Restless Native is one of my favorite podcasts and its host, Brad Luttrell, on almost every episode, says we have to stop talking about “heritage” and “tradition” because new hunters don’t have a heritage or tradition. I don’t like agreeing with him on this point, but he’s right. At least in general, he’s right. The younger generation especially, they’re going to do things differently, use different equipment and come to hunting in new ways. However, I do think these new hunters are interested in tradition, they’re just interested in doing it on their own terms.
A perfect example of this is the backcountry fitness trend. Sure, the folks who participate in this are using gyms and modern chemistry in the form of protein powder, pre-workout drinks, and other supplements. However, the idea behind it all is getting deeper into the backcountry, getting out there where there are animals, but no other hunters and being able to haul that animal to camp on your back. If that doesn’t take you back in time, before the age of four-wheel drive trucks, ATVs and side by sides, I don’t know what does.
Another example, though I admit I have no data to support this, is the interest in bowhunting seems to be rising. Although a lot of these guys are using modern compound bows, more and more are switching to recurves and traditional bows. Both of these hunters, even the compound bow hunter, are learning and mastering ancient skills that humans have used for thousands of years. Sure, a compound bow has a lot more range than a spear or atlatl, but the bow hunter connects to his or her ancestors and the animal in a very real and spiritual way.
Like a lot of things in life, I find myself caught between two groups, in this case, the old guard and the new. Being an adult onset hunter myself, I was not initiated into any particular tradition. Much like the fact I chose the Chicago White Sox as my baseball team when I was a kid (my dad hated baseball), I have chosen certain traditions and honored certain aspects of the hunt based on what I want to get out of it. With baseball, it was as easy as the fact Bo Jackson was so incredible to watch, but with hunting, the connection is much, much deeper. Coincidently, Bo Jackson’s life-long passion is bowhunting.
Many folks in the outdoor world talk about using food as the gateway into hunting. It is true, that the desire to produce one’s own food and for stewardship of the earth are pushing new people into hunting. It’s also true, that food is steeped in tradition, in everything from cooking to sharing a meal with loved ones. Hunting, however, takes a lot of time and money and gardening and shopping at Whole Foods is a lot easier. What are the traditions that are going to keep these new hunters in the field year after year? Is it camaraderie? Hunters have said companionship is a major draw for years. Is it being alone and connecting to God? Is it testing one’s self against the elements, other hunters on public land, and connecting to our ancestors through a shared experience? To hunt is to be human in much the same way to love is to be human. Not everyone does it, but it certainly makes life a richer experience.
As Joe Byers recently wrote in Outdoor Life, there is a new kind of hunter. However, new doesn’t mean alien. These younger and mostly urban folks are still human. Maybe grandpa didn’t give them their first rifle when they were ten, but they’re not getting into something as ancient as man himself without a desire to connect to something deeper and greater than what modern life has to offer. I think food and the other things our community is using to attract new folks to hunting is great, but unless we support and nurture their ability to connect to spiritual aspects of hunting, many of them are not going to stick around. They have to be able to have the experiences, even if it doesn’t look exactly the same as it does for the rest of us.