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From Bushwick to Appalachia: On the Hunt with ParksByNature Blogger Jack Kredell

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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Photo by Megan Mack

Photo by Megan Mack

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.

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Photo by Megan Mack

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.

Photo by Megan Mack

Photo by Megan Mack

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.

Photo by Megan Mack

Photo by Megan Mack

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.

Photo by Megan Mack

Photo by Megan Mack

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.

Photo by Megan Mack

Photo by Megan Mack

Summer of the Snapping Turtle

Image: commons.wikimedia.org

Image: commons.wikimedia.org

By Jack Kredell

One of the first things my grandfather told me when I went to visit him on the Abita River in Louisiana was that if I was bit by a snapping turtle it would not let go until it thundered. I was nine years old then, and in my imagination where the snapping turtle had taken hold with its vice-like jaws, it has yet to thunder. Many years later, after deciding with a friend to make use of the area’s abundant snapper population for turtle soup, I realized he was probably referring to Macrochelys temminckii, the Godzilla-esque alligator snapping turtle, and not the more diminutive common snapping turtle, which can be taken legally throughout the Northeast.

That summer the snappers were everywhere; we saw them splattered on roadsides, roving between water hazards on golf courses, and once, while fishing, I saw a turtle the size of a municipal trashcan lid dart out of the tea-colored depths and give chase to a hooked bluegill. That turtle, which we called King Snapper, became the turtle of our dreams, the turtle of legend against which all other turtles were measured. But we knew that King Snapper would not be caught, or if he was, it come at the price of our sanity and livelihoods, so we focused on small to medium-sized turtles (which were supposedly better for soup).

Catching snapping turtles isn’t as easy as it looks. They’re nimble swimmers and the moss that collects on their shells makes them hard to spot. Our early tactics were based on a series of Youtube videos that showed a guy waist deep in pond scum using a hiking staff to feel for submerged turtles. Armed with newly made turtle staffs, we trudged through the stream behind our houses, stopping every so often to prod the bottom for the knock of a turtle shell. We logged 15 to 20 hours of futility using this method. The closest we got was a set of turtle tracks that ran up a muddy bank. At least they were in the area.

In the meantime, our quest for turtles had become an obsession. We judged lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, and wetlands on turtle potential alone. In our new snapper-inspired lexicon things were either turtley-slow, shallow, murky, foul-smelling-or not turtley-fast-moving, rocky, trout infested. If we happened on a clear and fast stream while searching for the turtle gold of stagnancy and putrefaction, we might disdainfully overturn a rock or two before leaving it for some fly tyer to explore. It was useless to us if it didn’t hold turtles. If you could drink the water after boiling it once, maybe twice, it was not interesting to us. Turtle water will kill you. Turtles thrived in human poison. To get closer meant poisoning ourselves.

Or so we thought. As summer progressed we began to refine our methods. We traded in turtle staffs for less labor-intensive jug lines that we manufactured from orange juice and milk containers. We also narrowed down our list of turtle waters to a few nearby lakes and ponds. One of the more promising locations was a shallow, seasonal overflow pond adjacent a popular trout-fishing stream. When I went to scout it I saw a 20-pound snapper furtively slip into the water from a tree stump where it was sunning itself. This was the place. When I got home I called up my turtle partner with the news and we drove over to set up a few jug lines baited with chicken gizzards before it got dark.

Though smaller, the common snapping turtle is no less fierce than its bayou-dwelling cousin. They will claw and bite you if handled improperly. We rode our bicycles over the next morning and found that something had taken the bait. The first line came in without resistance; we found nothing but a severely misshapen 2/0 hook. Whatever was capable straightening a steel hook was an absolute brute. Was it the monster I had seen the day before? When I began to draw in the other jug, which had been pulled from the bank to the middle of pond, I felt the writhing tug of a turtle, and then horror; the mono broke above the leader. Panicked, I waded in to see if I could grab the turtle. The line was caught on a limb and next to it, facing away from me, was a 15 pounder snapping turtle. I moved in and snatched it by its tail. The search was over. I pulled the snapper from the water like a mad turtle baptist.

