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Writing for The Twelve scored me a lecture invitation at Calvin University’s Academy for Life Long Learning on Monday where I could “talk about anything I wanted.” This coincided with last weekend’s BioLogos Creation Care Summit (recorded in Grand Rapids). Coupled with meetings with new and longtime friends in the Calvin universe, it was a rich but busy three days.

In Monday’s lecture, I tried to use my interests in conservation of large mammals to get to a Christian vision for a kinship relationship between humans and more-than-human creation. I then had an afternoon of navigating Chicago traffic to process the talk and the questions and to regret the things that I wish I had said better.

“What about hunting?” one woman asked.

It’s an important question because as one moves from a commodity view of animals (the legal basis of wildlife conservation in the US and Canada) to a kinship view, hunting invokes an obvious moral tension. I told my audience that I was a deer hunter and she asked a question that I discuss often with students and with other groups when I speak – although usually not in the context of faith and faith-informed kinship.

My own view of hunting aligns with a chapter entitled “The Honorable Harvest” in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s wonderful Braiding Sweetgrass. Kimmerer writes out of her Native Potawatomi tradition. Her starting point is that we, unlike plants who photosynthesize, must consume more-than-human kin to survive. It follows that consuming implies killing and eating (“harvesting” is a euphemism that we often use to soften that fact). Harvest is made honorable through self-restraint and reciprocity.

“The Honorable Harvest asks us to give back, in reciprocity, for what we have been given. Reciprocity helps resolve the moral tension of taking a life by giving in return something of value that sustains the ones who sustain us. One of our responsibilities as human people is to find ways to enter into reciprocity with the more-than-human world. We can do it through gratitude, through ceremony, through land stewardship, science, art, and in everyday acts of practical reverence.”

The moral tension of killing an animal is greater than that of killing a plant in most cases, and for many, choosing to be vegetarian is a logical and honorable way to resolve part of that tension. And, in truth, my wife and I are nearly converted to vegetarianism, but we have sticky family and cultural and historical connections to meat-eating that remain. I contend that killing, butchering, and eating local venison is the among the most creation-honoring way to eat meat and I work to implement Kimmerer’s reciprocity through my teaching, my research, and other areas.

To begin, we shouldn’t pretend that buying our meat from the grocery absolves us of moral culpability in killing animals. We simply hire an anonymous butcher to be our killer by proxy. Moreover, the animals we eat often are held/kept/raised under confinement conditions that we prefer not to think about (unless we are very selective about the farmers we buy from).

A mentor of mine likes to say that wild animals rarely die peacefully in their sleep, surrounded by family and friends. Indeed, my own research often focuses on how wild animals die and what rates and timings of those deaths mean for population dynamics. In deer, top causes of death apart from hunting are predation, starvation, disease, and accidental trauma (mostly being hit by a car). The relative magnitudes of each of these varies with ecological context.

Animals like deer experience fear and pain and distress too and I would submit that a well-placed hunter’s bullet is, on balance, a less fearful, painful, and stressful way to die. If I were forced to choose between living as a wild deer in the forest and farmlands of Wisconsin and dying from a hunter’s bullet or living as a feed-lot steer and dying from a captive-bolt gun in a slaughterhouse, I’d be the deer.

But why hunt at all? Why kill? Well, I enjoy hunting, and killing a deer is a necessary (though not the sole) part of it. Hunting gives me experiences of the gifts of creation that I couldn’t or wouldn’t have otherwise. Everything about deer, from physiology to behavior to population biology is an evolutionary legacy of needing to survive in the face of high levels of predation. Simply put, deer populations over-produce dramatically as a hedge against predation. Moreover, the reproductive capacity of deer is super-charged by habitat changes resulting from human activity in forests and farmlands — changes that favor deer but disadvantage many other species.

