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Why Hunters save the World


This is a brilliant piece of work written by Dr. Randall Eaton (please visit the website of Dr. Eaton by clicking on the banner above)

Why Hunters Save the World: A Model for Environmental Conservation

By Randall L. Eaton, Circumpolar Institute, University of Alberta

That humanity threatens its own survival and the viability of the biosphere is reason enough to question the influence of civilization on sanity. It is imperative that we examine ourselves.  How could so much science, specialized knowledge and information lead us to this point? What is wrong with us and what can we do about it? Exactly what are we missing?

Is it possible that the very thing we believe will solve the global crisis is actually the problem?  Men and women all around the world are hard at work coming up with myriad ways to alleviate human suffering and environmental degradation. They trust the human ego and intellect to save the day. But is it not the ego-intellect that created the crisis and spawned domestication, civilization, warfare, materialism, unsustainable economy, greed, massive starvation, environmental degradation, disharmony and ultimately the meaningless of life? If the fear that fuels defensive ego-consciousness – what Christians mean by pridefulness – is ultimately responsible for our suffering and that of the planet, can more of the same serve us well? I think not. Philosopher Jose Ortega y Gassett said, “Reason is an orthopedic device imposed on a broken instinct.” By instinct, Ortega means every capacity of knowing outside of reason, from biologically inherited instinct to intuition, which, from mysterious, uncharted depths, gives rise to great scientific ideas and art. Ortega was wise enough to know that intelligence is much more than reason.

Joseph Campbell was fond of saying “the world is a mess,” but it was not always a mess; moreover, it is a mess now because we are a mess, and we are a mess because we have for too long sided with fear and ego. Presence is the state of being of the “noble savage,” who, as wilderness educator, Jon Young says, “thinks with the whole package.” “Absence” is the state of being of most of civilized humanity, which thinks with the ego. When Jesus said that we must be like little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, perhaps he meant that we must be present because presence is the state of innocence. The moment we identify with ego we move into fear and lose innocence.

Ortega’s “original man,” the hunter, is so extremely alert and keenly present that for him life is sheer transcendence. He identifies with the wild animal he hunts and feels submerged in the environment, every component of which he perceives as being alive. Content with landscape as utilitarian or abstract sightseeing, the civilized man is asleep, absent and egotistical. What is worse, he accepts his disease as normality.

Paul Shepard, the first human ecologist, said that it was domestication of animals and plants that radically altered the human relationship to the non-human other. He did not identify the fundamental principle behind this shift – defensibility of resources – which changes human society from peaceful and relatively egalitarian to warring and patrilineal. The ecology of pastoralismn and farming evoke a psychic shift to what the Buddha termed “defensive ego consciousness,” the pathology now threatening humanity and the earth. It is fitting that the great monotheistic, pastoral tribes are assembling for war on the pastures of oil where civilization was born.

By a distinctly different route I arrived at the same place as Shepard, through the development of a new theory for social evolution: competition between species for resources, such as between lions and hyenas for carcasses, favors grouping.  Humans and their hominid ancestors were right in the thick of this interspecies war, which primed them for warfare with their own species once predator enemies were bested. That led me on a quest to understand precisely what motivated humans to become the dominant species of the planet, and I saw in the evolution of trophies from game/food animals to large predators/enemy humans an ecological shift from hunting to pastoralism, agriculture, civilization and warring.

The theory of trophyism, that individuals gained status and reproductive success according to their hunting prowess as indicated by trophies, is supported in mythology. Nearly every culture on earth claims it was founded by a great man who killed an awesome beast, but we end up with the warrior-heroes of civilization, such as Orion and Hercules, in whose shadows we have been living ever since. We forget that Orion raped the women he wanted to wed, and that Hercules killed his own children, finally acquiring psychic composure only after he was forced to live like a woman, which tempered him.