We put our prize in an army surplus backpack made of thick canvas and started for home. The feeling of the turtle raking my back with its claws as we cycled down the highway filled me with sadness, not to mention a sense of the absurd. I felt sorry for the creature strapped to its own death, struggling to make sense of its dark canvas cell. But I also looked forward to the idea of soup, and to wearing the shell as a breastplate after the apocalypse.

Turtles must be purged before you can eat them. This is done by placing the turtle in a large plastic container and changing the water every other day for two weeks. A turtle is considered purged when you no longer have to change the water after 24 hours. It is also recommended that you bleed your turtle out by cutting off the head and hanging it upside down in the shade for a couple hours. Then comes the hard part. Turtles are resilient – if not the undead – creatures who will fight the butcher’s hand long after the head is removed (I mean for hours). Butchering turtles is not like other animals because the shell restricts your access from the top. Meat must be cut out rather than stripped away with neat linear cuts. Nevertheless, in a few hours the turtle yielded 5-7 pounds of very fresh, clean-looking meat. The soup was incredibly delicious, which we made that evening with the help of my friend’s kids. We topped it off with a little sherry and ate it with a side of sourdough. We were amazed that such a delicate and clean flavor could issue from mud and muck. In terms of flavor the meat is somewhere between alligator and beef, without being as chewy as the former nor as tender as the latter. We were very pleased.

Later that summer, I went back to the lake where King Snapper lived to fish for bluegill. When I arrived I was greeted by a vast wasteland of sun-baked mud. Evidently the state couldn’t afford the repairs needed to fix the dam so the lake was drained. I walked over the hardened flats collecting bits of derelict tackle. The thunder had spoken and the summer of the snapping turtle was over.

image: www.ancient-origins.net

Should Millennials Hunt? A Response to Michael J. Parker

By Jack Kredell

Michael J. Parker’s Huffington Post article “Millennials Must Hunt” recounts the story of his life-changing first hunt and calls on Generation Y to take up hunting as a way to resist the environmentally damaging industrial food apparatus. According to Parker, the queasy refusal to personally source our food has lead us “to outsource the ‘sausage-making’ to third party leviathans, whose increasing power have left us disconnected from the wild.” Parker’s solution is for the eater to reabsorb the “emotional, environmental, and psychological burdens” through hunting. “The further we put ourselves from the source of that act,” writes Parker, “the worse the impact for everyone and everything in the chain.” The solution is for Millennials to return to a pre-industrial or ‘direct’ mode of food production through hunting, thus ending our dependence on industrial food practices.

As a city-dwelling Millennial who began hunting in college for many of the same reasons as Parker, I completely agree that we need to radically rethink our food practices. I also think that hunting might be part of the solution. However, going on a thousand dollar guided mule deer hunt in the Yellowstone wilderness because it offers “the most honest possible version” is not a viable solution to the food crisis: it’s a form of privilege. Millions of Americans already supplement their diets with fresh wild game every year, and the vast majority don’t require expensive guided hunts in the wilderness to do it. The arrogance of a first-time hunter to say what honest or real hunting should look like.

Parker’s version of nature and hunting is also deeply elitist. This is hunting as safari, a cottage industry where people spend large amounts of money flying to exotic locations for the experience of hunting wild animals in their ‘natural’ habitat. Not only does it privilege one ‘natural’ environment, Yellowstone, over others-it simply isn’t sustainable. Are we all going to fly to Montana and ride horses into the wilderness for our food? Why not don loincloths and spears to make it even more authentic?

