|Image from: http://www.artistridewi.com/data/photos/163_1r473_4649s.JPG|
We are an omnivorous species and that omnivory is part of what allowed us to develop civilization as we know it and to conquer the globe. However, our omnivore lifestyles (especially amongst Americans) have also become something of a danger to our civilization and to our planet. Over the past couple of years I've been leaning more and more toward getting into hunting for the meat that I eat. Hunting runs rich in my family's history and, although I have never hunted before, I feel a certain call from the wilderness - a beckoning to get out into the wild and hunt for my food from a wild source. My girlfriend and I are planning on moving toward as much of a locavore lifestyle as possible; we want to grow our own vegetables, hunt our own meat, and buy locally as much as possible (of course, there are some things that we just can't get from close to home - like coffee). Can we change our diets to become more sustainable and healthier through growing our own vegetables and hunting our own meat? I truly hope so.
There are a lot of people in my country who subsist on diets of meat with sprinklings of other bits like cheeses and breads with maybe a stray slice of tomato or onion every now and then (don't forget to wash it down with a load of sugar and artificial colorings and flavorings in some water). Such diets might not be so bad (still not great, but not so bad) if the foods came from sources where the producers had an investment in human health and global sustainability as opposed to maximizing profit, but that's just not the case. I don't want to sound like some ranting lunatic ("them there big bad corporations") so here's a little history of food followed by my beginner's take on hunting and what I intend to gain for myself, my community, and our world by hunting.
The Beauties and Terrors
of Food Preparation
|The Last Supper by Leonardo DiVinci|
Image from: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4b/%C3%9Altima_Cena_-_Da_Vinci_5.jpg
No one knows for sure when we started preparing our meals to improve the flavor and presentation of our food, but the act of spending time to prepare a meal (as opposed to just eating raw whatever bits we had at hand) is probably just about as old as hunting itself. For hundreds of thousands to over a million years, we and our ancestors have taken extra time to ensure that our food was nourishing as well as tasty. There are even some people out there who argue that preparing our meals, especially through the use of fire, might have given early humans a benefit over other primates. Cooking gave us a great way to mix together our various food sources to ensure that we were getting all of the nutrients we needed, but also ensured that we spent more time working together (improving our socialization and probably helping to ensure the development of civilization). One of the most enjoyable ways to socialize with other people is over a well-prepared meal.
A long history of cooking and food preparation led to the development of various ethnic cuisines and special types of meal preparation for various events of celebration in our lives. Many religions have developed special meals for celebration over time, and various people across the planet have sorted out their favorite types of food and food preparation to form the national cuisines that many of us know of now. Many of us love trying ethnic meals. French, Italian, Indian, Mongolian, Latin American, Ethiopian, German, American, Japanese... all of these words in the context of food signify a certain range of meals that I love to eat, and each of those types of food preparation have unique ingredients, cooking methods, and presentation styles that make each of them special in their own right. Interestingly, the preparation of animal meat is included in nearly all of those forms of cuisine.
There are lots of reasons for eating meat. Meat tastes great, it contains lots of the protein and nutrients that we need to survive, and the various studies that lots of vegetarians like to point to suggesting that eating meat is unhealthy are usually, when read closer, only concluding that eating too much meat or meat prepared in the wrong way is unhealthy. That's where we get to the crux of the problem for meat eaters. Meat tastes great and feels rewarding to eat, but there are way too many of us who cook their meat to well-done (which usually implies an increase in the number of carcinogens in the meat) and who eat meat for every meal, sometimes only meat for a meal. As omnivores we owe it to ourselves to balance our diets, but many of us, especially in America, have a hard time with that notion.
The over-consumption of meat in America has led to a scary reality: our demand for meat paired with corporate demands for profit have led to factory farming methods where the animals are treated inhumanely and the food itself has become jeopardized because of it. I won't go on about the dangers of factory farming (though here is an article from the ASPCA on the issue and here is one from Sustainable Table), but I think any of us who've ever driven past a factory farm or have seen how these animals are treated have to feel, at least a little bit, like something is very wrong in how we are treating those animals. There's a pretty large industrial cattle lot in northeastern Colorado, on the way up to Nebraska, that makes me cringe whenever I see it. The cows, thousands of them, are stuck standing shoulder-to-shoulder in mud mixed with their own excrement, while they wait for the slaughterhouse. The condition is the same in many industrial farm settings for chickens and pigs as well. If you find the nature of factory farms as unsettling as I do, here is a website that offers a Factory Farm Map to show you how many there are and how well-distributed they are across the United States (the site is produced by Food and Water Watch).
|Confinement of Pigs|
|Image from: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/|
"Why not just go vegetarian?"
