Since I live and work in New York City, I have to commute to hunt. In May of this year I traveled with photographer Megan Mack to my hometown in Central Pennsylvania for spring turkey season. In addition to photographing the hunt, she conducted the following interview in which we discussed how I got into hunting and the culture of hunting in general.
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Q: When did you first start hunting? How were you introduced to hunting?
A: I started from scratch my senior year in college. My grandfather was a seasoned hunter living in Idaho, but growing up in the San Fernando Valley I had little contact with the outdoors. Yet I knew from childhood visits to the Idaho backcountry that part of me belonged outdoors. When I was 16 my family relocated to central Pennsylvania and I began spending a lot of time fishing and hiking. From there it’s hard to say exactly how I came into hunting or why the interest took so long to develop. It began as a kind of joint venture with a friend I met in college (in a science fiction class of all places) who also wanted to have a more direct relationship with the landscape. This meant finding morels or wild blueberries for a pie as much as it did shooting a deer. We wanted to go as local and immediate as possible and see where it led (it led to the bizarre world of snapping turtle fishing and Lyme disease among other things). If this sounds crazy and theoretical it was: It took us years to acquire the skills to actually eat from scratch—to become hunters.
Q: Do you think people who have never hunted misunderstand your purpose or experiences as a hunter? Why is that?
A: I think hunters like to assume that non-hunters misunderstand them and I’m not sure that’s the case. In response to this general feeling of being misunderstood, a lot of hunters go on the defensive by claiming to have a more authentic relationship to the food they eat. The problem with this representation is that it makes hunting seem like a duty—a duty to be more authentic or less of a hypocrite than the average person who gets their meat from the supermarket. Let’s be clear: most who get their meat from the supermarket, including myself, are generally aware of being complicit in the slaughter. So if I’m ever misunderstood it’s because people think I hunt out of principle, which is not the case. I hunt because I enjoy it as a way of getting high quality meat. I don’t know why hunters have trouble admitting that pleasure is a huge part of it. Hunting is very sensual. You need to be in touch with your senses to be good at it.
Beyond pleasure, I think there can even be something like love in taking an animal’s life. Think about what it means to eat for a second. You are taking a piece of the outside world and swallowing it so that it becomes part of you until something new replaces it. Your body is the site where outside is turned inside. What’s more intimate than that? Shouldn’t we be vigilant about the things we put inside our bodies? I think you can extend the idea of well-being beyond discrete substances that are good for you to include experiences that are good for you. In that way, hunting is a kind of edible experience. For people who find hunting repulsive I would say that very few people hunt “for fun.” I don’t think I’ve ever had fun while hunting. Hunting is an activity of extremes. Successful or not, it will often break your heart and your body.
Q: I understand that wild turkey hunting can be very challenging. Why is that?
A: Turkey hunting is like building a house of cards: the slightest breeze or movement, and it all comes crashing down. All of it. Always. In addition to the notoriously keen eyesight, turkeys are very moody creatures. They can behave differently day to day. It takes a lot of time in the woods to become familiar with all the variations in behavior, and not just knowing the different behaviors, but also knowing how to counter them. Basically it takes a long time to get good at and I’m still a novice. Then you have the contradiction at the heart of turkey calling of trying to make a bird come to you who’s used to birds coming to him. So when that tom committed to the call I thought for sure I had him. But then something spooked him and that was that. It was probably my fault but I’m not sure yet what I did wrong. This is fairly common in turkey hunting.
Q: How did you feel being documented while hunting?
A: Prior to the shoot, I told myself I would hunt as though I were alone. But it wasn’t the case at all. It was no longer I but we who were hunting. And not only we were hunting, but we were hunting for the first time. Even though we weren’t successful, I’m still impressed by how close we got.
Q: Although hunting brings a lot of adrenaline, it also provides an opportunity for quiet meditation. What is your take on the experience of hunting?
