked up a gun, I suspect that Thoreau is right that hunting can help speed the nature appreciation process along.  What do you think?  Would you rather have Junior playing video games on the weekend, or out hunting squirrels on the back forty?  Is nature better appreciated from within, or from without?
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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I completely agree with your observation that humans are apart of nature. From that perspective, we have to consider nature from within. We are part of the ecosystems in which we live whether we acknowledge it or not. We get into trouble when we do not acknowledge the consequences of our actions to the environment around us. I think it is the blinding and isolating effects of "modern" society that allows humans to pretend to live outside of nature in our artificial environments. That is when we cause the most harm to nature through our own ignorance of the debilitating consequences of our activities.

Comment by Chris L Mon Jun 11 21:46:34 2012

I agree with your thoughts here. I think that "usually" hunters are more apt to be into nature, protecting and observing it. There are always exceptions, but as a whole I know the people I know that hunt are far more likely to know about and enjoy nature than those I know that do not hunt.

Even though my wife as an extreme discomfort with guns, I plan on making sure my son learns to hunt, fish, and enjoy nature even more than he already does at the age of 4.

Hunting > Video Games = 100% of the time.

Comment by Jason Wed Jun 13 12:50:49 2012

Chris --- I couldn't agree more, especially to your point that modern society's isolation from nature is what allows us to pretend we're not part of the ecosystem. I think that factor is in large part responsible for environmental degradation caused by well-meaning people who wouldn't dream of personally causing those problems. After writing this post, I decided that any method of partnering with nature will help work our way out of that trap as long as you use few enough modern conveniences that you're really immersing yourself in nature. For example, gardening with hand tools is probably every bit as eye-opening as hunting. Raising and killing our own chickens was probably more so since we wielded the knife rather than killing at a distance.

Jason --- I had an extreme discomfort with guns too, and now wish I'd had more experience with them growing up. I think you're on the right track with your plans for your son.

Comment by anna Wed Jun 13 16:07:23 2012

All the hunters I know aren't that interested in ecosystems or appreciating nature. They want to kill things. They enjoy their trophy game and want good meat. Of the people I know, all of those who are knowledgeable about anything other than certain specific species (i.e. deer, turkey, etc.) are hikers, farmers, and gardeners. Those who are out in nature and specifically trying not to be destructive. I have many hunters in my family, and many of my coworkers are hunters. They do not have an appreciation for nature (not that they ever indicate to me, anyway.) I think being in nature is what gives people an appreciation for nature. If others see that hunters have a greater appreciation for nature, it is probably because they are out of their houses and paying attention to it, not because they have a gun or bow in their hands.

Comment by Angela Wed Jun 13 19:22:52 2012

But to be out in nature does not require hunting. I spent most of my childhood in the woods making forts, building paths, collecting plants, playing pretend with my siblings and the like. I've never been much for harming other animals. My dad has tried to get me hunting and the few times I've gone out I could never fire my gun.

I think the correct argument would be: people that are exposed to nature appreciate nature more deeply. and be people that are only exposed to a man made artificial reality don't appreciate nature as deeply.

Comment by Jeff Wed Jun 13 19:42:55 2012
Angela --- I'm not sure I've met many (any?) hunters who hunt primarily because they want to kill things. A lot of the ones I talk to are out for good meat, and some (fewer in our area, and they tend to be less in tune with the environment) are out for trophies. But many also just like having a constructive reason to spend time in the woods. Perhaps I just hang around with a more elite group of hunters....
Comment by anna Wed Jun 13 19:48:19 2012
Jeff --- I think there's a difference between being exposed to nature through, say, a meander through the woods, and being exposed to nature in a way that forces you to partner with nature. I'd argue that your fort-building, path-making, etc. made you partner with nature in a way that many modern nature-lovers don't. You had to learn about thorns and muddy ground and other problems, and to learn to benefit from them. Hunting, of course, isn't the only way to partner with nature, but it is one of the more mainstream methods.
Comment by anna Wed Jun 13 20:19:28 2012