Ortega said that the original man in every contemporary man is Paleolithic. Shepard asserted that we still are adapted to the Pleistocene. Anthropologist Richard Nelson and poet Gary Snyder are right that we very much need the wisdom and humility that they discovered in hunting societies. Like hunting  societies, Shepard and Joe Pearce before him,  understood that a key factor in “proper relationship” to the “other” is development, which, properly experienced, strongly bonds humans to nature and society. Among these developmental processes are years of childhood close to nature followed by rites of passage, the oldest and most universal of which has been hunting, the way in which a boy proved himself worthy as a provider and suitable mate.

Hunting and killing are as fundamental to adult male evolution as birthing and infant care have been to women. These are in fact radical polarities on which the matrix of human life inextricably rests. Men take life to support life, and the kill itself is the event that engenders compassion, respect for all life and the moral responsibility to protect it.  There is no adequate substitute in male moral development for hunting..  “Life lives on lives…vegetarians are simply eating something that can’t run away,” said Joseph Campbell, who was an avid fisherman.

I am convinced that the world is a mess because for too long we have failed to raise boys properly. We have not tempered masculine fire with feminine compassion, the radical function of male rites of passage across time and space. We have not given our young men those rites of passage that transform them into men of heart, men who are profoundly married to nature and who think with the heart and therefore are wise. Heart-intelligence, not ego-intellect, informs us what is appropriate to do. The development of wise men rests not on conceptual knowledge and abstraction but upon transformative experiences. Education does not mean to put into, but to draw out of, the function of rites of passage.

Recently I conducted a questionnaire survey in the U.S. and Canada, which examines in depth for the first time how recreational hunters really feel and the role hunting has played in their lifelong development. Contrary to the unfounded assertions of the anti-hunters it reveals that almost all hunters feel sad when they kill an animal, and likewise it shows that nearly all recreational hunters feel admiration, reverence and respect for the  animals they hunt. Most have let suitable specimens pass imply because it didn’t feel right to take them, quite in contrast with the bloodthirsty image portrayed by the media. Even more surprising, over 80% thank the animals they kill and/or the Creator. Most men feel they have learned universal virtues from hunting, such as inner peace, humility and patience, and most older hunters rank taking the life of an animal for food very high in those life events that have opened their hearts and engendered compassion in them.

That hunting teaches compassion is a powerful message for a world in conflict and crisis. Michael Gurian, an authority on how to raise  boys into fine young men, adolescent neuropsychologist Jim Rose, and Helen Smith, a leading authority on youth violence, recommend hunting because it develops empathic, responsible, respectful, self-restrained, more peaceful men.

Joe Pearce and Paul Shepard may be right when they say that industrial birthing on a large scale has generated pathological materialism, consumerism and unsustainable economy. No bonding with mother, no bonding with Mother Nature or with wife and children. Given proper early development certain critical experiences during adolescence open the male heart and marry males to nature and society. The rites of passage in my formula for men of heart include: hunting; vision quest; and art. For those who participate directly in it, the taking of an animal life converts the food chain to a love chain.

The ancient traditions among many Native American tribes of initiating boys to manhood included a vision quest, virtually identical to the pagan – and later Christian – rite of passage known as “tending the fire” among northern Europeans, a ritual perpetuated today among chapters of the Orden der Valknut, an 11TH Century offshoot of the Teutonic Knights, in Europe and North America. As a dynamic form of meditation, the vision quest originates from still hunting and its unparalleled state of alertness. As the exemplary path of self-examination, the vision quest fulfills Lao Tzu’s admonition, “If you would save the world, look first to yourself.” It teaches a young male the difference between the ceaseless traffic of the ego and the quiet intelligence of the heart. It teaches us that there is more to life than this body and the senses. It keeps us humble, receptive to wisdom.

While producing “The Sacred Hunt: Hunting as a Sacred Path,” I interviewed Felix Ike of the Western Shoshone tribe, “What kind of country would this be if the majority of men in it had been properly initiated to hunting?”  He said, “It would be a totally different world.” We very much need a totally different world, one founded on essential tribal wisdom.

