Hunting: It’s More Sublime than You Might Think

Here’s the text of the pecha kucha talk I gave at Emergence Christianity last week:

The joy of hunting is sublime. Surprisingly sublime, when you consider that the climax of the endeavor comes with an explosion, in which a firing pin makes a tiny dent on the metal boot of a shotgun shell, compressing gunpowder and thereby causing an explosion that ejects dozens of pellets at breathtaking velocity through a metal tube and, if fate is on your side, into the flesh of a bird on the wing. Surprisingly sublime for an activity that ends, when successful, with blood and death.

I did not grow up hunting. My father is not a hunter, nor were my grandfathers. It is a chosen avocation of mine, often distasteful to those who share my vocation. I have yet to meet another PhD in theology in the field. Instead, I hunt with firefighters and Army Reservists and computer repairmen.

I hunt only birds, because hunting for me is all about the dog. It all starts with the dog.

Deep in the winter, the training begins. Hunting dogs are taught surprisingly few commands. Never “shake” or “roll over.” Not “lie down” or even “stay.” Just “sit,” “come,” “back,” and a release.

“Come” is simple enough, and if the dog loves and respects you, as any dog should, it is the most natural command.

“Sit” means more than just sit. It also means stay. It means to sit until released. There is no need for stay if the dog knows how to sit. “Sit” means sit until I tell you not to sit anymore.

The release command is the dog’s name, in our case, “Albert,” the happiest word the dog ever hears. When a bird hits the water, everything in a millennium of breeding leading to that moment fills every spiral of DNA in that retriever. He quakes with anticipation, salivates on behalf of his lupine ancestors, but, when trained, holds position until he hears his name.

“Albert!” He’s off like a shot, through brambles or thickets, breaking ice, busting through cattails. Unlike those lupine ancestors, he does not want to eat the dispatched fowl. His gastronomic needs are well tended to, and that instinct has been driven out of him. Instead, he wants nothing more than to bring that bird back, dead or alive, and lay it at his master’s feet.

And then he wants to do it again.

Pheasant hunting engages my relationship with Albert differently than waterfowling. Through fields of rye and switchgrass, he hunts, nose in the air, somehow knowing to quarter back and forth, back and forth in front of me, rarely running beyond my 40-yard shooting range. And when he does, a quick whistle brings him back in range.

It’s taken me two years of hunting with him to notice, but now I see it. When he gets birdy I see. My companion hunters don’t but I do. He makes a quick, subtle jerk. His ears go up slightly, and his tail begins to wag a little faster and at a different angle.

He’s on the scent of a pheasant. “He’s birdy,” I yell. And then the bird flushes. With the shout, “Hen!” the bird glides away unmolested. But exclamations of “Rooster!” brings gunfire, downing the majestic creature with the long pinfeathers about 50% of the time. The pointers stand around like idiots, but Albert again goes into retriever mode, chasing down the bird, bringing him back to me.

Back at home, we use every part of the bird. The meat goes for sausage, the bones for broth, and the feathers for dog training. Surprisingly, my otherwise picky children love it. “Please dad, make pheasant sausage again,” they ask on a weekly basis. Nothing makes Tanner, the 12-year-old, more proud than pulling a duck bratwurst from his lunchbox to the ooohs and aaahs of his middle school compatriots.

I cannot quite describe for you the allure of the hunt: the joy in watching a dog you’ve trained do exactly what you’d hoped; fighting back the heartbeat in your ears with the whistle of duck wings; the adrenaline rush with the cackle of a rooster taking flight; the satisfaction of bringing game to the table.

I cannot quite explain that fully-orbed experience. But I can tell you at least this much: if you don’t hunt, you might not understand it. It’s a bit like explaining the Eucharist to a Hindu. We are eating flesh and drinking blood, to be sure.

But it’s different than that.

It’s more sublime than that.

  • Matt Shults

    Amen!

    • tav

      You got a lot of it, but you left out the part of seeing God’s work every time you look up. The killing, while good for someone’s table, is incidental to being with God with your dog and good friends. My wife calls this ” duck blind time”. For some reason she thinks I am much more relaxed after time in the field. Go figure….

  • http://www.bkocka.wordpress.com Brianna Kocka

    I’m going rabbit and squirrel hunting in a few weeks, and I love theology AND am a woman.

    I’ve come to believe hunting is honestly the most sustainable to get our meat. There is a huge movement happening right now with ‘back to the land’ types who are opting for hunting over farming, and writing blogs and books about it.

