Slate reports on an unusual and highly ironic development among the fashionista set.
[T]he evolution of the new lefty urban hunter goes something like this:
2006: Reads Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, about the ickyness of the industrial food complex. Starts shopping at a farmer’s market.
2008: Puts in own vegetable garden. Tries to go vegetarian but falls off the wagon.
2009: Decides to only eat “happy meat” that has been treated humanely.
2010: Gets a chicken coop and a flock of chickens.
2011: Dabbles in backyard butchery of chickens. Reads that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg decided to only eat meat he killed himself for a year.
2012: Gets a hunting permit, thinking “how hard can it be? I already totally dominate Big Buck Hunter at the bar.”
Hunting is undeniably in vogue among the bearded, bicycle-riding, locavore set. The new trend might even be partly behind a recent 9 percent increase from 2006 to 2011 in the number of hunters in the United States after years of decline. Many of these new hunters are taking up the activity for ethical and environmental reasons.
“It feels more responsible and ecologically sound to eat an animal that was raised wild and natural in my local habitat than to eat a cow that was fattened up on grain or even hay, which is inevitably harvested with fuel-hungry machines,” writes Christie Aschwanden, a self-described “tree-hugging former vegetarian.”
A recent spate of books with titles like The Mindful Carnivore and Call of the Mild chronicles the exploits of these first-time hunters as they wrestle with their consciences and learn to sight in their rifles.
We are going to have to read an avalanche-load of omphallic ethicizing and isn’t-it-wonderful-that-I’m-the-first-civilized-human-to-master-the-skills-of-my-primitive-Republican-neighbors accounts, but all this is still doubtless going to turn into a positive development. Hunting puts man in direct touch with Nature and allows him to enter personally into its processes. Hunting fulfills a deeply-embedded portion of our human nature, and the activity and experience of hunting inevitably makes us healthier, mentally as well as physically.
Perhaps, Nature has actually come up with a way to seduce residents of the urban community of decadence and mental disorder back into health. One pictures the metrosexual gradually turning from reading Rolling Stone and Mother Jones to picking up Garden & Gun and Double Gun Journal.
Charlotte Allen explains how modern Puritan triumphalism manages to make simplicity the new luxury and distinction.
Hunting is usually taboo in the simplicity movement because it involves guns (hated by the professionally simple) and exploitation of animals (ditto). However, if you’re hunting boar in the upscale hills ringing the San Francisco Bay so as to furnish yourself a “locally grown” boar paté, as does Berkeley professor and simplicity movement guru Michael (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) Pollan, or perhaps to experience an “epiphany,” as another well-fixed Bay Area boar hunter recently told the New York Times, you’re doing a fine job of returning to the simple life. Indeed, the Times article was replete with quotations from portfolio managers, systems analysts, and graphic designers who have taken up shooting boar, deer, and bison in their spare time because it affords them a “primal connection” with the food on their plates and is also “carbon-neutral” (zero “food miles” if the deer you slay happened to have been munching the tulips in your backyard). But if you’re a laid-off lumber mill worker bagging possums in Eutaw Springs, S.C., because your main primal connection with food is that you don’t have much money to spend on it, you’re an unsophisticated redneck.
Simplicity movement people always seem to shell out more money than the not-so-simple, usually because the simple things they love always seem to cost more than the mass-produced versions. On a website called Passionate Homemaking that’s dedicated to making, among other things, your own cheese, your own beeswax candles, and your own underarm deodorant, you are also advised to cook with nothing but raw cultured butter from a mail-order outfit called Organic Pastures. The butter probably tastes great. It also costs $10.75 a pound – plus UPS shipping. At farmer’s markets, where those striving for simplicity like to browse with their cloth shopping bags, the organic, the locally grown, and the humanely raised come at a price: tomatoes at $4 a pound, bread at $8 a loaf, and $6 for a cup of “artisanal” gelato.
Wealthy and well-born people admiring – and sparing themselves no expense in convincing themselves that they’re cultivating – the virtues of humble folk is nothing new. Two millennia ago, Virgil, in his Georgics, heaped praise upon the tree pruners and beekeepers whom he likely could see toiling in the distance while he sipped wine on the veranda of his wealthy patron, Maecenas. Marie Antoinette liked to dress up as a shepherdess and hold court in her “rustic” cottage at the Petit Trianon. Other harbingers of today’s simplicity movement were the arts-and-crafts devotees of the early 1900s who filled their homes with handcrafted medieval-looking benches and the 1960s hippies whose minibuses and geodesic domes that enabled their gypsy lifestyles usually came courtesy of checks from their parents.
