Thursday, December 10, 2009

She Has To Learn

"She has to learn," you said. In the photos, the teenage girl held the knife uncertainly. The carcass of the moose hung beside her. Pictures appeared and disappeared on the monitor, in a slow pageant. The girl got bloodier, but the moose didn't get appreciably cut up, for several frames. "You go in between the second and third rib," you explained, as one massage therapist, familiar with anatomy, to another. And in truth, the anatomy of big mammals is instantly recognizable. If you've studied one, you've studied them all. But the moose was huge. The girl didn't seem to be getting far with it.

"You have to really get in there," you added. "You're quartering it, you know."

I didn't know. I don't come from a hunting family. It's one of those huge but largely undiscussed cultural divides in America: there are people who hunt and people who don't. Here in Oregon, anyway. In the little village in Alaska, up by the mouth of the Copper River, where your daughter was struggling with the carcass, everybody hunted: and you'd gone home, apparently, partly for this, for her initiation into a hunting culture.

She has to learn. I pondered that. It was said with a mother's certainty, but of course you don't say such a thing unless you feel a bit defensive about it. What did she have to learn, I wonder? That there are things that make you squeamish that you have to go through with anyway? That part of life is accepting that you live at the expense of other sentient beings? Both true enough. But you said it again, later on, about another picture: "we made her climb up this ladder. It's slippery, like twenty feet!" You laughed. "You could just walk around that way and step onto the boat on the other side, but we made her climb up. She has to learn."

There it was again, and it echoed in my memory long after. She has to learn. Here it seemed clearer: she has to learn to take a modicum of good-natured cruelty in stride. This was the long, authentic tradition of hunting peoples. They all do that: a little testing and pushing. Something at least a little dangerous, painful, and wholly unnecessary. Just to show that you're human, that you don't always have to take the easy way, that when the world throws down a challenge you can pick it up and show some fight.

I was always repulsed by the hunting kids I grew up with. I hated cruelty passionately, then as now, and I hated equally the fact that in rejecting cruelty I took on the status of wimp. In fact I wasn't a wimp: I stood up to physical pain and danger as well as anyone, and I took pride in it. Still do. But I didn't want to kill things and I didn't want to hurt them.

Many years later I learned to parse these things out a little differently. Whatever you think of the morality of hunting, surely the morality of animal farming is worse. To meet a moose in the wild and kill it is simply to do what cougars and wolves do. It's the universe as God designed it. You got an issue with it, take it up with God. The moose understands that as well as the hunter does. But to take in creatures and feed them and tend them, taking advantage of the bonds that social animals are so ready to form, and then one day to summarily cut their throats -- that's quite a different thing. How a herdsman can feel morally superior to a hunter is beyond me. And if you eat store-bought meat (as I do), you're fully implicated in that systematic treachery. Hunting seems awfully clean and straightforward, compared to that.

Still, looking at the photos of that carcass, I saw a human carcass, hung by the neck. We're really not that different. She has to learn. We all have to learn: or I wouldn't be able to buy hamburger at the store for tomorrow's lunch. Every parent of a meat-eating family hits that moment when their toddler realizes that their lunch is in fact that soulful cow in their favorite picture-book, killed and cut to pieces. And you have to explain somehow that it's all okay, and you know in fact that it's not, and you don't know whether to hope they accept your explanation, or to hope they spit in your face and denounce you as a hypocrite. I don't think I want to learn not to see a person dangling by the neck, when I see a moose dangling.

The only time I've done hard physical labor was on a farm in Yelm, Washington. We were building a barn, at one point, and at lunchtime, one of the crew, a wizened but tough little guy in his fifties, told us about hunting wolves from a helicopter. He had a funny story to tell us: when they came upon this wolf, it was taking a dump, and it tried to run, but it couldn't: wasn't done yet. So it was sort of hopping along, trying to finish, trying to run, and they got it. He was a good storyteller. You could see it vividly.

Everyone laughed, except me. I felt sick, and this image joined that my little private gallery of images -- I imagine everyone has one -- that can always take the shine out any day, however bright. That's hunting culture too.

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