As those who have taken hunter safety know, the program emphasizes the importance of ethics within the recreation and doing the right thing when no one is looking. The issue with this notion is the fact that no person shares the exact same perspective(s) and personal ethics as others. I mean sure, it is universally understood that it is generally looked down upon to kill for the sake of killing or to allow an animal to be injured or suffer due to a poorly planned shot.
I would agree that every hunter and outdoorsman alike create their own moral standards based upon some degree of empathy for the creature and land for which they interact with. I believe that empathy and humanizing the world around us makes for a more respectful and sustainable relationship.
When I first found interest in hunting through Steven Rinella’s show, MeatEater, on Netflix, I quickly binge watched all of the episodes I could. On one of his episodes, he and a friend hunt for turkey in some part of the United States on a piece of public land. In this episode he and his friend mention and quote the works of Aldo Leopold, a legend in the realm of conservation in the United States. The quote was very fitting for the scene.
Later, while in my final year of college I was required to take an environmental ethics course. The course was intended to address an array of environmental perspectives from various different philosophers throughout the course of the history (though typically with a Western bias). One of the course books we had to read for the course was from the famous conservationist Aldo Leopold; it was one of his most famous books/essay collective, A Sand County Almanac. Reading this book changed my perspective on how I view the natural world and how I wish to connect with it. I want to showcase my opinions as to why I think his writings were so impactful to me.
1. The Western Hunting Perspective
Now, before I go into further elaborating on why I believe that the Western perspective of the natural world is harmful and exploitative (from a cultural standpoint), I will first begin by saying that we here, in the United States have some of the most well-funded and elaborate conservation efforts in the world. We are doing a lot better on maintaining habitat and species populations in comparison to other countries around the world. Though no one is ever perfect, it is important to hold accountability and aim to do better. I also do not wish to anger those who are Christian as I have no real distaste for the religion, though I myself do not subscribe to it.
Moving forward, in my environmental ethics course we discussed how European culture had different perspectives of humans and their relation to nature at the time of colonial expansion. In class we had a slight debate as to a potential reasoning as to why Western countries were more exploitative of nature and we seemed to lean towards the idea that in common Christian/capitalistic culture(s) there seems to be a human favoritism as humans are placed at the top of the animal “hierarchy” and closer to god in a way, this seems to give humans the right to manipulate and “show the way” for other animals as we are the “leaders”.
2. Non-European Based Ethics
We would use the previously mentioned Christian perspective and compare it to a non-Christian religion or non-European perspective as to how animals and what we consider nature was viewed. We used Robin Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass, as a contrasting comparison due to the different cultural relationship with other animals and their habitat. We looked at the creation stories of both the Christian religion and the Potawatomi.
When Kimmerer tells the story of sky woman and how sky woman relies on various different creatures for her own life. It is a story about how we need all the animals to help guide us and sacrifice their own lives so that we may better serve the land for all the organisms in the ecosystem rather than just humans.
From my experience it is a common trend for native/indigenous cultures across the world to have origin stories similar to that mentioned above. If they do not mirror certain aspects of the sky woman story, then one thing holds true. It is the animals and creator who give us these resources and gifts, but if we abuse the gifts and become greedy then they go away and plague, death, and famine will soon curse the land and people.
3. Like a Mountain
I felt that there is a story within American natural history, which Leopold accounts in his essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain” which he realizes this. In this essay he connects his own lessons and regrets regarding negative interactions with wildlife which, was encouraged at the time by society, but harmful in the end. I will allow him to tell the story in his own words so those who have never read the book can understand and feel the emotion and concern that he wishes to convey.
Leopold writes, “In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy… when our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide rocks… I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, than no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise… I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anemic desuetude, and then to death” (Leopold, p.130).
When I first read this there was something so touching that made me connect all the ways that we as humans have prioritized the wrong things with expectations of a reward or increased success in one avenue, while ignoring the signs of what was to come. How many times do you hear modern hunters say things like “turkey numbers would be better if we had less raccoons/hawks/coyotes/snakes, etc.” the issue isn’t even the animals themselves, it is us. The ecology and habitat has been thrown out of equilibrium and I believe it is because we as humans have forgot our place/role in the mix as a whole.
As many of us know, we have endless amounts of atoms that all matter in the universe including us. We all know that matter/energy cannot be created nor destroyed as stated in the law of conservation of mass, leaving a never ending cyclical exchange of matter between biotic and abiotic environments. This is a fundamental concept in ecology and the transfer of energy from one organism to another. Science and the natural world are great at humbling the human ego when it grows too big.
Leopold writes about how cool ecology is and the cycle of energy/atoms between one species to another is in his essay titled, “Odyssey”. In this essay he goes on the journey of initially following the life of an atom from flower to man, back to the land, and then onwards towards an entirely different journey. It was always part of the system though. The entire essay is really about how we are all connected and that Native Americans were aware of this, but as colonial expansion occurred, the perspective of land changed and only select organisms were important, which causes issues, issues that were already accounted for initially that must now be rediscovered and fixed in the present/future.
I find it frustrating when we push blame of environmental errors that we could have been prevented onto other members of the ecosystem despite it being due to our actions and impact onto the world. There are many broad examples of this, though many don’t realize it until they are told it occurs.
Aldo Leopold opened my eyes as to show how conservation and land management should be returned to a land first mentality when it came to creating or destroying something. It is a perspective that I try to bring with me every day no matter the person or how I am feeling. Hunters should be more aware than most other people at how significant land and browse quality must be to produce mature, healthy bucks or whatever game animal you hunt, as they seem to be detrimental in success and the overall quality of your hunt. It is more than putting out a salt block and pile of corn every day so you can shoot a deer. Really look at how the animals are interacting, what is holding them there, etc. If you begin to listen more than you speak and ask how I can help the land more often than how can the land help me?
Leopold, Aldo Carl. A Sand County Almanac. The Random House Publishing Group, 1966. pp. 130