But it has been only in the last decade or so that the simplicity movement has come into its own, aligning itself not only with aesthetic style but also with power. Thanks to the government-backed war against obesity (fat people, conveniently, tend to belong to the polyester-clad, Big Mac-guzzling lower orders) and the “green” movement in its various save-the-planet manifestations, simplicity people can look down their noses at the not-so-simple with their low-rent tastes while also putting them on the moral defensive. Thus you have Michael Pollan, whose zero-impact ethic of food simplicity won’t let him eat anything not grown within one hundred miles of his Bay Area home, and preferably grown (or killed, milked, churned, or picked) himself. He bristles with outrage not only at McDonald’s burgers, Doritos, and grapes imported from Chile (foreign fruit destroys people’s “sense of place,” he writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma) but even at Walmart’s announcement in 2006 that it would start stocking organic products at affordable prices. Walmart, like factory farms, SUVs, wide-screen TVs, and outlet malls, is usually anathema to the simplicity set, but here you would think the giga-chain would be doing poor people a favor by widening their access to healthy, less-fattening produce. Not as far as Pollan is concerned. Instead, as Reason magazine’s Katherine Mangu-Ward reported, Pollan worried on his blog that “Walmart’s version of cheap, industrialized organic food” might drive the boutique farms that served him and his locavore neighbors out of business. ...
The problem with the simplicity movement isn’t simply that you’ve got to be rich to live simply. In their 2007 book Plenty, Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, who had vowed to spend a year sticking to the 100-mile locavore eating radius (and, as freelance writers, had plenty of time to put together meals that lived up to this promise), discovered that they were spending $11 per jar on honey to substitute for $2.59 sugar and that one of their locally foraged dinners cost them $130 and more than a day to prepare. ...
The problem with the simplicity movement is that its proponents mistake simplicity, which is an aesthetic lifestyle choice, for humility, which is a genuine virtue.
The New York Times rather outdid itself on Sunday in serving up its traditional ration of stupidity and cant, but Earth Day occurs this week and provided the occasion for the Times to devote the entire Sunday Magazine to an Enviro-PC-Fest of preening libs.
Michael Pollan, for instance, took a long, hard look into his own navel, and understood that changing the world, the choices, habits, lifestyles, and behavior of all of the world’s 6 and a half billion inhabitants, reversing the course of history, and rejecting capitalism, consumerism, and modern industrial civilization might be only a matter of setting a personal good example.
It’s hard to argue with Michael Specter, in a recent New Yorker piece on carbon footprints, when he says: “Personal choices, no matter how virtuous [N.B.!], cannot do enough. It will also take laws and money.” So it will. Yet it is no less accurate or hardheaded to say that laws and money cannot do enough, either; that it will also take profound changes in the way we live. Why? Because the climate-change crisis is at its very bottom a crisis of lifestyle — of character, even. The Big Problem is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us (consumer spending represents 70 percent of our economy), and most of the rest of them made in the name of our needs and desires and preferences.
For us to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we’re living our lives suggests we’re not really serious about changing — something our politicians cannot fail to notice. They will not move until we do. Indeed, to look to leaders and experts, to laws and money and grand schemes, to save us from our predicament represents precisely the sort of thinking — passive, delegated, dependent for solutions on specialists — that helped get us into this mess in the first place. It’s hard to believe that the same sort of thinking could now get us out of it.
Thirty years ago, Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer and writer, put forward a blunt analysis of precisely this mentality. He argued that the environmental crisis of the 1970s — an era innocent of climate change; what we would give to have back that environmental crisis! — was at its heart a crisis of character and would have to be addressed first at that level: at home, as it were. ...
f you do bother, you will set an example for other people. If enough other people bother, each one influencing yet another in a chain reaction of behavioral change, markets for all manner of green products and alternative technologies will prosper and expand. (Just look at the market for hybrid cars.) Consciousness will be raised, perhaps even changed: new moral imperatives and new taboos might take root in the culture. Driving an S.U.V. or eating a 24-ounce steak or illuminating your McMansion like an airport runway at night might come to be regarded as outrages to human conscience. Not having things might become cooler than having them. And those who did change the way they live would acquire the moral standing to demand changes in behavior from others — from other people, other corporations, even other countries.
All of this could, theoretically, happen. What I’m describing (imagining would probably be more accurate) is a process of viral social change, and change of this kind, which is nonlinear, is never something anyone can plan or predict or count on.
And even if what you do personally doesn’t actually have any real impact on the world, you should, of course, do all this goofy green stuff anyway, since even if you can’t meaningfully change the world, you can change yourself into an environmentally-PC member of the more-enlightened-than-thou elite, a nobler, finer being, capable of experiencing the orgasmic sense of narcissistic self-righteousness that only comes from composting.
Who knows, maybe the virus will reach all the way to Chongqing and infect my Chinese evil twin. Or not. Maybe going green will prove a passing fad and will lose steam after a few years, just as it did in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan took down Jimmy Carter’s solar panels from the roof of the White House.
