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My Turn: To criticize hunting is to reject the traditional connection of humans to nature

Last modified: 11/25/2015 1:19:50 AM
I live here in Concord and worked at a downtown office (here and in Keene), and had my main office in Boston these past 40 years, so I’m very familiar with urban sensibilities. I understand completely how people who live and work in cities and suburbs and get all of their food at grocery stores and most of their news from the Concord Monitor, Boston Globe and Keene Sentinel can have a myopic view of hunting, fishing, trapping and general rural self-reliance – as several recent letters and stories in the Monitor attest.

I’ve also had the good fortune to work the woods of northern New England and New York over my career as a forester and later as a manager of vast forests. The foresters and administrative staff that did the on-the-ground work lived in and were often natives of the very small towns that dot the North Country of the Northeast (Tupper Lake and Lowville, N.Y.; Kane, Pa.; Newport, Vt., West Stewartstown, N.H.; and Bethel, Jackman and Clayton Lake in Maine).

Our clients were good enough to allow hunting, fishing, trapping, snowmobiling and most other activities on the lands we managed, and as a result our staff had daily interactions with participants in all those endeavors and with the Fish and Game folks in the various states. While always a risk to speak in generalities, I can tell you the vast majority of people who live up there have a very different world view than us “flatlanders.”

I think it begins with the most basic necessities – everyone needs to support themselves and their families.

Here in the megalopolis, we do that by taking advantage of a vast array of employment opportunities, many of them paying very well, and if we need some extra money we can perhaps take a part-time job or work overtime.

If you live in the North Country, there are few offices and factories, so if you’re going to earn a living you need to take advantage of the opportunities that are there. These usually include low- to modest-paying jobs in the logging and recreation businesses, and related support and services. Very few of those jobs support a lavish lifestyle.

What you can do is take advantage of the bounty of nature that surrounds you. Putting a deer or moose in the freezer can make a huge difference in the well-being of many families, as does catching a meal every now and then via fishing or helping to make ends meet by selling pelts.

Earlier this month, there were a few letters decrying the long-standing practice of pheasant stocking and shooting the stocked birds. I got a shotgun for a 16th birthday present. After missing several partridge (grouse) and woodcocks, I managed to bring down a pheasant. I plucked and gutted the bird, and gave it to my mother to cook. I was very proud of the accomplishment (even though she overcooked the thing and didn’t pull out some of the birdshot).

It wasn’t about survival, but it was about getting good enough with the shotgun to make the shot, and yes, putting meat on the table and becoming something of a provider. It was, perhaps most important, about gaining perspective on how food is provided by killing an animal then having to gut and prepare it.

I’m reasonably sure ring-neck pheasants are nonnative and doubt they’ve ever developed sustainable populations here, so this one isn’t about managing native wildlife, but I really don’t care. I think it’s great that Fish and Game continues putting them out each season for sport, and meat on some tables, and also so young people can learn how to bring down a game bird in flight. It’s a good skill to have, as I can attest.

You see, later in life, when I had a young family and was a field forester working in the Adirondacks (and earning $8,500 a year) it wasn’t uncommon for us to run out of money between paychecks, and there were times when getting a partridge or a few trout was the only way to put meat on the table. And a memory I’ll always cherish is my boss (who was an amazing marksman) once picked off five partridge for me so I could have a nice Thanksgiving dinner. And even if there’s never a “need,” the sport of shooting a bird on the wing is difficult to master and is rewarding when you become a competent shot. It also keeps the connection between humans and the food we eat in proper perspective. After all, no matter what we eat, somebody had to kill it (or, in case of fruits and vegetables, changed the purpose that plant had intended for its product – carrots don’t grow themselves for the purpose of feeding humans).

Another hubbub a couple of weeks back was over Fish and Game’s decision to allow trapping bobcats.

Fish and Game professionals are highly skilled at what they do, and dedicated to managing fish and wildlife populations at sustainable levels. They also work to provide and enhance opportunities for sportsmen to enjoy their outdoor experience and get some meat on the table, and give others the opportunity to make a living by trapping, which is traditional and still important in rural America.

I ran a trap-line as a teenager with the expectation it could provide some spending money just as shoveling snow or picking berries did. My parents approved because they saw the enterprise as a way to teach me the benefits of resourcefulness and self-reliance. I had a friend who paid his way through college largely by trapping. After that, trapping helped him with basic necessities and made a nicer Christmas for his family.

There are many others who trap as one piece of how they make a living. There used to be (and probably still are) people in Machias, Maine, who make a living by “tipping” (clipping off Balsam fir branches to make Christmas wreaths) in early winter and run a trap-line in the winter. In the spring and summer, they go lobstering and/or dig worms and clams. In late summer, they pick blueberries. They’re not doing it for recreation; it is how they get by in life. They lack the employment opportunities we take for granted here in the great megalopolis.

People who work the farms, fisheries and forests of this world, and those who live and die in rural America, are still connected to the land in a way similar to our mutual ancestors. They understand humans need food and shelter to survive, and many of them don’t need (or can’t afford) to pay somebody else to provide it.

While I can’t speak for all of rural America, my view of hunting animals, fishing and gathering plants is that they are natural, good and positive endeavors. It’s what humans have always done, and being good at it is still a useful skill in large parts of our world. Society loses some very useful survival skills when it relies on others to do the difficult and sometimes disturbing jobs.

My hope in writing this is that well-meaning people who have issues with hunting, fishing or trapping will perhaps be a bit more open-minded with their neighbors and traditional culture. And to those who are close-minded and wish to outlaw or regulate a way of life into extinction, my admonishment is that being against hunting and trapping, or being an animal rights activist, doesn’t make you one of the “good guys.” It simply reflects your urban/suburban world view and prejudice.

(Steve Mongan lives in Concord.)


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