Over the last few years, I’ve found myself having more and more conversations with fellow hunters who have either greatly scaled back their hunting activities, or, quit hunting completely. While age, declining physical ability, and lowered stamina play a part in the decision for some, there are other more poignant, underlying influences at work for most. Hunters who stop hunting generally do so not because of any pressing ethical issues, but more so, as part of a natural developmental and ideological process that all outdoorsmen and women go through (to varying degrees) during the course of their lives.
People who hunt with honorable intentions are generally motivated by a rather universal set of principles. Hunters love hunting because it is a catalyst for experiencing the peace, beauty, and wonder of nature, for spending quality time with friends and family, and for filling the freezer with healthy, organic meat that they harvested themselves. Hunters are not just mere spectators of the natural world, but instead, they are active participants in the cycle of life and hands-on stewards of creation. Hunting is a means of learning about and practicing sound conservation principles to ensure that our renewable natural resources will continue to, indeed, be renewable. There is also a great paradox in hunting: while it is never enjoyable to see an animal die, death is necessary for life to continue on Earth…for humankind…and all creatures who inhabit our planet. I’ve written extensively on this topic over the years and it has also been the subject of a more recent in-depth blog article and video if you’d like to learn more.
The Three Phases of Hunting
While hunters are united by common, foundational principles, there is also a natural three-phase progression that they tend to go through. First, there is what can simply be referred to as the “get something” phase. During this time the hunter is still developing and learning the basics in regard to the pursuit of hunting and the primary goal is to get those basics to work. The hunter wants to successfully apply what he or she has learned and practiced in order to ultimately harvest a game animal. After one has thoroughly polished those foundational skills of the hunt, the second phase generally comes along: the “trophy phase.” During this time the hunter is ready to learn more advanced techniques and take on greater challenges. The hunter wants to essentially prove him or herself by pursuing larger, more intelligent, more elusive and even dangerous game that often live in exceptionally unforgiving areas of wilderness. During this phase, the hunter becomes more selective, while also gaining more respect for one’s quarry and the habit where it dwells.
The final phase that a hunter goes through in his or her development is often described as the “philosophical/spiritual phase.” After one has years of experience under his or her belt and has accomplished most, or all, of the goals they have set for themselves as a hunter, what emerges is a deep, abiding spirit of gratitude for the wilderness which has provided so much tranquility, challenge, nourishment, discovery, adventure, and all the rest throughout one’s life. The natural world becomes even more of a sacred sanctuary and a source of great reflection and interior development. While those who are deeply immersed in this final stage may continue to hunt for the same reasons they initially began, it is also the time that some choose to leave behind their instruments of harvest and no longer enter the woods as a conscientious predator. Many trade in their rifle or bow for a camera or a better set of binoculars and sit aloft in their old tree stands or stalk through the mountains and valleys in order to simply observe the natural world and its inhabitants…no longer actively participating in the cycle of life…leaving that duty for the upcoming generation of hunters.
Folks in this final stage tend to be justifiably revolted by much of what they see glorified in the modern “hunting industry.” The idea of feeding deer super high-protein, antler growing chow, hunting them over huge food plots from hotel room sized stands, monitoring their every move 24/7 with high-tech game cameras and smartphones, and all the rest of today’s popular tactics and fancy gear, simply seem insulting to the notion of true hunting…which involves…well…actual hunting, that is, actively and methodically seeking out truly wild animals in truly wild habitat on their terms, instead of artificially manufacturing a “trophy” game animal and simply shooting it…without so much as having even hiked a mile! Likewise, hunting shows that only glorify the kill, the record books, and antler scores, without ever giving due honor and respect to the actual animal and the place it calls home only causes more despair for those who have a deep passion for the natural world and the true primordial nature of the hunt…as exemplified by predator and prey animals themselves.
Along with an ever emerging disgust with more modern methods of hunting, many who retire from the hunt do so as a result of facing their own mortality and wanting to focus more on life, instead of death…even though they realize that the two are directly related. Some time ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine who was in his mid-60’s who shared with me the details of his final hunt. It was a magical, beautiful autumn morning, he recalled. As he slowly walked through the woods, entranced by the colorful fall foliage and mesmerized by the sound of the leaves gentling rustling in the subtle breeze, he heard the distinct pitter-patter and scratching sound of a gray squirrel trotting across the forest floor and scampering up a nearby tree. His eyes instinctively sought out and locked on the chattering rodent, who was now perched on a limb overhead. With one carefully placed shot from his trusty .22 rifle, the squirrel was brought to bag. As it lay motionless on the ground, with the light of its eyes rapidly fading to a glazed, blank stare, my friend suddenly realized that he no longer wanted to hunt.
In the months and years previous to that morning in the squirrel woods, his wife had been battling cancer, desperately struggling to hold on to the remaining life she had left. He had lost his parents and many family members in the not so distant past. He was at that stage in life when one starts losing friends at a much faster rate than one acquires them. He was also at a point in life when he was realizing that he, too, could perhaps go at any time, or least develop a malady of one kind or another that would start his own journey to the grave. He simply wanted to focus on life and living now, as he realized more than ever, how truly precious it is. While not ignoring or denying the reality of death, especially as it applies to the natural world, he no longer wanted to be the cause of it. He would now leave the killing and harvesting of his food to someone else. He would rather see a squirrel jumping through the treetops and hopping through the leaves, instead of being on his dinner plate next to some mashed potatoes and gravy.
I’ve since heard similar stories and reflections from other hunters, even from some of my closest hunting buddies. And, I too must admit that while I’m still relatively young and still enjoy hunting very much, and while it’s a major part of my lifestyle, I’m not quite as quick to let an arrow fly or pull the trigger as I used to be. While I’ve always spent time on my knees in prayerful thanksgiving next to an animal that I’ve just harvested, I find myself now kneeling a bit longer, praying a bit more fervently. I hunt with much more of a spirit of peaceful contentment now than in my younger years. I don’t have to “get something.” I don’t need a “trophy.” If I go home empty-handed nowadays I don’t feel totally disgraced by having to eat a hamburger instead of a deerburger once in a while.
Like many hunters who have entered into that final phase, I’m far more nourished now by the gift of life that is powerfully present everywhere in the wilderness, and especially by those that I share it with. My hunger is satisfied much more by seeing a spectacular sunrise from a mountaintop than in following a blood trail. Spending time with good friends and family around the fire at hunting camp feeds my soul considerably more than butchering a moose these days. But, all that being said, as I always say, you can’t eat photographs and memories! The hunt continues on for me. However, it continues with an ever-increasing awareness and respect for the gift of life…which as a hunter…I’m well aware that death is a part of.
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