Hunting

Some people hunt for survival, in which case they are part of a larger group of animals, fish and insects which do the same. If they didn’t hunt they would die. They may also be part of a larger picture, protecting the balance of a given ecosystem through the regulation of animal numbers. Then there are those who don’t need to hunt but do it anyway.

The fact that they dont have to do it is not in itself an argument against it: if we only did what we had to do we might not do very much.  We don’t have to sing, dance or drink alcohol. Come to that, we don’t have to breed. But we might question the motivation of those who kill living things for pleasure. One such person was Ivan Turgenev who, though he takes the joys of hunting for granted, occasionally tries to explain it for the benefit Hindus who feared reincarnation as a duck within range of his gun, not to mention pacific individuals like me.

Turgenev Hunting by Nikolai Dmitrjewitsch Dmitrjeff-Orenburgsky, dated 1879.

In the concluding sketch from a Hunter’s Notebook, Forest and Steppe, Turgenev writes:

Hunting with a gun and a dog is a delight in itself, für sich, as they used to say in the past. But let us suppose that you are not a born hunter, though you still love nature; in that case, you can hardly fail to envy the lot of your brother hunters . . . Pray listen a while.’

The ‘while’ turns out to be an evocation, several pages long, of getting out and about before dawn and spending the day amid nature. The following is a brief extract.

In the meantime dawn has burst into flame; stripes of gold have risen across the sky and wreaths of mist form in the ravines; to the loud singing of skylarks and the soughing of the wind before dawn the sun rises, silent and purple, above the horizon. Light floods over the world and your heart trembles within you like a bird. Everything is so fresh, gay and lovely! You can see for miles. Here a village glimmers beyond the woodland; there, farther away, is another village with a white church and then a hill with a birchwood; beyond it is the marsh to which you are driving… Step lively there, horses! Forward at a brisk trot!…’

Unfortunately for the logic of his case, he weakens it with a question to which he believes the answer is obvious or he wouldn’t be asking it in the first place.

‘Has anyone save a hunter ever experienced the delight of wandering through bushes at dawn?’

So according to Ivan Sergeyevich the only reason to wander through  bushes at dawn is to massacre wildlife, though it is perfectly obvious that no one needs a fowling piece to do this: a biologist might, or a bird-watcher or even, to lower the tone, someone in search of a discreet place to relieve himself.

Ivan reveals his hand most openly in the sketch Yermolay and the Miller’s Wife. In the following extract, note what ‘delights’ him as he bumps off his birds.

‘The ducks rose noisily, literally ‘exploding’ from the pond in fright at our sudden appearance in their domain and gunfire resounded in unison after them and it was a delight to see how the stumpy birds somersaulted in the air and splashed down heavily in the water. We didn’t of course retrieve all the shot duck. Some of the slightly injured ones dived, some of the dead ones fell in such thick ‘mayer’ that even the lynx-eyed Yermolay couldn’t spot them, but nevertheless by dinnertime our boat had become filled to the brim with our bag.’

Now it so happens that on one of his many excursions he was challenged by a man called Kasyan who knew exactly what his motivation was and confronted him with an opposing philosophy. The following extracts are from the wonderful story, Kasyan from the Beautiful Lands.

‘You shoot the birds of the air, eh?… And the wild animals of the forest?… Isn’t it sinful you are to be killing God’s own wee birds and spilling innocent blood? Why is it now that you should be killing that wee bird?’ he began, looking me directly in the face.

‘How do you mean: why? A landrail is a game bird. You can eat it.’

‘No, it wasn’t for that you were killing it, master. You won’t be eating it! You were killing it for your own pleasure.’

‘But surely you yourself are used to eating a goose or a chicken, for example, aren’t you?’

‘Such birds are ordained by God for man to eat, but a landrail – that’s a bird of the free air, a forest bird. And he’s not the only one; aren’t there many of them, every kind of beast of the forest and of the field, and river creature, and creature of the marsh and meadow and the heights and the depths – and a sin it is to be killing such a one, it should be let to live on the earth until its natural end… But for man there is another food laid down; another food and another drink; bread is God’s gift to man, and the waters from the heavens, and the tame creatures handed down from our fathers of old.’

Turgenev’s hunting companion, Yermolay, complained to him more than once about his habit of engaging ‘the lower orders’ in meaningful conversation. But Turgenev learned a great deal from these converstions and much of it found its way into the Hunter’s Notebook. In this case he gives an excellent account of the time he spends with Kasyan, in the course of which we discover that he has no adequate answer to the points Kasyan puts to him. This doesn’t concern him much, partly because he is secure in his own viewpoint, and partly because Kasyan is clearly an eccentric person whose thoughts, however well argued, may too easily be discounted for that reason. But I’m with Kasyan on this one.

I don’t want to give the impression that the Hunter’s Notebook is all about hunting. It’s true subject matter is the natural world and the many different creatures (including people) who inhabit it – which he describes with a naturalist’s eye and attention to detail. (I could write a post in praise of his pen portraits, and might if I live long enough.)

