1. A brief overview of the aesthetic.
Traditionally, aesthetics concerns sensory perception and the feelings of pleasure and displeasure that arise from it. The most familiar aesthetic experiences include being deeply moved by a beautiful work of art or landscape, and being bowled over and humbled by the sublime. While art and nature are the most frequently discussed sources of aesthetic experience, philosophers also talk about the aesthetics of everyday objects, actions, places, films… Anything that can be experienced might be thought to have an aesthetic component when we would describe it as graceful, beautiful, ugly, elegant, delicate, powerful, sentimental, vivid etc…
These experiences raise a number of questions: what are these experiences and what role do they play in our lives; what do we mean when we say something is beautiful or describe it in aesthetic terms; why do we value things for their aesthetic qualities?
A unique feature of the aesthetic is that it requires first person experience—when you say something is beautiful or graceful it is usually because you experienced it as beautiful or graceful—but it is also supposed to be objective in the sense that it reflects a way the world is, not just your attitude to it. Unlike our idiosyncratic preferences (I love hoppy pale ale, I loathe lager) the aesthetic is not just in our heads.
Another way to put this is that aesthetic disagreements are legitimate disagreements about how the world is. This is important because the things we value for the aesthetic experiences they offer us or the aesthetic qualities they possess—and the reasons why—can allow us to explore human nature in a way that individual likes and dislikes do not. What allows us to have aesthetic experiences? What things can we not appreciate aesthetically? What are the sources of aesthetic disagreement, and how should we resolve them? These are all questions that could arise in, and inform, an aesthetics of hunting.
2. Aesthetics and hunting?
I think the initial question we need to ask is: how should we characterize hunting in order to discuss its aesthetics? Hunting is an action (broadly speaking) but it is composed of many different actions spread out over a long period of time. This includes everything from getting licensed, to buying gear, stalking quarry, recognizing an opportunity to take a shot, field dressing an animal, sitting around waiting etc… I think that different hunters will have different things to say about what the central features of hunting are, so I will just make a point about why this initial question is important.
The first day of my state required new hunter training course in Pennsylvania one of the instructors pulled me aside and said, “You’re aware that hunting generally involves killing animals with guns, right?” I took this comment to be a rhetorical way of pointing out that I didn’t look like the other people in the class, mostly 12-year-old Amish boys. It also emphasized a particular point about my difference by focusing on one specific aspect of hunting. For whatever reason, I didn’t look like someone who would be into a) killing animals, b) guns, or c) killing an animal with a gun (Because I am not local, I don’t actually know which of these was supposed to be the problematic part. I also don’t know what really made me stand out. My best guess is that I look urban or liberal or both. I was actively trying to avoid just this sort of question, to fly under the radar by dressing down and being as low key as possible. Clearly it didn’t work. That I felt the need to try, and that Jim (who turned out to be lovely) felt the need to call me out raises all kinds of other issues about the culture of hunting that could be discussed at some other time.).
The point of this is story is to raise a question: is hunting just about killing animals with guns or other projectiles? Should that single action in a hunt (if you are successful) be the thing that defines the entire activity? I don’t think so.
Killing animals with projectiles is not only morally contentious, but associated with political, lifestyle, and other divisive issues—even for people who are okay with eating animals. It is also only one part of hunting, an activity that has many other rich connections to ethics, culture, food, and land use. I think that reducing discussion of hunting to that single moment of interaction not only oversimplifies the ethical questions (how to hunt most morally vs is it moral at all?), but diminishes so much of what is valuable about hunting and what it can contribute to larger discussions about food and the environment when characterized in different ways. So here are some questions to think about:
What is it like for you to hunt? What are the moments or actions that stand out to you as particularly aesthetic? What senses and feelings are involved? What influences the way you experience and describe it? How does the experience change over time with greater experience? How does this contribute to your enjoyment of hunting?
To make discussions of hunting more fruitful, I think the first person experience of the aesthetic is relevant. As Michael Pollan points out in a piece I discuss in section 3, hunting is an activity that is different from the inside than the outside. The felt quality of the experience of hunting, of which there are many facets, is something worth talking about.
3. Aesthetics and the environment.
What got me interested in any of these questions was research on environmental aesthetics. There are (of course) many different ways that we can imagine and appreciate the natural world and our place in it, and too many debates to get into (For anyone interested the best place to start is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which provides a great overview and an extensive bibliography. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/environmental-aesthetics/). The issue is not whether nature is beautiful, but how we (should) come to perceive and appreciate the beauty of nature and our place in it. Overall the theories that I am most interested in are those that emphasize ecology over landforms and multi-sensory, engaged, attentive perception over passive viewing. Rather than disinterestedness, the natural world is beautiful when it is approached with curiosity and attention.
Understanding an environment—being familiar with the flora and fauna, their interactions, changes over the seasons—transforms the experience of a place. We look (or listen, or smell) things differently: certain features become salient, we observe patterns, and learn to perceive things that are not obvious on a first encounter. We also respond differently: delight in seasonal differences, in difficult to spot birds or flowers, admire the strength in seemingly delicate plants etc… All of this reflects time spent in perceptual engagement with a place.
