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To kill a mess of game…and bring it home to the family, is just about as necessary to most grown Americans as for their very young sons to go fishing in the family washtub. And that, in my opinion, is very necessary indeed. -Aldo Leopold, “Game Methods: The American Way,” 1931
Some of my favorite childhood memories of the outdoors are of fishing with my grandfather, but I did not hunt until coming to the Aldo Leopold Foundation. It was then that I began to appreciate that hunting yields complex social and ecological returns and that it could be an important land management activity. Plus, some of my favorite people hunted and fished, coming home with stories that were, if not better, at least substantially different than the yarns I spun after my hikes. Finally, any activity that played such a major role in shaping Aldo Leopold’s own life, vision, and values seemed to warrant investigation. This issue of Outlook examines how these pursuits connect people to the natural world.
Many readers of A Sand County Almanac don’t directly link hunting and fishing to the development of Leopold’s land ethic. Yet, “The Alder Fork,” “Green Lagoons,” “Thinking Like a Mountain” and other essays have those who hunt and fish on the edge of their seats, connecting with minute details, while other readers simply respond to the aesthetic appeal of the essays. That is the power of Leopold’s voice—it brings us all together. Individuals from diverse interest groups rally around the land ethic because they share the fundamental concern and care for the natural world that Leopold expressed.
At times, my own evolution into hunting lulls me into forgetting there is often a stark separation between hunters and non-hunters that can prevent both sides from understanding and even trusting one another. Many hunters feel they actually better understand and are closer to the natural world because they engage it so fully. They choose to embrace their place as “consumers” and see no conflict with killing things they care deeply about because of their knowledge about the activity and the process. Many non-hunters see protecting and killing as mutually exclusive acts and simply cannot reconcile killing things they love.
Perhaps it comes down to one’s own philosophy about how best to care for the world we live in. Is nature fragile and to be protected at all times from any harm? Or is the best we can do to immerse ourselves in it as fully as possible? Personally, I gravitate towards something in the middle. Nature is resilient and we must engage it fully, but there are places and times where restraint is required. Leopold’s own approach to hunting and fishing moderated over time. In “Sky Dance,” for example, he recounts that upon purchasing his farm and realizing the difficulties of establishing suitable habitat for woodcock, he preferred to have them on his property rather than on his dinner table and quit hunting them.
For Leopold, it was pretty clear that not using a scientific approach to ecological management, including hunting, was unethical; it would compromise the health of the land as well as the individual species. Leopold learned much of this thoughtfulness from his hunting mentor, his father. Carl Leopold self-imposed bag limits before they were set by wildlife agencies. He taught Aldo how to hunt and fish as a way to learn about and care for the natural world.
So, when I got a call from Fritz Leopold, Aldo’s grandson, expressing interest in donating Leopold’s Ansley Fox 20-gauge shotgun, the first person I told was my own hunting mentor, Jeff Nania. In the Leopold Atlas, Jeff examines the rationale, care, and effort Leopold put into choosing, ordering, and then using what for him was an essential way of connecting to the outdoors. Soon this beautiful piece of our conservation heritage will be displayed at the Leopold Center!
In “Dame’s Rocket,” Kevin Searock (who once tried to teach me how to fly cast and ended our session with the feedback, “Well, you’re not a natural.”) demonstrates how an angler sees land, river, and trout through a lens that heightens not only his senses but also his love for the natural world. Ted Kerasote adeptly acknowledges the divide between hunters and non-hunters, then challenges non-hunters to think more critically about what constitutes “consumptive sports” and hunters to reframe their passion to address legitimate critiques. In “A Man’s Leisure Time,” Leopold himself proposes that our avocations are perhaps even more valuable than our vocations in shaping us as people and informing our relationships with the land. Lauren Koshere, Drew Lanham, and Steve Swenson share their own perspectives on hunting and the logical and emotional complexities that exist regarding wildlife and our relationship to other species and each other. Finally, the Backyard Almanac introduces just how important healthy streams are to having healthy fish populations and the potential of using species like trout to help us monitor the health of the land.
For me, hunting and fishing have strengthened my connection to nature, deepened my understanding of a place’s ecology, and highlighted how different all outdoor activities are in terms of their sensory, social, and spiritual dimensions. Whether you hunt, fish, hike, bike, or paddle, I hope this issue will broaden your horizons and encourage you to try new ways of engaging the natural world and everyone else that shares your passion and commitment to a land ethic!
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