Homage to Cernunos

Hunting is an often-contentious topic, and this isn’t helped by the fact the concept means different things to different people.  Say “hunting” and one may think of providing food for the family, while another may picture millionaires posing over an elephant.

In my experience, one of the broad groups that leans in the anti-hunting direction is the pagan community.  For every note on my feed that is favorable (or at least accepting) of hunting, there are dozens who see it as abominable.

The following is an article originally published in Touchstone, the journal of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids.  Republished here with permission of the author. Let me know what you think.

 In Homage to Cernunos: A Modern Druid’s View of Hunting

The hunt is a common theme and a powerful symbol in Celtic mythology. How many stories are framed around hunts, finding the action “one day while he was out hunting” (or “while her husband was away hunting”)?  Even today, modern Druids and Pagans identify with, and venerate, the Horned God – as Cernunos, Herne, or in another guise.  Yet, in the Pagan community, the issue of hunting is fraught with contention.

No doubt there will be many readers who believe that hunting is wrong.  Druid opinions range from “I think hunting is great” to “hunting for sustenance is okay, but not for sport” to “killing another living thing is wrong.”  In the greater population, the hunting controversy becomes tangled up in issues of class, politics, and even nationalism.  Just as in any human community, it is easy for a group to be reduced to a negative caricature to an outsider’s eyes.

I grew up the son of a wildlife biologist in a rural part of Georgia, in the southeastern United States.  Hunting was a normal part of life.  Rifles and shotguns were stacked on the rack by the front door, and deer heads decorated the walls. My father was a hunter from youth, providing food for his family and later ours; he passed his skills and knowledge – a mixture of native field-craft and scientific study – to me.  My parents still hunt.

As a biologist myself, I can speak to reasons why, in this region and in this time, hunting deer is necessary. White-tailed deer breed without regard for either their welfare, nature, or us.  When deer overpopulate, they over-browse, removing all edibles as far up as they can reach, even eating bark off roots – not to mention the farmer’s crops.  Bringing back cougars and wolves is not feasible, so without hunting, deer numbers rise until most of the individuals suffer a lingering death due to starvation and disease.  By then, the land has lost much of its resiliency and natural diversity and takes many years to fully renew.

As one among a community of hunters, I know hunting is important to people for many reasons.  It is true that most hunters of my acquaintance feel pride at taking a particularly large deer, but a fine set of antlers is seldom the overriding reason for hunting. A deer on the ground means meat in the freezer, and among some struggling families, a successful deer season means the difference between health and hunger the rest of the year.  For those omnivores without access to organic meat, wild game is both organic and generally healthier than store-bought beef or pork.  Concerns for ethics are assuaged by comparing a factory-farmed life and stress-filled final minutes of a cow versus the quiet, free life and sudden and unexpected death of a hunted deer.  Finally, a good hunter is more immersed in and aware of nature.  I know hunters whose working knowledge of bird and beast, tree and forb, and the yearly cycles of their hunting ground would awe many Druids.  Many speak of their time on the hunt as a spiritual experience, bathed in the peace of the forest.  Through their connection with the prey, they enact a ritual known to their forebears stretching to the dawn of time.

From a broader standpoint, hunters and anglers (in the United States) fund the preservation and restoration of wildlife habitat through excise taxes and fees, helping game and nongame species alike; this funding source dwarfs the financial contribution of birders, hikers, and other “non-consumptive” users.

As someone on a Druidic path, I have pondered my own reasons for hunting. To non-hunters, I have stated all of the reasons above.  But in private reflection, I turned the notion around and looked at it in the context of a religious obligation. I eat meat, much of it factory-farmed – a situation which, if pressed, many people would say they dislike but few ever think about. These animals are raised and killed by faceless strangers, their lives sacrificed so that I may buy prepared food. But in the Autumn, I enter my sanctuary woods reverently.  I proclaim that I have not forgotten that my plastic-wrapped food was once a living animal – an animal which fed on plants which were in turn nourished by the sun – and in token of this acknowledgement I will perform the sacrifice myself, at least this one time.  I do not flinch from this symbolic duty, and I endeavor to kill swiftly. And kneeling over the animal whose life I took and whose flesh will provide nourishment for my wife and child, my friends, and myself in the coming year, I pause to wordlessly express my compounded gratitude and apology.