If appreciation in this sense is connected (as is commonly assumed) with the value we assign to a place and our desire to protect it, then the aesthetics of environments is important to those of us who care about nature. Hunting (often) involves spending a lot of time in a place being aware of your surroundings. You have to learn about the animal you are after, its habits and habitat if you are to do well; you have to be attentive enough to read the land, and be sensitive to the qualities of your movement through it. This is not something you get by reading books, but by immersing yourself in a place and practicing.
Now this isn’t to say that hunting is the only way to connect with nature. Lots of different activities yield different emotional experiences and attention to different features. Environments offer us rich and nuanced aesthetic experiences that connect us to them and increase our capacities for appreciation of the natural world. However, hunting requires the development of sensitivities to the environment that are closely connected with appreciation. It is worth thinking about the following:
Has hunting increased your appreciation of the places you hunt and/or of environments more generally? How? What do you experience, notice, attend to about the environment and yourself in the environment when you are out hunting?
4. Aesthetic engagement.
In an article describing his first experiences hunting, Michael Pollan writes:
Walking with a loaded rifle in an unfamiliar forest bristling with the signs of your prey is thrilling. It embarrasses me to write that, but it is true. I am not by nature much of a noticer, yet here, now, my attention to everything around me, and deafness to everything else, is complete. Nothing in my experience has prepared me for the quality of this attention. I notice how the day’s first breezes comb the needles in the pines, producing a sotto voce whistle and an undulation in the pattern of light and shadow tattooing the tree trunks and the ground. I notice the specific density of the air. But this is not a passive or aesthetic attention; it is a hungry attention, reaching out into its surroundings like fingers, or nerves. My eyes venture deep into thickets my body could never penetrate, picking their way among the tangled branches, sliding over rocks and around stumps to bring back the slenderest hint of movement. In the places too deeply shadowed to admit my eyes, my ears roam at will, returning with the report of a branch cracking at the bottom of a ravine, or the snuffling of a. . .wait: what was that? Just a bird. Everything is amplified. Even my skin is alert, so that when the shadow launched by the sudden ascent of a turkey vulture passes overhead I swear I can feel the temperature momentarily fall. I am the alert man.
I disagree with Pollan’s claim that this is not an aesthetic attention. Admittedly what he describes is not the passive and disinterested aesthetic promoted by post-Kantian art theorists, but that isn’t the only way to think about the aesthetic and it doesn’t mean the experience he describes is not aesthetic. The kind of rarified perceptual engagement, knowledge, attention, and expertise needed to hunt something successfully—along with the pleasures of it—are often lost in our distracted urban lives.
This kind of engagement is important. American philosopher John Dewey talks about aesthetics as engagement—as the sort of complete absorption as opposed to doing things by rote. Aesthetic experience in this sense is of both doing and undergoing. It includes the feeling of unity and completeness in the action, harmony between your actions and purpose. This is when we (humans) are the most alive, most vital and energized in our consciousness.
Hunting is not always like that. But I think it is worthwhile to explore the quality of attention and engagement that people experience when hunting. How does hunting differ from other activities in terms of your engagement and attention? When do you feel most engaged and attentive? What distracts you? Do you experience feelings of unity and harmony? What do you feel connected to, and what makes you feel connected? Should hunting feel engaged and absorbed?
5. Aesthetics and life values.
The final aspect of the aesthetic I want to introduce is about how actions or objects express ‘life values’ that inform our aesthetic experience (This comes from philosopher Allen Carlson who works extensively on environmental aesthetics). The life values we experience something as expressing affect the emotional responses we have to it, the features that draw our attention and our aesthetic assessment of it.
We perceive litter as expressive of wastefulness, negligence, and lack of care and that is part of why it strikes us as ugly. Gated communities are aesthetically troubling because they are expressive of fear and inequality. Roads, roadside billboards, lawns, packaged foods are all things that express life values that make them less beautiful. Conversely, things like native plant gardens might appear more beautiful because of the life values they express.
What about hunting? Drawing from the things I have said above, I think there are real conflicts about the life values hunting expresses. Hunting might appear different to hunters than non-hunters, to urbanites than rural people, to conservatives than liberals because they perceive it as expressing different life values. If this informs how hunting is perceived, it alters the kind of aesthetic qualities we perceive in the actions associated with hunting including which actions are emphasized.
It is worth asking:
What life values do you perceive yourself as expressing when you hunt? When you see others hunting? Does this affect how you experience your engagement with the environment, yourself, your quarry when you hunt? What life values are expressed by eating game meat?
Emphasizing the first-person experience of hunting, the various beauties of it as an activity, could help to resolve some of the conflict about it and re-negotiate the life values that are currently stereotypes of hunting. It also gives more nuanced ways to think about how ethics (of food, the environment, animals) interacts with our culture and how this can change.