Early 2021…

I learned today that Richard Nelson died a year ago. He was an anthropologist, 77 years old, who spent the latter part of his life in Alaska, primarily the Sitka area; I first encountered him through one of his early books, Make Prayers to the Raven, which was a report on time he spent with the Koyukon native people that made clear how deeply he identified with them. I don’t know much about his life but I read two of his subsequent books, ones in which he moved somewhat away from his role as anthropologist and wrote in a more literary, philosophical way about Nature and especially hunting. I share and admire his devotion to the natural world but never got comfortable with his hunting enthusiasm. He approached it in traditional native ways, respectfully and grateful for the physical and spiritual nurturance he said it gave him. I object to hunting in general because of my animal rights views but have made mental exceptions when it is for subsistence or is ecologically based, meaning that the hunter acts in the role of a traditional predator of particular species (in his case, primarily deer), predators that humans have generally decimated and left the niche open. His hunting fell within these categories, especially the second, and I never had reason to doubt the sincerity of his identification with native people’s attitudes toward killing animals for food. What I could never accept was the joy he appeared to take from the practice. Stalking and killing excited him, he got considerable satisfaction from succeeding, and he elaborated a philosophical rationale that involved the notion of the animal “giving itself” to a hunter. To me this idea was poetic nonsense intended to justify something he enjoyed doing and necessary to alleviate the guilt of taking lives; such guilt, for a generally compassionate person, would be a natural reaction requiring alleviation by plausible justification. I had two questions I would have asked him if we’d met: Had he ever had the experience while hunting and encountering a grizzly bear (as he reported happening more than once) of feeling readiness to give himself to the bear? And were the Koyukon glad that killing was necessary to live? Did they enjoy the hunt as opposed to engaging regretfully and respectfully in necessary killing and doing it with skill and sensitivity to minimize stress and suffering on the animal’s part? Was it not obligation rather than pleasure, satisfaction at doing it well rather than joy in having to do it at all? I don’t know the answers; it has been a long time since I read native American stories about the natural world and animals and, for that matter, since I read his books and so have no remaining memory of an answer. I do recall one author speaking about native hunting practices and the rituals of respect and gratitude they exhibited and suggesting these were little more than guilt-abatement efforts, an attitude I thought simplistic and not sufficiently aware of hunting’s place in their spiritual experiences and beliefs, but that’s as much as I remember. I would expect these hunters to feel the satisfaction and pleasure of doing it well but not to be glad they needed to do it at all. But I may be wrong since part of Nelson’s philosophy and perhaps theirs was the idea of Nature as inherently a place of living and dying and energy exchanges, and that human hunting was our way of fully participating in its realities, its flows. I can empathize with this notion as applying to subsistence hunters who truly had no recourse, but for moderns like Nelson who have plenty of alternatives to killing, it carries less weight. Even so, I remain humble about this in relation to Nelson and others like him whose deep engagement with Nature is so apparent. It’s not a choice I’ve made and can’t imagine doing but I can understand it. Life inevitably involves deaths; even organic farming by vegans will take lives involuntarily, and the extremity, say, of Jains hardly appeals to me. I’m sorry I never found a way to meet him and have this discussion. The best alternative may be reading the biography written about him that I learned about at the same time as I saw he had died.

Listen to Richard Nelson talk about hunting


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