The Animal’s Almanac: On Hunting
February 10, 2012 5 Comments
The Animal’s Almanac is a new feature of my blog, one in which I will draw on the past to shed light on the current relationship among people, animals, and food.
In 1782, Hector St. John Crevecoeur published Letters from an American Farmer. In it, he surveyed life in British North America, commenting on everything from the behavior of Native Americans to the danger of the rattlesnake (“the only observation I wish to make is that the rattling is loud and distinct when they are angry.”) His thoughts on hunting are especially revealing.
We tend to mythologize the American frontier as a land of rough hewn Davy Crocketts, a land where a man lived by his gun and the game it provided. This nineteenth-century image is, however, belied by an eighteenth-century reality: British Americans, according to Crevecoeur, believed hunting to be a sign of degeneracy.
“Our bad people,” he wrote, referring to his fellow settlers, “are those who are half cultivators and half hunters.” He added, “and the worst of them are those who have degenerated altogether into the hunting state.” The idea that “hunting is but a licentious idle life” was widely shared in colonial America, a sign that settlers were failing to domesticate land and animals and, in so doing, becoming “savage” like the Indians.
Animal domestication–as I will show in the next almanac–led to a fundamentally different kind of relationship with animals than did hunting. Basically, farmers got to know animals as beings with distinct wants and needs. Hunting, by contrast, reduced an animal to a moving target (at least for the English settlers). Americans have done a much better job of inflating and glorifying the importance of hunting in American history than exploring the nature of the human-animal relationship in the context of domestication.