A Little Murder

Residual chukar
Residual chukar

“And she never slit a fish without thinking she hated the need to use it that way. Hating the need almost made it seem all right. Besides, it was a kind of a little murder, gutting a fish, so when she did it she thought back over her life, and there was something to that. The knife was a potent thing.”  — Marilynne Robinson, Lila

Reading the end of Robinson’s latest novel tonight, I got this little gem of an explanation of the paradox with which hunting occupies me. Sorry to beat a dead horse, but that’s how it is. You feel something, think about it, try to get past or through or around it, outrun it, pretend you’ve forgotten about it, and then on a glistening, sparkly day with no wind at all you’ve done it again: gotten blindsided by the little murder you committed.

It’s not like you didn’t mean to do the things leading up to it. It’s not like it wasn’t premeditated. It’s not like you were actually surprised, because you’ve done it, on purpose, for years. It’s not like you accidentally put all your crap in the pickup, loaded the dog, remembered to bring extra shells and a snack, and found yourself, oh my gosh, on some terrible road in some of the bleakest, most beautiful country far from much else. No. You meant to do it. Sometimes you’ll do it and forget to notice and then days or even weeks later you’ll catch yourself getting caught by it, the realization of what you fully realized and intended, “needed” to do at the time you did it.

Part of it’s the dog’s need. But not really. That’s kind of a lie you tell yourself so that it’s maybe not so bad a thing to contemplate. When Angus returns with a living bird whose eyes contact mine as I take the hand-off I know what I need to do, don’t like it, and do it anyway because it needs to be done. “Hating the need almost made it seem all right.” Then, I remember the one bent dried up cheatgrass stalk whose head is buried in snow making an upside down “V” and casting a shadow that the heel of my left boot landed exactly in the center of on my hurried way toward pointing Angus.

Suffocation’s my knife for these birds, so there you go. Taking a life, even if it’s just a wee bird’s, gets me thinking back on stuff, and I’m never sure what that’ll be. There’s “something to that.” I’m always almost all right with it.

12 Replies to “A Little Murder”

  1. Its not the death of our quarry that we should focus on, but rather the fact that it got to live and have a life in the wilds as it was meant to be in the first place.
    These birds are not the millions of pigs living in tight confining pens, unable to even turn around, waiting to be consumed guilt (not gilt) free by people without the faintest inkling of the hell these animals are born into and are living. Chukars are born in the wild, will live in the wild, and one way or another will die in the wild, wether its from starvation, cruel talons, or a kind shotgun.
    Second should be the focus on how the animal dies. Quick almost instant death with a practiced shot is preferable , but nature being what it is is too unpredictable for precision every time, so then a swift retrieve by a well bred and well trained dog for quick dispatch by the hunter’s hand would be the next best thing. Highly trained dogs, shotgun practice, and honing ones hunters skills to the razors edge is how we atone for being a modern man who has a larder of faceless pre-killed food and no real physical need for hunting. its a fine line all good hunters walk in effort to become responsible for their actions.
    So today where we no longer hunt for food to sustain ourselves (at least not in this context of upland bird hunting) many hunters and almost all non hunters regard what we do as “sport’ another one syllable word for “fun”- like Love and hate are two simple words that display vastly complex emotions that we will never fully understand but that lack of understanding will never make them less important. Same goes for the need to hunt. For some its spiritual, for others its therapeutic, and for others its just FUN. But don’t ever think its murder.
    killing an animal so yo can watch it suffer is murder. Killing an animal out of vengeance because it ate your roses is murder. Killing a snake just because you crossed its path is murder. Killing an animal for food as quickly and pain free as possible and going to great lengths to do so is what makes a hunter and hunter and not a murderer.

    and if you read all that rot, I was wondering if it would be alright with you if could use a landscape photo or two of yours for a painting?

    1. Different definitions of “murder.” I get yours, but to me it’s any killing that’s not necessary. Broad spectrum there, and, after all, it’s just a word and isn’t keeping me (or anyone else) from doing it. In this case, the adjective “little” helps clarify hunting’s place in the spectrum.

      I think I replied to your earlier request for painting – sure! (I included a link to a collection of our photos you might like to pick from; maybe the link kept it from getting to you?).

      1. I like Uplandish’s framing of us as part of the cycle and I personally concur.
        However, I understand and share in your emotions Bob. As an analogy, I just quit my job and the 2+ hrs commute back and forth everyday in DC traffic The days that scared me were the days I did not come home grumpy, but numb to this awful time suck.
        To your point, the day you don’t feel anything about taking a life is the day to worry about.