Ortega’s philosophy of co-existence (life as interdependence) is necessarily the true psychology, and though Paul Shepard was much influenced by Ortega’s book on hunting, he did not embrace the immense importance of Ortega’s actual philosophy and its moral complication, a revival of the ancient wisdom of hunting societies. Ortega says, “My life consists of my ego AND my circumstances in mutually transcendent interdependence.” And since my circumstances are as important to my existence as myself then I must take care of them as much as myself. I am convinced that Ortega’s philosophy is the truth we need in this time of social/environmental crisis brought on by the hubris of Western culture; however, it is actual bonding of humans with mother, nature and society that produces humans, who, because they identify with the “other,” not merely the ego, are respectful and responsible stewards of society and the environment.

From hunting comes a supreme lesson for environmental conservation: self-interest extends to what we identify with, and we identify with whatever we are emotionally bonded. The spectrum may be as limited as the body or as extensive as the cosmos, which is the case for the Kalahari Bushman. The key to greater cooperation among humans and between them and the environment lies in development, from birth through adolescent rites of passage. It follows that the “selfish gene” theory of sociobiology may be largely cultural artifact, a reflection of improper development that engenders fear, egoism and selfishness.

Let me put it this way. Put a l2-year old boy in a duck blind with a shotgun in his hands and there is a fair possibility that he will grow up to join Ducks Unlimited and fiercely protect wetlands. He is likely to embody Ortega’s philosophy, a restatement of the timeless wisdom of hunting peoples everywhere. The power of the hunt to bond males to nature is seen in contemporary hunting. The fact is that hunters were the original environmental conservationists, and they still lead in that field. Ducks Unlimited has conserved over 12 million acres of wetland habitat to the benefit of the entire living community of North America. In less than 20 years, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has conserved over four million acres for elk and other wildlife, not to mention successfully reestablishing elk throughout much of their former range in the northeast and midwest. While the rest of the environmental community is waging rear-guard actions, the hunting community is on the offensive.

Hunting teaches us that, like all lifeforms, we are dependent upon the integrity and viability of nature. Though the hunt is goal-oriented, it teaches us that all of creation functions by processes and that we are part of the process. It engenders a  “7th generation perspective,” making decisions today with future generations in mind. As Athabascan elder, Peter John, said, “The animals you take are important to your grandchildren.’ Because hunters are motivated to “fiercely protect nature,” as poet Robert Bly said, they are the leaders in environmental conservation.

Hunting teaches us to be observant and patient, to emulate nature and slow down, to “he here now” in the present moment. It teaches us that inner peace and sanity are possible in an insane world. According to Don Jacobs, a leader in educational reform, “Hunting is the ideal way to teach young people universal virtues including patience, generosity, courage, fortitude and humility.” He defines humility as knowing you are part of something greater than yourself, an apt definition of spirituality.

The hunt submerges us in the subtle realities of life. These include the power of prayer, envisioning what we want, tempered by ethical choice. Every hunt is a prayer in motion, and seasoned hunters know that faith in the outcome has much to do with success. Hunting teaches us the significance of attitude, intention and right-mindedness.

These are some of the secrets hidden deep in hunting, the original rite of passage for which there is no substitute, a powerful path of initiation that marries men to the “other” that is nature. Those who directly participate in the food chain enter into the Great Mystery of life as life and death.

Perhaps it is impossible to comprehend the inner side of hunting without experiencing it directly; however, sex is an appropriate analogy of an instinct that links up with the heart. The young man is propelled towards a sexual encounter, but a surprise awaits him when he falls in love and is transformed by the merger of instinct with heart, eros with agape. “Sex is the bicep of love,” Ortega said, and just as the sex drive may lead a man to love, mating and fatherhood, marrying him to the human community, and finally to wisdom and elderhood in it, the hunting instinct culminates in kinship with the greater family of life, the biotic community. The hunt is the bicep of conservation. It extends the social ethic to the land and sponsors “wise use” of it, i.e., thinking with the heart.

In hunting, the counterpart to falling in love is the death of the animal. In that eternal moment, a young man realizes that his life is as impermanent as the animal he pursued. He is shocked by his power and the necessity of using that power responsibly. He knows that the animal died for his physical and spiritual sustenance and he is grateful. At the deepest level he knows that, despite all appearances to the contrary, he and the deer are essentially the same. He discovers the unity of life.