For those dog lovers among you, I should point out that, in his opinion, and if you were thinking of getting one, Borzois are uncommonly stupid.

However all this may be Turgenev, a thoughtful man, concludes his final sketch, Forest and Steppe, with these kind words:

‘Farewell, my reader; I wish you lasting happiness and well-being.’

(All quotations are from the translation by Richard Freeborn.)

Ivan Turgenev and his Birds

Turgenev knew nature very well and certainly knew his birds. Part of the reason for this was that he liked to rise early of a morning and blast them to pieces with guns – and so we kill the things we know so well and love.

The following examples are all from Fathers and Sons (Oxford edition, translated by Richard Freeborn), but the list could be extended considerably by including references from his Sportsman’s Notebook (also published in English under the title Sketches from a Hunter’s Notebook.) And I have to admit that the list is not complete – I have omitted the reference to an ornamental bird of paradise found on a lady’s hat.

I particularly like the intervention of a chaffinch deflating the balloon of a declaration of love. Such declarations should be deflated wherever possible.

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If it is open to dedicate a post, I dedicate this one to elizabethm. Here is a link to her latest post which takes Turgenev as its subject.

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/

And if you are a native speaker (Hi there, Gerard!)  then this post is also available in Dutch.

1 Chicken

A plump young chicken in motley plumage strutted self-importantly along them, tapping away firmly with its large yellow claws.

2 Dove

A large grey dove flew down on to the road and hurriedly set about drinking from a puddle beside the well. Nikolai Petrovich started watching it and then his ear caught the sound of approaching wheels.

3/4 Skylarks and Rooks

Everywhere skylarks poured out their song in unending, resonant streams. Lapwings cried as they circled above the low-lying meadows or ran about silently among the tufts of grass. Rooks wandered about, darkening beautifully among the soft green of the low spring wheat and disappearing in the rye, which was already beginning to whiten, their heads showing here and there among its smoky waves.

5 Snipe

‘You’ve got a bit of marshland there, by a grove of aspens. That’s where I started up half-a-dozen snipe. You can go and kill them, Arkady.’ ‘You’re not a hunter yourself?’ ‘No.’

6 Long-tailed Siskin

From the ceiling, on a long cord, there hung a cage containing a short-tailed siskin; it ceaselessly chirruped and jumped about and the cage ceaselessly rocked and shook and hemp seeds pattered down on to the floor.

7 Quail

Dunyasha would gladly giggle at him and give him sidelong, significant looks as she ran past him all aflutter like a little quail.

 8 Swallows

Swallows flew high above; the wind had quite died;

9 Nightingale

And now I hope, Arina Vlasevna, having sated your mother’s heart to the full, you’ll think about sating our dear guests because, as you know, even nightingales can’t live on songs alone.’

10 Telling a bird from its flight

‘Have it your way, please,’ responded Vasily Ivanovich with a friendly grimace. ‘I may be put on the shelf now, but I’ve also been about the world a bit and I can tell what a bird is from its flight.

11 Fledgling Hawk

Somewhere high above in the tips of the trees the unceasing screech of a fledgling hawk rang out plaintively.

12 Falcon

‘There’s nothing for it, Vasya! Our son’s cut off from us. He’s a falcon, like a falcon he wanted to come and he flew here, then he wanted away and he flew away. But you and I, we’re just a couple of old mushrooms, we are, stuck in the hollow of a tree, sitting side by side and never moving. Except that I’ll always remain the same for you for ever and ever, just as you will for me.’ Vasily Ivanovich took his hands away from his face and suddenly embraced his wife, his true friend, more tightly even than he’d been used to embrace her in his youth, for she had comforted him in his misery.

13 Sparrows

He held in his hand a half-opened book while she picked out of a basket some last crumbs of white bread and threw them to a small family of sparrows which, with their characteristic cowardly impudence, jumped about twittering at her feet.

 14 Chaffinch 

‘I suppose,’ he began again in a more excited voice, just as a chaffinch in the birch foliage above him launched casually into song, ‘I suppose it’s the duty of any honest man to be entirely candid with those … with those who … with people close to him, I mean … and so I, er, intend …’

15 Jackdaw

‘Goodbye, old mate!’ he said to Arkady when he’d already climbed into the cart and, pointing to a pair of jackdaws sitting side by side on the stable roof, added ‘There’s a lesson for you! Learn from them!’ ‘What’s that mean?’ asked Arkady. ‘What? You can’t be all that poor at natural history! Or have you forgotten that the jackdaw is the most respectable family bird? Let them be your example! Farewell, signor!’

16 A wee grouse hen

Arina Vlasevna was so flustered and ran about the house so much that Vasily Ivanovich compared her to ‘a wee grouse-hen’ and the docked tail of her short blouse actually did give her rather a bird-like look.

17 A Crowing Cock

Everyone had long faces and a strange quiet descended. A noisily crowing cock was removed from the yard and carted off to the village, quite unable to understand why it was being treated in this way.