Epic Survival: Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer (2017)
HUNTING FOR A CONNECTION TO OUR FOOD
Hunting is a very sacred act that cannot be undertaken lightly. The ego must always stay in check, because the hunter is taking a life. Hunting tools should feel like an extension of the hunter and connect with his spirit. A person must also know the territory to be an effective and respectful hunter. He owes it to the land and to those creatures that have inhabited it longer than him.
To most people in our society, the act of hunting conjures up images of a guy wearing camouflage and using a rifle to shoot a wild animal. Very few modern-day hunters use primitive hunting tools. I am not opposed to people who hunt with guns. Unfortunately, when you hunt only with a gun, you have not earned it. If someone has never hunted with a primitive tool or never gone out and spent a lot of time with the animal he is hunting, then he has not developed the proper respect for the animal or for his power to take that animal’s life. If a hunter picks up a rifle and pops a deer, that person has skipped a bunch of steps.
I haven’t necessarily taken the easy road, but I have taken what I believe is an ethical road. I have never just picked up a hunting tool, be it a stone ax or an atlatl, and killed an animal. I have learned to make that tool, made multiple versions, and worked to understand how to use them. I have then lived in the animal’s environment.
I have killed only two animals with a firearm. Friends of mine who owned expansive alfalfa fields were given five depredation tags. The authorities hand out depredation tags to people who have fields in an effort to control animal population. They asked me to help.
I, too, lived on land that contained alfalfa fields. I was given a gun during that late fall. I practiced with the gun for a week and could hit a baseball-size target at forty yards without fail.
On the day of the hunt, I stalked within twenty yards of a deer. I lined up a head shot, which would allow me a clean hide when I skinned it. That day, I shot two deer under the depredation tag guidelines.
My girlfriend Kirsten was living with me for the winter. The real upside to killing the two deer was that I would be able to preserve and store the meat for the winter for us. Had I not killed the deer, we would have gone through a long period of eating rice and beans. Together, the two of us had only three hundred dollars to make it through the winter until we started teaching again.
That was the first time I truly understood that when you are looking after a loved one, you excuse yourself for cheating the natural process to provide for them. There are many people who need to supply food, and for them the gun offers a quick and sometimes the only answer.
I don’t feel that I am better than the person who goes deer hunting with a gun once or twice a year. But I believe that understanding the process of what I have created opens up my mind to different ways and techniques. Today, when I pick up a knife, it’s not the same as most people picking up a knife. I appreciate the tool thoroughly—probably more so than somebody picking it up for the first or second time—but it has taken me time to go through the process.
When I hunt with an atlatl, bow, or boomerang, I feel more responsible than the time I hunted with a gun. That is purely a personal feeling, and in no way do I want to sound sanctimonious. However, hunting with my hands continues to unearth conflicted feelings.
It is hard to describe the feeling of killing something with your hands. The killing process feels horrible, yet is has a positive side. I have just killed something so I therefore feel bad about ending the life of a living thing. But I know that I will feel good in a moment when I get the nutrition I need. So I am thankful for the blessing of food from the land, but at the same time, I cannot help but show a certain amount of sorrow that I had to kill for it. That conflict will never abate.
Hunting animals respectfully is an experience in self-reliance and connections. Once in Hawaii this meant building an atlatl and hunting for a wild goat. I had observed and taken in the land for ten days. I watched the goats make their way through a streambed in the canyon. While studying the goats, I noticed that they could effortlessly navigate the hillside that was almost ninety-degree angles, but in the cobblestones of the creek bed, they had trouble finding their footing. I decided the easiest method was to run down a goat.
Grasping the atlatl in one hand, I charged the goat over the cobblestones. I chased it for a half mile, at a full sprint. I could see it was struggling. It kept slipping and sliding off the rocks. Eventually, I caught up to the goat, straddled it, grabbed its horns and pulled them back, and slit its throat.
It was traumatic. It’s always emotionally tough to hold an animal in your arms and kill it. Hunters are removed when they trap an animal or shoot it—shoppers in supermarkets far more so. Despite how much I needed that meat, I literally cried my eyes out. I thanked that animal for leaving its body behind and prayed that its spirit would live on. It never gets any easier to kill something that is like me. I always accept an animal’s meat as a great gift.