I'm still far behind in my reading of Walden (personal life has kind of cut a large swath through my available reading time at the moment), but I felt that I still had something I wanted to contribute to this particular discussion. And that is that I completely disagree with Thoreau on this one! I have read of (including on this blog) hunters who are also close to nature: who enjoy their surroundings and understand that they are just one more cog in the ecosystem and truly appreciate the life that has given them sustanance. But most of the hunters I know of (and almost all of the ones I have had to deal with personally), are not nature lovers at all. They have mortally wounded dear and left them to wander around until they died in my yard; they have littered my pristine woods (well-marked with "no trespassing" and "no hunting" signs) with beer cans and scarred my trees building deer blinds, not to mention all of the guts they leave behind when they field dress their kill (at least the turkey vultures and other carrion eaters appreciate that, but it's still kind of a shock when one's out for a morning hike). Thanks to having a reporter for a father, I also met - quite early in childhood - several who had injured fellow hunters, including one who killed another hunter and, while in an inebriated state, dumped the body in a pond hoping it would sink and no one would ever find it.

My point is this: if you want someone to appreciate nature and understand that they are a part of it, put them out in nature. Sticking a bow or a gun in their hands while they're out there is no guarantee that they are going to come away from the experience as nature-lovers. Personally, I spent my childhood pretending to be a pioneer woman, running barefoot through the fields, streams, and woods all around our home. I got quite good at recognizing plants, insects, and birds, and could tell the time by the position of the sun. No one needs a gun in order to learn about the natural world.

Comment by Ikwig Wed Jun 13 21:54:10 2012

I agree with Jeff and also see Anna's point. It's being in nature and also interact with it: problem-solving using the dialogue of the forest (or mountains or plains or desert, etc.) is what creates a person who appreciates that dialogue. I think the main problem with hunters in this area is that, unlike where you live, my county is mostly suburban, and hunting often means sitting in a tree stand getting drunk waiting for a deer to happen by. I'm sure there are decent hunters in this area, as we do have many hunters, but I have yet to meet any of them.

Comment by Angela Wed Jun 13 22:09:09 2012

I do know some hunters who are in it for just trophies and meat, and I suppose at its core hunting is just about harvesting meat. But even those hunters I know enjoy just being out in nature for hours on end. And being a hunter, I never ever kill something just to kill things; most hunters would condemn that any day of the week. There are only two reasons I would ever kill an animal #1-for food, or #2-for protection of myself, my family, or my livestock (or garden if I had a problem there).

I understand that a lot of people hunt for amusement or sport, and I suppose I am okay with that so long as they use the meat or give it to someone who will. There is a hunter in my town who will kill multiple deer a year that he goes and gives to needy families, but he is actually just doing it for the trophy buck, with the charity as a by product.

All hunters have their own motivations I suppose, and i don't doubt that there are a lot of hunters out there that couldn't give a rip about nature. I just think the majority of them do. Just my opinion. :)

Comment by Jason Thu Jun 14 01:19:23 2012

I 110% agree that hunting is an important way for children and adults to gain a deeper appreciation for nature, the food chain, the cycle of life and even coming to terms with our own mortality.

I also think that wild edible foraging could easily fill that niche for people who don't like to hunt.

Comment by Everett Thu Jun 14 10:17:54 2012

Everybody --- I've been pondering the polar opposite views (which I expected, but which still managed to surprise me :-) ) and I suspect that we have a tendency to see what we expect to see. If we think hunters are good, then we ignore the ones who strew the beer cans around and just figure they're the bad minority. If we think hunters are bad, we ignore the ones who might as well have a PhD in ecosystem management and figure they're the exception that proves the rule. Who knows what the truth really is.... Like most things in life, hunting probably is what you make of it, different for every person.

Everett --- Excellent point about wildcrafting being the vegetarian alternative to hunting!

Comment by anna Thu Jun 14 16:42:46 2012
How would you rank your non hunting youth experiences with the natural world?
Comment by Errol Thu Jun 14 17:01:08 2012
I agree with Ikwig! Growing up in Boston in the 40s and 50s, and playing around ponds in Myles Standish State Forest Wild Bird Sanctuary or in South Weymouth, at Weymouth Great Pond or along railroad tracks, or in preserved woods behind schools, or along rivers, in empty lots, we never had guns. We imagined we were Indians, or, when I finally moved to SW Virginia, Ishi. I am opposed to many hunters who, to my way of thinking, misinterpret the Second Amendment. Nowadays, I feel that gun control is a necessity! I know that the ability to not get lost in the woods is also a necessity. And I respect the right of landowners to shoot deer on their own property. But the gun industry seems basically anti-envionment to me. It is a business.
Comment by adrianne Fri Jun 15 06:35:31 2012

