In Other Words

The Fair Chase: The Epic Story of Hunt­ing in Amer­ica by Philip Dray

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER -

by Philip Dray, Ba­sic Books, 397 pages

Septem­ber marks the start of the fall hunt­ing sea­son in New Mex­ico. Whether it’s oryx, cot­ton­tail, gray squir­rel, black bear, elk, deer, quail, or dove, the time set aside for the le­gal and reg­u­lated tak­ing of crea­tures great and small has com­menced in a state that is renowned as a hunter’s par­adise.

It’s a par­adise that is lost on those who see hunt­ing as state­sanc­tioned an­i­mal cru­elty and a sign that civ­i­lized so­ci­ety still has some evolv­ing to do. For many fam­i­lies, how­ever, hunt­ing is an an­tic­i­pated an­nual event filled with tra­di­tions passed down through gen­er­a­tions.

What’s eas­ier to quan­tify is hunt­ing’s eco­nomic im­pact on New Mex­ico’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct: $265 mil­lion in 2013, ac­cord­ing to a New Mex­ico De­part­ment of Game and Fish-spon­sored study, with $61.5 mil­lion gen­er­ated in fed­eral, state, and lo­cal tax rev­enues.

Dif­fer­ences in opin­ion about hunt­ing’s value to so­ci­ety run al­most as deeply as the ac­tiv­ity it­self. As Philip Dray ob­serves in his fas­ci­nat­ing new study, The Fair Chase: The Epic Story of Hunt­ing in Amer­ica, hunt­ing is Amer­ica’s old­est recre­ation, and one that is in­ter­wo­ven into the na­tional fab­ric.

Hunt­ing not only played an in­te­gral role in the cre­ation of some of early Amer­ica’s leg­endary char­ac­ters, but it also had an im­pact on lit­er­a­ture, art, and pol­i­tics. From real fron­tiers­men to James Fen­i­more Cooper’s larger-than-life lit­er­ary char­ac­ter Natty Bumppo, hunt­ing pro­vided the back­drop for heroic ex­ploits real and cre­ated. Dray re­minds us, “While the British and Eu­ro­pean legacy was sig­nif­i­cant, there were other key in­flu­ences in early Amer­ica — cel­e­brated fron­tier hun­ters Daniel Boone and Davy Crock­ett and the wood­craft of their na­tive Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts, who taught the need to al­low deer and other game their nat­u­ral breed­ing cy­cles and as­sess to brows­ing habi­tat. As for the sport­ing as­pect of the chase, it needed a lit­tle in­vent­ing.”

Amer­ica has never lacked for cit­i­zens will­ing to tell tall tales of their ad­ven­tures on the fron­tier. After word of his ex­ploits cir­cu­lated through the new na­tion, the hum­ble Boone emerged as some­thing of a semi-lit­er­ate Found­ing Fa­ther. The yarn-spin­ning Crock­ett be­came so pop­u­lar he served in the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, and came to de­fine what that keen ob­server of Amer­ica, Alexis de Toc­queville, con­sid­ered to be a fresh po­lit­i­cal per­son­al­ity. The two men em­bod­ied a “fron­tier spirit,” both gen­uine and man­u­fac­tured, that would have an im­pact on Amer­i­can pol­i­tics for decades to come. That abid­ing legacy is il­lus­trated in the pub­lic per­sonas of pres­i­dents from out­doors­man Theodore Roo­sevelt to for­mer char­ac­ter ac­tor Ron­ald Rea­gan.

Roo­sevelt’s af­fec­tion for what he called “the best of all na­tional pas­times” was a big part of what drove him to pre­serve and pro­tect pub­lic lands and es­tab­lish the foun­da­tion of Amer­ica’s con­ser­va­tion move­ment. While he loved the out­doors, he was more hunter than tree hug­ger. As Dray chron­i­cles, the man cred­ited with es­tab­lish­ing Amer­ica’s con­ser­va­tion move­ment was also the co-founder of the Boone and Crock­ett Club.

Hunt­ing not only played an in­te­gral role in the cre­ation of some of early Amer­ica’s leg­endary char­ac­ters, but it also had an im­pact on lit­er­a­ture, art, and pol­i­tics.

What Dray calls “the Age of the Fair Chase,” dat­ing from the mid-1860s to the late 1950s, took a sharp turn af­ter­ward, with changes in the en­vi­ron­men­tal and an­i­mal rights move­ments and the po­lit­i­cal rise of the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion. We find that the fun­da­men­tal rules of the fair chase — a hunter giv­ing his prey a sport­ing chance in the proper sea­son — rarely ap­plied to the fields of pol­i­tics and busi­ness. The pro­lif­er­a­tion of weapons, some in­tended only for the mil­i­tary bat­tle­field, cre­ated un­in­tended con­se­quences that echo through the decades.

The Amer­i­can hunter, at times, has be­come the hunted. Although a vast ma­jor­ity of cit­i­zens be­lieve hunt­ing should re­main le­gal, he of­fers, to­day only ap­prox­i­mately 5 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion ac­tu­ally takes to the field. “Hun­ters are equally aware of the spillover into their pas­time of the on­go­ing de­bate about the place of guns in Amer­i­can life,” Dray writes. “De­spite opin­ion polls that show that the pub­lic ap­pre­ci­ates the dif­fer­ence be­tween ‘the gun scourge’ and fair chase, the in­ten­sity of the na­tion’s Se­cond Amend­ment furor can­not help but im­pact a sport that cen­ters upon high-pow­ered weapons.”

It was Dray’s stated in­tent to “go be­yond the present-day cul­tural bat­tles re­gard­ing hunt­ing” and of­fer a broad his­tory, and he suc­ceeds for the most part. If, in the end, he finds him­self ac­cused of adding am­mu­ni­tion to an ar­gu­ment at a time in which the mo­ti­va­tions of all sides are as­signed sin­is­ter in­tent, it wouldn’t be sur­pris­ing.

Dray per­cep­tively re­minds us that recre­ational hunt­ing’s image as a builder of Amer­i­can char­ac­ter, bol­stered and shaped for cen­turies by au­thors, po­ets, and jour­nal­ists, con­tin­ues to re­ver­ber­ate in mod­ern times. A his­tory that reaches be­yond na­tional myth­mak­ing, lit­er­ary leg­end, and po­lit­i­cal polemic is it­self a fair and wor­thy chase.

Like one of those ea­gle-eyed fron­tiers­men who will for­ever hold a place in the na­tional psy­che, Dray’s hand is steady and his aim is true. — John L. Smith

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