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Fair Chase

Sometimes I envy my companion in the fields of autumn. Angie the History Dog is, by profession and inclination both, a hunting dog. She takes to the field in truly recreational fashion, intoxicated with the sensate experience of it all. Me, maybe I think too much.

This tendency led me to the new book by Philip Dray, The Fair Chase: The Epic Story of Hunting in America (Basic Books). You see, I am aware that the folkways of my prairie-farm-boy culture are somewhat out of sync with 21st Century America.

Vegetarianism and animal rights and gun violence and other such phenomena, these are not what separate hunting folk from non-hunters. It is, more fundamentally, the rural-urban thing. The taking of game just seems foreign in a rustic sort of way to most Americans today. And maybe as a people we are less tolerant of subcultures, rustic or exotic, than we have been.

There even is the odd circumstance that farmers, having been captured by urban business values, themselves have come to regard hunting as a foreign thing, something practiced by invaders from the city. I am conscious of new animosities of which Angie has no ken.

The author Philip Dray is not a country boy, but an urban man, who decided to get upstream of such divides and investigate the origins and evolution of hunting culture in America. Standing outside of the culture, he brings a critical, not hostile, eye to it. His story centers on the American West, where, he says, “sport hunting would take on new dimensions, new characters, in keeping with the region’s majestic heights and far horizons.” Personally, of course, I favor the horizons more than the heights.

Dray acknowledges the literary and conservationist impulses that promoted the concept of “fair chase” in the late nineteenth century. Think George Bird Grinnell, and the magazine, Forest and Stream. Guys like Grinnell disparaged those hunters, such as our homesteading forebears on the Great Plains, who shot for the table. There, perhaps, was the beginning of the division in attitudes that prevails today.

Dray brings the story up to date, dealing frankly with where hunting has gone astray, and how an urban critique of the craft has taken root and spread.

Fair Chase is not a book for lovers of the Hunting Channel. It is a book, however, for lovers of the chase who used to watch Harold Enslie, the Sportsman’s Friend, on the central plains, or listen to Tony Dean, Dakota Backroads, on the northern plains.

I am one of those quaint admirers of a kinder, gentler sporting impulse, and also one who prefers kinships to divisions. I share the lofty ideals of George Bird Grinnell--respect for animals and for the land, ethics in the field. But I also pay homage to those who shot for the table, and do so myself. Respectful handling of game, and dining thoughtfully and well on it, is vital to the package of values.

At potlucks, too, I like to make sure there are vegetarian options. The prairies are open country, after all.

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