The hunt is a seasonal ritual, conducted in my family’s woods and in my favorite season.  I enter the woods with my code of ethics firmly in place:  I will only harvest a fully mature deer, and only if a clean, swift kill is certain.  I let many deer walk away – for these reasons, or because the spirit moves me to let them be.  I silentMOULTRIE DIGITAL GAME CAMERAly watch and learn as they interact with each other and the world around them.  I also see other hunters at work – a bobcat bringing down a rabbit, or a hawk stooping on a careless squirrel.  This day, I am like them, bound to the prey.  Lost in the hunters meditation – senses alert to  a leaf crunching,  the breeze shifting, the flicker of gray against the brown-shaded landscape – I touch both the woodland predators and my own ancestors stretching back to the dawn of our kind.  The hunting spirit in the breast of our ancient kin is surely what led them to call forth to hunter gods, to revere great hunters in  myth and legend.

Hunting is not for everyone.  Comparatively few have the opportunity, and fewer have the inclination.  Yet that spirit of the hunter is still a part of us – if often slumbering  or sublimated.  That spirit should be, if not acted on, at least acknowledged; as beings of both instinct and intellect, some part of us needs the hunting aspect to keep us closer to our true, natural selves.  My  father once said: “The prey must have the predator, just as the predator needs the prey.  One without the other eventually becomes something less.  The wolf becomes a dog.  The deer becomes a cow.  And what does Man become?”

The arts of Herne deserve respect within the Pagan community, from hunters and non-hunters alike.  For some people, hunting can provide a unique insight and a spiritual link to our ancestors and to the spirit of the Wild Hunt.  Further, it can bring a greater awareness of our place in the environment, of the cycles of nature and the delicate balance between life and death.  It can help us better understand our own natures.  On a broader scale, hunting can be a greater good, helping protect and restore wildlife habitat.  Hunting will always be controversial, but perhaps the arguments on either side of the issue aren’t as simplistic as they are made out to be.

Thoughts on Walking in the Woods

Reproduced here with the kind permission of  Jerry Knox:

Some will say they fear the woods, for the snakes and such. I have found a different truth.  One who treads the woods with care, to do no harm to tender plants, will never be surprised by any harmful thing.  The very sense that guides your feet away from the violet, will alert you to the poison ivy there as well.  The soft, and measured, step allows both mouse and rattlesnake time to flee your path, or hide, alert and safely unafraid, as you pass by.

But one who crashes through the brushy ways carelessly and unaware will find his way perilous indeed!  Yellow jackets boil to defend their precious nest.  Thorny vines find painful lodging round ankle, neck and arm.  Ticks shower on his shoulders, chiggers cling to pants and legs.  The rattler coils and bows his neck to fight off this bold invasion.  Thrown out, repulsed by vine and fang, the intruder flees with tales of terror, and fearsome creatures lurking in the trees, and fails to see the danger in the woods was he!


The Country Mouse Replies

Around 15 years ago, I was conversing electronically with a friend who resides in southern California. Although we grew up  around the large town/small city of Athens, our paths took us in opposite directions – hers led westward into bright lights and urban sprawl, while mine headed south and east to more rural landscapes.  When I mentioned in passing the “perks of living in the boonies,” she admitted being stumped on what those could be.  Although she managed to come up with a few — such as being able to play the stereo as loud as one likes — they paled against ordering takeout at will or reliable and fast internet.

The following day, I had mused on the subject, waxing exceptionally poetic as I waited for birds to call in the chill pre-dawn air:

As I write (the majority of) this essay, the dawn’s light barely illuminates the page, which is further obscured by the wisps of my breath in the chill of mid November.  Overhead the larger drops of the Leonid meteor shower still burn despite the morning glow.  I was out before dawn to survey quail, but while I’m no morning person and have lacked a full night’s rest for a considerable number of days, this AM I don’t begrudge the sleep.

