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 don’t 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.)