It has always been the case that explorers, wanderers, hunters, and conservationists have recorded and later told stories of their experiences in the natural world. As varied in their voices as the environments that inspired them, our bookshelves should be overflowing with their tales and thoughts. As Steven Rinella says in Meat Eater, “hunting stories are the oldest and most widespread form of story on earth.” The knowledge these writers have to share will make us more effective hunter-conservationists.
As both a bookworm and someone who devours anything I can learn about wildlife and nature, my pile of books about the outdoors increases in height faster than I can read them, a trend I make no attempt to stop. In fact, there is research to suggest that reading will make us more open minded and potentially live longer. I think reading about the natural world should be approached with the same passion we bring to spending time on the land. In his journals, Henry David Thoreau celebrated the sacredness and importance of libraries to naturalists:
“How happens it that I find not in the country, in the fields and woods, the works even of like-minded naturalists and poets. Those who have expressed the purest and deepest love of nature have not recorded it on the bark of the trees with the lichens; they have left no memento of it there…”
Whether you want to imaginatively experience Hugh Glass’s bear attack or Farley Mowat’s canoe trips; reflect on the philosophical musings of Thoreau and Leopold; or better understand immediate environmental and conservation concerns and how you can get more involved in conservation, there is a wealth of reading out there and it will make you a better conservationist.
1. Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter, by Steven Rinella
I read this book a few years ago and it was really my introduction to Steven Rinella and Meat Eater. Since reading this book I have become a big fan of the MeatEater TV show and podcast, but at the time, I really didn’t know much about Steven Rinella or any of his thoughts on hunting. I was, however, on the lookout for a hunting book that had the particular kind of tone and approach to the subject I enjoy. I wanted someone who could talk about hunting with insight, but no pomp; a book that was well-researched, but also down-to-earth. Meat Eater definitely spoke to me from the very first pages. Described as a “why-to, who-to, and what-to”, Rinella “uses the ancient art of the hunting story to answer the questions of why I hunt, who I am as a hunter, and what hunting means to me”, questions every one of us thinks about and wishes to convey. This is a book that I would recommend to both hunters and non-hunters. Rinella’s writing is humorous, honest, and relatable. After having read his other books (including one recommended in another list) and listening to the podcasts, I now find Steven Rinella to be one of the most articulate and reflective hunter-conservationists of contemporary times. Whether you hunt or not, this book will encourage you to rethink some of the things you might be taking for granted.
2. The Once and Future World, by J.B. MacKinnon
I ordered this book knowing nothing about it other than the fact that it came highly recommended by a friend. MacKinnon both eulogizes and celebrates the natural world and our place in it. I enjoyed this book because it is both science and story. MacKinnon encourages us to reflect on how we, as humans, have participated in the natural world and importantly, to think about what role we wish to play into the future. MacKinnon is not a hunter and feels no need to defend hunting at every turn; however, it’s not an exaggeration to say that his work allowed me to better understand my thoughts and experiences with hunting and my role in nature as a hunter. Fundamentally, MacKinnon really encourages us to remember – to remember the intricate connections our humanity, and at times inhumanity, has always held with nature; to remember what we once knew and could again know about nature and the fact that this knowledge runs deep in our genetics; and to resist the disappearance of these memories. As hunters and conservationists, I think we are the vanguard of this remembering. As hunters, we try to constantly live our collective memories with the natural world and MacKinnon’s book is a poetic and sobering tribute to the importance of this role.
3. Mountain Sheep and Man in the Northern Wilds, by Valerius Geist
Dr. Valerius Geist is one of the thinkers who put into words the ideas that gave rise to the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Geist is well known and widely published in the academic literature and has written a number of more popularly-focused works about his graduate and professional research with ungulates. In this book, Geist tells of the time he spent in the Spatsizi region of British Columbia studying bighorn sheep and mountain goats. As Geist explains, the story of North American wild sheep exemplifies the history of wildlife conservation on this continent. Originally published in 1975, Geist offered the world a ground-breaking glimpse into the natural history of mountain ungulates. However, the book also presents Geist’s insights about the influence of the Ice Ages on human evolution. The chapters on our species’ biological and cultural emergence out of the Ice Ages and into modern times was fascinating. I expected to read a book about sheep behaviour, and there is plenty of that, but I was surprised to find myself captivated by Geist’s description of the ways in which history intertwined our evolution with a hunting lifestyle and how hunting shaped values and ideas we now hold up as virtuous. As Geist explains, “it is quite foolish to postulate that hunting has made us into cruel, soulless beasts. On the contrary, we would never have hunted without possessing love and compassion for others”. If you’re interested in the observations of a profoundly important biologist, naturalist, and conservationist and in learning about some of the experiences that led Geist to articulate the role hunting plays in wildlife conservation, this is a great addition to your bookshelf.
“For whether we love hunting or hate it, eulogize its blinding passion or condemn it, hunting was the force that shaped our bodies, moulded our souls, and honed our minds. From this conclusion there appears to be no escape.” – Valerius Geist, Mountain Sheep and Man in the Northern Wilds