Preaching to Deniers

Back in college, I had a friend that would believe pretty much anything nature-related I told him. I was the biologist-in-training, after all (I didn’t abuse that trust.  Honest).  When he asked if male white-tailed deer grew a new tine on their antlers every year, I explained how the bone of antlers is covered in fine fur and vascularized, growing from nubbins to full size in the space of half a year.  At that point, the soft tissue dries and is rubbed off, leaving the hard bone.  The antlers don’t grow any more, but stay on the deer’s head until well into winter, when they fall off.  Then the cycle starts anew, and the buck, now a year older, may well grow a larger set of antlers.

Fast forward a decade or so.  I was a biologist at some expo or another; the table was decked with bones, tortoise shells, snake skins, and other bits of natural detritus with which to engage the public in conversations about how cool nature is. A woman came by, looking with mild distaste at my display.  At last, she pointed at the shed antler I’d picked up in the woods.  “Did you kill that deer?” she demanded.  I launched into my spiel on the antler growth cycle with the enthusiasm of a young professional naturalist.  I ended my micro lecture with a verbal coda indicating how interesting I found the whole process.

“Uh-huh.”  Not the reaction I was expecting.  She clearly didn’t buy a word that I said, because I was certainly lying to cover up evidence of my Bambicide.  Nonplused, I showed her the burr, running my finger over the rough transitional surface where the antler detached from the pedicle on the buck’s head; it was obviously not sawn off a dead deer.  Still didn’t matter.  I felt the weight of her judging gaze as she proceeded to visit another table featuring less unsavory characters than government biologists like me.

Earlier this week, I was talking with someone about one aspect of my job: advocating for certain suites of native plant species, a process that often involves removing non-natives as well as native species of a different seral community.  I went on to say that forest thinning and regular regimes of prescribed burning are standard management tools in the southeastern US. Foresters and wildlife biologists are trying to create openings in forests to bring back endangered animals, but ironically those plans are halted by lawsuits from well-intentioned “nature lovers” who think all forests should be climax forests, and that any tree cutting was only for the profit of the timber industry.

My correspondent suggested, “Maybe the scientists could do some educational outreach and turn the nature lovers into volunteers. When folks understand the science, they become great advocates.”

Oh, one would believe so.  And don’t think we don’t do outreach.  Here’s a secret about biologists: we are often very knowledgeable introverts.  One of the things that draws us to a career in the outdoors is limited contact with people.  Further, a biologist often knows that a casual question from a visitor at a booth will have an answer that encompasses an hour’s lecture of foundational background, examples, and counter-examples.  They must mentally distill this into a 20-second soundbite that still sounds convincing to the layman. 

And even if we were all ecological advocates with the eloquence of Carl Sagan, delivery of the message is only half the battle.  The receiver still must accept it, and there are several barriers to overcome.

Let’s start with the power of emotion.  Emotion is immediate and viscerally satisfying, while one must be patient and discerning with facts.  I can point to a browse line and explain why humans must cull a deer herd, but weighed against a photo of a hunter-killed deer I may well lose the argument.  My coworkers can list the plant and animal species endemic to a longleaf savanna ecosystem, but can that compete with the image of the charred, barren forest floor that is periodically  necessary to preserve those species?

The next hurdle is the cognitive bias. Certain members of the public dismiss our voices, particularly in the last couple of decades.  Is it because they’ve been lied to by dishonest authorities? Because they’ve been trained by fringe news sources to assume anyone coming out of a university has a hidden agenda?  We can’t be certain of the reason, but the result – skepticism veering into denial – is evident.

Finally, there is the willingness to change.  This seems to be the highest hurdle.  The ability to change one’s opinion when presented with new facts seems as rare and as valuable as any superpower.  The shed-denier at the beginning of this essay is but one of many I’ve encountered in person or via social media. “I’m entitled to my opinion” is acceptable in matters of personal taste, but too many in today’s society take it to mean, “My ignorance is as valid as your specialized knowledge.”

If you are reading this, likely you are part of the choir I’m preaching to; you’re nodding because you’ve probably had run-ins with the arrogantly ignorant folks who believe their emotional opinion overrules your fact-based assertion. But if I am fortunate enough to capture a pair of fresh eyes linked to an open mind, please believe that I am not getting paid under the table by Big Timber.  My interest in nature began with reading about dinosaurs as a toddler and has never waned.  If I tell you something about the natural world, it’s what I believe to be true.

I have been around long enough to know there are no simple solutions.  Improving habitat for one species may be detrimental for another. One of the more difficult parts of a biologist’s job is to condense this knowledge into an elevator pitch that will enlighten someone who may be happier in the dark.

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.