The deeper problem with Parker’s model is that it operates under the romantic notion that the social and environmental crisis is rooted in the individual’s existential relationship to the world. Hence this truly warped and counterfactual statement about our reliance on industrial farming: “It is our fear of facing the gruesome consequences of our own choices that leads use to outsource “the sausage-making” to third par party leviathans, whose increasing power have left us disconnected from the wild.” Industrial farming is widespread because of the demand for food that, unlike a Yellowstone mule deer, people can afford. That it does so at the expense of quality and the environment is a direct result of the socio-economic inequalities brought about by capitalism. It has nothing to do with us not choosing to have an existential and authentic relationship with our food. Even paleolithic societies had a division of labor.

The problem is not the distance between people and their food, but between people and other people-the chronic income inequality that sustains and even makes necessary cheap industrial food. The irony is that the kind of hunting Parker encourages is not the least bit sustainable, and nor is it the kind of hunting that millions of Americans already take part in. If anything, Parker’s story reads like an attempt to reinsert masculinity into the food chain as a response to the intergenerational power struggle between hard conservative Baby Boomers and soft liberal Millennials.

When it comes to solving the food crisis, we need to abandon individual concepts like authenticity and start thinking in terms of collectivity. A solution that doesn’t benefit everybody is part of the problem. Parker’s call on Millennials to hunt is little more than an exercise in privilege that snobbishly ignores the millions of American hunters who already practice a more sustainable version than Parker’s. Everybody should have the right to eat good food, not just young entrepreneurs who go on thousand dollar deer hunts when the equivalent can be accomplished few miles from home for the cost of a 20 dollar hunting license.

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The Way of All Flesh

By Jack Kredell

The difference between store-bought meat and wild game is that the latter, even when it’s sitting in your freezer, is never really dead.

The pheasant bones in the stock I made are from the same pheasant that slashed my palm as I wrung its neck. The episode replays itself whenever I ladle out a bowl of soup. It’s a strange thing to be able to connect the food on your plate to the living animal whose life you took for this purpose. The pheasant persists in my memory of the hunt, and later, in the satisfaction of having had a delicious meal.

That feeling of ‘knowing’ the animal lingers long after you make the kill. By taking its life, you assume 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. You take on a debt to the animal that can only be repaid by eating it-or giving it away to friends.

Dead hen pheasant by rifle in field [Image Credit: Jack Kredell]

Image Credit: Jack Kredell

But while wild game is never really dead, store-bought meat can seem like it was never really alive. I’ll catch myself behaving under this assumption when I throw out store-bought leftovers that, had it been from a pheasant or deer, I would wrap up and put back in the fridge.

The fundamentals don’t really change with store-bought meat; while you are alienated from that animal’s death and all that follows, it was nonetheless done for you because you paid. Money assumes intention. The only difference between the pheasant and the factory-farmed chicken, when I really examine it, is that I “knew” the pheasant. I caused both to die, but the pheasant left its mark on my palm.

It’s a privilege to be able to have that perspective, one that doesn’t grant you the moral authority to call somebody a hypocrite for not shooting his or her own dinner. Even that deboned chicken breast comes from a place as real as the pheasant in my soup. The mark on my hand tells me that.

We Hunters

An armed hunter backlit by a sunset

Image: www.montcodfa.org

By Jack Kredell

The hunting community, to borrow Benedict Anderson’s term, is an imagined community; a community whose popular or mass identity doesn’t reflect the behaviors, values, and opinions of its individual members. Of course it doesn’t. No community can accommodate all of its members, right? As a community we’ve agreed to put aside differences in order to unite against a common enemy. Once that enemy goes away we can go back to being different. But the enemy never goes away, does it?

Hunters, who is your real enemy? Democrats who want to take away your guns? The “antis” who hide under your bed and unload your hi-cap magazines while you sleep? PETA? Stop drinking the Kool-Aid. Arms manufacturers love a Democratic president. Why? Because we think Democrats are coming for our guns.

The real threats to hunting and fishing are from the many forms of habitat loss, industrial pesticides, and pollution. But as a hunter you can’t care about those things or else you’re thinkin’ like an “anti”.

