The Colgate Scene ON-LINE

A longing for the primal condition

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by Ted Kerasote ’72

In this prologue to his third book, Heart of Home, Kerasote sets the stage upon which a crucial question is posed: is home a place, a state of mind or a way of participating in the world?

Ever since Izaak Walton published The Compleat Angler, or the Contemplative Man’s Recreation in 1653, fishing, or at least fly-fishing for trout, has been seen as a gentle pursuit, a balm for the harried soul, a retreat from the worlds of commerce and politics.


No doubt this is why CEOs the world over have adopted it, and companies like Orvis have made the selling of flies and elegant rods to well-heeled men and women into a multimillion-dollar business. When the going gets rough, you can take Prozac or buy a fly rod.

But who said it better than Walton himself? Anglers, wrote the ironmonger turned fishing writer, "enjoy what the other possess and enjoy not, for Anglers, and meek, quiet-spirited men, are free from those high, those restless thoughts, which corrode the sweets of life; and they, and they only, can say, as the Poet has happily expressed it: —

"Hail! blest estate of lowliness!
Happy enjoyments of such minds,
As, rich in self-contentedness,
Can, like the reeds in roughest winds,
By yielding make that blow but small
At which proud oaks and cedars fall"
The Chinese poet Lao-tzu wrote more eloquently about "going with the flow," but Walton sold more copies. In fact, no book other than the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer has been more often reprinted.

Hunting has not fared as well, even back in the times before "animal rights" became a household term. Montaigne, writing in 1578, fifteen years before the father of angling was born, said, "For myself, I have not even been able without distress to see pursued and killed an innocent animal which is defenseless and which does us no harm." Trout, even by such sensitive souls as Montaigne, were not cut such slack.

In the 400 years since Walton and Montaigne wrote, perceptions of fishing and hunting haven’t changed all that much. Indeed, the authors of a 1994 study called Attitudes of the Uncommitted Public Toward Wildlife Management might just as well have gone directly to Walton and Montaigne and saved the wildlife agencies their money.

When the pollsters asked "the uncommitted public" in St. Louis, Atlanta, Phoenix, and Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to compare fishing and hunting, they found that fishing was thought more benign, serene, and family-oriented; that fishing included more women and the elderly; and that it was considered less violent.


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Bull elk

"Fish in a bucket," said the public, "were less upsetting than a deer in the back of a pickup." In addition, fish were seen as lower species than mammals or birds, and fish made the decision to be caught, plus you could release them. They were cold-blooded, everyone agreed, and therefore easier to kill than warm-blooded animals and birds. As one person from New Jersey put it, "You can’t look a fish in the eyes."

Opinions about anglers and hunters themselves were just as one-sided. Anglers were seen as "caring, artistic, and patient." They were "kind" individuals, immersed in family values, not half as macho as hunters, and they were "philosophers." Hunters, almost universally, were seen as "beer-drinking, redneck" people who "wore camouflage to work for a week."

This is not earthshaking news. It only puts words to the numbers. In the United States and Canada about 17 million people hunt. Thirty-six million people fish (this doesn’t include children, who don’t have to buy a license, and whose participation raises the fishing population to between 40 and 60 million individuals, depending on whose numbers you want to believe). Worldwide, the pattern is similar, with greater participation in and approval of fishing and smaller participation in and disapproval of or uneasiness about hunting.

When you consider that few of us go about the messy business of catching or growing our daily food, such attitudes about fishing and hunting aren’t all that surprising. Removed from strong and original sentiments, we shrink at the sight of blood. Yet if the popularity of nature documentaries and adventure travel are any testament, we still long for a taste of our primal condition. It should be little wonder that the rise in popularity of catch-and-release fishing matches the rise in consumption of decaffeinated coffee in developed nations. In the case of fishing, you get the smell, the taste, and a bit of the buzz of the real thing — being a predator and touching the mystery of life’s departure — without all the unpleasant side effects: a bloody carcass and an actual death on your hands.

The essays in this book come in both decaf and regular varieties, and reflect the communal sentiment about fishing and hunting. 

I have had some very funny times fishing and have enjoyed writing about them in a lighthearted way. All my hunting stories turn out more serious. Maybe this is because we tolerate, even love, a jokester and bumbler with fly rod in hand. Often we have been that very person, snapping off flies, falling in the river, hopelessly clumsy but having a wonderful time. Comedians with guns, we lock up.

When these essays do turn serious, whether they’re about fishing or hunting, they often deal with the same subject treated by the first storytellers of fishing and hunting, the shamans throwing fat on the fire, and the cave painters in their dark tunnels, propitiating the souls of animals with ocher: Which of the deaths that we cause are okay and which are not?


