The Enduring Relevance of Man's First Try at Life: Hunting Viewed from the Escarpment of History

By Shane P. Mahoney
Chief of Wildlife Ecosystem Research
Newfoundland and Labrador Wildlife Division

Editor's Note: The following was given as the keynote address at the Premier's Symposium on North Americans' Hunting Heritage, August 2000.

Thank you very much for the introduction. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the individuals who made it possible for me to get here and for having the dubious wisdom of inviting me to perform the role I have been assigned. I would also like to welcome particularly all of the attendees fro the United States. It is a salient fact that without the cooperation at a North America wide level, we would never have collectively attained the successes in conservation we have. This conservation, not only of wildlife, but of wilderness and the many traditions embodied in our enjoyment of these rare treasures, is largely a legacy of our own making.

It is also true, I think, that we have suffered at times from insufficient dialogue between our two nations with respect to wildlife conservation. We need to make greater efforts to learn from one another, because the pressures on wildlife increase constantly, a fact which makes their beauty and wonder ever greater. It will demand the best of all of us to ensure that for another 100 years we may see wild creatures move across landscapes that are unspoiled.

So, I welcome everyone. I'm very honoured to be sharing the podium with Dr. Valerius Geist and Dr. Florence Shepard. While they will both deal with specific items of importance to what we undertake here, I will try to provide with these few overview comments some kind of setting, or matrix, conceptually, for what we are about.

There can be many purposes and much achievement in the gathering of human beings, as we bring to such assemblies a long line of developed abilities and talent. Not for nothing did we gather by firesides for millennia, mumbling our ideas to star lit skies! Indeed, for every challenge that faces us we ultimately have only one real way out, and that is through the communicable application of intellect and passion. There are no magic solutions otherwise to the challenges that face us with respect to hunting and wildlife conservation. Nor are there any magic solutions to any other human problem, challenge or endeavour. It is only through the commitment of the mind, the heart and the soul that great progress is realized, whether it is in the name of humanity or in the name of wildlife.

We come here with several objectives in mind. It is important we keep focused on these because it is vitally important that such gatherings continue to make progress. It is insufficient for us to come together, talk, and disappear. We are involved in what is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity - if not the greatest - and that is, how to conserve the natural world. And, let us not forget, that it is also about how to conserve human culture and human cultural diversity. Man is not some barnacle riding on this planet. We emerged from its core no differently than the butterfly or the rhinoceros. We have every right to engage this issue and to play a role in its outcome. We also have every responsibility.

We come here to deal with questions concerning the image of this undertaking known as hunting. We come here in the hope of fostering greater cooperation amongst all who are interested in conservation. And conservation, I will assume, , is the ultimate goal of all of us gathered here. We also hope that out of our discussions will come a continued support for management of the natural world that is based on science. However it cannot be based on science alone. Our conservation approach must reflect the certainty that our best understandings are imperfect and that the actions we take, no matter how assertive, are always fraught with danger. We cannot afford to make mistakes with wildlife. It is absolutely too precious; it resonates too deeply; and is too profound a force, too totemic, relative to who we are.

I must add that we should never become complacent, nor believe that we cannot lose this legacy. Many of you are well aware of the great collapse that took place in the Northwest Atlantic ecosystem recently, with the decline of cod stocks. As we remember that all world fisheries are hunts (they simply chase the cold-blooded fish), we should reflect on how we lost our conservation fight in this instance, despite the social, economic, cultural and political importance of the resource. This industry and cultural mainstay has been in existence for 500 years. We might remember that the North American conservation movement is only 120 years old!

I deliberately chose the matter of relevance for my presentation because the debate over hunting has for too long focused on a point of legitimacy, a point of whether it is defensible, whether it is appropriate, whether it is even right. And that debate has proceeded not only between ourselves and others, but also within our own ranks. I say enough of this. Let us concentrate instead on the complex reasons for hunting's continuing presence in a world where the killing of one's own food is not essential. Let us not be afraid of the subtleties that reside here, because we must mystify this debate, not dumb it down That is absolutely the wrong thing to do, and it is what we have been doing for far too long. We must avoid the easy rationales and strike to the core of our motivations and intelligence in this matter. This is the only way forward. And so, I believe relevance is what we should be talking about. Relevance will both allow, and hopefully, force u s to be specific in a way that pursuing the vapourish notion of right never will.

