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Living Wild and Domestic

Apparently Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Hunting are some of the best known philosophical essays on hunting. Well, Robert Kimber in his magnificient Living Wild and Domestic. The Education of a Hunter-Gardener (The Lyons Press, 2002) does not paint a pretty picture of Ortega’s Meditations. According to Kimber, Ortega defines hunting as a pure sport, giving man the possibility to cultivate the virtues of courage and skill. This does not satisfy Kimber. It seems possible to cultivate those virtues without killing animals, not to speak of the fact that Ortega’s descriptions of hunting as an aristocratic privilege do not even seem to give much ground to the virtues mentioned. No, the only reason and justification for killing the animal through the hunt Kimber finds is in eating it and using the skin and bones as usefully and skillfully as possible.
Kimber does take one lesson from Ortega, though: “we have not reached ethical perfection in hunting.” He does not intepret this to mean that the ethical perfection would be an ideal towards which we asymptotically climb. Quite the contrary, he ends up by disregarding Ortega’s linear time in favour of a circular one. But Kimber notes that there is a tension inside hunting. On one hand, despite its growing impossibility and anachronism, learning and living a hunter-gatherer-forager-gardener lifestyle seems and feels necessary for some kind of unity and wholeness. “… How else can we create a respectful bond with the creature world except by deliberate acts that may initially seem alien even to those of us perfoming them and insisting upon them?” (p. 151). On the other hand, such a lifestyle is not only becoming increasingly impossible, it also always seems to include the burden of eating something that once has been alive: “The vacuum created by wanting to kill and hating to kill is too strong. And maybe it is so strong that even the hunter-gatherer were not and are not entirely free of it either.” (p.150-151)
Kimber’s book is a semi-autobiographical narrative of struggling with this vacuum and tension. He goes through it all. Starting out as a young boy, with an unproblematic will to fish for food and kill “vermin”, graduating into sportfishing, and being a deer-guide in Maine. Then, animal husbandry, small-scale agriculture, hunting trips in the north, and keeping pets. With a keen and precise eye Kimber observes the problems of catch-and-release, of hunting for fun. He has also interesting things to say about the difference between domestic and wild animals, and agriculture in general. Without referring to the Levinasian philosophy of “Otherness”, Kimber stresses throughout the book the independence and strange beauty of the wild animal, that through its irreducibility to human endeavours presents a pardoxical opening for self-knowledge and wholeness. A quote from a Koyukon hunter recurs in the book: “Every animal knows more than you do.” And it is good that academic philosophy is mostly kept out of the book. Thought and action, scholarship and everyday life meet here in a balance that is seldom seen, and much needed.
The book is full of illuminating and intriguing passages. Take this one: “Because our pastoral religious tradition has little or no room in it for the hunt, we are left, in our culture, casting about in the toolbox of rationality, vainly searching the wrench or screwdriver thar can take the place of the shaman’s voice.” (p.153) Interesting is also the line of thought that while agriculture and industrialism have increased individual safety and comfort, the world of the forager was collectively more safe, at least by being ecologically stable – not for years, but hundreds of thousands of years (p.173).
Kimber ends with doubt, and hope beyond hope. He asks himself why he would not be content with the huntless world, why not “teach the wolf to dwell with the lamb”, why not leave the matter to bio-engineers and “wildlife management” that together can device a controlled world where meat eating is a thing of the past, and healthy deer graze in wildlife parks? His answer: “Because the heart rebels at that dreary prospect.” (p. 188). Here we come to a watershed: the heart rebels, the brain is lured by the possibility of technological utopia. It seems to me that Iaian M. Banks tries to illustrate this watershed in some of his Culture series. Subtly, with great compassion for the heart, Banks goes with the brain: appeasing the willing heart may be necassary but the road to true adulthood lies in continuing on the inevitable path of technology and enlightenment. There are some quite poignant hunting descriptions to this effect in Culture books, and sometimes the setting of Culture species alongside non-culture species seems to be consciously crafted to illustrate the way in which Culture species get their atavistic needs satisfied witout succumbing to cruel pratices. Chosing between Kimber’s Leopoldian and self-awowedly quixotic project of “wild husbandry” and Banks post-scarcity utopia comes down to, at least in part, evaluating the real possibilities of technological reason. For one thing, Banks utopia rests on genuine A I, which in my mind is a genuine impossibility. I wish Banks got it right, but my brain tells me the utopia is not there. Of course, it is always possible to believe in progress in the face of any technological disaster or shortcoming. So, a metaphysical choice, rolling this way or that way from the watershed.

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