The death of the animal opens a young man’s heart and tempers the fire of his passion with compassion. Aldo Leopold’s life history is a model for understanding how hunting develops moral responsibility to nature. His hunting instinct was strong, and the day he killed a she-wolf and saw the green fire die in her eyes, he married wilderness and began to think like a mountain.  I was 13 when I shot my first duck and have worked hard for environmental conservation ever since to be worthy of the gift of that mallard hen’s life to me. A Nez Perce hunter told me that before he shot his first deer his grandfather gestured toward the deer then pointed to his own heart and whispered, “Your good heart.” Those words mean that it is important when you take an animal that your heart is good because that keeps the whole thing going. Spiritual ecology means reciprocity and renewal. Hunters feel they are a part of life and that the life they are part of is sacred. Because they know life is sacred, they honor, serve, protect and provide for it. That is why hunting is good medicine for boys, society and the environment, and why older hunter-mentors are there quietly but steadfastly doing the real work for youth and nature.

More than at any time in the history of the world we need men who are deeply wedded to nature, which is to say that we need men who value the viability of the entire biological community above consumerism and the unsustainable economy that feeds it. Hunters are such men. Their unparalleled performance on the front lines of conservation makes them then ideal model for a world in crisis.

I agree with Michael Meade that Western culture is unraveling. As apocalypse, the process may be gradual instead of dramatic, but surely it has begun. The first teen suicide recorded on earth was in the 20th Century. From l986 to l996, the number of children taking psychiatric drugs tripled. Depression is epidemic. And all the while species are disappearing at an alarming rate. 

A U. N. global survey compiled  every nation’s many problems and placed them into four categories. Then they reduced all the problems in each of these categories to a single word, as follows:

Category One Word Summary
Culture rootless
Politics powerless
Economics ruthless
Environment futureless

All these words ending in “less” indicate that modern life is meaningless, exactly what Laurens Van der Post concluded after spending time with the still wild Kalahari Bushman for whom life was always meaningful.

Meade believes that the deterioration of culture appears first among the youth and the elders. He believes we have forgotten our elders as the source of guidance to help us find our way home. The ancient Greek story of Narcissus makes the point. Narcissus was hunting with his young friends when he left them and went to a pond where he saw his face reflected. He fell in love with himself, but his fate soon followed in the form of suicide, the cost of turning one’s back on nature, which is exactly what civilization has done. Like Narcissus, we suffer from undaunted pride, and if we do not rejoin our hunting companions it may destroy us.

In the Iron Hans mythology from northern Europe, the boy ends up looking at his own reflection in the proverbial pond, but unlike Narcissus he has the Wild Man standing behind him so he does not get stuck on himself, but instead maintains his connection with nature. The Wild Man in each boy helps him discover through the hunt the power, beauty and intelligence of nature.

Meade suggests that pursuit of the “normal” is not what we need. After 9-11, U.S. President Bush recommended that we resume normal lifer, like visiting Disneyland or shopping at the mall. Instead, Meade advises us to look to the edge of our culture for answers. To him the edge means art as soulful expression, but for me the edge of culture is nature, which shrinks as our abusive, exploitive culture expands. At the edge of culture are the wild men and women who communicate with animals, fight to protect wild places and work to pass on the original human culture, hunting, a culture founded squarely on nature and harmonized with human nature. When culture does not harmonize human nature with nature, it is doomed to failure. If the truth be known, the heart of the hunter holds the keys to the future of human culture.

Thomas Jefferson, Audubon, Thoreau, Teddy Roosevelt, Leopold, Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell are among the civilized Hunters Hall of Fame, white men with red hearts who called us back to nature-culture. So are Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela, contemporary peace-makers both of whom are avid hunters. Proper development may shift our men from ego-intellect dominance to heart-intelligence. Thinking with the heart may forge a North American culture founded on tribal wisdom which marries men to nature and saves the world. 

Hunters know that;

“The earth is perfect
You cannot improve it
If you try to change it
You will ruin it
If you try to hold it
You will lose it.”  LaoTzu

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