- Wild Games: Hunting and Fishing Traditions in North America
Dennis Cutchins and Eric A. Eliason, professors of English at Brigham Young University, seek to move academic debate about hunting and fishing beyond simple questions of morality to a more complex, and sympathetic, understanding of these “endangered traditions” in rural societies. Their edited collection, Wild Games: Hunting and Fishing Traditions in North America, ably demonstrates that the various cultural practices that revolve around the killing of wildlife—arguably the most universal of human-animal interactions—deserve closer investigation as creative folkways. The wide-ranging collection of essays in this volume extends scholarly conversations begun at recent American Folklore Society sessions and in a 2006 special issue of Western Folklore. Contributors represent an array of disciplinary perspectives, and their essays run the gamut from heavily theoretical analyses to personal narratives. Although diverse, the essays, the editors suggest in their introduction, advance a common contention: the line between human and animal is less clear than one might think. Hunters and fishers are especially aware of this point, since they “often very consciously transgress the boundaries between the wild and the domesticated, between the civilized and the uncivilized” (p. xix). The individual studies in Wild Games show, Cutchins and Eliason claim, that the hunter’s “working knowledge of the wild” produces a “better, truer picture of the human-animal relationship” than those originating in a more “romantic” sensibility (p. xix).
The book is divided into three parts and proceeds, generally, from more theoretically grounded investigations to largely descriptive pieces and personal reflections. Part One, “The Issues,” interrogates questions of authenticity and morality as well as the place of animals in human culture. The first essay from environmental philosopher Christian Diehm takes on contemporary hunting debates directly and offers the most critical view of hunting among the volume’s essayists by refusing to excuse its defenders from anthropocentrism. Eric Eliason’s intriguing study of coyote coursing is suggestive in its insistence upon animals “as both forms of and contributors to folklore” (p. 38). Part Two presents an assortment of field studies that range from folklorist Simon Bronner’s social-psychological analysis of the hunting rituals in a Pennsylvania deer camp to Dennis Cutchins’ interviews with fly fishermen about the sport’s reputation for elitism. The final section, “Reflections,” consists mainly of essayists’ ruminations on their own hunting and fishing experiences, including Philip A. Snyder’s recollections of fly fishing with his father and Diane Humphrey Lueck’s report on a project to teach outdoor skills to a group of battered women.
All in all, the eclectic essays in Wild Games cannot be easily categorized, and this may be the book’s most serious weakness. Although Cutchins and Eliason stress the collection’s interdisciplinary nature and its potential appeal to both scholarly and popular audiences, many of the essays seem squarely aimed at either specialists or a general readership. Few do both. The most striking example is Jeffrey P. Cain’s densely theoretical, postmodernist [End Page 315] reading of Cabela’s, a large hunting and fishing retailer. Other essays in the collection seem only loosely connected to the book’s stated topic. Apart from a brief mention of predators, Jacqueline S. Thursby’s description of contemporary Basque shepherds in the West has little to say about hunting. Steven Bodio’s quest for a Kazakh hunting hound is an interesting tale but adds little to our understanding of North American hunting and fishing traditions.
On the other hand, eclecticism could be the main strength of the collection. Wild Games avoids the error, made in many historical studies, of collapsing all hunting into one category. These diverse essays reveal that methods, motivations, and meanings vary widely across different forms of hunting and fishing. The fly fisherman eschews bait fishing. The poacher dismisses the sport hunter’s elaborate code of conduct. Historians would be well advised to approach hunting and fishing in the past with the same attention to detail.
For sport historians, Wild Games indirectly calls...