Hunting As Writ

by Terry Wieland

Everyone loves lists, so they say, but this is not always true.

An ex-main-squeeze once handed me a typewritten list of my major faults in the expectation I would study it and set about remedying them. I would like to say it was an unspoken expectation, but with Lesley, nothing was unspoken.

Like Robert Ruark’s hero, Alec Barr, in The Honey Badger, who “knew he had them, those fleeting faults…”, I figured if I ignored them, they’d go away. They didn’t, but Lesley did. She’s doing okay, last I heard.  But I digress.

Someone asked me recently for a list of good hunting books. She was looking for a gift for a son who was blessedly leaning more toward reading and deer hunting than he was toward hard drugs or soft porn, and she wanted to encourage this.

There are literally thousands of books on hunting, and hundreds of them are excellent bordering on wonderful, but which are the best?  Which ones would be fun and interesting for a teenager to read, but would, at the same time, impart a feeling for what hunting should be?

José Ortega’s Meditations on Hunting is illuminating but dry, unless you compare it to the works of other philosophers like Nietzche or Schopenhauer, in which case it’s a rollicking thrill ride.  And while it has its merits, I can’t say I’d hand Theodore Roosevelt’s African Game Trails to anyone I hoped would look beyond the bloodshed.

Herewith, then, my list—and it’s short:

  1. Horn of the Hunter (Robert Ruark)

2.    The Big Game Animals of North America (Jack O’Connor)

3.    Man-Eaters of Kumaon (Jim Corbett)

4.   The Hunter’s World (Charley Waterman)

Originally, I intended it to be at least five books, maybe ten.  Almost certainly, Frederick Courteney Selous should be included, and the same is true of Sir Samuel Baker, but I couldn’t see either one appealing to a teenager.

Of the three authors mentioned, all could have had two books included, or even three.  Corbett’s Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag and The Temple Tiger; Ruark’s Use Enough Gun; O’Connor’s Sheep and Sheep Hunting.  And more anthologies than you can count, from Ruark, O’Connor, Tom McIntyre.

The quality I was seeking was, for want of a better term, thoughtfulness or, if you will, spirituality.  The vast majority of hunting books written in the past 50 years have dealt with the “how to” and the “what with,” rather than the “why;” with self-congratulation for getting the biggest, or the most, regardless how it was done.  To a great extent, this mirrored the preferences of the Big Three outdoor magazines after 1960, when they began eschewing outdoor fiction and art work in favor of “factual” articles and photography.  This, in turn, reflected an attitude in society that demanded results, results, results.  What counted was what you brought home, and it had to be bigger than the other guy’s.

There were a number of books written, ostensibly along those lines to satisfy the publishers, that combined what I call the right attitude with knowledge of where to go and how to do it.  In 1962, Clyde Ormond published The Complete Book of Hunting for the Outdoor Life Book Club.  Ormond was a well known and respected writer who hailed from Idaho where he was a high school principal as well as being (according to the dust jacket) a licenced boxer and jazz saxophonist.  They don’t make outdoor writers like that anymore.  Five years later, Jack O’Connor produced The Art of Hunting Big Game in North America, and that was pretty much the bible for 20 years until, in 1986, Bob Hagel produced Hunting North America’s Big Game.

All three of these authors combined deep knowledge with a reverence for hunting and for animals.  To call hunting a religion would be, to some, blasphemy, but I’m not one of them.  I gave up the Church of England just about the same time I started reading O’Connor and espoused the scripture of the tall hemlocks as cathedral, and the call of the loon as sacred hymn.

Of my four authors on the list, Jim Corbett was the closest to a true child of the jungle who could speak the language, understood the sounds, revered even the deadly hamadryad, and devoted much of the second half of his life to organizing protection for Bengal tigers, leopards, and the other denizens of the forests he’d known since infancy.  Although he made his reputation hunting man-eating tigers, no single person did more to save the tiger from extinction than Jim Corbett.  And no one has ever written more simply and lovingly about hunting and Mother Nature.  If there was sainthood for hunters, he would be Saint Jim.

Whenever I have a deep need to feel completely inadequate, I pick up a volume, any volume, of Corbett.

Of course, in the old days, I had Lesley with her list.  At least with Corbett, I want to be better.

Gray’s shooting editor has wanted to be like Jim Corbett for more than 65 years.  He thinks he’s making progress.  We have our doubts.