I took a kid fishing recently. A friend’s kid – a ten-year-old boy who didn’t grow up rural. We cast rooster tails and panther martins into a tea-colored lake that sat up on the spine of the Green Mountains. At first he was impatient, but it melted away into a postcard moment: man and boy on a perfect summer afternoon. Smoky late-summer sun. The splash of a lure, the click of a bail, the whirl of a spinning reel.
About ten minutes in, a trout fell for a peculiar horseshoe-shaped lure, and it soon lay gasping in my hands. I told the kid that this was a brook trout, showed him its salmon-colored belly, the constellations of spots on its sides. I asked him if we should keep the fish or let it go – KEEP IT! he said – and so I showed him how to humanely dispatch a fish. As I slipped its limp body into my creel, my mind jumped ahead several steps, to the part where we’d gut the fish together and I’d point out the roe, the swim bladder, and other basic parts of the viscera; to the part where we’d coat the trout in flour and Old Bay, dunk it in egg white, dredge it in cornmeal, and fry it in bacon fat; how we’d watch the trout curl in the pan, flatten, then bronze, at which point he’d bring it proudly to his mother and feel like he’d done something special for her. As I watched him paddle off to brag about our success, I even lapsed into a far-flung future fantasy where he’d look back as a successful adult and reflect on how this one day fishing on a remote lake led him to science and conservation, curiosity and a love of earth.
“Well, you’ve created a vegetarian,” his mother announced as I approached them. The kid was crying and wanted to go home. After he calmed down, I tried to talk to him about it. He was two moves from checkmate, but I didn’t see it coming.
“Empathy’s a great trait; next time you can let the fish go.”
“That’s not going to help this one.”
“Well you’re going to eat this one, so his death won’t be in vain.”
“But I don’t have to eat meat, and I’m not going to from now on.”
It’s at this point that our exceedingly complex adult arguments about the ethics of vegetarianism begin. Those on the anti-meat side argue that our human intelligence and capabilities morally obligate us to care for animals, not kill and eat them, while those of us on the but-we-have-canine-teeth side counter with practical points about soybean monoculture being an environmental catastrophe and our own philosophical meditations on how consuming a sacramental portion of wild food nourishes the soul in ways that plunking over money to buy cellophane wrapped slabs of anything does not.
But you don’t have these discussions with a ten-year-old who’s saddened by seeing a life extinguished. And if I’m underestimating the mental capacity of a ten-year-old here, it’s understandable, considering that at this point I was absolutely terrified that instead of fostering a love of the outdoors in this child – the whole point of the fishing trip – I’d done the opposite.
Suddenly my future fantasy envisioned an adult sitting in a city apartment compiling shrill statistics for a PETA mailing while feeling the weight of a billion dead farm animals on his soul, haunted by visions of the dead trout that set him on a path toward perpetual sadness.
I’m being silly now, but I really did feel bad. And I still don’t know what I might have done differently. When you write columns imploring people to take a kid hunting or fishing, and in my years as a nature writer I’ve written plenty of them, you don’t think about this sort of thing. The soundscape in those pieces contains laughter and loon song, not tears and uncomfortable silences.
We had two interesting editorial discussions related to animal sensitivity matters in this issue. We wondered about including a hunter’s perspective in the duck photo essay (page 23), and we were tempted to omit the fact that bears had their teeth pulled to age them in the Maine bear study (page 42) – this on the heels of several impassioned letters chastising us for “glorifying cruel animal research” in a recent story about a similar bobcat study.
We chose to take our lumps on the insensitivity front in both cases, as the magazine has always celebrated hunting as a rural tradition, an important management tool, and a doorway that leads people to conservation and science; as for the teeth, it just seemed journalistically irresponsible to hide part of the story. Not all will agree that we made the right decision.
You send a magazine out to people who have very different ways of seeing the natural world. You send a kid home from a fishing trip with puffy eyes. You hope that the differences don’t matter in either case, that the take home is still: isn’t nature amazing? But you don’t know. You hope, but you never really know. NW