Deer populations are so high in our eastern forests that they are causing ecological dysfunction and are beyond levels at which non-human predators could exercise “control.” When I deer hunt, I participate intimately in the wild ecosystem of my home. I make the time for early mornings and long hours of sitting still. I own the process and I contemplate, and I accept failure. I kill the deer as honorably as possible and provide some relief for browse sensitive plants and the animals that might depend on them. I also feed my family and friends and I relive the experiences while I do.

Moreover, the wild venison displaces beef that we might otherwise purchase and thereby removes that part of my carbon footprint. Beef, because of a long list of fossil fuel inputs, is among the most climate-damaging foods that we wealthy westerners eat – and we eat a lot of it. Wild venison is nearly free of those inputs (deer eat agricultural crops where available), organic, local, and associated with ecological benefits.

There’s more to say and I’m past my Twelve word count here but Kimmerer’s phrase about “…everyday acts of practical reverence” has embedded itself in my imagination as a key for the “caring for creation” that is so urgent in our discourse but so missing in practice.

My own hunting and needing to confront its moral tension has helped me to think more deeply about the entirety of moving from the living animal to the meal on my plate and the ecological connections we share and the responsibility I hold. And that introspection can extend to every interaction with creation.

Against a climate crisis backdrop I’m reminded of the prayer-before-the-meal tradition I was taught. I’ve come to believe that every interaction with the gifts of creation, every mouthful, every purchase, every sunset should be interrogated from the posture of considering the connections and giftedness with intention and gratitude. I think that’s what practical reverence would look like.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 

7 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I celebrate this. Although I have shot a gun only twice and an arrow no more than a dozen times, and have caught only maybe two dozen edible fish, I love what you wrote. It reminds me of David James Duncan’s piece in his novel, The River Why, about deciding to keep and eat that salmon.

  • Lynn Setsma says:

    Thanks, Tim, for extending your talk here. I’m currently listening to Braiding Sweetgrass. It is like a sacred experience to listen to her talking the language of reciprocity. It is such a lovely break from all the tension over vaccinations and political differences. It was nice to meet you.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    It is also probably worth mentioning that hunters are the original conservationists and willingly pour millions of dollars in to land preservation and conservation every year. Without the advocacy and actions of hunters, conservation efforts in the U.S. would be paltry compared to our current situation. To enumerate the conservation laws and voluntary programs that came about through the efforts of hunters (and more broadly fishermen, trappers, etc.) would take up a lot of comment space.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    I am vegan and have spent a good time outdoors hunting. In my wife’s family (before I became vegan) I cannot remember a meal that involved beef. I have killed deer with an arrow and a bullet and all the meat we processed from these animals was donated to food distribution sites that provide protein to people who could not otherwise afford meat. I am privileged to change my diet and take the time to cultivate cooking that allows me to avoid eating anything from an animal, BUT I’m not so blind to the fact that even vegans rely on death in creation to provide the food that brings life. Careful, conscientious, and reverent hunting is part of God’s stewardship through humanity and frankly part of us facing the consequences of our impact on creation. One last thought, if we have any issue with hunting without wrestling with the evil and torture of factory farming we are blissfully hypocritical.
    Thank you Tim (and thank you Eric for the additional conservation facts that I see lived out in my family)

  • James Schaap says:

    I’m no longer a hunter. Like Thoreau, I grew out of the want and never really had the need. But I know that my own regard and reverence for the outdoors comes almost totally from hunting and trapping experiences as a kid, from miraculous dawns in the wild, from sitting and posting, from feeling the spirits of nature come alive around me. I’m thankful for the many blessings of those moments.

  • Emily Jane VandenBos Style says:

    Yes to Braiding Sweetgrass and to the thoughtfulness of this piece. Thank you for writing it.

  • Shannon Jammal-Hollemans says:

    Thank you for this piece. You articulate well the way that my husband and I have raised our family. My husband usually kills one year a year by bow (although the last two years our son has taken the honor) which we process ourselves at home. Over the years we’ve invited a number of friends to learn from the experience. We freeze and are able to live on the meat of one deer for about 7 months, depending on the size. It is a wonderful reminder of God’s faithful provision.

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