Caught in the net of life and time: hunting

Last week Meanjin published an essay of mine. The tagline they used was ‘Michael Adams reflects on the relationships between hunters and their prey’. The Guardian has just reprinted it in their Comment section. The essay explores modern hunting, with some of it focusing on my own hunting. My thinking continues to evolve on these issues, and recent media indicates they continue to be important and controversial.

As I concluded,

It seems counter-intuitive that at a time of massive planetary extinction engaging with the conversation of death could be a positive step. But taking responsibility for the deaths you cause makes it hard to avoid the moral implications.

I like the illustration Meanjin chose to accompany the essay: ‘Dog chasing a kangaroo’, by Adam Gustavus Ball, 1872, in the collection of the Art Gallery of SA.

Dog chasing a kangaroo, 1872, Adam Gustavus Ball

Dog chasing a kangaroo, 1872, Adam Gustavus Ball

In Australia, other than humans (and their cars), the primary predators of kangaroos are probably dogs/dingoes. I’m interested in putting human hunters in the same frame as these predators, in thinking about both their roles in ecosystems, and the relationships between ‘predator’ and ‘prey’.

A number of AUSCCER researchers are engaging with these issues. Leah Gibbs and Andrew Warren have recently analysed relationships between sharks and humans in Australia, with each of these species alternating the role of predator and prey (except that the human predators in this case do not eat their prey). Jenny Aitchison and Lesley Head explore the relationships and stresses of human bodies and plant bodies in weed killing, and the ethical questions that arise. In another paper, Lesley argues that in the Anthropocene, ‘We have to think differently about how human and other life and materials are mutually embedded’.

The illustration is relevant in other ways too. I don’t hunt with dogs, although as the essay says, we accidentally did once. But hunting with dogs is the preferred method in Sweden, where the level of general community acceptance of hunting is 87%. Analysis suggests that the criteria that supports this high approval rate is a combination of personally knowing a hunter, and eating wild meat. Even though only about 3% of the Swedish population are hunters, 70% of Swedes know one. The most recent analysis for Australia suggests about 2% of the population might be hunters. There are no figures on how well they are known in the broader population, but as my essay suggests, the general level of disapproval of hunting in Australia means that many hunters are quite circumspect about their activities. I personally know a number of active hunters who work at this university, but their hunting is likely not widely known amongst their colleagues.

While ecologists like Cristina Eisenberg use the expression ‘ecology of fear’ for landscapes where predators hunt, I want to explore this relationship more. In probably the most famous (and controversial) book on hunting, José Ortega y Gasset says ‘the hunter knows that he does not know what is going to happen…Thus he needs to prepare an attention of a different and superior style – an attention which does not consist in riveting itself on the presumed but consists precisely in not presuming anything’. This is also the attention of the prey animal. This alertness perhaps has some relationship with ‘mindfulness’, which I studied last year at the Nan Tien Institute

This type of open attention also perhaps has some relationship with how we might orient ourselves in the unknown unknowns, and, as Slavoj Žižek says, the unknown knowns (where we intentionally refuse to acknowledge that we know), of the unfolding world of the Anthropocene.


Michael Adams is a researcher with the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research. His last post was Expeditions in India.

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