Daddy --- I adored my childhood nature experiences. :-) When I first read your comment, I started to say that, on the negative side, I think my early experiences contributed to my youthful belief that we stand outside nature, but it's also possible that you can't develop a more in-depth understanding of preserving nature from within when you're very young. Regardless of that issue, I definitely got a good foundation in observation and appreciation, which were essential to my later efforts of working within nature. Definitely vastly preferable to video games. :-)

Mom --- I wasn't talking about the gun industry or gun regulation at all, but about the hunters themselves. Don't you think that Silas became very in tune with his world by going out hunting?

Comment by anna Fri Jun 15 07:26:48 2012

OK--No politics about the gun industry or gun control!

Some of Thoreau's hunter heroes may have been sons of those who fought in the Revolution in Concord and in Lexington! but I doubt he would have countenanced women hunters, altho I think pioneer women were expected to know how to hunt.

I yield, about Silas' hunting--tho his not being able to now only points to another group who don't have a chance to get out in the woods.

I do feel that following tracks in the woods, and understanding about being up-or downwind of the deer you are trailing, makes the woods more alive. I think young children should be taught about snakes, and what to do if they encounter a bear. Also what to do if stung, or how to watch out for poison ivy! I think there is a way to let raptors and probably your companion dog do the hunting for you.

Comment by adrianne Fri Jun 15 10:05:07 2012

Mom --- I don't think Thoreau thought much of (or about) women at all.... Of all of his anecdotes about people he came in contact with, I can't remember a single one about a woman.

I totally agree that tracking and learning about the dangers in the woods are good ways to immerse yourself in nature.

Comment by anna Fri Jun 15 20:09:10 2012


The Second Amendment has nothing to do with hunting but most hunters are ardent supporters of the 2nd. I support those who choose not to own guns, but it frustrates me greatly to hear those same people want to control me in my choice to own a gun. I don't expect you to acquire a permit in order to practice free speech. Can you imagine the outrage if Americans were told they needed to submit to background checks, be finger printed and convince the local PD or sheriff they had a legitimate "need" to practice free speech and post a reply here on Anna and Mark's blog? Or to practice your faith? If you choose not to exercise your Second Amendment right that's ok. It's your choice. But please do not keep me from exercising my rights.

Many of us marvel at the garden that Anna and Mark have there in Walden land and the food they provide for themselves and others by nurturing and the bounty nature provides. I see the deer, squirrel, rabbit, turkey and many other animals as PART of the bounty nature provides.

Not all hunters appreciate nature more than any other group of people. Some do. That's the thing, people ARE people and prone to suffer from the human condition. Pick any group of people in the world and you're bound to find bad apples.

Comment by Heath Fri Jun 29 14:25:20 2012

To be fair, it is REALLY difficult to kill someone with words. It's very easy to kill someone with a gun.

That being said, gun control is an issue where I have no idea what I really believe, but I basically believe in upholding the Constitution.

Comment by Angela Fri Jun 29 15:30:21 2012

You're correct. On the opposite side of that same coin, if you're confronted by a dirt bag who breaks into your home intent on no good are you going to be able to defend yourself better with words, or a gun?

The law abiding citizens, like me, are not those who are going to do harm to you with a firearm. It's the criminal element who has no regard for the law who will use them for evil. How many gun free zones at school, college campuses and malls have there been shootings where guns weren't permitted? Now how many shootings have there been at police stations, gun clubs, NRA conventions or gun shows?

If you're open to the subject, check the FBI stats for violent crime in the 50 states and major cities. Those cities with the strongest gun control laws have the most violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery) per capita. Those who support the 2nd Amendment routinely have the lowest violent crime rate per capita. Firearms, when used responsibly, can save lives and prevent violent crime.

Here where we live, I am in a rural area and closest law enforcement is 15 minutes or more away if we dial 911. In most cities it's more along the lines of 3 plus minutes to get a cop in front of your house. (Someone who is intent on doing harm can accomplish a lot in 3 minutes!!) The firearms in our home are to ensure that we will be alive to greet the sheriff when he gets to our door. I do not own firearms because I intend to kill someone, I own them because I intend to live.

Comment by Heath Fri Jun 29 16:30:14 2012

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