Learning the hunt

The lesson:

A short look at the long history of hunter education

Comments on the occasion of the
2014 Wyoming Hunter Education Academy
July 26, 2014
© Chris Madson, 2014

HED ACAD GROUP 2014 12014 Hunter Education Academy

          I WANT TO EXPRESS MY THANKS TO JIM DAWSON FOR THE INVITATION TO BE HERE THIS EVENING, AND FOR TAKING THE TIME TO MEMORIZE THE INTRODUCTION I worked so hard to invent and deliver it with such sincerity. Isn’t it remarkable how good you can make a guy sound when you’re not constrained by the facts? It’s a pleasure to get together with such an august group, especially when the subject at hand is teaching the next generation about the discipline of hunting.

The discipline of hunting.

I’m a writer and an editor by profession, so I’ll freely admit that that I can get a little persnickety about words and their meaning. This probably explains why I’ve always been uncomfortable with the description of hunting as a “sport,” which, for a lot of people, means “playtime.” For me, and I’m sure for you, hunting doesn’t bear much resemblance to badminton or golf or slow-pitch softball or even to skeet and trapshooting. The most obvious difference is that something is probably going to die during a hunt,— at least we hope it will— which right away makes it much more serious business than a football game.

The ethical ramifications of that elemental fact are sobering, but the gravity of hunting extends beyond the likelihood that an animal or animals may be killed. The serious hunter makes a commitment. He— and I use the word “he” in its generic sense, not to exclude women— he commits to the idea of sustainable harvest and conservation. He upholds the principles of fair chase. He hones his ability as a marksman; he studies the animals he pursues; he stays in shape, maintains his equipment, trains his dogs, all for those weeks in the fall or spring when he will match himself against a quarry that has developed the skills of escape to a high art.Christiansen_Madson and Flick-lr

A commitment of this magnitude reaches beyond “sport.” It’s more like a lifeway, a martial art. So I’ve dropped the phrase “sport hunting” from my vocabulary. For me, hunting is a discipline, a calling, and I think an argument can be made that, for many humans, it ‘s been that way for a very, very long time.

Late on the afternoon of December 18, 1994, three cave buffs found a hole in a limestone bluff overlooking the Ardeche River in southern France. It wasn’t much of an opening— thirty inches by ten— but there was a draft coming out of it that intrigued the spelunkers. They spent over an hour clearing rubble out of the hole, then wiggled through into a large cavern. The floor of the room was strewn with the bones of cave bears, a species that has been extinct in Europe for 25,000 years. As they walked deeper into the passage, admiring the stalactites and calcite curtains, they began seeing marks on the walls— first, there were lines of large red dots, then . . . art.

Chauvet Cavern turned out to have hundreds of paintings and engravings, nearly all of them depicting animals that have not been known in Europe for millennia— mammoths, wooly rhinos, aurochs, lions, and reindeer in addition to cave bears. Radiocarbon dating has found that some of the pigments on the walls are more than 30,000 years old, by far the most ancient ever found.

One of the most fascinating elements of Chauvet is the floor of the cave. In nearly every other Paleolithic cavern that has ever been discovered, the first visitors, whether they were cave explorers or anthropologists, trampled the dirt and mud, obliterating any signs that might have been left there.

The discoverers of Chauvet took great pains to protect the floor from disturbance. The bones of the cave bears, their tracks, the beds they dug for hibernation are all still visible. And in that ancient clutter, the scientists who have been studying the cave found two unusual sets of prints. On set belonged to a human, about four feet tall, judging by the size of the tracks and the length of stride.

The other set is clearly canine. It’s impossible to determine whether the two came into the cave together, although I find it a little far-fetched to believe that a wolf would venture hundreds of feet into the stygian darkness of a cave that has been inhabited by cave bears unless he was following someone. Was this creature a dog or a “socialized wolf”? Opinions vary, but I like to think the two went into the cave together, the kid holding the torch and convincing the canine to come along.

