Anyone’s who’s been paying attention to the grow-it-yourself urban farming “revolution” could have seen this trend coming. The mighty kale chips, once so proudly tended, baked and presented to the potlucking hordes, have lost their rebellious flavour and instead taste like . . . kale. For some earnest pioneers, backyard chickens have devolved into backyard pets, or pests. The $5 organic romaine, prized bounty of the local farmers’ market, now wilts in the face of ever-gnawing class consciousness.
Since 2006, when Michael Pollan sliced into the fray with The Omnivore’s Dilemma, what we eat has become a statement about who we are. Foodies pair environmentalism with thrice-daily (or more) direct action. Among the righteous are the vegetarians and vegans, the locavores and slow foodies, the indie-restaurant patrons and community agriculture supporters. Sinners, you know who you are.
Yet underneath these holier-than-thou diets, there seems to be a genuine longing for a deeper connection to what sustains us. Meat production, not welcome in urban backyards, is most troublesome. And so a slew of new books published over the past two years aims to connect city folk, the kind who lurk over pricey bison sausages at the local artisan butcher, to the fishing rod and rifle. Hunting is green, these authors argue. It’s ethical. And more than that, it’s spiritual.
In Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner, Lily Raff McCaulou, then 24, abandons New York City for Bend, Ore. Warm and eager, she’d been enjoying the glittery single-in-the-city life of a young journalist, welcome at galleries and bars but excluded from serious writing gigs. So she decides to head west in search of professional experience.
Once in Oregon, McCaulou steps gently and soulfully into the tamarack wilds, first with a fishing rod. While she had always considered herself an environmentalist, she writes, she actually didn’t understand nature at all — until she started participating in it as a predator. “In all the years I lived here,” she reflects about her hometown on the East Coast, “I never noticed that this bit of highway crosses a ravine. I never glanced at a map and learned its name. . . . Now a river catches my eye because I know how to decipher some of its secrets. Fly-fishing is teaching me to discover some of the life that takes place beneath the water’s surface. But more than two years will pass before I one day look up from the river, to the surrounding valley, and wonder if it, too, speaks in a language I don’t understand.”
With more bluster and less nuance, Georgia Pellegrini, who left a Wall Street job for chef school, marches into forests across the United States to track down a meal. In Girl Hunter: Revolutionizing the Way We Eat, One Hunt at a Time, Pellegrini mixes gourmet recipes (quail en papillote) with anecdotes and reflections on her own hunting-inspired transformation.
Similar to McCaulou, Pellegrini notes that unlike shopping at an urban farmers’ market, hunting demands an interior change — and the acceptance of an older, unhip hunting culture. “I think I have crossed over and become one of those Americans [who shoots and eats squirrel],” she writes. “It is true I have spent evenings sipping nouveau martinis, but as I sit and close my eyes, I recall the sound of lips smacking, and remember my dabbing with crusty bread at the rosemary vapors of squirrel putach. . . . [I] smell the whiskey steaming from the ice, and recall the sight of men tapping tenderly on the pearl notes of a five-string, clenching their teeth and grimacing into their music making. Yes, I have crossed over.”
This is evocative prose; if it actually inspires hunting, it will reverse a decades-long trend. Hunting in North America and Europe, industry groups report, is generally declining. For example, the number of duck hunters in Canada has dropped by over 70 percent since the late 1970s, according to Long Point Waterfowl, an education and conservation organization for hunters in the Great Lakes region of Ontario. The latest reliable figures from Environment Canada show that about five percent of Canadians are “active hunters,” with another 10 percent interested but not hunting.
You’d think that the rise in vegetarianism might hamper renewed interest in hunting. But Tovar Cerulli, a vegan carpenter turned hunter, has perhaps the most convincing tale of all. After a rural childhood spent hunting and fishing, the Vermont native encountered Buddhism at university, as well as the horrors of the industrial meat supply. His last trout, hooked and eaten at 20, tasted like regret. “Its death had been gratuitous,” he writes in The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance. “It was, I vowed, the last time I would ever consume a fellow creature.”
By 30, though, when his naturopath suggested he needed more protein, Cerulli weighed his options. Frankly, he writes, “What my body wanted was to eat other vertebrates — not for their flavor, but for their substance.” Hunting and fishing, as he rediscovered, offered him a moral balance and deep awareness.
“If I kill,” he concludes, “I crouch beside the fallen whitetail and give thanks for all that sustains me, then make my way to the kitchen counter to complete the butchering: a meditation with meat and knife.”
One Canadian thinker was ahead of the curve in feeding this new hunger for the spirituality of the hunt. In 2010, Nathan Kowalsky, an assistant professor of religious and environmental philosophy at Edmonton’s St. Joseph’s College, edited Hunting — Philosophy for Everyone: In Search of the Wild Life, a collection of essays about the meaning and morality of shooting animals for food. He describes the essential paradox of hunting in his introduction: “Life and death, together, right there in front of your face — and on your hands.”
Will urban foodies revive hunting? Is shouldering a Remington the ethical way to eat? These are compelling questions, but for this softie, they’re Starbucks conversation fodder — not a call to arms.
Pieta Woolley is a freelance writer in Powell River, B.C.