Thursday, January 11, 2018

Aldo Leopold on Gadgets and Fox Hunting

Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold, who was born on this day in 1887, was one of the most important people in the history of U.S. conservation. A 1909 graduate of the Yale Forestry School, Leopold wrote the first 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."


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.

Peter Apps said...

"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."

Phonograph maybe not, but there are any number of dog training videos, and shortcuts abound - whether they are painless is an open question.

Gadgets galore too - fancy collars, harnesses, extendable/retractable leads, "training aids" in abundance. The modern ethos seems to be that if you can do it yourself with a bit of time and effort but no money then it can't be as good as something with a price tag.


jeffrey thurston said...

Hate to be a sexist pig but it seems to me that there is a mathematical correlation between pussiness and time- the further back you go for about 200 or more years the less men were pussies. No soldier alive today would stand in the square and wait to be decapitated by a cannonball a la Napoleonic times and no explorer today could manage the incredibly clunky boats and equipment used by Stanley or Lewis and Clark; much less endure what the sailors on Magellanic voyages went through. There is also that same correlation between the further west you go starting from Russia the higher the pussiness quotient. Thus Russian smoke jumpers parachute into gigantic burning primeval forests with shovels and not much else and cosmonauts land on their asses when coming in from space. We in the West are becoming completely corrupted by our comfortable overdesigned outdoor and war gear- everything is anodized and Gore-texed and velcroed- I miss my BSA canteen and mess kit and my cotton cloth stuff. Completely true about the dogs though- get the right ones and you stand in line with thousands of years of dog/human teamwork- no way around their animalness.

Noel said...

For as long as men have had money/resources and a love for hunting, they've engaged in one form of gadgetry or another, up to and including running website information gathering sites to re-post or link everything they can find about their chosen sport, instead of using that time to find another 20 minutes afiel ;-). For almost the same span of time, the old guys have been decrying the loss of skills that the younger generation - or the "other method" hunters - are suffering as a result of their dependence on technology. Similarly, they condemn the modern fabrics and tools that allow for more comfort and joy afield. That's unfortunately how people are, in nearly every field. A cotton jacket in a wet snowstorm doesn't make you a better sportsman, it makes you a reactionary idiot. Marking your hunting spots on the GPS function of your phone isn't really gadgeteering? Bullshit. Driving to your hunting spot with dogs and tools aboard doesn't count? A hunter from 1918 might disagree.
Modern media and information has made for smarter and better sportsman, unless the hunter under the microscope is an idiot. Idiots existed then and exist now. By his own admission, Leupold was a reformed idiot, a wolf-killer and shallow thinker.
I have to get back to the internet now, and order a new barrel for a rifle. My laser rangefinder allows me to accurately deliver 105 grain projectiles out to 1000 yards from a fairly small powder charge. It's great fun, even though the longest shot I've ever taken on a deer was about 175 yards, with a muzzleloader, out of over 60 taken in my hunting career. With no misses, and no second shots. No thanks to the laser rangefinder. Almost like gadgets and sportsmanship are different things.

Jennifer said...

I see nothing sexist about this comment, though I prefer 'woos' to 'pussy'. This has nothing to do with vaginas and much to do with consumerism and the decline of rural life.

Karen Carroll said...

Falconry has come a long way with some gadgets. (Telemetry, and now GPS telemetry where you can track you bird on google earth. And the veterinary care has saved many beloved falconry birds from death or crippling lifeline injuries. But the basics are the same, trained hawk on quarry.

And I am NOT a fan of those high-tech fabrics. I still wear cotton, silk wool socks next to my skin on cold days. The only high tech fabrics I wear are on the outside of my clothing choices. I wear earth toned clothing and wear leather or primarily leather footwear. I was told by my Upik cousin that polar tech and those other high tech petroleum based fabrics freeze and become rigid in the bitter cold. So traditional furs and woolens plus plant based fabrics (or silk), are what they wear.