The two trails beg the question: Why was the youngster so far back in the grotto? It seems likely that he was there to see the paintings, although we don’t know for certain why. Over the years, anthropologists have offered several explanations of the function of cave art. One thing seems clear— it wasn’t just an exhibit of the artist’s skill, considerable as that often was. The fact that these paintings were stuck far back in a cave suggests some mystic significance. The artists may have been making magic against their prey; they may have been worshipping the animals or engaging in some sort of shamanistic cult.

Whatever the details, the activity in these painted caves seems bound to the hunt. If that’s the case, it’s easy to imagine young initiates being led into the darkness of the cave as part of a coming-of-age ritual with the art serving as some sort of catechism. For these ice-age people, hunting was a central element of religion, and the ceremonies in the back of the cave were, in all likelihood, an important part of hunter education. And you thought you were breaking new ground . . .

There’s no way of knowing how those ancient hunters approached the chase, but if the example of modern subsistence hunters is any guide, they may have lived by a remarkably stern ethical code. In 1936, the eminent wildlife biologist, C.H.D. Clarke, went to the Arctic to study muskoxen and spent many years among the Inuit of northern Canada at a time when most of these people still hunted to live. Clarke told my dad that he knew an old man in one of the Inuit villages who had been blind most of his life. It was said in the village that, when the man was young, his fellow hunters had put out his eyes because he had failed to show proper respect to a caribou he had killed.

These are the echoes of belief and commitment in hunting that come down to us from prehistory.

The training of young hunters may be the oldest form of human education, an exercise that predates mankind itself and was already unimaginably ancient when people settled down to farm and build cities. The oldest hunter education text I know was written by a Greek named Xenophon, born in Athens more than 430 years before the birth of Christ. As a young man, he threw in with Cyrus the Younger when the prince tried, unsuccessfully, to claim the Persian throne.

Among several other important works, Xenophon wrote Cynegeticus— On Hunting. It was a practical guide to hunting technique: weaving and setting nets; choosing good dogs and training them— “There is a good deal to be said for taking your hounds frequently into the mountains,” he wrote. “It is there they will become sound of foot, and in general the benefit to their physique in working over such ground will amply repay you”— the variability of scent; the best clothes for hunting; techniques for hunting lions, bears, wild boar, deer, and the lowly hare.

Does the hunt have any value for civilized men?

Xenophon thought so. “To the gods themselves is due the discovery,” he wrote, “to Apollo and Artemis, patrons of the chase and protectors of the hound. As a reward they bestowed it upon Cheiron, by reason of his uprightness, and he took it and was glad, and turned the gift to good account. At his feet sat many a disciple, to whom he taught the mystery of hunting and of chivalry. . . . Thanks to the careful heed they paid to dogs and things pertaining to the chase, thanks also to the other training of their boyhood, all these greatly excelled, and on the score of virtue were admired.

“For my part, then, my advice to the young is, do not despise hunting or the other training of your boyhood, if you desire to grow up to be good men, good not only in war but in all else of which the issue is perfection in thought, word, and deed.”

Xenophon’s view of hunting in 400 B.C.

In matters of philosophy and culture, the Romans were staunch followers of the Greeks, so it’s no surprise to find guides to hunting in Latin prose and poetry. The ones that have come down to us emphasize the breeding, care, and training of hunting dogs for various tasks, as in this passage from a resident of Carthage, Marcus Aurelius Olympius Nemesianus:

“At the outset your diligent care for your dogs must start from the beginning of the year. . . . At that season you must choose a bitch obedient to speed forward, obedient to come to heel, native to either the Spartan or the Molossian country-side, and of good pedigree.” Nemesianus goes on to describe how to breed for the best dogs, how to pick the best pup out of a litter (a knack I wish I had), even how to change feeding regime to make sure the dogs are ready for the fall. And, like any hunter, he’s anxious for the season to open:

“Already my heart is tideswept by the frenzy the Muses send: Helicon bids me fare through widespread lands. . . . We search the glades, the green tracts, the open plains, swiftly coursing here and there o’er all the fields, eager to catch varied quarries with docile hound.”

Sounds familiar.

