You are here: Home Homestead Living Culture Book Review: A Hunter's Confession, by David Carpenter Book Review: A Hunter's Confession, by David Carpenter by jsvk13 July 13, 2010, 12:22 pm Author’s Note: A free review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Greystone Books. Like all of their titles, the book was printed on acid-free, 100% post-consumer recycled paper without chlorine. To be perfectly candid and transparent, I must start this review by saying I am wholeheartedly opposed to hunting, for a variety of reasons. I have discussed in previous posts the ways in which hunters “trash” the environment, but I have also explored some of the ways they help to preserve it. Nonetheless, I have no love for hunting. Perhaps it was, as a young child, seeing my father’s friends dress a buck in the back of their pickup truck, in our driveway, that turned me off to hunting animals for any reason (food, goods, sport). More likely, it is my lifelong love of and respect for all animals and repugnance for the taking of life. So it was with great interest that I read David Carpenter’s A Hunter’s Confession, which wears its ambivalence to hunting on its sleeve on all levels. Carpenter, an English professor and writer of fiction and non-fiction, tries his hand at memoir-cum-confessional-cum-apologia in this book, tackling the long history of hunting and the love-hate relationship we have with it. Through recounting his own story of hunting and the moral qualms he felt in his pursuit of it, Carpenter seeks “to narrow the gap between those who did and those who didn’t, between those who speak well of hunters and those who disapprove of them. You might say I have one boot in the hunter’s camp and a Birkenstock* in the camp of the nonbeliever” (3). A-Hunting He Will Go As life-story and expose, A Hunter’s Confession begins with Carpenter’s first experiences of the tradition, which played such a key role in family bonding in his Canadian home. “Blasting away at unsuspecting wildlife,” he explains, “was almost the only ritual a father and son performed together. And we loved it” (13). We see him learning the trade and thrilling with the high-adrenaline adventure of pursuing wild creatures–and blasting, blasting away. The second chapter, “Skulking Through the Bushes,” moves from personal history to human history and the evolution of hunting in our species. Whereas we began as wandering gatherers of fruits, nuts, tubers, and grasses, eventually we learned to scavenge carrion in the wild and, with the development of tools several million years ago, to hunt living animals. As always, though, Carpenter is keenly interested in the moral implications that hunting and its history have for us. These coincide with the practical implications as well, specifically the consequences hunting (or lack thereof) can have on the environment. To this effect, he quotes approvingly the great American conservationist and hunter Aldo Leopold. Leopold argued that hunting has three benefits: it “reminds us of our distinctive national origins and evolution” (i.e., as hunter-gatherers), it reminds us of “our dependency on the soil-plant-animal-man food chain,” and it teaches us self-control and fair play in the ethical restraints of “sportsmanship” (55). The Thrill and the Agony of the Hunt While Carpenter makes a case for hunting’s benefits for human eco-consciousness, he also recognizes how the sport’s history is a divided one, between subsistence and sport (i.e., pleasure) hunting. That division seems to play out in him as well, which we see most clearly and poignantly in “The Dawning of Ambivalence” (chapter 4). Carpenter tackles his own ambivalence while recounting our cultural ambivalence towards hunting, including ideas of total human “dominion” over the Earth to the ways that various famous hunters (Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and others) either straddled the moral fence or jumped onto one side of it. Yet here, perhaps, we see most clearly Carpenter’s condemnation of that speciesistic claim that humans have free reign over the natural world and can use it, and its inhabitant, with wanton selfishness–what he calls a sense of “heartless entitlement” (80). In one beautiful paragraph, Carpenter makes plain the progression of this basic self-granted entitlement from large to small, ancient to modern: “What happens when we come to believe that animals are subjects of our dominion, merely there for our needs and not there in and for themselves, cohabitants of the planet, so to speak, is that we objectify them without the tiniest regret. Instead of prairies and forests, we end up with industrial space in which wild flora are labeled weeds. And the wild animals become targets. Who could possibly lament the destruction of a mere target?” (81) Hunters and Hippies Still, Carpenter plunges into the wild with his gun and his camouflage, as do millions of others like him. Meanwhile, cultural feelings shift in the 1960s and after, with a new dawning of moral consciousness and respect for animals in the counter-culture of the time. Suddenly, the idea of hunting and the image of the shaggy hunter become anachronistic, “throwbacks” (the title of chapter 5) to a “primitive” era. Somewhat surprisingly, though, this portion of