        A good friend turned me on to a book of stories around this idea. “A Hunters Heart: Honest Essays on Blood Sport” http://www.amazon.com/Hunters-Heart-Honest-Essays-Blood/dp/0805055304
        Worth the read.
        Again, thanks for providing the forum for this worthwhile debate.

      2. Thanks, Ivan. A Hunter’s Heart has been a longtime favorite of mine. Really unique stuff. I’m building a high school unit on that book, which should be interesting up here where lots of attitudes about hunting are inherited, almost genetic instead of consciously (ridiculously?) constructed by relative newbies like me (which isn’t to say that those growing up with hunting are not thoughtful about it). One of the essays really sticks with me, about the couple out hunting deer in bitter, bitter cold, and end up making an unusual but really thoughtful choice in what they do. Congratulations on getting out of the racket, by the way. I hope we get another chance soon to meet in Hell’s Canyon, although from your report I’m not sure I’d be able to hang with you people!

      3. Maybe trade Murder for ” Premeditated Bird-slaughter”?

        Ivan B summed it up nicely. “The day you don’t feel anything about taking a life is the day to worry about”

  2. I go through periods of thought that focus on the topic of need to kill a bird. I won’t starve if I let them fly. However ,there may be a day in our future in which our next meal will come from what we kill so I use that justification when I pull the trigger. We need to keep our hunting skills honed along with our dog’s skills. I get to explain this to my wife often as she hunts only with the camera , despite my urgings to pick up a shotgun and give it a try. I think hunting bonds me to a special relationship with my dog that is like no other. I find the positives outweigh the negatives so I continue to hunt and enjoy the outdoors like I think we were meant to. Thats only my opinion.

  3. Great topic and discussion here. Like all of you I’ve wrestled with this often– almost impossible NOT to contemplate when your feet are walking a landscape for hours on end, the brain is on the treadmill too.

    I’ve settled into a familiar, if not comfortable, place where I don’t think purpose or method of killing provides absolution. The thing where one thing end something else’s life, no matter the reason, is called murder. The spider murders the fly, the jaguar murders the tapir, the farmer murders the pig, the hunter murders the deer.

    Other things must die so you can live. When we die we will be consumed by other things choosing (?) to live.

    Growing up Catholic I was “imprinted” upon with the concept of original sin– the idea that you are a sinner the moment you are born. Coming back from my first pronghorn hunt in Eastern Montana, with the Breaks playing past my window at sunset and the huge dead eyes of a pronghorn bouncing in the review mirror at me, I was nearly struck dumb by the alignment of what original sin really seemed to mean at that moment– in living you are a killer, a murderer, and thus a sinner. Blood is on our hands, and in the air that fills our lungs with each breath.

    A couple of things I keep turning over in my head lately–

    – is the timing of the evolution of our species as a predator in any way tied to our development of consciousness, and a step beyond, spirituality? Modern religions are thought to be embedded in agricultural societies, but what was the origin of spirit?

    – what is the exact formula that calculates how many species are denied life through a vegetarian lifestyle? I’ve had this discussion with vegetarians several times– how do the miles of sterile monoculture GMO soybean production that sustain you, which from an ag perspective excludes almost every other kind of life (from monarch butterfly to bison) amount to a more empathetic lifestyle?

    – does the number of lives matter? For example, if an African village can kill one 2,000 pound elephant to survive for the month, is that better/worse than killing 2,000 1lb songbirds instead?

    If anyone has answers to these I shall call you guru!

    1. I hadn’t thought of the GMO argument you make, which is a good one. I’ve also never felt compelled to defend hunting, but am glad people whose ethics are solid (like yours) do. Thanks for contributing to the discourse and giving me food for thought (pun intended!).

  4. I appreciate your discussion on the ethics of hunting. I came across something and thought of you. It’s called “The Finisher”- a simple device for dispatching a wounded gamebird quickly and painlessly. It’s small, purposeful, and elegant if you have the eyes for it. I’ve never used one, but maybe you’d find it helpful.

  5. Great article and awesome site. I am just getting back in to hunting after quite a large hiatus. These are the exact things that run through my mind constantly. I am often surrounded by people who don’t share these feelings, and it is good to know that there are others out there.

Chirp away