The Words We Use

“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.” – Benjamin Lee Whorf

We have come to refer to rivers and forests, trout and elk as “resources.” They have become units that inhabit still other units. We now frequently hear the act of hunting referred to as “harvesting” or “collection,” or other, similarly clinical terminology. We have abstracted and reduced one of the most real, visceral experiences we have left in this modern world to the language of the bureaucrat and the commercial extractor.

There has, of course, been necessity to this. In order to converse with the bureaucrat and the extractor, to be taken seriously and to have a seat at the table, it’s become necessary to adopt their language, for this is the language that gets things done in our time. But in this linguistic shift, I believe something at the heart of this whole thing is lost, stripped of greater significance, reduced to the soulless level normally reserved for inanimate product or commodity.

Wildlife managers, and some in the conservation profession, maintain that this is the required approach for science-based conservation, and in a broad, and regrettably bland and mechanical sense, they are absolutely correct. Management of wildlife, and wilderness, has largely become about numbers, stats, population counts, carrying capacities, “maximum sustainable yields” and the like. It is not my goal to naively criticize this work, for I fully recognize its importance, just as I do its limitations. As mentioned above, statistics and quantifiable figures are essential in our day and age, if only in order to demonstrate value to a wider audience who apparently can value nothing else as highly. I know that this work is both important and well-intentioned. I  support it as much as I possibly can, and am eternally grateful that there are those willing to fight the good fight on these stark terms.

Yet we also see this shift in language occur in yielding, consciously or otherwise, to societal pressures; to distance the dialogue surrounding hunting from being about something as disagreeable as “killing,” and even from it being something that involves living, breathing beings at all. I suspect that these modifications in terminology are not coincidentally linked with greater shifting views in our culture toward hunting. How much easier, and more palatable, and less disruptive to the casual atmosphere of the cocktail party it is to say, in the presence of a hunting critic, that you spent the day “harvesting a local resource,” than it is to say that you killed several quail or a deer? Pass the smoked salmon, would you?

“Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground”

– Noah Webster

Is the recently dead grouse, whose warmth I can still feel through the game bag in the back of my vest, merely a “resource?” Moments ago, it was an eruption of wing and feather and cackle and native life. It will also soon be cooked as part of a special meal, relished as it should be, with respect for the life it was. To consider a wild river, or an expanse of old, healthy forest, and the marvelous things that inhabit these places, as mere “resource,” or “unit” would mean a fundamental part of me has withered and died. I know these places, and their inhabitants, too intimately to do them that disservice.

As a hunter and angler, deeply involved in this wet, dirty and sometimes bloody process, I have to draw a line and distance myself from this linguistic trend. This terminology can stay where it should – in offices and negotiation rooms and urban environs. Words reflect how we perceive things, and I can’t let the sterility of agency-speak infiltrate my own word choices. I can’t consider the process of hunting and killing an animal as “resource collection,” and I’m at a loss for what to say to anyone who has come to view this sacred, ancient act as anything so sterile. I won’t distance myself from what this really is. It is hunting, and a part of hunting, at least sometimes, is taking a life. While this is far from the sole reason I am out here, neither is it a thing I take casually. Nor am I willing to trivialize or sanitize this act out of consideration for those who have become so removed from the fundamentals of natural processes, and the manner in which food arrives on their plates, that they can’t deal with it. That is their burden to philosophically dance around, not mine.

Do you prefer to detach yourself from the singular act of having to kill what you eat? Does the reality of it make you squeamish or offend you, yet you still crave your burger or breast or steak? Well then it’s easy – all too easy, really, and it comes in a plastic wrapped, styrofoam tray in the refrigerated section at your local grocery store. But don’t try to drag me down that frigid, flourescent-lit aisle with you.

9 thoughts on “The Words We Use”

  1. Nice post! Of course, I’ve enjoyed most of the posts at this site. Great writing, and some thinking too.
    I’ve struggled with the evolution of our language, not just of hunting but across the board, but one thing keeps coming back to me. We are masters of language. We should not be mastered by it. To call the kill a “harvest” cannot diminish what you felt when you made the kill, nor does it take away the memories that you’ll have over the table, or later by the fireside.
    Challenge the dilution of language. Do what you can to set it to rights. But when all is said and done, know that what they call it doesn’t change what it is for you, or for any other hunter.

  2. What a post to discover you on. I sent your link to three different people before I finished reading. Finally an apologia that makes no apology. I think what struck me the most is finally a rugged individualist has spoken something that is true and as American as the uplands themselves. Facts don’t have to be obnoxious or touted with disdain but at times to remember who we are and what we have become is important. I will be reading your blog much. Thank you for saying so perfectly.

    Glen Bahde

  3. My wife comes from a long line of hunters. I do not. We’re blunt, but I’m an anomoly to my family.
    Coming home I get the question, “Did you kill anything?”
    I like blunt.
    You do what you can to conserve and protect our resources, then you hunt, fish and kill something to eat. It’s part of the process. Preferred over the detached purchase of plastic wrapped meat.

  4. thank you for expressing what is hard to express. a long time is sometimes spent lingering on that photo caption. what is it i do all day in the woods? what is it called to come home with food for the table that was flapping or swimming that morning? it’s killing, and i feel proud to be a hunter.

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