When do we begin this search for relevance? Let us look at the evolution of man. Our brief survey commences at the time of the Australopithecines (approximately 5 million years ago), on through the appearance of Homo habilis (2.5 million to 2.3 million years ago), to Homo erectus (1.6 million years ago), and the appearance of modern man less than 0.5 million years ago; all emerging from the great cradle of humanity - Africa. We are all ultimately out of Africa, a ponderous challenge to the many evaded questions of social justice, I would assume. If we look at this long canal of evolutionary time and yet realize that only 15,000 or maybe 30,000 years ago we reached the North American continent, we must marvel at the uniqueness of our own species' history and fate.

This is even more true if we think about all that has transpired in the short time since, and about what being human really means. Think about the perfection of bipedalism, the great development of the brain and its tremendous capacity for technological innovation, and the wondrous, magical spheres of linguistics, art and religion. Think about the great capacity for social innovation, and for cooperation. Think about the seemingly infinite capacity to adjust, to adapt and spread out, and to conquer every single biome, every climatic zone. Herein we realize that all was being forged in the one great crucible, the great pageant of energy flow and mass transformation, of creation and destruction. in this manner we come to understand how we carry yet (and for ever more) the imprint, the great lingering shadow of what made us who and what we are.

It is my belief, that no single force more strongly influenced human physical and cultural development than did hunting. Still we must ask ourselves how does something retain relevance when it is no longer essential? This, after all, is one of the focal arguments in the anti-hunting debate. Because it is no longer essential, hunting is therefore suggested to be insignificant and wasteful. It is on this point that I disagree. As the Hebrews and Greeks began their great dialogues that eventually separated us from the lifestyle that gave birth to the egalitarianism we all seek, societies began to coalesce into city-states and eventually into nations, creating as they did class structures and divisions. These nations then continuously pounded one another, raiding for stores and the defensible resources of women, slave labour, food, horses, land and water. Even during this transition, as great as any in human history hunting did not become irrelevant. It may not any longer have been essential but its continuing relevance was espied by the dialogues of the common man and the genius alike.

In evidence of this, Plato took a very clear position on hunting. He argued that it should be maintained as an elitist activity, exclusively an indulgence of the military; the common man should be excluded. Regardless of our disagreement with his position (and the drift presently towards elitism), the important point is that hunting was a subject worthy of the great man's attention. Hunting remained relevant, even in them midst of the new, great, and agriculturally based cultures of the first city-states. Throughout Europe and Asia, wildlife, even when it was no longer an essential pursuit for food, became the idealized pursuit of the wealthy and the powerful. And they took to themselves the great treasure of hunting and let the common man - well, let him till the fields, for we will chase the stag, they said. And by that means we will demonstrate our glory, our great mythical presence amongst men of our day. Was hunting irrelevant? No, it became iconic! Henry the VIII, like other monarchs before and after him, sought in the hunt an expression of realism that did not occur otherwise in life. Relevance had clearly surpassed essentialness.

And in North America - was hunting ever irrelevant in North America? Certainly it was not irrelevant to the first people who settled here. Nor was it irrelevant to the process of conservation that was eventually instituted. In the course of the wildlife conservation movement we have witnessed two revolutions; and I propose we are in the midst of the third. In each of these, hunting has been at the forefront. As hunters we are not alone, of course. There were many who were opposed to hunting, or who did not hunt, who also challenged the slaughter of wildlife and who played major roles. But even to these individuals, hunting was not irrelevant; they condemned it because of its significance. And certainly hunting was of great relevance to Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, George Bird Grinnell, Sir Wilfred Laurier and Gordon Hewitt, the founding fathers of North American conservation. Furthermore, hunting was certainly not irrelevant in the revolution of the Leopold era, when a scientific understanding of wildlife was enshrined and a land ethic proposed. And hunting is certainly not irrelevant today. As proof of this we have us together to discuss its past, present and future.

Hunting has remained relevant through all time because, about this, we do not really have any choice. It resonates - just as matters of justice, freedom and equality resonate. And, as noted earlier, hunting's relevance applies with equal force to antithetical positions. Yet there is much confusion. Many people seem to have developed the idea that wilderness, for example, and hunting, should not be connected. Yet Roosevelt, Grinnell and the entire company of the Boone and Crockett Club, founded in 1887, saw wilderness as essential to the truest form of hunting, where man was tested most fully in his evolved capacities. But what of how we feel? What does hunting really mean to us? Slowly this debate is beginning to embrace the sensitive issues of spirituality and to move away from the leaden, methodological statement that I hunt because I like my buddies. You know, we're finally realizing that these sophistries just don't cut it any more...even with our supporters. This enforced maturation of our philosophy and style is crucial if hunting is to remain relevant to enough people to ensure its retention and recruitment. Remember that it is not notoriety that will kill hunting; or real foe is irrelevance.