Going personally green is a bet, nothing more or less, though it’s one we probably all should make, even if the odds of it paying off aren’t great. Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will. That, after all, was precisely what happened in Communist Czechoslovakia and Poland, when a handful of individuals like Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik resolved that they would simply conduct their lives “as if” they lived in a free society. That improbable bet created a tiny space of liberty that, in time, expanded to take in, and then help take down, the whole of the Eastern bloc.
So what would be a comparable bet that the individual might make in the case of the environmental crisis? Havel himself has suggested that people begin to “conduct themselves as if they were to live on this earth forever and be answerable for its condition one day.” Fair enough, but let me propose a slightly less abstract and daunting wager. The idea is to find one thing to do in your life that doesn’t involve spending or voting, that may or may not virally rock the world but is real and particular (as well as symbolic) and that, come what may, will offer its own rewards. Maybe you decide to give up meat, an act that would reduce your carbon footprint by as much as a quarter. Or you could try this: determine to observe the Sabbath. For one day a week, abstain completely from economic activity: no shopping, no driving, no electronics.
But the act I want to talk about is growing some — even just a little — of your own food. Rip out your lawn, if you have one, and if you don’t — if you live in a high-rise, or have a yard shrouded in shade — look into getting a plot in a community garden. Measured against the Problem We Face, planting a garden sounds pretty benign, I know, but in fact it’s one of the most powerful things an individual can do — to reduce your carbon footprint, sure, but more important, to reduce your sense of dependence and dividedness: to change the cheap-energy mind.
An only-too-common journalistic meme today features the metrosexual hero dipping a sensitive toe into the dangerous (and profoundly alien) waters of manliness. Our sissified hero goes hunting or visits a shooting range. He actually handles (and fires) a gun. He finds that he is enjoying himself, and begins to understand why people hunt or shoot.
But, then, before it is too late (and he has to join the NRA and start voting Republican), in a final moment of clarity, lovingly depicted in purplest prose, the author regains politically correct control of himself. Unlike such insensitive clods as Samson and David, Odysseus and Achilles, Xenophon and Arrian, Balzac and Shakespeare, Ivan Turgenev and Ernest Hemingway, George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, our modern urbanist is too morally sensitive, too sophisticated and intelligent, too ironic to condone guns or hunting.
The latest account from the field, in yesterday’s (26/March/2006) New York Times Magazine, is provided by Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan.
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…
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.
José Ortega y Gasset
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…
In this, I decided, was one of the signal virtues of hunting: it puts large questions about who we and the animals are, and the nature of our respective deaths, squarely before the hunter, and while I’m sure there are many hunters who manage to avoid their gaze, that must take some doing…
..we are left standing there in the woods with our uneasiness and our disgust, and disgust’s boon companion, shame. I did not register any such emotion in the moments after shooting my pig, but eventually it dawned, or fell on me, like a great and unexpected weight. It happened late that evening, when, back at home, I opened my e-mail and saw that Angelo had sent me some digital pictures, under the subject heading “Look the great hunter!” I was eager to open them, excited to show my family my pig, since it hadn’t come home with me but was hanging in Angelo’s walk-in cooler.
The image that appeared on my computer screen hit me like an unexpected blow to the body. A hunter in an orange sweater was kneeling on the ground behind a pig the side of whose head has erupted in blood that is spreading like a river delta toward the bottom of the frame. The hunter’s rifle is angled just so across his chest; clearly he is observing some hoary convention of the hunter’s trophy portrait. One proprietary hand rests on the dead animal’s broad flank. The man is looking into the camera with an expression of unbounded pride, wearing an ear-to-ear grin that might have been winning, if perhaps incomprehensible, had the bloodied carcass sprawled beneath him been cropped out of the frame. But the bloodied carcass was right there, front and center, and it rendered that grin — there’s no other word for it — obscene. I felt as if I had stumbled on some stranger’s pornography. I hurried my mouse to the corner of the image and clicked, closing it as quickly as I could. No one should ever see this.
What could I possibly have been thinking? What was the man in that picture feeling? I can’t for the life of me explain what could have inspired such a mad grin, it seemed so distant and alien from me now. If I didn’t know better, I would have said that the man in the picture was drunk. And perhaps he was, seized in the throes of some sort of Dionysian intoxication, the bloodlust that Ortega says will sometimes overtake the successful hunter. And what was I so damned proud of, anyway? I’d killed a pig with a gun, big deal.
Like the image of the two filthy hunters I’d caught in the convenience-store mirror earlier that afternoon, Angelo’s digital photo had shown me the hunt, and the hunter, from the outside, subjecting it to a merciless gaze that hunting can’t withstand, at least not in the 21st century.
The pig got shot, and the prig went home to Berkeley to scribble and emote. Personally, I would say that Mr. Pullan’s merciless gaze of Modernity is as fatal to the truth as a properly aimed 130 grain .270 round is to California feral pig. Pullan thinks he speaks for the enlightened spirit of human progress. In reality, his irony is a only a fashionable pose, and his voice only the voice of conformity echoing the infernal spirit which denies: