Putting on a crucifix or star of David or other symbol before heading off to worship is a roundly uncontroversial act. It helps the faithful make connections to the spiritual world. Some of the same people also carry guns into the field, or rods to the river, and for much the same purpose. Yet hunting has become among the most controversial acts in modern life.

To me, a hunter, the idea that guns and spirituality don't mix is like thinking that art and violence are incompatible, or love and death. The way they combine is the stuff of art, literature, music--for that matter, the Bible. For us hunters-and more Americans hunt and fish than play golf--guns and fishing rods connect us to nature, They make a human being a participant in nature rather than a tourist. We merge with nature's essence, which is assuredly a sacred experience.

"You have more respect for the things you eat when you go through or see the process of killing them." --Madonna

Religion is a rite that ties us to the past; think for a minute about hunting's place in the story of life on earth. Hunting is recognizable in one primitive organism devouring another, if you are an evolutionist. For creationists, hunting starts in the preserve called Eden. Either way, hunting precedes all livelihoods as "the oldest profession," an obvious truth somehow hijacked by prostitution.

Hunting today takes many forms. The most recognized--and criticized--is the one in which people buy licenses to enjoy time in the field at this time of year. But other more seemingly gentle pursuits are really hunting in disguise. Fishing, for example is simply hunting with a hook. (Please don't be fooled by "catch and release." Dragging a fish through the water with a hook through its lip, tongue or eye, then releasing it to repeat the process the next time it's hungry is the kind of torture hunters berate themselves and each other for when they fail to deliver a "clean kill." I release most of what I catch, but only to catch more and bigger fish later.)

Vegetarians hunt plants, and fruits, berries and mushrooms end up just as dead. If this seems benign to you, I recommend a surprising little book called "The Secret Life of Plants," by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird. Yes, most plants are stationary, move their parts very slowly and doubtless their sensations are quite different from beings who look and act like us. But anyone who doesn't think that plants "feel" after watching a leaf writhe as fire devours it, or droop when thirsty, or turn toward the sun suffers from acute species chauvinism.

To accommodate our participation in these different types of hunting we relabel them. Having industrialized hunting to assure ourselves of a predictable amount of food, we call it agriculture. Killing beings that we artificially propagate is called "harvesting."

"You end up looking at the sky and the trees and you have time to meditate."--Madonna

The case for guns as spiritual instruments has nothing to do with the weapons used in crime. I do count, however, any implement of subjugation, from shotguns and hunting bows to mouse traps and butterfly nets. We humans are natural hunters. We sublimate our instinct for tracking in all manner of collecting (art, stamps and the like on one hand, lovers on quite another), and for aggression in our sporting and business lives; in finance, to "make a killing" is the whole idea. The present hunt in Afghanistan, where we have released our packs of hounds to chase a fox, are too obvious to need much discussion.

Approach hunting on this level intellectual ground and you come to grips with the fact that the continuation of life requires the taking of it. If the war of moral imperatives and lofty principles is de-escalated, we realize that the ways we kill amount to personal preference. Want to kill plants rather than animals and call yourself a vegetarian? Fine. Rather have someone kill for you? Nothing wrong with that. Rather see a domesticated creature die than a wild one? I certainly understand. What astounds me is the self-righteous position that only hunting involves "needless killing." Lots of things result in unnecessary killing. Some of them seem totally benign--until you think about them for a minute.

Take golf. To date, acreage the size of Vermont and New Hampshire have been sanitized by golf courses. Overfertilizing pollutes waterways and kill fish. Manicuring landscapes amounts to carpet-bombing wildlife habitat. Forced from their homes, critters end up as road kill.

Compare this to what's happening right now where I live in Michigan. Hunters here are in the process of killing (to eat) their annual 350,000 deer, in a herd that grows larger every year. An additional 65,000 deer, however, are senselessly murdered annually by cars and trucks, deaths that benefit nobody. Few of these accidents occur in areas of stable wilderness. Most take place where human incursion has disrupted natural patterns of feeding, migration and procreation.

Unlike the meaningless deaths agreed to by all of us, including many who oppose hunting, the moment a bird folds in the air, or a trout "takes" on the surface of a stream is a unique connection to the process of nature. Hunters study the ways of the creatures, learn their intricacies, appreciate their beauties, wonder with the same awe inspired by a nighttime sky. Is that a form of worship and the moment of kill an epiphany? In hunting, answers are not as important as mysteries. They are where spirituality always begins, sometimes with a gun in hand.

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