With the disintegration of the Roman Empire, Europe shattered into a mass of contending dominions, constantly at war with each other and with outside forces like the Mongols and Muslims. It’s not called the Dark Ages for nothing, nearly a thousand years during which art and literacy gave way to near anarchy. Hunting was a central part of medieval life in that time, but there were few men who had the training or inclination to put the laws and customs down on parchment.

One of these was Gaston, Third Count of the fief of Foix in France, known as Phoebus because of his blond hair. “All my life,” Phoebus wrote, “ I have taken special delight in three things: arms, love, and hunting.” He went on to say that he claimed no expertise in the first two areas but had no doubts about his mastery of the third.

Sometime around 1387, Phoebus wrote The Book of the Chase, an encyclopedic look at hunting techniques and equipment of the time and place. Mixed with his extensive and generally rock-solid advice on the details of the chase, Phoebus took time to recognize the less tangible benefits a day afield:

“When the hunter riseth in the morning, he sees a sweet and fair morrow, and the clear weather and bright, and heareth the song of the small fowl, the which sing sweetly with great melody and full of love, each in his language in the best way that he may . . . and when the sun is arise, he shall see the fresh dew upon the small twigs and grass, and the sun which by its virtue shall make them shine, and that is great liking and joy to the hunter’s heart.

“And when he hath well et and well drunk, then he shall go lie in his bed and shall sleep well and steadfastly all the night without any evil thought of any sin, wherefore I say that hunters go into Paradise when they die, and live in this world most joyful of any other men.

“. . . And therefore be ye all hunters, and ye shall do as wise men.”

Phoebus’s book provided the foundation for the first English book on hunting, The Master of Game, written or, more accurately, translated by Edward, Duke of York, The Master of Game provided the foundation for the Book of Hawkyng, Huntyng &c. by Dame Juliana Berners, first published in 1486. In her introduction, Dame Berners offered this motive for writing her book for “gentlemen having delight therein. This book showeth to such gentle persons the manner of Hunting for all manner of beasts, whether they be beast of Venery, or of Chase, or Rascal. And it also showeth all the terms convenient as well to the hounds as to the beasts aforesaid.” A fifteenth-century hunter education manual.

This was the hunting tradition that came to the New World, customs and attitudes shaped by noblemen on a continent that was quickly running out of game and the wild places that supported it. In the tiny settlements on the east coast of America, hunting quickly became a matter of getting food or making a profit, but in spite of the utilitarian approach taken by the first waves of immigrants, the more refined attitudes of the European aristocracy gained an early foothold.

Thomas Morton, a down-at-the-heels lawyer from Devonshire, England, came to Massachusetts colony in 1624. Unlike many of the Puritans in the area, he found the wilderness at the edge of town irresistible:

“Fowls in abundance,” he wrote, “fish in multitude, millions of turtledoves on the green boughs, which made the land to me seem paradise. In mine eye, t’was Nature’s Masterpiece.” His subsequent description of trees, game birds, and big game was a hunter’s ode to wildlife and wild places— it was probably America’s first hunter education manual.

As the decades passed, a steady trickle of publications provided hunters with first-hand information on the landscapes and game to be found in North America. Most were natural histories written by men who combined a love of hunting with a scientific interest in flora and fauna, a combination that has probably been common among hunters since mankind made the first stone tools.

In 1783, an anonymous army officer in New York published The Sportsman’s Companion: or An Essay on Shooting, generally regarded as the first book to focus on hunting technique in America. Scattered through the practical advice, the author offers an occasional comment on conservation, as in this passage:

“They are Partridge to be sure— I seem them gather, Sir. We may kill many, but— what the deuce!— four brace [that’s eight birds]? That’s too many. I think it’s time to return home for tea.”Flick and birds, Mike's 1

Forty years later, Jesse Kester of Philadelphia published The American Shooter’s Manual, a book intended “to diffuse throughout the community a taste for genteel and sportsman-like shooting, and to abolish that abominable poaching, game destroying, habit of ground shooting, trapping, and snaring, which prevails throughout our country in the neighborhood of all cities and large towns.”