Every time I kill an animal—be it with a weapon, with a trap, or by hand—I say a prayer.
It’s usually along the lines of “wherever your spirit may go, I hope it is a great place.” But when hunting with students, I never push or enforce any spiritual concepts with them. Each person must find their own spiritual balance.
Trapping is important to surviving in the wilderness. It takes far less energy and effort than hunting, so if you are depleted, it is an easy way to get meat. In survival situations, I have trapped many different types of animals with many different traps.
I primarily teach students how to trap squirrels, because they are easy to lure. If a student has trouble, I step them down one more notch and teach them to trap mice. The easiest way to trap squirrels is to make what is called a Paiute-style deadfall. The trap is basically two slabs of rock. One of them is lifted upward with two upright sticks. Another stick is used to set a trigger mechanism that is usually baited. If you have no bait, the trap can be set over a hole. When the squirrel trips the trigger, the rock falls on its head and kills it instantly.
If students want to learn how to trap bigger animals and do it in a legal manner, I will teach them how to build more challenging traps, such as snares. I teach them to use the snares on squirrels so they can later cross over to larger animals. Snares are looped cords or rope that tighten when an animal walks through them. Generally, they are draped over some brush close to the ground. Sometimes sticks are placed in the ground to guide the animal into the snare. The snare is attached to a bent branch that snaps when the animal walks into the snare.
I also teach students to skin and dress the squirrel. A squirrel’s anatomy is the same as a deer’s, which is similar to ours except for the stomachs. When students and I trap a squirrel, I will demonstrate the cleaning and preparation process once very slowly. I expect them to be able to do it all the way through the next time.
I walk them through the anatomy, and I show in detail how to skin and clean the animal, showing them what to leave in and what to remove. You want to eat a certain amount of organs for the nutrients and fat content. The best for this are the heart, lungs, and kidneys. Others, like the gallbladder, stomach, and spleen, can be removed.
Because the animal has given his life for my benefit, I use all parts of the animal for something, except for the stomach. I discard the stomach because as bait it won’t draw the type of animals I want to trap. Any leftover bits of flesh or meat after the cleaning process can be used for bait. Animal fat is ideal for cooking greens. Fat also supplements the lean meat to keep our digestive systems functioning properly. The bones can be filed into small tools, such as needles for sewing. The hides can be tanned and made into skins for a variety of uses. Even the skin of a squirrel can be made into a pouch.
To cook the squirrel meat, I lay it out flat and grill it. I try to carry rock salt to sprinkle on the meat.
In any hunt, I show my students how to read the health of the animal by looking at the fur. If the fur is dull or tattered, then they should probably leave the animal alone. Likewise if the animal is stumbling to the left then it probably has plague or is sick. Then when we catch the animal, I teach them how to look at the health of the liver and the glands. That will tell the overall health of the animal, and that also determines how much you should cook it. If the animal is extremely healthy, you could theoretically eat it raw. But if it has any signs of bad health or disease, then you want to make sure it is thoroughly cooked. In the worst case, if its liver is half gone, it has pussy glands, or it has worms in its meat, you might consider not eating it at all.
Students are less squeamish about the process than would seem to be the case. With small animals, they focus on what needs to be done. However, I find that with large animals, such as a deer we find dead by the roadside, students have trouble. The smell of skinning and preparing a deer is overpowering and weakens me even after all these years. The process itself is also physically taxing, as it takes over a day just to remove the skin.
Many people don’t realize that we digest smell. It doesn’t just go into our nose; it goes into our stomach and through our digestive system. When you have a bowel movement, that smell you have been inhaling comes out of you. Interestingly, this happens in cities as well—which should tell us something about how important our air is.
In our daily lives, we are often far removed from how much we destroy and kill animals and their environments. But we all do, maybe not with our own hands, but with our actions. As humans, we have to figure out what it takes to live, but also how to create balance and harmony in our environment to ensure long-term survival for all species. All of this makes hunting a major topic of discussion on the survival courses I teach.