Right now, unfortunately, the hunting community is defined by its relation to the gun and other non-issues. We’re made to believe the Second Amendment is a central issue to the hunter. It isn’t. Gun politics has nothing to do hunting. The only thing that has ever put an end to hunting in the past is loss of habitat. And it will again.

To be a hunter in today’s climate carries with it a whole set of political and cultural expectations and concerns that have little or nothing to do with actual hunting. We hunters need to wake up. Those of us who actually hunt know that hunting is being undermined from within not from without. It is being undermined by the mindset that our enemy wants to take away our ‘right’ to hunt.

You’re worried about PETA and Obama? You’re actually worried about what PETA and the Humane Society think of what you do?

The real question is this: will there be anything or anywhere to hunt in the end? The irony is that we hunters have more in common with the very hippies we like to make fun of.

We both just want green acres.

Thou Art That: A Turkey Hunt

By Jack Kredell

On October 28th, 2011, an unusual convergence of meteorological events produced record snowfall across much of the Mid-Atlantic and New England. Dubbed the Halloween nor’easter, the untimely storm was responsible for 39 deaths, widespread power outages and several billion dollars in damage. It also coincided with the opening day, October 29th, of the 2011 Pennsylvania fall turkey season.

It was also the occasion of a realization, born of tramping boots and frozen tangled laces, that when you enter the woods to hunt, you are hunting yourself. Experience, for the most part, is self-limiting; the measure of your experience will define, broadly, the range of possibilities and potentialities available to it. A novice hunter will likewise take a novice animal, and a master, not without a little luck, will take a master animal.

Mt. Nittany Under a Heavy Snow [image: Jack Kredell]

Mt. Nittany Under a Heavy Snow [image: Jack Kredell]

By noon the snow had turned into the gentle parachuting kind so I decided pack my things and head for Mt. Nittany, a 2,077-foot lobe of a mountain in the Ridge and Valley province of the Pennsylvania Appalachians. The woods on top are woods I know, it’s where I taught myself to hunt, but on that day they were unrecognizable. The trails were choked with snow, in many places a knee deep, with only a meandering treelessness giving indication of a trail’s passage. I headed for a stand of older oaks on the southeastern slope where the acorn crop was good and I had seen turkeys before. I sat under a large oak and began calling.

Hours passed in silence. I was shivering and it was getting dark. Snowflakes the size of packing peanuts were beginning to land on and dampen the chalk-lined edges of my box call rendering it all but useless. Turkeys would hear my wheezing turkey and think not to bother. I gave up. It was worth it if only to see the woods in so deep a snow. After walking a mile in the direction of the trailhead I noticed something was off. The landscape didn’t look like it was supposed to. I had gone the wrong way.

It wasn’t the dangerous kind of lost. Just the frustrating kind-the kind that bruises your feet and ego. I didn’t feel like I could walk two more snowy miles at that moment so I decided to sit and call. I dried the edge of my call and ran through a series of sharp cuts and clucks. Then came an answer. It was the faintest yelp but I heard it. It was for me.

I began to imitate every sound I heard. The sound got closer and closer until I saw the dark body bobbing its way towards me through the snow. When it got to 20 yards I squeezed the trigger. I barely registered the shot. The bird lay on its back kicking and flapping. I ran down to it, and kneeling, broke its neck.

A Jake Shoots a Jake: [Image: Jack Kredell]

A Jake Shoots a Jake: [Image: Jack Kredell]

I decided to slide down the mountain on my ass while clutching the turkey in my lap. I was so elated I barely noticed when it dumped me in somebody’s backyard with a dead bird in one hand and a shotgun in the other. I walked home along the highway with the bird dangling over my shoulder like it was something I did all the time.

I told an older hunter that I got a turkey during the storm. He said sometimes turkeys get lost in snowstorms.

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