The Meaning of Meat: Adult-Onset Hunters Look to the Land for Sustenance

The Meaning of Meat: Adult-Onset Hunters Look to the Land for Sustenance

Photo by Erik Hoffner.

As a teenager, Deborah Perkins found hunting repulsive. During her years at Greely High School in Cumberland, Maine, she wrote a passionate essay arguing that the pursuit was morally wrong. Two decades later – now living 25 miles north, in Poland, and working as a consulting wildlife biologist – she hunts grouse, turkey, and deer.

Perkins’ perspective began to change at Sterling College in northern Vermont, where she studied wildlife and natural resource management. “It’s hard to remember how I shifted from being against it to being more aware,” she told me recently. “I think it was really the human ecology teachings of Sterling.” There, learning extended beyond the classroom to the campus farm and woodlot, and Perkins recalls that she was “starting to feel drawn to the notion of growing your own food and cutting your own wood.”

Among her classmates and teachers, Perkins was also getting to know hunters. She began to see that they were students of animals and habitats. “They knew so much about the woods and wildlife.” Though her father and uncle had hunted when she was a girl, Perkins had always perceived it as a purely recreational pursuit. She had never seen hunting as part of a broader set of cultural values, encompassing stewardship of the land, a sense of place, and an awareness of how interconnected everything is. At Sterling, she began to grasp these aspects. “It wasn’t just ‘Go out and shoot a deer in cold blood.’ That killing moment is a very small part of a much larger experience.”

Several years later, with encouragement from a boyfriend, Perkins took up a gun herself. “As a skill, it was so challenging and exciting to learn,” she recalls. Perkins also found the hunt grounding. “I felt more true to my identity as an outdoors person,” she told me. “Thinking about the animal’s habitat and behavior – and the pursuit – it feels very innate to me. It’s not just a sport. It’s about going out your back door and experiencing a deep, meaningful connection to the wildness around you.”

Jacob Racusin feels connected to local tradition through hunting.
Photo by Ace Mcarleton, New Frameworks Natural Building, LLC.

Jacob Racusin, a builder from Montgomery, Vermont, who specializes in using natural materials, didn’t expect to become a hunter either. Growing up in the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River, where many out-of-staters like his parents have settled in recent decades, he had no connection to hunting. Especially in high school, kids from hunting families and kids from non-hunting families seemed to inhabit separate cultural worlds. But in his early twenties, shortly after he and his wife started homesteading and – for health reasons – abandoned their vegan diet, he got curious about taking up a rifle in pursuit of meat.

Partly, Racusin was attracted by the possibility of procuring high-quality food and steering clear of factory farms. Mainly, though, he took up hunting for the same reason that he and his wife spend so much time tending their vegetable garden, growing medicinal herbs, planting fruit trees, and raising sheep: “A huge part of it is just developing a closer relationship with our land and with our woods – understanding who else is living in our woods, getting to know our woodland ecology, and having a strong sense of place.”

Over the past eight years, Racusin has found that hunting helps him step back from his usual habits of constant productivity: tending family, profession, gardens, and animals. “Usually when I’m in my woods, it involves a chainsaw. So I really appreciate the opportunity to sit still in the woods, to spend that much time in observation and not just in action.”

Steve Morrell – a third unlikely hunter – grew up in Yonkers, New York, just north of Manhattan. Though an urban kid, he was always drawn to the outdoors. He joined the Boy Scouts, loved to go fishing and camping, and even had a toy bow and a passing interest in hunting. But he had no way to get involved. Hunting was the stuff of stories. He didn’t know anyone who actually did it.

The catalyst came along when he was 30: a friend invited him to check out the local indoor archery range, not far from where Morrell lives in Queens. From day one, Morrell was hooked on the bow, and his boyhood interest in hunting soon resurfaced.

At first, the hunt was simply exciting. Morrell felt the kind of enthusiasm he feels for any new endeavor, any new hobby. “Going into the woods was such an unbelievable learning experience,” he recalls. “And there was nothing as exciting as seeing deer. I don’t know why. There’s just something about deer.” Over the past eight years, though, his hunting has taken on greater depth. Like Perkins and Racusin, Morrell craves the quiet time, especially in the woods surrounding the cabin he and his wife bought in the Catskills two years ago.

Most of all, Morrell appreciates the venison. “Hunting,” he told me, “is about putting healthy food in my body.” And it’s also about sharing that food. After Morrell gets a deer, he throws a dinner party. “I like to cook,” he said. “I do some pretty elaborate things, like venison Wellington. It’s delicious.”

 

Deborah Perkins, who once wrote a student essay railing against the moral implications of hunting, is now a proud hunter.
Photo courtesy of Deborah Perkins.

Why they hunt

Across the United States, hunting license sales have been declining for decades. In Vermont, for example, more than 140,000 hunting licenses were sold in 1974. By 2005, that number had dropped to just over 80,000. It has long been assumed that efforts to counter this trend and recruit new hunters should be focused on kids and teenagers – young people at risk of losing their family traditions.

According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey, however, in 2005 one-third of first-time American hunters were 21 or older. This may not be a new phenomenon – longitudinal data are sketchy. But for anyone interested in the future of hunting, these people warrant attention, as do their motivations.

I have spoken with dozens of new, adult hunters here in the Northeast – including several who were once opposed to hunting – and Perkins, Racusin, and Morrell speak for many of them.