    A great example is Hank Shaw, who curates http://honest-food.net. Another is Rohan Anderson who created http://www.wholelarderlove.com. And while I’m at it, I may as well plug my partner Peter’s blog post on the matter of guns and hunting: http://lifeisbestlived.com/2013/01/08/on-guns-and-hunting/

  • http://salamanderslam.com Dave H.

    You know I’m a vegetarian who feels an emotional kinship with most animals which prevents me from hunting. Yet I love this post because the beating heart and soul of this activity for you is love: for another animal! Albert and you are lucky to have each other, and I’ve sent this to a number of animal-sentimentalist pals like me as an example of a great way to be a hunter. I’m sorry to have missed the presentation in person! (Is there any way to get a look at the slides?)

  • Carla

    I have sent this to my bird hunting, dog loving kin. They will love it.

  • http://www.fidesquaerens.org/ Marta L.

    I’ve never hunted, but I grew up in the Carolinas. Of course I’ve been around hunters all my life; that’s a given. (My lack of hunting experience isn’t a knock at it; it simply was a guy thing growing up.) So while I can’t appreciate the sublime quality of hunting, I can appreciate the way I feel when I hike off the trail when I’m at home: the way I read animals’ reactions and use a different part of my mind. Something beyond my mind, actually.

    So yeah. In my limited way, I get it. Thank you for giving this glimpse into your world. It was really beautiful.

  • Phil P

    I love this post. I too am a “nontraditional” hunter, in that my family, profession, background and beliefs are atypical from most of my orange clad brethern in the field (and I say “brethern” intentionally, as I’ve rarely run into women hunters, and the few I have met seem hell-bent on being more sterotypically male than the men. But that’s a digression for another day). I don’t hunt much now due to infirmity and lack of time, but when I do, it is mostly upland bird, pheasant, dove and chukkar. I admire you, Tony, for the patience shown by being a waterfowl hunter – I find it too cold, wet and early in the morning! But the hours spent in the woods on the trail of a hidden, wiley chukkar, following the dogs or even going it alone, are sublime. I enjoy the communion with the woods, with my fellow hunters (in limited doses), with myself and yes, even with my prey. There is a reason hunters are committed conservationists, and many of us i’ve learned are spiritual people – we seek those sublime moments with our dogs, or with ourselves.

    A small correction, Tony, not meant to be churlish: You slightly mischaracterize the nature of a shotgun shot. The explosion of powder inside the shot shell is pure, rapid expansion of gasses occasioned by a tiny spark created when the firing pin of the gun hits the firing cap at the base of the shot shell. There is no “compression” involved – the trigger is pulled, causing the firing pin to strike the primer (the firing cap) which causes a tiny explosion against the volatile powder in the shell. That powder then ignites and burns with a very rapid expansion of gas that creates a pressure wave that pushes the shot pellets out the open end of the barrel and into the sky, ideally to find a target to become the dinner entree or sausage.

  • http://jpserrano.com Jeremy

    I’m a trap shooter and really enjoy gun sports. I would really like to try hunting though.

  • T.S.Gay

    We’re fox hunters……..but only with dogs and us on foot. We never shoot them. The fox and our dogs are symbiotic…..they are the same genus but not the same species…….otherwise I couldn’t say this…..and I hope you know the implications. I don’t know how to put it into words for readers. We have one of the 171 registered groups of dogs in the US. It takes most of a day to have a fox “go to ground” Occasionally they will climb a tree( canines don’t do this instinctively). We are the foremost promoters of stewardship of our rural area. We are in synch here mostly with other farmer pack breeders. Non-breeders are just sort of oblivious to our land, stewardship, and predator/prey relationship concerns. Fox hunting gets a bad rap in media…….it is in my scotch- irish, backwoods blood. I was trained by family members, including great grandfather. The dogs train us more than the other way around. Not being understood goes with it- it relates to how Christianity is not JUST spiritual, but holistic.
    As far as hunting……I was….but for meat….now that we’re older I don’t do it anymore…we don’t need it….even though it’s better than store bought…..and occasionally family members give us some deer or turkey or squirrel or rabbit….and I always appreciate it. I still fish, especially with my grandchildren.

    • tav

      give the meat to someone who does need it. Enjoy the experience of hunting while giving something you have to someone who really needs it.

  • T.S.Gay

    sorry….meant to say same family…..different species( fox are a genus Vulpes).

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  • http://www.somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com/ suzannah | the smitten word

    i found us some common ground, tony:) while i don’t hunt, my husband keeps us in venison, goose, and duck, and we’ve all learned to love it.

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      Love it!

  • Pingback: A Theology of Hunting — The Good Men Project


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