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Call of the Wild? : A HUNTER'S HEART: Honest Essays on Blood Sport. Edited by David Petersen (Henry Holt: $25, 331 pp.)

August 25, 1996|John Balzar | John Balzar is a Times national correspondent and contributing writer to Book Review

Once I wrote a first-hand account of Arctic Eskimos, their hunting rituals and the killing of a whale. An earnest reader responded immediately with a letter expressing the intent to kill me.

"This is more warning than the whale got," the writer said.

Almost all my experiences with hunters and anti-hunters have been along this line.

Even thoughtful people tend to arrive at their ideas about hunting viscerally. We are against it or we are for it, and raising the subject in mixed company is provocation.

So here's a toast to a real upstream swimmer, David Petersen, for this splendid, invigorating and probably futile attempt to enrich all of us, no matter what our dead reckonings about hunting.

Can he and some of the marquee essayists collected in this anthology, such as Edward Abbey, Thomas McGuane, Jimmy Carter, Jim Harrison and Barry Lopez, begin to pry open some stray minds for serious contemplation about humans and the hunt? Maybe. You won't find a more noble attempt.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 1, 1996 Home Edition Book Review Page 2 Book Review Desk 2 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
"Hunter's Heart"--In an Aug. 25 review of "Hunter's Heart," the reviewer erred in describing the reasons two editors from Outdoor Life resigned their positions. The two quit in protest when an executive of the magazine withdrew scheduled publication of an essay from the book. The essay was critical of using chase dogs and baiting bears as a form of hunting.

This is not a collection of outdoor magazine-style trophy-hunting adventures nor is it necessarily advocacy for hunting. In fact, one essayist, Colorado biologist and hunter Tom Beck, writes an appeal against the practice of hunting bears using bait. At Outdoor Life magazine, two editors resigned in protest against excerpting this essay, arguing it was timid and anti-hunting.

Instead, this book is a search into the hunter's motives, the sometimes mystic connection between hunter and food and, more fundamentally, an inquiry into our society's lost tethers to the natural world.

A tone is set early with the essay "Blood Sport" by Abbey: "Hunting is one of the hardest things even to think about. Such a storm of conflicting emotions!"

Editor Petersen notes that this is one of the few times in a distinguished writing career that Abbey, the iconoclastic and defining environmentalist, ever used an exclamation point. "We can safely assume that he meant it."

Petersen is a Colorado outdoorsman and writer, also a hunter. His 40 essayists are philosophers and naturalists, mostly men but a few women, and their hands have been bloodied too, or at least they've not turned away in revulsion at the crack of the rifle.

But, by degrees, these writers accept the age in which they live--an age that has come to doubt the hunter.

So, these writers choose their questions thoughtfully:

For instance, is there "ethical" hunting?

Is the hunter more organically connected to the world than people who order meat from the menu, putting out of mind the feed pen and slaughterhouse?

Does hunting awaken an otherwise fading appreciation for how we humans, like all organisms, are nourished, inescapably, by rhythms of life and death? Why else would traditional cultures feel bound to express thanks to the animal they slay?

Or let's consider the cultural argument: We are, all of us, descended from long lines of hairy, hungry, ever-smarter hunters going back thousands of millenniums. Can anyone be so certain that the atavists of today can teach us nothing of value?

"Hunting creates an acute awareness of being sustained by the plants and animals who necessarily die to feed us," writes anthropologist Richard Nelson.

Granted, most non-hunters do not wish to contemplate this dependency. Craig Medred, outdoor editor for the Anchorage Daily News, writes about sending his daughter to kindergarten with a venison sandwich, a food she was born to. But even in Alaska, she is immediately ostracized by "the great, urban homogeneity that crosses all class and ethnic lines in America."

"Can I have a peanut butter sandwich tomorrow?" the girl asks.

In their own interests, modern hunters are both victimizers and victims. Drunken hayseeds screeching down country roads with rifles and hubris bristling out windows of four-wheel drives have done much to stereotype the hunter for the worse.

At the same time, hunters as a group have found themselves increasingly estranged from the environmental movement, even though they are the original American preservationists. Instead their cause has been taken up by crusaders with other controversial agendas, such as the Sagebrush Rebellion-Wise Use anti-government zealots and the machine-gun freaks with the Washington lobbyists.

In this volume, hunters do not fire back directly. Here, the very best among them start the kindling in the campfire, rock back on their heels and, as the title suggests, open their hearts.

"You will wonder, maybe, how it is that a person can both appreciate wild, living things and kill them, too. I see your dilemma and I've faced this question before," writes Pete Dunn, a conservationist and bird watcher with the New Jersey Audubon Society.

". . . And there is an answer, if you'll have it, albeit an imperfect one. Think of the natural world as a great play, an incredible drama held on a world stage in which all living things play a part. When I carry binoculars, I stand with the audience, an omniscient observer to all that goes on around me, and I enjoy this very much. But when I carry a gun, I become an actor, become part of the play itself. This I relish, too."

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