06 December 2012

The Desk Chair Review of Books, Continued

The Everlasting Stream: A True Story of Rabbits, Guns, Friendship, and FamilyThe Everlasting Stream: A True Story of Rabbits, Guns, Friendship, and Family by Walt Harrington
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was recommended to me by a fellow hunter, and presumably an acquaintance of the author while I worked at the university where he now teaches (UIUC). Seven years later, I've finally gotten around to taking him up on that recommendation...

... and I'm pleased. The book is definitely more a memoir than a "book about hunting," but Harrington clearly experienced something profound in his annual rabbit hunts with his father-in-law and his friends. Indulged at first as an act of politeness for his wife's family, the annual rabbit hunt in Kentucky becomes the lens through which Harrington views his upwardly mobile, ambition-driven life in D.C. at the Washington Post. As his own son begins to grow older, Harrington articulates a perspective on the transition into fatherhood and the ways it grows from the inside out, taking root in the soil of one's own experience of being fathered.

I got a little weary of the personal biography in the middle portions of the book, but now that I've read the whole thing I do appreciate how Harrington was leading the reader into a perspective on hunting that required such apparent digressions. As a boy from a blue collar family who had worked his way into the East Coast elite, and stepped comfortably into the customs and privileges that attach thereunto, Harrington at first sees hunting as most of his colleagues do--a primitive, cruel activity that is completely unnecessary and therefore immoral.

Particularly insightful is Harrington's reflection on the guilt inherent to taking an animal's life as a recreational activity. What justifies such an action? Firing a weapon at a gentle, doe-eyed animal and collecting its bloody, still-warm carcass to cut up and eat seems the height of barbarism. Civilization has moved on.

Harrington mentions the arguments for the necessity of wildlife management, but the real treasure of The Everlasting Stream lies in its insistence that the animals don't care how they die: but we do. Whether it's a coyote or a disease or a charge of buckshot, it matters nothing to the rabbit; but the taking of that animal's life by a human being introduces consciousness into the equation, and therefore accountability--an answer to the question "why". The animal does not ask; we do. Harrington concludes that the "guilt" is precisely what is most important about hunting, precisely because it forces the hunter to question his place in the world--why do I have a right to exist, to let (or cause) other beings to die that I might live? In essence, the hunt goes on not despite the guilt, but because of it. In spite of the danger of making a mountain of a molehill, I have to wonder if perhaps our complete lack of familiarity with the true "costs of living" in our grocery-store world has laid to rest the question of our justification before it's ever even raised.

As a hunter who loves to hunt animals and to eat animals but hates to kill them, I found the author's resolution of this primal dilemma to shed a completely new light on hunting. I recommend this book to anyone who is bewildered by a husband, father, brother, or son that spends way too much time in the woods watching animals while holding a weapon.

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