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