Hunting is one of the very few activities that makes death relevant. Hunting is one of the very few activities that we can celebrate when we fail. And while I have argued repeatedly that hunting should be extolled as a profoundly spiritual experience, it is now time to move the debate even further. That is correct; we should describe it even more abstractly. The reason is because when we hunt we move through the spiritual experience back and forth to a physicality that re-establishes us once again within nature. In other words, we move from an activity that launches our evolved senses outward to the domain in which they emerged, onward to a spiritual domain where our great and original capacity for abstraction began, and then back to a physicality again.

This cascading circularity of experience is the principal primitiveness of encounter that separates the world view of a hunter from the world view of a preservationist anti-hunter. The final re-completion of this circle of connectedness is only attained through the act of conscious, lethal interaction. This may be as uncomfortable to hear, as it is to say. Let me be clear that none of us are suggesting a return to the kind of hunter-gatherer lifestyle. We recognize that these things have changed and they have changed forever. But we should not deny the world the opportunity to hear voices that are able, however falteringly, to articulate what the soul, mind and physical union of hunting is. It is beyond question the oldest, the first, the formative, the embryonic, the onto-genetic start of our unyielding, complex love affair with wildlife. It is a fulcrum contradiction in the human psyche...a passion engendered out of an essential life and death struggle. And for these reasons, embodied in the treasures of Lascaux, along with the great miracles of experience that every human being has had in wild places hunting wild animals, we ought to articulate our hunter's view for the world, ensuring it remains a living part of human drama and debate. That is how we keep hunting relevant.

I cannot help but feel this way because, with the exception of very few in this room, I was uniquely blessed to have been born and raised in a hunter-gatherer society. Newfoundland society up until a very short time ago was essentially that. We hunted the sea relentlessly for 500 years and out of that existence there emerged a society that any nation in the world would give every treasure it had to attain. And my bias should only be proof to you that what I say is true. We were a nation, and remain so, of people who knew the true meaning of cooperation and who understood what it meant to be part of natural rhythms and to be unconcerned for those things which seem to preoccupy the world now. And that view of life is what every human being in this room seeks for themselves. It is what every nation, what every state, every province, every race, what every tribe seeks. I gained insight into an existence stretching back through countless millennia and beyond simply by watching the men and women who carved their lives from the land and the ocean where I was born. It will forever hold me steadfast in my belief in the relevance of hunting, not only because of its formative influence on us as human beings, but also because of its pervasive capacity to make us better human beings that we would otherwise be.

To articulate this passion, and resolve ourselves to maintaining hunting's relevance we require an increased intellectualization of both the form and substance of our debates. For in truth, great love comes from great knowledge of the thing loved - so wrote Leonardo da Vinci. Each of us is challenged to understand better after the next three days what hunting is about and what our role in preserving it must be. I ask you to remember two things. One is that hunting retains its relevance just as surely as a piece of pure crystal retains its brilliance no matter how tightly enclosed. The second is that every human being in the room, and in every other meeting like it, has undertaken a sacred responsibility to conserve not only nature but the great lasting value of mankind. Hunting is a means to both ends.

About the Author: Born and raised in Newfoundland, Shane is a biologist and writer, and is known internationally as a lecturer on environmental and resource conservation initiatives. He is currently working on a Ph.D. at the University of Calgary. He has published in a broad spectrum of scientific journals, including Ibis, The Canadian Journal of Zoology, Wilson Bulletin, Alces, The Journal of Wildlife Management, Forest Ecology and Management, Rangifer, and The Journal of Molecular Ecology. Shane is also a frequent contributor to radio arts programs and his works have been aired regionally, nationally and internationally. These writings reflect a deep personal commitment to understanding man's place in nature and are drawn from his own experiences. His works have been recognized through such awards as the 1996 Gabriel Award, 1997 Best Wildlife Film and the 1997 Best Conservation Film. He is a committed hunter and lectures widely in the United States and Canada on the future of hunting and the role that hunters have played in conserving our wildlife legacy. He has suggested widely that a deep understanding of man's lethal interactions with nature and a more profound appreciation of the miracle of conservation through wise use must be developed, if we are to safeguard the future of these cherished traditions.


This article was taken from pages 8-12 of NOTO's "The Outfitter" publication, Spring 2001 Issue

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