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Bison before the Tetons

Until recently hunter-gatherer societies enforced the okay/not okay rule with taboos, like not mixing the blood of land and sea animals, not sleeping with your spouse before you went off hunting, and apologizing to the animal you were about to kill, literally asking for its life to feed your family. And though the rules of the hunter-gatherers were strict, they were evenhanded, not discriminating against any one group of hunters.


By contrast, monarchical societies, particularly in Europe, evolved codes of sportsmanship to guide the nobility’s behavior toward wildlife. In the process, the common hunter was disenfranchised. A king or queen — killing a stag to the accompaniment of hounds and heralds, and nicely putting a farewell sprig of evergreen in its mouth — became the hero of a minstrel’s song. If caught killing the same deer, even to feed his family, a commoner had his ears cut off, or could be executed. Robin Hood was the most famous of these poacher-heroes who waged war against what was correctly perceived as grand larceny: Wildlife, once held in common, had become the property of the few. Today, in Europe, huntable wildlife remains the property of the wealthy.

The United States, with its values of self-sufficiency and democracy, institutionalized what Robin Hood fought for. Mixing European sporting customs with frontier and hunter-gatherer traditions, it made wildlife "owned" by the people, capable of being slain by anyone of age and under certain well-defined circumstances, which often included a degree of seasonal pageantry, the fall hunt. Canada, even though part of the Commonwealth, followed suit, creating a continent-wide body of wildlife laws that, far removed from shamanistic times, still tries to answer the nagging question of the women and men who sifted bones through campfires: How do we kill animals and make their deaths okay? We may use a computer model instead of ashes to predict when and which species we may hunt, but some of the intent is the same: elk and geese may be rightfully killed only in season; bald eagles can no longer be killed at all. The species, the date, even a few yards (inside or outside a national park), make a difference.

When it comes to telling the stories of fishing and hunting in North America, the continent’s writers, by and large, have followed the halcyon tradition of Walton, praising the peace to be found in nature and the healthful merits of a life lived in the outdoors. Only occasionally have writers turned to the older shamanistic tradition of discussing those deaths that can be allowed and those that cannot. Politics, however, has finally caught up with outdoor literature, forcing more and more of us who ply the trade of nature writing to turn to the uncomfortable issues of equity and fairness, and of what happens to sport when one decides to go beyond codes of sportsmanship.

The following essays begin with Walton’s tradition and quickly find the path of disquieting questions and slippery answers. Is "playing" cold-blooded fish ("tormenting" is the term used by animal rightists) and calling it "sport" something that we want to do if fish really feel pain? Is the old way of catching, killing, and eating fish the more moral thing to do? How about killing warm-blooded deer, barbecuing their steaks, and putting their antlers over our hearths? In the age of the supermarket, is this legitimate subsistence hunting and an appropriate form of honor . . . or barbarism? Can urban people, who see wildlife infrequently, participate in such activities?


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Ted and Tessa, cutting firewood

Those of us who need clear-cut, legally enforced responses to some of these issues — as do the far left of the animal welfare movement, which wants to eradicate all fishing and hunting, and the far right of the hunting community, which wants to circle the wagons and defend all of it — may not find much value in the questions these stories pose, full as they are of paradox and ambiguity, and the annoying trait of otherwise reasonable individuals to swerve in their habits: to be vegetarians who wear leather boots, to be committed hunters who will kill an elk but who won’t shoot a bear, to be anglers who will play a trout to within an inch of its life but who condemn their neighbor for the deer she kills with one shot.


About such inconsistencies, I have no better advice than that given by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. "Love the questions themselves," he said. "Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."

In living out the questions generated by fishing and hunting — living them out attentively, constantly, and with care and compassion — one also discovers an unforseen reward: escape. Just as Izaak Walton found angling a refuge from the civil war of his era, those of us who participate in the cycles of nature through fishing, hunting, or just walking through the outdoors, can find succor from the serial wars and environmental degradation of ours. Not that any of us should think that if we leave for some pristine river or mountain range that our problems will go away. Instead, after we have done what we can do in our home places — gone to the public meetings and to the ballot box, written letters to our political representatives, and contributed to organizations that preserve habitat and lobby for wildlife — we still need to participate, to plunge our hands into the consonant and sometimes poignant beauty, the authentic living and dying, that remain on the planet.

It’s not a perfect world, but it does have its moments of sublime music. These are the lyrics I’ve put to the songs, and a few of the questions I continue to ask.

Ted Kerasote has written about nature and outdoor recreation for a wide variety of publications. He has traveled the world; in 1993 his Bloodties was named best book of the year by the Outdoor Writers Association of America and he is the 1997 Conservation Communicator of the Year, an award presented by the Wyoming Wildlife Federation.

Heart of Home was published by Villard in December, and auto-graphed, first edition copies are available from Kerasote Books, Box 100, Kelly, Wyoming 83011; $25.95, shipping included.