Monday, January 01, 2007

Searching for Tragic Pleasure Redux

Many of you might recall a certain thesis I wrote a few years back on the topic of hunting. Well, Michael Pollan's new book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, covers some of the same ground--except that he's a better writer.

Here's an excerpt from the hunting chapter of the book, where Michael takes a hunter ed class and then goes out and kills himself a big-ass wild pig. Enjoy.

Walking with a loaded rifle in an unfamiliar forest bristling with the signs of your prey is thrilling. It embarrasses me to write that, but it is true. I am not by nature much of a noticer, yet here, now, my attention to everything around me, and deafness to everything else, is complete. Nothing in my experience has prepared me for the quality of this attention. I notice how the day's first breezes comb the needles in the pines, producing a sotto voce whistle and an undulation in the pattern of light and shadow tattooing the tree trunks and the ground. I notice the specific density of the air. But this is not a passive or aesthetic attention; it is a hungry attention, reaching out into its surroundings like fingers, or nerves. My eyes venture deep into thickets my body could never penetrate, picking their way among the tangled branches, sliding over rocks and around stumps to bring back the slenderest hint of movement. In the places too deeply shadowed to admit my eyes, my ears roam at will, returning with the report of a branch cracking at the bottom of a ravine, or the snuffling of a. . .wait: what was that? Just a bird. Everything is amplified. Even my skin is alert, so that when the shadow launched by the sudden ascent of a turkey vulture passes overhead I swear I can feel the temperature momentarily fall. I am the alert man.

Hunting inflects a place powerfully. The ordinary prose of the ground becomes as layered and springy as verse--and as dense with meanings. Notice the freshly rototilled soil at the base of that oak tree? Look how the earth has not yet been crisped by the midday sun; this means wild boar--my quarry--have been rooting here since yesterday afternoon, either overnight or earlier this morning. See that smoothly scooped-out puddle of water? That's a wallow, but notice how the water is perfectly clear: pigs haven't disturbed it yet today. We could wait here for them.

Hunter and quarry maintain different but overlapping maps of the hunting ground, places of refuge and prospect, places of prior encounter. The hunter's aim is to have his map collide with his quarry's map, which, should it happen, will do so at a moment of no one's choosing. For although there's much the hunter can know, about game and about its habitat, in the end he knows nothing about what is going to happen here today, whether the longed-for and dreaded encounter will actually take place and, if it does, how it will end.

Since there's nothing he can do to make the encounter happen, the hunter's energy goes into readying himself for it, and trying, by the sheer force of his attention, to summon the animal into his presence. Searching for his prey, the hunter instinctively becomes more like the animal, straining to make himself less visible, less audible, more exquisitely alert. Predator and prey alike move according to their own maps of this ground, their own forms of attention and their own systems of instinct, systems that evolved expressly to hasten or avert precisely this encounter...

Wait a minute. Did I really write that last paragraph? Without irony? That's embarrassing. Am I actually writing about the hunter's "instinct," suggesting that the hunt represents some sort of primordial encounter between two kinds of animals, one of which is me? This seems a bit much. I recognize this kind of prose: hunter porn. And whenever I've read it in the past, in Hemingway and Ortega y Gasset and all those hard-bitten, big-bearded American wilderness writers who still pine for the Pleistocene, it never failed to roll my eyes. I never could stomach the straight-faced reveling in primitivism, the barely concealed bloodlust, the whole macho conceit that the most authentic encounter with nature is the one that comes through the sight of a gun and ends with a large mammal dead on the ground--a killing that we are given to believe constitutes a gesture of respect. So it is for Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher, who writes in his "Meditations on Hunting" that "the greatest and most moral homage we can pay to certain animals on certain occasions is to kill them... ." Please.

And yet here I find myself slipping into the hunter's ecstatic purple, channeling Ortega y Gasset. It may be that we have no better language in which to describe the experience of hunting, so that all of us who would try sooner or later slide into this overheated prose ignorant of irony. Or it could be that hunting is one of those experiences that appear utterly different from the inside than the outside. That this might indeed be the case was forcibly impressed on me after a second outing with my hunting companion and mentor, Angelo Garro, when, after a long and gratifying day in the woods, we stopped at a convenience store for a bottle of water. The two of us were exhausted and filthy, the fronts of our jeans stained dark with blood. We couldn't have smelled terribly fragrant. And under the bright fluorescence of the 7-Eleven, in the mirror behind the cigarette rack behind the cashier, I caught a glimpse of this grungy pair of self-satisfied animal killers and noted the wide berth the other customers in line were only too happy to grant them. Us. It is a wonder that the cashier didn't pre-emptively throw up his hands and offer us the contents of the cash register.

Irony--the outside perspective--easily withers everything about hunting, shrinks it to the proportions of boy's play or atavism. And yet at the same time I found that there is something about the experience of hunting that puts irony itself to rout. In general, experiences that banish irony are much better for living than for writing. But there it is: I enjoyed shooting a pig a whole lot more than I ever thought I should have.

Jim again: You can read the entire chapter at Michael Pollan's website. One of the best things I've read about hunting in a long time.


Dr. Dirt said...

This is one of my favorite books in years. The final chapter is my favorite and, yes, I was left wondering why he wasn't citing a certain one-armed-wallpaper-hanging philosopher as he groped his ways through the first stages of hunter ontology. You-da-man, hee haw!

Vassili Zaitsev said...

I suspected along the way perhaps he had read it but just wasn't letting on that he had. Oh well. he's a great writer.

Vassili Zaitsev said...

p.s. the Ithaca Ballet is back in town in February with a goose-themed (brant anyway) ballet that'll knock your toe socks off. check it out at All Brantley.

be sure to tell Rich. :-)