I suppose a lot of my friends and family who are vegetarian or vegan would wonder why I don't just go fully vegetarian if I'm so worried about eating sustainably. There are definitely great arguments to be made for eating meatless diets. For instance, the three micro-populations on the planet that have the greatest number of centenarians (people who live to be over 100) all eat diets that are either vegetarian or that contain very little meat (here's another article that mentions the top 5 places with the longest living people). Eating vegetarian diets has been shown in a plethora of studies to appear very healthy, but (as Authority Nutrition mentioned in a post I linked above) very few studies have actually considered that most vegetarians are already health-conscious people and are likely doing other things to keep themselves healthy as well. I would throw down real money on a bet that vegetarians who eat boatloads of candy and highly-processed breads, drink soda, and live mostly sedentary lifestyles would start skewing such studies to show that although vegetarian diets can be good, they are by no means the sole solution. Where vegetarian and vegan diets really kick-ass compared to mostly meat-based diets is in the realm of sustainability. As this article from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows, the common meat-based diets (I would argue they are "meat-overconsumption diets") require far greater land, water, and energy resources than do typical plant-based diets of the same calorie-load. Without a doubt, eating a plant-based diet is far more sustainable than the typical meat-overconsumption diet. But that doesn't mean that we can't make conscious and sustainable decisions while choosing to eat meat. I think that being smart about choosing how much meat and which meats to eat is one huge step we can all take toward making better sustainable and health-conscious decisions with our meat eating. This post is really just the "tip of the iceberg" for me on this issue, but when it comes down to it, I think the decision to hunt for the meat I will eat will make me far more conscious of where my food comes from, it will ensure that I eat locally-produced meat from healthy sources, and it will let me experience the entire process of preparing the meat for consumption. That final bit is something that bothers me greatly: too many Americans who eat meat think of their meat as something prepared for them or something that comes wrapped in plastic at the grocery store and seem to have forgotten that an animal has to be killed and then butchered before that meat can be so nicely wrapped and prepared. I know that I'll get more out of hunting than just knowing my food is sustainable, but that's definitely one huge reason for giving it a go.
"Hunting for food is, ethically speaking, the next best thing to being a vegetarian"
History of Hunting and What It's
Taking Me to Get Started
|Ancient cave paintings of the hands of humans and images of animals. |
Were these the artistic expressions of ancient hunters?
Image from: http://www.amusingplanet.com/2014/04/the-oldest-cave-paintings-in-cave-of-el.html
By the time our earliest civilizations were developing, hunting had already become a mainstay for our diets and lifestyles. Quite obviously, the development of animal husbandry and raising livestock overtook hunting for food sources for many dense populations, but hunting has remained a pastime and source of food for humans for millennia. It's not too hard to see why so many ancient peoples created gods of hunting and included great hunters in their mythology (the Greek god Artemis and the great hunter Nimrod, great-grandson of Noah in the Bible, come to mind). The development of weaponry for war through human history has also led to the development of more efficient tools for hunting, specifically in the case of the modern firearm. Guns led to easier and cleaner kills but also led to overhunting and trophy hunting. In the 1800's overhunting and trophy hunting ran rampant and there were few controls in place to conserve and preserve the wildlife that was being hunted. Even in our modern time, now that we have laws that force hunters to work with their local wildlife and natural resources agencies to determine when, how, and what to hunt, there are still problems across the planet with poaching. Poachers, those who break the laws as well as the ethical standards of hunting, make hunters look bad. Indeed, hunters who follow the laws but fail to maintain a respectable ethical standard with regard to hunting make hunters look bad as well (I saw a post on an online forum the other day from some asshole who kills coyotes and leaves their dead bodies but cuts off their tails to "slam them" into his truck tailgate so that they flap in the wind - that guy is not only an asshole, but also makes hunters look bad). Fortunately, there are hunters out there (a good many of them, I'm finding) who also know that poaching and unethical behavior are bad for hunting, bad for the wildlife they enjoy, and bad for our planet.
I've also recently completed a hunter's safety course. The course included two in-class sessions (including a live-fire session to show we can safely operate a rifle) as well as a well-produced online course. The online course I completed was from Hunter-Ed. I was super impressed by the online material: there was material in text, images, videos, and quizzes. The course covered topics like the anatomy of firearm ammunition and different types of rifles, shotguns, and handguns; bow hunting; hunting history and hunting regulations; animal identification; hunting gear; and a good deal of material on ethical hunting practices as well as conservation and preservation of habitat and wildlife. The in-class sessions were helpful, since it gave me a chance to meet some other people who are interested in hunting (even though only about half of us were over the age of 12 in the class). The live-fire session was pretty simple and probably more intended for the younger students of the class (the firearms were little bolt-action .22 rifles and we were only shooting at targets within 10 yards; it was still fun, though). I was pretty happy to get my hunter's safety card after the course was over. With that card and my driver's license, I can now apply for a hunting license to legally (and ethically, of course) hunt here in Colorado!
Along with taking the necessary hunter's safety course and beginning to get the gear I need to hunt, I've been reading online materials and books to help me learn along the way. One of the best books for beginning hunters that I've read so far is "The Beginner's Guide to Hunting Deer for Food" by Jackson Landers. Although the book is directed primarily at hunting Whitetail Deer (I'll be hunting Mule Deer and Elk primarily), there's a lot of good information to be found within. Landers appears to have been in something of the same boat as me, having not gotten into hunting until later in his adult life. He presents hunting for food from the perspective of someone who wants to get away from eating factory farmed meat as well as someone who wants to provide for their family. He presents the following three great reasons for hunting: "eating locally", "eating well", and "utilizing natural resources to save money" (I definitely think getting out into the wilderness and having a greater connection with our food are important reasons as well). Landers' book covers a little of the basics about everything, from learning the biology of deer to the process of field dressing and butchering the animal after you have killed them. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to get into hunting deer for food.