Tis the season, and out in the woods humans in Day-Glo safety orange move stealthily through the Minnesota clearings or hunker fifteen feet above ground in tree stands, wearing Polarfleece Trebark[TM] or Winterwhite camo, six-pack or flask in hand, waiting for their designated victims. Those with treaty rights stalk moose, while winter anglers auger through the ice to take the pike that skim through the green drowned bottomlands.
Easy as it is to poke fun at nonsubsistence hunters' excesses, all humans are irredeemably part of a predator-prey web of life. Where mild gathering does not yield a sufficient living, there people hunt. Supermarket shoppers are no different in this respect from their tenth-century BCE or 1850s forebears: in winter, when produce is scantier and rootier, most suburban grazers cat more meat. Dwellers in northern latitudes who pride themselves on subsisting instead on pinto beans hauled to the coop with fossil fuels need to ask themselves exactly where they are, and why traditions of animal sacrifice in the north run as long and solemn as they do.
What hunting means runs the gamut from survival to transcedence. In three recent books concentrating on the experiences of women hunters, writers explain hunting variously as quest, chase, sport, religion and cultural identity.
Trust a food historian like Betty Fussell to put human food needs in perspective. In her essay in Women on Hunting, "On Murdering Eels and laundering Swine," she writes, "Murder we must. If not cows and pigs and fish, then cabbages and rutabagas. We flog bananas, violate oysters, ravage pomegranates. Our lot is beastly and there's no help for it, for feed we must on creature kinds." There is no free lunch: we murder, if not to dissect, then at least to eat. Where we draw the line about what constitutes slaying remains subjective, whatever vegetarians may claim.. a case can be made for the sentience of all living things, and it is mere sentimentalism to claim that intelligent or cute animals have more of a claim to be spared than, say, rutabagas or voles. All life past infancy is maintained at the expense of other life.
Fiction writer and essayist Pan Houston (author of Cowboys Are My Weakness) has morticed together an anthology of essays, stories and poems that pushes concepts of hunting to the limits. In her introduction to Women on Hunting, Houston proposes that hunting offers opportunities to create new and transformative stories. Her anthology treats hunting as a "metaphorical framework from which to tell a tale,, rather than as a sport or as a "philosophical dilemma." Women on Hunting collects some terrific material, much of it previously unpublished, but a number of pieces seem only tangentially connected to hunting, however broadly defined. The fact that some pieces turn on or incorporate a hunt does not mean that they are about hunting or that hunting functions metaphorically in them. Short stories like Melanie Rae Thon's harrowing "What She Wants," Alison Baker's "The Heaven of Animals" and Antonya Nelson's powerful "Fair Hunt: In the Land of Men" incorporate hunting in the same way that My Antonia incorporates farming -- it's there, but it's not really the point.
So what is the point of Women on Hunting? There appears to be no central focus. Pieces angry and polemical (Joy Williams' funny, furious "The Killing Game," Susan Griffin's "His Power: He Tames What Is Wild" from Woman and Nature) alternate with fiction and poetry that use the hunt as a formal or metaphorical structure (Ann Beattie's "Deer Season," Joyce Carol Oates' "The Buck," Kelly Cherry's "Hunting: A Story"), interspersed with stories that relish the physical immediacy, the meatiness and blood, the intimacy of the hunt (Kimberley M. Blaeser's "Like Some Old Story," Mary TallMountain's "Good Grease," Betty Fussell's essay). Yet another group adapts Native stories about shape-shifting prey and predators, bringing these animals into the hospital ward, bar-rooms and suburbs of contemporary North America (Evelina Zuni Lucero's, "Deer Dance," Alice Hoffman's excerpt from her novel Second Nature, Terry Tempest Williams' "Deerskin"). Houston's own personal essay, "Dall," is a complex examination of the lessons hunting taught her in her years as a big-game guide in central Alaska -- lessons about herself, the animals she pursued and the men she guided.
Like many of the writers she presents, Houston appears to believe that women experience the world differently from men: "While a man tends to be linear about achieving a goal," she writes, a woman can be circular and spatial. She can move in many directions at once, she can be many things at once, she can see an object from all sides, and, when it is required, she is able to wait." A few good male hunters, she adds, can do these things too. Welcome to the primitive backcountry of essentialism, with its wishful belief that women's prey-species watchfulness guarantees the authenticity of our being, the essential difference of it ...