Many of the people who come out on courses do so because they are looking for a gentler way of living with the earth. Some of these—I’d say about one in ten—extend that gentleness to veganism. Everybody on the course is respectful of one another’s position. But what is interesting is that almost without exception, the vegans usually end up becoming resolved during the course to the fact that it is better for them to eat meat, both for their health and for the ecological balance of the land.
I’ve illustrated this to students in many different areas and climates. When we enter an area, we can easily identify greens, roots, and berries that will make it possible for all of us to get enough nutrition and live healthfully for a couple months. But those are the prized foods for all mammals in the area, because they contain starches and sugars that sustain living things.
Once a student and I debated what respect for animals meant. He was a vegetarian, which is a very respectful way to live. He was on a course with me, living off the land in one very remote spot for ten days. The three-mile canyon was very rich in berries, which he would collect and eat each day. There was a huge squirrel population feeding off the same bushes. After a few days, I noticed that the berries were nearly depleted. I explained to him that we were starving the community of squirrels because we were not taking a balanced approach to the land. My reasoning was that it was better if we trapped a few squirrels, and then they would have less competition for the berries, thus creating a more balanced ecosystem. This is part of striking a natural balance in the environment to ensure survival for all.
Every environment is different. But the fact is that if a person finds the magic berry bush, there might be only one magic berry bush in a few-miles radius. A lot of animals are relying on that berry bush. If you just say, “I’m a vegan so I’m only going to eat berries,” then you have just messed with a lot of animals.
The bottom line is that we should always strive to find the balance to live within a particular region. This is incumbent upon us, because as humans we have the intellect to look at the land and say: “There are only x number of wild onions, x number of berries, x number of cattails. I have to take into account a certain balance that will help everything out here. That means I will have to kill some animals, which will also help the cycle of all the animals competing for that bush.”
That is how nature’s balance is not only maintained but also improved.
Many vegans on courses examine the balance of the land and decide its natural order makes sense. While they end up eating an animal, both for the nutrition and the need to keep the land in balance, they almost always do not know what they will do when they return home. They are then forced to take that experience back home and figure out what to do with it. Some return to veganism, while others do start eating meat. They realize their body felt better, or they feel like they can buy free-range meat and create a better harmony that way. But no vegan goes home and starts eating hamburgers.
This becomes a topic of discussion. A mammal is very much like our flesh and blood. It has a family, raises its young, and acts a little bit like us instinctively. Killing something similar to us is difficult. Inevitably, the discussion turns to where the line is. Chickens are okay, and so are pigs—unless the person had a pet pig as a child. Dogs are not.
But when my students see hunting in the wild firsthand the talk always returns to the same place. It shows how far removed we are from our food supply. Most everyone has seen cattle grazing in a pasture, but few people think of that when they buy a Saran-wrapped tenderloin at the supermarket. The fact is, it is very hard to see the true cost of our food unless we watch it being separated from its environment.
Hunter-gatherers see this up close. It is very simple. They look at the land. They see what nature is telling them, and they look for a balance to make it better while still surviving.
Every time a hunter-gatherer walks into an area, he must have an awareness of the food supply. He must find the ability to live off the land. If he doesn’t, he will die. Having the ability to live off the land makes you a seer.
Probably the deepest I delved into these issues with a student was on my journey with Jesse Perry from Flagstaff to Boulder. Jesse had a visceral reaction to hunting animals and preparing them to eat. When I killed the first rabbit for food, Jesse broke down in tears. Later, when I wanted to remove bird eggs from a nest, he adamantly refused to help. But what he saw caused him to question how we live in modern society.
After our journey, Jesse wrote a diary. He talked about being disgusted with the hypocrisies in himself that surfaced, the same hypocrisies that even the most caring consumer encounters every day. He crystallized the issue by writing that he wondered why he had trouble taking eggs from a bird’s nest when he was famished in the wild, yet he had no problem eating an omelet at Denny’s.
The fact is, we are so far removed from these issues in our culture that we must question ourselves at some point. Farm-to-table is a large movement, as is the humane treatment of animals we eat—all of which go through slaughterhouses. We want prime-grade, humanely raised animals. So we wrestle with this dilemma. We write books about these questions. We try to figure it out. But we ultimately cannot figure it out fully for the simple fact that most people are too far removed from the land.