A: Hunting is mostly quiet and meditative. I’ve missed many animals, especially birds, because I wasn’t present enough. There’s a huge difference between walking around the woods hoping something will happen versus feeling dialed in or present. Good things happen when you’re dialed in. The more present I am, the more I become like the thing that I’m hunting—quiet, deliberate, decisive, alert. An animal can read the signs of the natural world much better than you. For a hunter, the goal of meditation is to become more receptive to a world in which you spend little time and where animals spend all their time. Their lives are writ everywhere when you look close enough. Hunting is about learning to read that writing.
Q: As a society we’re becoming aware that we have lost the connection between our food and its source. Hunting definitely revives our awareness and creates an appreciation of what we eat. As an ex-vegetarian, I struggled with hunting and the killing of animals, but this project has brought me closer to accepting that if one can actually hunt and understand the sacrifice of an animal’s life to feed a human being, hunting becomes a more humane concept. How do you feel when killing an animal?
A: The first time I shot a deer I felt like I had done something very wrong. I felt incredible sorrow but also elation. As you walk up to the animal on the ground you become aware of the huge responsibility contained in its lifelessness. The animal belongs to you now and you’d better take care of it. I was aware of that responsibility going it into the woods but it doesn’t feel real until you’re pinching the hide to make that first cut and then dragging it two miles back to the car. By taking its life, I assumed a responsibility to see the hunt all the way through, literally down to the last bite. You are both executor and inheritor of its flesh. As you skin and butcher, it transforms from an animal into the bits of abstract flesh that most of us know meat by. The difference with this meat, aside from it’s amazing deliciousness, is that it will forever be associated with the living animal through your memory of the hunt. The process of butchering a deer is hard work. But yes, taking an animal from the wild and preparing it to eat was an incredible and, in a way, devastating experience that I’ll never forget.
Q: Many people believe that big game hunting is cruel and inhumane. Do you agree or disagree? Would you personally hunt the big five or other animals besides those you would eat and utilize?
A: I’ll answer this question in relation to the big five of Africa. Hunters are afraid to pass judgment on one another because we have this notion that the integrity of the hunting community is worth preserving over the ideological differences of its members. Big lobbyist groups like the NRA have a vested financial interest in making the hunting community think that Obama or PETA or Environmentalists or the EPA want to destroy its way of life. So we put our differences aside to combat this ever-present external threat that never actually occurs (meanwhile the guns and ammo fly off the shelves, and it’s a victory for the NRA). It’s ironic how the prohibition on judgment reproduces the very political correctness that annoys conservatives. But I enjoy passing judgment so I’ll say this about African hunting: It’s a waste of money, and contrary to myth of the Great Whiter Hunter, it takes less grit and skill to the hunt the big five than it does money. Anytime a hunter comes out against African hunting they wave the green flag of envy at you. I have no desire to hunt Africa whatsoever. I have no desire to hunt Africa for the same reason I have no desire to go on a cruise to a island resort in the Bahamas: both were curated for people like me to enjoy and enjoy a certain way. African hunting preserves and island resorts are alike in that they’re built to keep the outside world out. I like when a place feels indifferent or even hostile to my presence. The woods near my mom’s house where I go deer hunting are like that. They don’t give a fuck about me. They don’t welcome me, expertly guide me to the place where I’m supposed to hunt, skin my animal, and then cook dinner for me. Even a very mediocre hunter can go to Africa and kill a lion or buffalo. It’s set up that way. Put that same hunter on public land in America and they’ll have little success. I don’t want to be mediocre and I don’t want my money to do my hunting for me.
Q: What is your opinion of those who hunt only for sport?
A: Pure sport hunting, at least in the United States, is uncommon. American hunting traditions are pretty good about not being wasteful. However, I have more respect for poachers than I do for sport hunters who don’t eat what they kill. At least the poacher does it out of need, even if it’s financial.
I’m thinking specifically about Africa again. Like the majority of African poaching, African trophy hunting is a commercial form of hunting. The only real difference is that the latter is legal and steeped in colonial romance. Imagine a place with high fences where wealthy trophy hunters come and go while the actual residents outside the fence go hungry or remain in poverty. I’m going to be in favor of the people on the outside doing what they need to do to survive. Most African game can be shot in Texas anyways for a fraction of the African cost. So why even go to Africa? I say go local and save big on airfare.