Been there, done that, thirty years ago, some of us might say. Yet despite this crude structure, the house that Pam Houston has built to harbor some of the stories we tell ourselves about hunting is surprisingly elastic. If, in reading Women on Hunting, I am often no closer to witnessing the "dialogue" that Houston promises on the subject, I've at least had a cracking good time with a quirky assortment of pieces that I would have been unlikely to encounter otherwise,
Perhaps because she takes as her topic a much narrower slice of the hunting pie -- not just fishing, but fly-fishing -- editor Holly Morris is harder put than Houston to come up with as high a quality or provocative a selection in her anthology, A Different Angle. For that matter, fly-fishing occupies a moral and aesthetic universe several removes from the subsistence hunting that some of Women on Hunting's writers describe. Fly-fishing lies well beyond the rough terrain of murdering to cat, along the already-domesticated streams of take-and-release, of stylized battles in which one combatant (the angler) chooses to fight and the other (the fish) must unwillingly participate as the price of survival.
No surprise, then, that so much of fly-fishing's appeal, both on the water and in its considerable literature, lies not in blood, suffocation and death but in the more benign fascinations of equipment, setting, season and hour of the day. It is quite possible for the fly-fisher to persuade herself that taking an animal under these circumstances is incidental to the whole scenario and that the fish, since it is not going to be killed, has not been harmed by its involuntary encounter. But sport, with all that the term implies about records -- biggest, toughest, first, latest rarest, heaviest -- nonetheless hangs over the most thoughtful of fly-fishing writing like a pall.
Morris edited an earlier and, I think, generally livelier, anthology of women anglers' writing, Uncommon Waters.. Women Write About Fishing, which covered a wider range of fishing, from Southern reservoir bass fishing to brawling, alcohol-fueled big-game fishing in the Caribbean. A Different Angle, like fly-fishing itself, is smaller and quieter than its predecessor. Here we meet some of Uncommon Waters, writers (Lorian Hemingway, Le Anne Schreiber, Margot Page) in more introspective moods. Life has moved on for them, death, children and aging have changed the stories they want to tell. This doesn't make their essays more engaging than those of Uncommon Waters, but it does offer readers that deeply satisfying opportunity to follow writers who have already given them pleasure in to new territory.
I can't say as much for Gretchen Legler, whose "Border Water" appeared in Morris' earlier anthology, filled with a kind of essentialist fervor that tried to have it both ways: poor, trampled-upon female victim at a Minnesota fishing opener and superior female victor, bemused by, primitive male behavior. These tendencies have only grown stronger in "Fishergirl," her contribution to A Different Angle, a lengthy (33 pages) coming-out-as-lesbian-to-family/ coming-into-her-own-as-angler-and-woman story that offers none of the pleasure of angling literature -- those fastidious descriptions of the world as seer, heard, felt and tasted from midstream. Instead, Legier presents a series of soberly recounted anecdotes, choppily assembled, and asks us to rejoice with her in her newly integrated sense of self. Thanks, but pass me the classic fishing essays of Roderick Haig-Brown Brown or John Gierach.
Annie Proulx, of course, is made of altogether chewier, more resilient stuff, and her comic account of the Fishing Trip from Hell, ("Somewhere with Sven") knowingly and boisterously invokes all the standard devices of fly-fishing lit and then stands them on their heads. All her misadventures are redeemed by the dependable grandeur of nature, however: "We watched the wind drive the ice down the lake in a thousand-acre blanket of clinking, rattling, tinkling crystals ...; I met and lost the trout of my dreams, and there were flaming meteors in the night."
Pam Houston weighs in with an equally sprightly account of night-fishing a spring steelhead run in northern Michigan. "The Company of Men" is packed with kinetic, vivid descriptions of standing midstream in the dark, freezing waters that flow into Lake Michigan, surrounded by men who know and love each other and by the steelhead, who swarm upstream through the dark to spawn: "I have stumbled, somehow, onto this rare pack of animals who knows I am there and have decided, anyway, to let me watch their dance," she writes. Is she describing only the men, or the fish as well? "I want to memorize their movements. I want to take these river nights home with me for the times when the darkness is even heavier than it is in this Michigan sky."