These hunters tell me that hunting makes them feel that they are part of nature. As hunters, they feel more fully engaged with the land, walking it and returning to the same places year after year. And they feel more fully engaged with their own senses: listening as the pre-dawn forest comes alive with birdsong, watching as clouds of ducks rise up off a coastal bay, paying attention to the habits of animals, learning to track deer or to strike up a call-and-response conversation with a wild turkey.

Some talk about connection in spiritual terms, describing the forest as their church, or the wind in the trees as the breath of the divine. Many speak of feeling connected to humanity’s ancestral roots. “I always think about what we were like as a species before all this civilization and technology,” Perkins told me.

Most fundamentally, they say they feel like participants in the food chain. As one hunter put it, they feel like they “belong to the cycle.”

Food is a primary motive for many of these hunters. They want to eat healthy food, to be directly involved in procuring it, and to bypass the industrial food system. Many grow their own vegetables, raise chickens, or keep bees, and want to steer clear of antibiotic-laden meat, produce and eggs contaminated by salmonella, and other health hazards. Many refuse to eat factory-farmed meat and feel strongly about the importance of treating land and animals with respect. In short, they want to take nutritional, ethical, and ecological responsibility for their own sustenance. They want to cultivate what Racusin calls “a culture of relationship,” one that identifies humans as part of the ecological systems on which we all depend.

If you listen closely to these hunters, you soon realize that they speak of hunting as a response – even an antidote – to the frenzied distractions and disconnections of modern life.

In part, it’s the deeply-focused state of mind they slip into when hunting. “The worries that you have just kind of melt away,” Morrell said. “It’s like meditation. It really is.” This serves, as another adult convert to hunting put it, as a “time to heal the tragedy of this technological, high-paced world we live in now.”

In part, it’s the sharp contrast between hunting and shopping. As one Maine hunter said, “Part of it is definitely a connection to a world that we have lost connection to. Buying your food in a supermarket is really sterile and duck hunting is not sterile.” Whether they’re retrieving ducks from a salt marsh or fielddressing a whitetail and dragging it out of the woods, these people find that hunting provides a direct, visceral encounter with food, life, death, and – inevitably – killing.

For deer hunters in particular, the powerful, conflicted emotions that accompany even the quickest, most humane kill can be hard to express. “I feel very excited, but I always feel sad, usually cry,” one Vermont hunter told me. “It’s a mixture of awe and sadness. It’s a bunch of things.” These hunters say they feel sorrow at the animal’s death, yet simultaneously feel pride and satisfaction at the hunt’s success, gratitude for the food, and wonder at the mysteries of nature.

“It’s such a primal experience,” Morrell said. “You’re looking at the animal on the ground, and if you think about it, about what you’ve done, you can’t help but feel some sadness. I don’t know. It’s usually outweighed by the happiness, but the sadness is definitely a part of it.”

Born and raised just outside New York City, Steve Morrell came to hunting at age 30.
Photo courtesy of Steve Morrell.

Cultural connections

Though most of the adult-onset hunters I’ve met grew up without a strong connection to hunting traditions, many have forged friendships with hunters who do have that connection. When Perkins wanted to learn to hunt turkeys, she turned to a friend of hers, a lifelong hunter and Maine Guide. He assured her that the shotgun she already had would be fine, and helped her get her first tom. Through him and others, Perkins feels connected to local hunting traditions. And though her most immediate aim is to fill the freezer with healthy wild meat, in the long view her goals are cultural.

“As a Mainer,” she told me, “I find it sad to see the culture of Old Maine fading. I want to carry the torch of the history of this place. I want to keep that alive, at least in my own family.” Though neither her husband nor her brother hunt, a few years ago Perkins’ uncle gave her an old Winchester 94 that belonged to her great-great-grandfather. And her three-year-old daughter Ada – who has never been shielded from knowing where meat comes from – is already curious about hunting.

Racusin was mentored in a similar fashion, by a lifelong Vermont hunter who introduced him to firearms, loaned him a rifle, and showed him the basics of deer hunting. Like Perkins, Racusin now feels connected to local tradition. It can be as simple as bumping into someone in the hardware store during deer season, and striking up a conversation about where the bucks might be. “It gives me a culture I can identify with,” he said. “It grounds me not just in physical place, but in community, too.”

Also like Perkins, Racusin is eager to pass on the adopted tradition. His hunting already revolves around his twelve-year old son, Elijah, and Racusin is gratified to know that the boy sees and understands the many ways his family engages with, and is sustained by, the land.

Living in Queens, Morrell had no mentor. He learned to hunt by reading articles, by spending time in the woods, and by trial and error. There is, he told me, no local hunting culture for him to connect with. Hunters are a tiny minority in New York City, especially in the fashionable, cosmopolitan profession of advertising where he works as a copywriter.

Yet Morrell feels that he, too, is part of a larger culture: not a hunting tradition that is dying, but one that is being renewed. “As part of the food movement, I think we’re going to see a resurgence of interest in hunting,” he said. “People are thinking about where their food comes from and what it means.”

Perhaps it is here that hunters and non-hunters can find the most common ground – in our shared recognition that drawing sustenance directly from the land yields more than meat and vegetables, firewood and lumber. It yields more than food, warmth, and shelter. It also yields meaning.

Tovar Cerulli lives in Vermont. This article is based on his graduate research at UMass-Amherst. His first book, The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance, will be released by Pegasus Books in February. Details can be found at www.tovarcerulli.com.

 
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