You bring up some fair points about life beyond the concrete Pale, and I’m favorably impressed that you spared considerably more than a passing thought in trying to understand why someone with a choice would live where the blacktop ends.  I’ve been mulling over the question, and my sleep-deprived brain has come up with this reply.

My house is about 11 miles from town (population 6000).  The city of Augusta is a good 45 minutes away (and that’s burning up the highway, not creeping through traffic).  The college town of Statesboro is an hour distant (The question of when distance became measured in units of time I’ll leave for another day).  This means that seeing a show at the multiplex is a fair trip in itself – and indie films are out of the question.  The closest bookstore is Amazon.com.  No specialty coffees can be had in this county, at least nothing more exotic than what BiLo carries.  In town, sit-down meal options consist of a diner, Mexican, country buffet, a sandwich shop, two Chinese restaurants and several BBQ joints.  McDonalds is here but BK hasn’t made it yet.  The farm equipment dealers outnumber auto lots.  And you already know the trials of TV and internet access. So by the City Mouse standard – the measure of manufactured conveniences – this haystack just doesn’t cut it.

Luckily, there are other measures and other standards.  You have thought of a few, though it is clear they pale by comparison to life on one pole of the LA-NYC-DC axis.  Still, I’ll list just a few of the conveniences and opportunities:

–Having neighbors close enough to summon in an emergency, but otherwise out of sight and out of mind.
–Letting your dogs bark themselves hoarse without being threatened with legal action (I speak from personal experience).
–Practicing katas in the yard with a real katana without being reported and arrested.  For that matter, walking around in public places with a knife on my hip and not being reported or arrested.
–Clean air.
–Being able to step outside at night and seeing more than the two dozen stars which are bright enough to punch through the haze of pollution and city lights.
–Hearing a car pull up and knowing they’re here to see you, because there’s nobody else around.
–Maintaining the yard at whatever level you want, not whatever the anal neighbors want.
–Don’t underestimate the mental health value of being able to blare the stereo while you’re working outside.
–Exchanging waves with strangers on the road.
–Driving above speed limit most anywhere because traffic is so light.
–Being able to cook over a hickory fire in the front yard.
–Having staring contests with a coyote, surprising a fox, stopping so wild turkeys can cross the road, and shooing spotted fawns out from under your truck.
–Hearing quail whistling to the north, barred owls hollering to the south, coyotes howling to the west, and wood duck wings whisper overhead.
–Anticipating what kinds of critters you’ll see on the way to work, whether deer or bobcats or hunting raptors, or maybe even otters.
–Having people react with interest rather than revulsion when you collect your steaks the old fashioned way.
–Having a job where I can feel the wind on my face outside almost as much as I spend basking in the glow of computer screens.

I know that there are many other ways of viewing the world.  While it is important to me that city folks have some understanding of the value of a rural life, by no means do I advocate they take it up.  The last thing I want is for urbanites to get a hankering for elbow room!  As crammed together as they are, by spreading out they’d take up the whole country. Already my heart sinks every time I visit my old stomping grounds, seeing fields once mantled in wheat now sprouting crops of three bedroom houses.  The Atlanta sprawl has metastasized and now Athens is growing beyond its charm.

I’ll end this reflection with a quote from Leopold:

“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot. Like wind and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth the cost in things natural, wild, and free. For those of us in the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.

”These wild things, I admit, had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast, and until science disclosed the drama of where they come from and how they live. The whole conflict thus boils down to a question of degree. We of the minority see a law of diminishing returns in progress; our opponents do not.”

Here then is a partial answer to your honest inquiry.  I think it is safe to say that we both are more or less where we belong; were our locations reversed, you would go nuts with sensory and cultural deprivation, and my soul would wither.

Still, you’re welcome to visit anytime :-).