Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bruised Thumbs and Animal Behavior

Deadlines are looming on my horizon and I’m feeling the pressure. I’ve got a couple of magazine articles to finish plus it is time to start putting together the next issue of The Pines Review. The frustrating thing for me is that my roof isn’t finished. My problem is that I underestimated how long it would take a crippled geezer like me to tote the shingles, lay them out and nail them down—in between meeting other obligations. I’m getting there, though. By my count I’ve got six more rows of shingles then the peak and the roof is finished. All I have left to do on this year’s garage/office project is to build the porch on my office. Today the lumberyard delivered the last of the wood for that project so I will have to get right on it. I figure if the past has been any sort of indicator of my work speed I’ll be finished in time for Christmas. In the old days it would have been a couple of days and done. Isn’t aging a pain in the butt!?

There is also garden to plant and yard work waiting. It’ll all get done. I have learned to take my time, take lots of breaks and ration my pain pills!

There is one advantage to doing things like putting shingles on your roof—you have time to think—as long as it doesn’t interfere with things hammering and scooting across the roof and not falling off. Each time my thumb gets in the way of the hammer I know it is time to get my notebook out and write down what I was thinking about. The funny thing is that everything I am thinking about has to do with some aspect of hunting or fishing or writing about same. Today I smacked my thumb over the simple notion of animal behavior.

Here’s the issue. Randall Eaton writes that often an animal (deer, elk, whatever) “gives itself to the hunter.” (From Boys to Men of Heart; Hunting as Rite of Passage) Of course that’s a simplification of what he writes but the essence is that a hunter who is properly attuned to the spiritual side of the hunt will have the experience of the animal giving itself to the hunter by stopping and standing still for the hunter—offering itself. In my mind I was comparing Eaton’s ideas with those of another writer who is half a world away and believes that he offers dangerous game “the choice of how to die.” The animal can die on the charge where it has a chance of survival. It can “offer itself” to die with a well-placed shot or it can die running away from the hunter. Again, I’ve simplified the writing. When I smacked my thumb (yeah, it’s bruised) I said (aloud) “@#$# what about simple animal behavior?”

Well, what about it?

Years ago, when I was taking the SOF crew hunting every year, several of us came upon a small group of truly trophy mule deer. After some keystone cops moments I finally got the two hunters herded into position for a chance at the deer. While the deer were moving up the side of the hill (not a mountain and only a hundred yards or so away) one of the deer, a magnificent buck that would have made any hunter proud, stopped at the top of the ridge and looked back at us. The hunters, however, were arguing over which would be the best position to shoot from. The deer, alert for danger, watched us for a full minute or two before ambling over the ridge never to be seen again.

Offering itself? Nah, I’ve watched hundreds and hundreds of mule deer bucks do exactly the same thing whether I was hunting, fishing or just hiking. (I’ve never seen a whitetail do it. It seems they perceive danger, the tail goes up and the deer is gone.) In those few moments at the top of a ridge, when the buck (sometimes a doe, but not as often) turns to look back, the deer is accessing the danger and deciding whether it needs to put the pedal to the metal and run like hell, or if it should use stealth to escape or if the danger has passed (or is arguing over the merits of shooting positions) find something more interesting to do. To me, it’s just animal behavior. Or, maybe I’m missing something and part of animal behavior between predator and prey has somehow established this sort of connection.

Ideas anyone? glg


Holly Heyser said...

I'm with you. My experience with animals is that they fight like hell to live. It's just that sometimes, they make the mistake of not fleeing.

I think the notion of an animal giving itself to the hunter is just mental unguent for the hunter who doesn't want to feel bad about killing.

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

I'm inclined to think the same, Holly.

Yet, as I mentioned in my blog post on this subject a few weeks back, certain cultures (and even some anthropologists) do put forth an interesting case: that we should seriously consider the possibility that such perceptions are not just "mental unguent."

Galen Geer said...

I am trying to look at this question from both sides but I'm having trouble with the concept. I've seen predators take down animals and they usually go after the young, sick or too old to run. Humans are the only predators I know of who go after the biggest and strongest and I am not sure how the two fit together.
I'm getting ready to write my column for WU and I'm planning to write about the stalk. I've seen some good hunters who could work their way close enough for an easy (ten to fifteen yards) bow shot at an elk. I can't put their skill and the notion of the "giving" into the same sentence. The two will not work. glg

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Hey, Galen. I, too, have trouble putting "skill" and "gift" together, especially considering the fact that such apparent "gift shots" are presented to hunters who are clearly NOT attuned to the spiritual side of the hunt.

In many of these cultural contexts, as I understand them, animals (and "animal master" spirits who oversee them) are seen as having a great deal of power, including the power to withdraw as a food source for humans. Human skill in hunting, while crucial to success, is seen as insufficient by itself.

In these contexts, I believe animals are also seen as "persons" who can make decisions and even change their minds.

Galen Geer said...

Could you expand on your last comment? I want to read a bit more in that regard. glg

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

I'm not an expert on the relevant anthropological literature, but--so far as I understand it--the belief in the "personhood" and sentience of animals and in their ability to interact consciously with humans is common in many indigenous cultures, including the hunting cultures of Canada and Alaska.

In those cultural contexts, animals are often understood to offer themselves, or to NOT offer themselves. A significant concern in these traditions is that offending animals can lead to them avoiding the individual hunter or even the entire community, which--in the far north--would mean starvation.

In the blog post I did on this last month, I mentioned an article by Paul Nadasdy “The gift in the animal” (American Ethnologist, Vol. 34, No. 1, 2007), where he makes the unusual suggestion that these might be more than that just cultural beliefs--that there may be literal truth in them. After all, these people have been observing and hunting these animals for many generations. If they see communication and social relationships among geese or caribou, and observe them interacting with humans in apparently intentional ways, should Euro-American/Canadian scientists be so quick to dismiss it? In that post, I noted a story Nadasdy relates about a rabbit escaping a snare of his, then returning to him a few days later.

Have you read much of Richard Nelson's work? If you haven't read his book "Make Prayers to the Raven," you might take a look. It isn't quite as compelling as "Heart and Blood," but it offers a very detailed account of how the Koyukon people understand the natural world, including the animals they hunt.

Galen Geer said...

Tovar, I'm posting a reply to you on the Blog as my post.