It is a testament to the power of the hunting experience that several contributors to this fine forum are no less than lyrical about the pursuit of prey. Hunting for these writers elicits meditation, spiritual significance, sacrament, even “the deepest kind of happiness a human can experience in an environment that was his true home.”
Having hunted underwater I recognise some of these feelings. Watching fish swim far above, like seeing birds soar below, is always special. Doing so while neutral buoyancy frees us of gravity and we become weightless adds a special sense of emancipation and joy. The ocean is no longer our true home, of course, and being 10 or 20 metres down on two lungfuls of air limits such revelry. But it’s wonderful while it lasts.
For years, catching fish and eating it, often around a fire on a beach hours later with fellow hunters of the deep, seemed the atavistic manifestation of our true selves, linking us to our forefathers, to other natural predators and, in fact, to nature itself. So while it was clear that stalking and killing prey clearly, sometimes disturbingly, reveals our animal nature, I could similarly countenance that an activity which we engaged in for millions of years is also an intrinsic part of the human constitution.
But being human means reflecting on what we do. And, too often, what I did was injure fish, not catch them. Moreover, there were plenty of other food options and my target was always the biggest, healthiest prey; no natural predator I.
Reflecting on what we do and why can ultimately change individuals. Thus my harpoon gave way to a camera. On a much larger and far more significant scale such contemplation can even alter and improve societies. Thus attitudes to slavery, race, gender as well as to animals have changed in much of the world and, most conspicuously, in the United States.
Thanks largely to the development of agriculture, the industrial revolution and, more recently, information technology life for us is better now in countless practical ways too. For all the scourges that still beset human society, few can doubt that by almost any criterion – life expectancy, poverty, health, hunger – our world is now better than it was.
But in one signal area, thanks, paradoxically, to those same developments this is not true. With few exceptions the planet on whose well-being ours depends has never been in worse shape. And it remains an open question whether on this increasingly urgent issue society will change in time.
To do so we will need to harness all the best human qualities others have displayed here – ethics, stewardship, sustainability, ties to nature and, rarely mentioned but often championed by hunters, conservation. And we will need to apply these qualities not only in the occasional pursuit of prey but in the pursuit of every aspect of our lives.