Saturday, April 19, 2008

Aldo Leopold on Gadgets and Fox Hunting


Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopoldwas one of the most important people in the history of U.S. conservation. A 1909 graduate of the Yale Forestry School, Leopold wrote first the book on Game Management (it is still in print and it is still used at a text book), and was the first person to predict that the widespread extirpation of wolves through poison and trapping would result in an explosion in the deer population that, in turn, would wipe out much of the understory of American forests. Most famous for his eco-philosophical journal A Sand County Almanac, about his Wisconsin farm, Leopold also explored the role of wilderness and hunting in American culture.

In an early essay entitled Wildlife in American Culture, Leopold noted that even in the era before World War II, "the gadgeter, otherwise known as the sporting-goods dealer," was dominating the sporting press and warping America's understanding of the outdoors.

The phenomenon is very easy to see today, with hunting and fishing magazines centered less on wildlife and wild places than on the Quad Bikes, scent sprays, lures, bait, and expensive guns, rods, and reels that we are told we will need before we even think about going into the woods.

This ethos has now expanded into the world of camping and hiking, where everything has to be rip-stop, multi-fuel, Goretex, and composite construction. Not only must everything be lighter weight, there must be more luxury and options than ever before. As Leopold noted in this 1940-era essay, describing the beginning of the modern ethos:

"Then came the gadgeteer, otherwise known as the sporting-goods dealer. He has draped the American outdoorsman with an infinity of contraptions, all offered as aids to self-reliance, hardihood, woodcraft, or marksmanship, but too often functioning as substitutes for them. Gadgets fill the pockets, they dangle from neck and belt. The overflow fills the auto trunk, and also the trailer. Each item of outdoor equipment grows lighter and often better, but the aggregate poundage becomes tonnage. The traffic in gadgets adds up to astronomical sums, which are soberly published as representing 'the economic value of wildlife.' But what of cultural values?"

The great thing about fox hunting and terrier work is that, with the exception of the locator collar, the equipment we use to today would need no explanation to Jaques Du Fouilloux (1560) or Sir Walter Scott (1810). Nothing much has changed, and very little has gone "high tech," in large part because the intervening variable -- the dog -- is immune to mechanical intervention.

At its core, the fox hunter is a primitive hunter and the dog is a primitive animal. As Leopold noted about mounted American fox hunting (which has never included killing the animal being chased):

"Fox-hunting with hounds, backwoods style, presents a dramatic instance of partial and perhaps harmless mechanized invasion. This is one of the purest of sports; it has real split-rail flavor; it has man-earth drama of the first water. The fox is deliberately left unshot, hence ethical restraint is also present. But we now follow the chase in Fords! The voice of Bugle-Anne mingles with the honk of the flivver! However, no one is likely to invent a mechanical foxhound, nor to screw a polychoke on the hound's nose. No one is likely to teach dog-training by phonograph, or by other painless shortcuts. I think the gadgeteer has reached the end of his tether in dogdom."
.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I work for a large sporting-goods dealer, and Leopold's prescience is stunning. Not just camouflage clothing, but computer-generated photo-realistic camouflage—with activated-carbon scent barriers to foil yet another of the hunted animal's senses. Not exactly what I have in mind when I think of fair chase; it's more the stuff of warfare than of hunting as I perceive it. And some of the guys buying this stuff are truly reliant on it—they simply wouldn't believe that red flannel shirts are effective deer-hunting camouflage if the hunter actually exercises some fieldcraft.

I'd better leave my name off this one just in case...

Matt Mullenix said...

Good points by anonymous!

ON Leopold's, "I think the gadgeteer has reached the end of his tether in dogdom."

I would hope in hawkdom also but that leaves the other end of the leash willing and able to be outfitted to the teeth.

I am inspired and led and more than a little bit amused by the very grand old falconer Harry McElroy, who once took his sport so far in the other direction as to hunt naked. A series of experiements that, in prickly Wilcox, Arizona, takes a man of great vision and pain tollerance.

Harry hunts with clothing on now, but with minimal gear and even less ideological baggage. He does what works, and he works hard at it. He is the father of minimalism in modern falconry.

Sean said...

There is a non-profit called the Leopold Education Project which teaches his environmental ethic in schools. www.lep.org