Kester’s book was on the leading edge of a rapidly growing hunting literature. The first American magazine to emphasize hunting and fishing started in 1829, and one of the most influential writers on these subjects, Henry William Herbert, better known as Frank Forester, began a twenty-year career in the spring of 1839.

“There is, perhaps, no country in the world which presents to the sportsman so long a catalog of the choicest game, whether of fur, fin, or feather as the United States,” he wrote in his Field Sports of the United States in 1848. “None in which the wide-spread passion for the chase can be indulged, under so few restrictions, and at expense so trifling.” Unfortunately, he added there is also no place in which the habits of game animals “are so little known and their seasons so little regarded, none in which the gentle craft of Venerie is so often degraded into mere pot-hunting. The game that swarmed of yore in all the fields and forests, in all the lakes, rivers, bays, and creeks of its vast territory are in peril of becoming speedily extinct.”

In 1887, the ethics championed by Forester and others crystallized into an organization of hunters dedicated to fair chase and wildlife conservation: the Boone and Crockett Club. In 1893, the founders of the club, Teddy Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell, wrote this about their intentions: “The Club hopes to bring about the preservation of our big game by discouraging among sportsmen themselves all unsportsmanlike proceedings and all needless slaughter. Hunting big game in the wilderness is, above all things, a sport for a vigorous and masterful people. The rifle-bearing hunter, whether he goes on foot or on horseback, whether he voyages in a canoe or travels with a dog-sled, must be sound of body and firm of mind, and must possess energy, resolution, manliness, self-reliance, and capacity for hardy self-help. These are the very qualities which it is the purpose of this Club, so far as may be, to develop and foster.”

The effort to educate hunters ripened in the early years of the twentieth century with the establishment of organizations like the Boy Scouts of America and the Campfire Club and with marvelous books like Ernest Thompson Seton’s Two Little Savages and George Bird Grinnell’s Jack Tales. The first state-sanctioned hunter education program started in 1946 when Kentucky included hunter safety in its statewide youth camp. New York was the first state to require hunter safety in 1949.

And that was about the time the writer Robert Ruark began publishing the essays that became the best single hunter education text I’ve ever read: The Old Man and the Boy. There have been many books on hunter safety and ethics, but I can’t think of one that presented better information in more readable style. Considering the company this evening, I’d like to offer Ruark’s definition of a top-drawer hunter education instructor:

“The Old Man knows pretty near close to everything. And mostly he ain’t painful with it. What I mean is that he went to Africa once when he was a kid, and he shot a tiger or two out in India, or so he says, and he was in a whole mess of wars here and yonder. But he can still tell you why quail sleep at night in a tight circle or why the turkeys always fly uphill. “The Old Man ain’t much to look at on the hoof. He’s got big ears that flap out and a scrubby mustache with light yellow tobacco stains on it. He smokes a crook-stem pipe and he shoots an old pump gun that looks about as battered as he does. His pants wrinkle and he spits pretty straight in the way people used to spit when most grown men chewed Apple tobacco.

“The thing I like best about the Old Man is that he’s willing to talk about what he knows, and he never talks down to a kid, which is me, who wants to know things. When you are as old as the Old Man, you know a lot of things that you forgot you ever knew, because they’ve been a part of you so long. You forget that a young’un hasn’t had as hard a start in the world as you did, and you don’t bother to spread information around. You forget that other people might be curious about what you already knew and forgot.”

I’d like to thank all of you here in this room for being willing to share what you already knew and forgot, whether you’re a real Old Man, like me, or just practicing to be one sometime down the trail. There are a lot kids out there who want to know things about hunting and wild places and don’t have anyone else to tell them. They need you.

The discipline of hunting was already ancient when the elders first held class in the torch-lit recesses of Chauvet Caverns 30,000 years ago, but I believe it holds as much for us today as it did for the people of that far-off time and place. It is, after all, what made us human. You are the last in that long line of teachers, stretching back to our beginnings as a species. Thank you for passing the lesson on.

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