The propensity to hunt is like the appendix—built into every one of us, although unnecessary for modern-day survival. Unlike the appendix, the hunting habit can't be so easily removed. This is a good thing.
One of my oldest memories is seeing my father walk in the door after his first hunting trip, when I was 3 years old. I remember his bright orange vest, but even more striking was another, deeper glow. The experience had him beaming like I'd never seen before, emitting an energy I could feel more than see.
Dad's brief hunting career consisted of only three trips, none of which yielded meat. It's telling that I remembered his hunting phase despite its short length. Also telling is that I understood the concept of hunting at all. To understand hunting requires knowing what meat is, and that hunters go out in search of wild animals to kill. That's a lot for a 3 year-old to put together.
Recent medical research suggests that the appendix may have a role after all. It may produce and shelter beneficial bacteria for the digestive system. This revelation rests upon a nuanced and holistic understanding of health, and aiming a similar lens at the practice of hunting, I believe, will yield a similar result. Maybe we won't die without hunting, but perhaps we can't function optimally—as individuals or as a society—without it.
As another hunting season winds down, the hunting hangover weighs heavy upon those who still heed this hardwired call. We clean our weapons, organize and store our gear, and dig in for the winter—hopefully with a stash of meat to chew on, but stronger and enriched regardless, because the rewards of hunting go far deeper than the belly. Some of these rewards are more tangible than others.
When I saw dad walk through that door, the history of our species followed him in like a gust of cold air. I felt awe at the realization that he was a hunter, and it didn't seem to matter if he was "successful." The fact that he hunted at all was important. And it ushered me into a shrinking minority.
Today, few of us have parents who ever hunted. It's more likely our grandparents did, and less likely our children will. This puts us in the middle of a widening disconnect between generations that hunt and generations that don't, happening as modern life replaces habitat with feedlots and our existence migrates steadily indoors.
The importance of hunting in human history is broad and deep. Hunting provided our ancestors a concentrated form of energy that allowed our brains to develop. Hunting, along with the acquisition of fire, helped our ancestors migrate north from Africa during an Ice Age. Hunting helped drive the development of tool making, the understanding of physics and the refinement of art.
But the importance of hunting in our past doesn't explain why we continue to hunt. This is a question with as many answers as there are hunters.
Some do it for the food, although there are many other ways of acquiring meat—nearly all of which are cheaper and easier. Some do it for the intellectual and visceral satisfaction of being an active part of the ecosystem, a player in the predator/prey relationships of your home ground. Some, for reasons vaguely related to their balls, do it for a set of antlers to hang on the wall. Almost all hunters, even trophy hunters, would agree that the experience of hunting—of being outside, alert and struggling against the elements—is a reward in itself.
Less provable, but no less real to me, is the fact that hunting recharges a certain internal battery. Win or lose, you return to civilization sharper, stronger and wiser. It's a catharsis, like passing through the belly of a whale. And in such journeys important knowledge is gained.
Perhaps the most tangible moments of recharge are when prey is spotted and you make your moves to close the deal. In those moments you are walking in the footsteps of your ancestors, and you re-center yourself upon a vital aspect of your humanity. Those moments represent a form of shock therapy that snaps you back to the crucible that shaped our species.
Pictures drawn on the walls of caves, such as Lascaux in France, are some of the oldest art in the world. They represent the elusive goal of the hunt. They embody the electric moment when game is spotted.
Today, perhaps it happens as you scan a distant hillside, binoculars covering ground that would take hours on foot. As your field of view passes over the shape of an animal in a clearing, a buzzer goes off in your soul. The shape of that animal, hardly different from those simple, ancient cave drawings, triggers a wave of adrenaline and focus as timeless and powerful as a bolt of lightning.
The bolt passes through you and through your ancestors, connecting you to them like shish kebabs on a skewer. This connection completes a circuit between past and present, earth and blood, flesh and energy. Closing this circuit is what made my father glow brighter than his hunter orange.
As the annual rite of autumn fades into the dull hunting hangover of winter, each hunter has his or her own mix of accomplishment and regret. Hopefully, at the very least, lessons were learned that will come in handy at home and in the field for years to come. And even if the only blood spilt has been your own in the form of a thousand scratches, you've earned the right to eat the flesh of another and helped keep an important skill in our species' collective toolbox. Like the appendix, it's possible that someday we'll need it.