Carpenter’s memoir are just as much about how he rediscovered hunting with a few college friends and, in the process, became more engaged with life. It is a rather interesting paradox, how he steps into the hunting camp while so much of society dons the Birkenstocks of the other side. An equally interesting chapter on women hunters follows this in “The Return of Aremis.” Here, Carpenter introduces us to several women hunters in Canada, including a mother-daughter team. A key part of this (not surprisingly) is the contrasts between the how and why of male and female hunters. The end result is a picture of women hunters as less adrenaline junkies than instinctual providers and protectors of the family welfare. While the women’s explanations (and rationalizations) of their hunting are intriguing, I found them no less convincing than any other arguments for hunting. For example, one woman (the daughter of the mother-daughter team) asserts that “I don’t like to kill per se; I respect the animals, but I’m hunting for food, and I’m not going to wait around for the deer to die of old age” (134). That is all well and good, but it does not touch on the fact that the hunting and killing is all done by choice; there would be plenty of other options that did not involve killing, even some of which still used animals in some way. Killing What You Love But Carpenter’s point here is to emphasize the difference between pleasure seeking and subsistence, and in turn between arrogance and reverence. The contrast is emphasized even more strongly in chapter 7, “The Last Great Hunter,” where Carpenter and friends go in search of a legendary woodsmen named Jojo Mitewin. This elusive aboriginal hunter serves as the foil for many of the modern hunters Carpenter encounters, who kill animals simply for the thrill of it rather than because they have to, and without the slightest bit of respect. Jojo’s refusal to reveal himself–save in a rather eerie moment when Carpenter just might come face to face with him–shows the disdain indigenous hunters have for the moderns, who are more inclined to shoot prey with high-powered rifles from the safety of vehicles than to go skulking through the bushes. A father-son deer hunting team In the remainder of the book, after the climactic encounter with Jojo, it becomes obvious that Carpenter’s moral dilemma results from killing the very things you love and revere. The reverence also entails a deep recognition of the connection between the “beasts” and the human author. Carpenter’s account of a serious medical emergency while on a hunt is most telling in this regard. Bleeding uncontrollably from his nose and taken near the brink of death, Carpenter sees in his mind the blood flowing from the wound in a grouse’s neck the day before–a wound inflicted by his very own gun. Fearing for his life, he vows (to what he is not sure) never to kill another animal if only he can survive his situation. Of course, time passes and injuries heal, and soon Carpenter finds himself back out in the wild and on the hunt at various times. But, he does so with a heightened moral sensitivity and a recognition of the importance for respect. The only way he can continue to hunt, and to defend the tradition of hunting, is by cultivating such a respect for animals and the environment. Indeed, he provides a final apology for hunting by emphasizing the reverence for wilderness that it (inevitably?) engenders in a person. While most humans become disconnected from the wild in a modern, urban technocracy, hunting is a way to bring us back into the wilderness and into connection with our wild origins and kin. Nevertheless, Carpenter fully admits that this argument will be seen by many “as a desperate rationalization” by a “wolf in Granny’s clothing” (210). Though “the hunt is over” for him, he remains firmly and doggedly committed to the value of hunting–and its importance in our “cultured” (my word) times. But does he ever answer that inescapable question: “How can hunters kill what they love?” Not really. And he admits this. No matter how much he supports the institution/tradition of hunting, despite the gross abuses it has been guilty of in the past, Carpenter never comes to terms with the (to me) insoluble paradox by which hunters stalk and then take the lives of the creatures they supposedly revere. And he admits this in the midst of his argument for the value of hunting with a reverential attitude, which at least shows (I think) that he is skeptical of his own argument. And as a seriously skeptical reader, I left the book still unconvinced that any supposed merits of hunting can compensate for the lives it takes and the damage that it often does–because not all hunters are responsible or even remotely “reverential.” I can see no logically sound explanation to the claim that hunters truly love, in some deeply felt way, those animals they hunt down and kill, a process in which those same animals are often injured critically and terrified well before they actually die; “clean shots,” death in an instant, is a tricky thing to pull off, and more often the animals suffer pain and fear long before they die. If the argument for subsistence hunting is made, well, my answer to that is the same as if it is made for eating animal flesh in general: We can survive without killing animals or eating their by-products. And in doing so, we would actually be doing a better service to the animals, other humans, and the ecosystem in general, since raising livestock wastes huge amounts of vegetable food (that we could be eating ourselves) and costs much more in resources for input than we get from energy as output. So by all means, let the “hunters” indulge their instinctual predilections and skulk through the bushes after wildlife. But when you hunters shoot them…shoot with a camera, not a gun or a bow. Confronting these important moral and practical issues, A Hunter’s Confession is a serious and sincere exploration of a hunter’s enjoyment and agony over the tradition he loves. It provides thorough historical information and weighty arguments for and against hunting. However, as the author recognizes, it likely will not create any converts on either side of the moral fence, nor get many folks to trade their boots for Birkenstocks–or vice versa. Instead, and perhaps more importantly, it may get readers of any ideological persuasion to think more seriously about the reasons they believe what they do…and the ways in which they engage with the wild, wild world. Enjoy outdoor activities other than hunting? We’ve got all the gear you need for a great experience, including tents, sleeping bags,solar cookers, and canteens. Image credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -Midwest Region at Flickr under a Creative Commons license *Link to a page in sustainablog’s Green Choices green product comparison engine See more Previous article 20 Pound Asian Carp Found Past Great Lakes Defenses Next article Pick-Your-Own May Allow You to Eat Organic for Less 15 Comments Leave a Reply I have a lot of respect for Carpenter for writing that book (based on your description – I had not heard of it before reading this). And I respect you for exploring a book that had some potential to change your mind about hunting. But I must say, I wonder what this description is based on: “… most modern hunters … kill animals simply for the thrill of it rather than because they have to, and without the slightest bit of respect.” If you don’t hunt and don’t associate with a bunch of hunters who share with you their deepest thoughts on killing, I just don’t see what qualifies you to make such a statement. I can tell you that it doesn’t apply to 95 percent of the hunters I know. I recognize that the hardest thing to explain to hunting’s nay-sayers is how we can love the animals we kill – I’ve tried many times myself. Let me try this: Do you have any reason to doubt that hunter-gatherers love and respect the animals they eat? In my experience, I’ve found most people can accept that, but then can’t take the next step of considering that hunters born into agricultural or agri-industrial society can feel the same way. And quite honestly, that’s an ugly prejudice – to presume that I can’t love and respect the animals I hunt because I’m a white, non-indigenous hunter. My experience has been that taking up hunting at the age of 41 has massively increased my respect and love for all animals, not just the ones I hunt. I respect them because I see what they’re capable of – their wiles, their playfulness, their intelligence. They bring so much more to the table than the animals we’ve domesticated (or domesticated humans, for that matter). I love them because they are kin, a vital part of our ecosystem, and I am grateful for their presence. I eat a miniscule fraction of them because they are excellent and healthy nutrition, and I understand that every single one of us, human or non-human, will feed other living organisms when we die, whether we die at the hand of those organisms, or merely die conveniently close to them. Life sustains life. Yes, I CAN live without meat, but that’s not the way we were designed. And I will not apologize for hunting when it helps me avoid industrially farmed meat. Reply Oh, and if you think this book is rare in its candor, I’d encourage you to explore the works of David Petersen and Ted Kerasote. They are some of the more established writers of the many of us who are willing to explore the uncomfortable side of what we do. Reply I think this is one of those cases where we see a moral “conflict” because we naively expect the world to be a fair and rational place. Animals eat other animals and no amount of theorizing will explain this supposed paradox. Personally, I don’t think people should feel guilty for participating in a game (life feeds on life) that they didn’t design, but if it makes them feel better to stand back and refuse to participate, then that’s good too. Humans invent and define morality and we shouldn’t expect the natural world to fit our theory of what’s right and wrong. Reply Thank you NorCal and Matt for your comments. NorCal, you are right that I do not spend vast amounts of time with hunters; I think the reasons for that should be as obvious as why I do not spend time in slaughterhouses. I am more than happy to agree that many hunters have a deep and sincere respect for nature and the animals. But even Carpenter in his book and others will tell you that a great many of them are not at all respectful and treat it like any other sport–an adrenaline rush. (By the way, I revised my text to clarify the point I was making at that specific section being described in Carpenter’s book, where he contrasts the aboriginal to the stereotypical modern “blast-away” hunters. Sorry for any confusion.) It helps when there is respect and care, but that does not get past the fact that the animals have to die, often after great suffering. I would put respectful hunting (or even not so respectful) far, far above factory farms on the moral ladder of food production, and I thoroughly applaud you for choosing a more humane, sustainable option to getting your food. But I still cannot agree to hunting because the animals end up dying, for our benefit and unnecessarily, when all is said and done. Yet I will also say that I greatly appreciate, and would be more than happy to work shoulder to shoulder with, truly respectful hunters who want to help conserve the environment. We need to focus on the bigger picture, whatever our particular lifestyles and ethical standpoints regarding hunting… Matt, I understand your point, but I think it is a bit unsound in the reasoning. Sure, animals eat other animals, and no one ever said nature is in itself a “moral” place. However, we humans are moral creatures, for better or worse, and I believe it is still our ethical duty to consider how we treat the rest of the world–living and nonliving, human and nonhuman. We are not isolated beings living in a vacuum; we depend on, and have great power to influence, things outside of ourselves, our own species. That brings with it an ethical responsibility, not just a blank check to plunder as we so desire. Now, as far as “but animals eat animals” goes…yes, there are many carnivorous predators, but what about the plethora of animals that DO NOT eat other animals, that exhibit frequent and common acts of altruism and eerie intelligence without any violence or killing? Why not take THEM as the “model” for nature instead of the predators? Nature is a very diverse place, so focusing only on “dog eat dog” is limited in a way that allows justifying further consumption of other animals by humans. (And is it ironic that most of the animals we eat are the pacifists, the herbivores…which thus have nothing to do with preying on other animals, which is the characteristic behavior you are pointing to here?) We have so much to learn about the full capabilities, characters, and *cultures* of nonhumans that it is just irresponsible, in my view, to simply accept that we can and should kill animals for our own benefit without further (and equal) consideration. Lastly, yes, we are omnivores, biologically speaking. But we can live fully healthy (and perhaps healthier) lives without meat, without killing or exploiting or “commodifying” other sensitive living beings. We have the ability to CHOOSE what we eat, unlike the lion or the panda. Reply Statement (S): Jojo’s refusal to reveal himself–save in a rather eerie moment when Carpenter just might come face to face with him–shows the disdain indigenous hunters have for the moderns, who are more inclined to shoot prey with high-powered rifles from the safety of vehicles than to go skulking through the bushes. Reply (R): I believe that hunting “from the safety of vehicles” is illegal in most – if not all – of the United States and Canada. Additionally, who causes their prey to suffer more: the indigenous hunter who uses archaic tools to inflict a wound that yields a slow death via exsanguination, or the modern hunter that can place his shot such that it yields an almost instant end? S: To this effect, he quotes approvingly the great American conservationist and hunter Aldo Leopold. Leopold argued that hunting has three benefits: it “reminds us of our distinctive national origins and evolution” (i.e., as hunter-gatherers), it reminds us of “our dependency on the soil-plant-animal-man food chain,” and it teaches us self-control and fair play in the ethical restraints of “sportsmanship” R: I am surprised that there is no mention of the millions of dollars that hunters continually contribute directly and indirectly to true conservation efforts. Many of the regulations that hunters and fisherman follow originated with research funded by sportsmen. Outdoor sports enthusiasts understand that resource management is the key to properly preserving animal populations. They willfully fund such efforts not only to preserve their sport, but to preserve whole populations of game and non-game species for future generations. The animal rights stance that no hunting be allowed can have dire consequences for species that tend to overpopulate in small areas. Reply 1. Both indigenous and modern hunting weapons can cause injuries that do not result in immediate death; sure, a powerful bullet may hurt less than a blunt stone, but I would not start slapping modern hunters on the back with praise for their kindness. At the same time, modern technology also often allows hunters to kill more animals than before. A good example of this is aboriginal hunters in the Arctic, who are pushing narwhals to threatened status because they now have snowmobiles, high-powered rifles, and motorboats. But my point here is not about the relative cruelty of ancient vs. modern hunting methods but about the fact that either one frequently causes animal suffering in addition to the ultimate goal, death. 2. I addressed the conservation efforts of hunters in my other post, linked at the top of the article. I applaud them for this. But in the end it still boils down to the fact that the preservation of the “game” animals (along with other life in the habitats, I recognize) is a leading goal, and that for the purpose of continued hunting and so killing of the animals. When it comes to overpopulation of species, there are other methods that do not involve wholesale slaughter, from sterilization to relocation. None of them is easy or inexpensive, but they are viable alternatives and worth attempting. The saddest part is that most of those overpopulation problems result from the loss of predator species due to human development or eradication (think of wolves), as well as the encroachment of humans into the animals’ habitat. Reply Even in “blue” states where outdoor enthusiasts are dwindling in number due to oppressive overregulation, sometimes truly cruel mass extermination programs have to be employed to control animal overpopulation and to protect our own: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/23/state-plans-to-eliminate-170000-canada-geese/?hp Now, my complaint about this program is the wasteful manner in which 170,000 Canada Geese will meet their demise. If their deaths are imminent, I would propose contracting a poultry processor to prepare the geese for donation to an orphanage, shelter or soup kitchen. In my state, the authorities usually donate all confiscated game to such institutions. For that matter, the feathers could even be donated to a pillow manufacturer to make pillows for the needy. Instead of taxing the good people of New York to pay for the charitable use of the geese downstream of the capture-and-kill program, the businesses could be offered a tax break to cover the costs of processing the geese. If the geese are doomed, what good comes from plowing their carcasses into the ground. ——————————– Also, per our last discussion, I thought that you would be happy to see this: http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20100721/pl_afp/usoilpollutionenvironmentvessels_20100721164027 I heard that if you use ratios to reduce the amount of water in the gulf to an amount that would fill the Dallas Cowboys football stadium, the amount of oil leaked from the BP Horizon would be equivalent to the contents of a 24 ounce soft drink; or less than a drop of oil in a bath tub full of water. Reply Howdy Mr. B. 1) I agree with you 100%. One tragedy on top of another….such waste all around. 2) Yes, this is good news. Let us hope that we can minimize the future effects as much as possible, though the toll already taken is clearly disastrous. Thank you for sharing the link. Reply ARRRGGGHHHH!!!! Hunters . . . 1) donate millions of pounds of free-range, high protein food to needy individuals every year through programs like hunters for the hungry http://www.nrahq.org/hunting/hunterhungry.asp 2) fund most of the wildlife habitat improvement programs in this country 3) are the reason why we still have buffalo, deer, turkeys, waterfowl, etc. 4) don’t’ shoot anything that they aren’t going to eat for the most part. There are some exceptions to this and I would agree that these people are not hunters but mere killers. Reply Hello Dan, and thank you for the comments. I will respond to all of your hunting-related comments here. As far as these comments go, I think you have seen my other posts on how many hunters do contribute greatly to conservation of habitat and species. And I applaud them for it. However, it reeks of self-serving and convenience to me that these habitats are the ones that the game species thrive on. As someone concerned about animals, I cannot feel good about preserving habitat in order for hunters to ensure they have animals to hunt, shoot, and (maybe) kill. I am also not really sure how you can justify your third claim, given that historically hunting has driven a huge number of species to extinction or near that–even today, when many animals are listed as endangered/threatened and protected, people in many countries still kill them for body parts, meat, etc. I really think that the animals you mention, and most others, would do just fine & dandy without hunters–and probably would not follow the path of the dodo, the passenger pigeon, or even megafauna still living like the bison or tiger. I also agree with you, we should do what we can to build bridges between environmentalists, hunters, and animal rights folks to focus on the common goal of protecting our planet. That is not to say that hunters should be immune from criticism when they do harmful things; yes, there are different types of hunters who do things more or less ethically, but even many in the hunting community are critical of a large number of hunters who care little for the animals or the habitat. Just like animal rights people should not be immune from criticism if they trash the planet and act in self-righteous ways towards others. Reply Hi Justin, You wrote, ” I am also not really sure how you can justify your third claim, given that historically hunting has driven a huge number of species to extinction