The complexity and elusiveness of Houston's relationship to these men and to the spawning steelhead are notably missing in Sally I. Stoner's "Women in the Stream," a crude role-reversal tale of misanthropic fly-fishing on Montana's Madison and Oregon's Deschutes rivers. men here are mere faceless, nameless enemies -- "the boatboys" and "Mr. Guide," as Stoner delights in calling them. The food Mr. Guide offers the women anglers is derisively termed "beast parts"; apparently Stoner sees no contradiction between spurning meat and hooking fish for sport. This menopausal Bildungsroman essentializes everyone -- women are strong, brawling Amazons, men are weak, envious and vanquished. I have seldom occupied a less appetizing narrative point of view than Stoner's. The experience, I think, must be not unlike the trout's, forced to engage will something they'd rather avoid. Even the most traditional of male fly-fish -- Arnold Gingrich, say -- provides a more pleasurable read than the resentful, simplifying, boastful Stoner. At least Gingrich was witty.
One woman angler who makes appearances in both A Different Angle and Lyla Foggia's Reel Women is Joan Salvato Wulff, who devised a career for herself as a professional fly-caster back in the 1950s and 1960s. Wulff, in her own words in A Different Angle and in Foggia's brief biography of her, is notably devoid of gender-driven chips on her shoulder. She believes, in fact, that woman are likely to learn casting more quickly than men for the very reasons that men have commonly thought us unlikely candidates for angling: our training in dance and "daintiness" and our smaller body size, which makes casting with the whole body necessary. Those points made, Wulff proceeds with practical advice on how to pursue a sport she clearly adores and to describe her apparently very good adventures angling with men, including her late husband, the dean of twentieth-century North American fly-fishing, Lee Wulff.
Lyla Foggia is far more interested in the sport of angling than either Pam Houston or Holly Morris. Her book, composed of brief biographies and interviews of well-known and obscure women anglers, is shot through with "unfathomable world records," "historic precedents," "bests," "firsts" and "biggests." Her heroines' lives remind us, she claims, "of what we can and might be doing with out lives ... a way out of the limited menu of roles we've come to accept for ourselves ... they are role models who can help guide and center us as we cope with these increasingly complex and often troubling times."
Pretty tall order for a short book about women who fish, I'd say. Not to mention the fact that this "we" to whom Foggia addresses her book never comes into focus for me. This is what she has to say about women born in the mid-1940s: "Kathy [Magers] was typical of young women in the late 1950s and early 1960s:she served as a cheerleader, entered beauty pageants, and got her training and license as a hairdresser while still in high school." [Emphasis mine.]
But perhaps it's not fair to Lake Foggia to task for her generalizations and ahistoricisms, which abound: hers are a fan's notes, sprinkled with hearty, homely locutions (Sugar Ferris, founder of Bass 'N Gal, is described as "this aristocratic Earth Mother whose laugh is as contagious as chicken pox in a kindergarten") and a wealth of newly unearthed, briefly explored subject -- the East Coast society "anglerettes" of the 1930s and 1940s; Kay Brodney (1920-1994), a Library of Congress librarian who fished solo and worldwide for decades; Cornelia "Fly Rod" Crosby (1854-1946), a syndicated sports columnist and writer for Field and Stream and Shooting and Fishing, Joan Wulff's sole female predecessor as a sports show exhibitor.
Both hagiographic and exploratory books on women's experience of hunting and fishing seem to be increasing in number. It isn't difficult to imagine how much further this trend may go. no doubt we shall soon see anthologies of women on mountain biking, women on small-stream angling, women on Atlantic salmon fishing, women on black powder hunting. Where will it all end? Like Pam Houston, I applaud the idea and spirit of opinion and experience by gender, however, would be collections by both women and men that explore our collective human need to prey. Murder we must, whether in sanitized hydroponic greenhouses or state forests. For some of us it is sport, for some of us survival. But none of us is unimplicated, least of all females@ it's the size of the breeding female population that determines the viability of all animal populations. Those big trophy bucks? Superfluous. Male hunters know this. Let's have some intelligent conversations about that.