or near that–even today, when many animals are listed as endangered/threatened and protected, people in many countries still kill them for body parts, meat, etc. ” Your first half of that statement is true – we (meaning white Europeans) decimated certain animal populations almost to extinction until Teddy Roosevelt and other ethical hunters saw the error of their ways and founded the conservation movement. So again I say, if it weren’t for hunters we’d be in a lot worse shape. The second half . . . I’m not sure I follow you. You mentioned the illegal animal trade AS IF it is THE SAME AS hunting. IT IS NOT! What you describe is POACHING. It CANNOT be hunting because hunting takes place by licensed individuals operating under strict game laws. Reply Hi Dan. Obviously there are differences between licensed hunting and poaching of protected animals. But you are assuming that all “hunters” abide by the rules strictly and faithfully–which even hunters will admit is not the case. And ultimately it boils down to the same thing: humans seeking out and killing animals for their (humans’) benefit, with varying degrees of concern for what the animal experiences. Ethical hunting is obviously “better” than poaching or sport hunting or whatever, but that only makes me feel slightly less concerned…it does not obviate the fact that humans are still killing animals when, typically, they could survive just fine without doing so. But since you bring up poaching, I ask you to consider this: What is poaching but the continued hunting of animals that have been protected, by law, in most cases *because they have been hunted to the brink of endangerment and extinction*? If the hunters/poachers had their way, we likely would have lost the elephants, tigers, rhinoceroses, whales, quetzals, bison, seals, and any other number of animals. Thankfully, governments, conservation organizations, and concerned individuals stepped in to protect these animals from hunters. Reply Justin, First of all I never said that ALL hunters followed the rules. There are some hunters who don’t and they give ethical hunters a bad name. I believe the hunting community needs to do a better job of policing its ranks. I have no tolerance for unethical hunting behavior and have reported it when I’ve witnessed it up to and including helping the Fish and Wildlife Dept. in my home state nab a turkey poacher on opening day of our Spring turkey season last year. Without the evidence I collected and the afidavit I wrote there would be one more poacher out there doing his thing without getting caught. You wrote the following: “What is poaching but the continued hunting of animals that have been protected, by law, in most cases *because they have been hunted to the brink of endangerment and extinction*? If the hunters/poachers had their way, we likely would have lost the elephants, tigers, rhinoceroses, whales, quetzals, bison, seals, and any other number of animals. Thankfully, governments, conservation organizations, and concerned individuals stepped in to protect these animals from hunters.” I agree with you that poaching CAN BE continuing to kill animals that have been placed on the endangered species list. But poaching IS ALSO killing game animals that we have in abundance (thanks to the conservation efforts of hunters) but doing so using illegal means, outside of legal hunting seasons, etc. I disagree with you that “if hunters” had their way we would be without certain species. I mean, if your livelihood is based on a certain animal why would you want to destroy that animal? Don’t bother looking at it from a “concern for animals” perspective if you wish. From a basic standpoint of capitalism if you destroy the thing you’ve based your livelihood on you’re shooting yourself in the foot. And the plight of whales is like apples to oranges when compared with, say wild turkeys or white tailed deer. What is happening to whales now is like what happened to turkeys and deer in the late 1800s. They were in danger of becoming extinct. Hunters and other conservationists stepped in then and now turkeys and deer are two of the greatest success stories in the history of wildlife management. It is my hope that whales will be a similar success story but given Japan’s insistence on hunting them “for scientific purposes” I’m not holding my breath. You may be surprised to learn I used to be a member of Greenpeace. I am against whaling – except in the case of the Inuit and other indigenous people’s who do it to survive. And if there came a day when deer were so scarce that my local Fish and Wildlife Dept. wanted to close the season for a few years I would be the first one to put down my bow and my rifle and help them to protect one of the most beautiful, adaptable, amazing creatures on the planet. Reply Dan, we obviously are not going to convince each other, but at the least let me say that I appreciate the fact that you are obviously a hunter concerned with the ethics–the hows and whys and whats–of your hunting, and that you expect other (real) hunters to do the same. Reply Fine then Justin. On that we can agree. Reply Leave a Reply Cancel reply Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *Comment Name * Email * Website Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.