I wanted his opinions and thoughts about hunting for sustainable food and for sport.
Here is some answers to some really great questions submitted by readers of The New York Times.
Michael Pollan, the author of The Botany of Desire and a recent cover article in The Times magazine answers readers' questions on how and why we hunt, gather and eat.
Questions For . . .Michael Pollan
Q. 1. Why did we decide that it was acceptable behavior to raise farm animals in the deplorable conditions that exist on our factory farms? Will you please follow this article with one that takes you into a factory farm let's say a pig farm in North Carolina, assist in the processes of maintaining the mother pig during her pregnancy, birthing, raising and slaughtering her baby pig on such a farm, and witness and report on what the environmental and human repercussions are in this process? After all, if you were going to eat meat, you should learn how the meat that makes its way onto your table gets there, not how to hunt.
- Liz Heebner, Basking Ridge, N.J.
A. Liz: I couldn't agree more. Actually I have done a piece, for The Times, on factory farming: Power Steer, published in March 2002, took me to a cattle feedlot and slaughterhouse. I haven't eaten industrial beef since. I'm curious to visit a confinement hog operation, but doubt I could get in.
Q. 2. Hunters are commonly portrayed as men who hunt to reassert their masculinity. What then do you think of female hunters? What drives them to seek out animals to harvest? Are they innately more "masculine" than their non-hunting counterparts, or is it more a question of environment and conditioning?
- Tiarella Hanna, Guelph, Ontario
Tiarella: This question is better asked of female hunters. I have known a few, and don't necessarily think they're especially masculine. The anthropologists tell us that women were more often the foragers, and whether their mental and physical tools better equip them to forage than hunt is a question. (Though many of the skills — such as extreme attentiveness to the environment — are the same; hunting does require more physical strength, however.) All of which is say, I don't know, but it's an interesting question.
Q. 3. You said you had done some reading on disgust to better understand your revulsion. Did you also do some reading on gratitude especially as it relates to the killing of animals in some cultures? I'm thinking of the ritual invocation that is a part of the prescribed method for killing animals for meat in Islam. I think some Native American tribes did (or do) the same — and there are probably other cultures where this practice is still alive. The powerful feeling of gratitude you experienced immediately after the successful shot is something most people can't identify with anymore. We're familiar with a diminished form of thankfulness, but that surge of gratitude you experienced, without conscious effort, seems rare. Another brain chemical that has lost its trigger in modern life?
- Roberta Austin, Annapolis, Md.
Roberta: Intriguing. I have read about gratitude, especially in Native American cultures, but also in ancient Greece, where you thanked the gods (not the animals) by giving them the first portion of meat. Saying grace of course is connected to this sense of gratitude. Whether we're talking about a brain chemical I can't say, but it wouldn't surprise me if they found one.
Q. 4. What role do you think large-scale game preserves should play in modern hunting? For many animals, these places are the last reservoirs of habitat before extinction. Should we create artificial habitats that allow us to experience hunting an animal that we might otherwise never have encountered?
- Patrick Hall, Greensboro, N.C.
Patrick: I'm not sure I see the point of hunting animals whose numbers are small — I can only justify hunting animals who "need" a predator and are at risk of destroying their habitat. I find something distasteful about hunting animals that have been raised for the purpose or confined in artificial environments expressly for that purpose. I felt a lot more comfortable hunting an alien pest like the feral pig than, say, a wild duck.
Q. 5. How about doing a story about veganism? Just as you found some hunters and learned from them and practiced what they'd taught you, why not team up with a couple vegans, ones who are skilled in the art of cooking, and see what you can learn from them? And if you're up to this challenge, perhaps you can re-examine your hunting piece from the perspective that we are perfectly capable of having healthy bodies and happy tastebuds without needing to slaughter animals. Indeed, we can all attain the moral clarity you envy in those who don't consume the products of death. It is a choice, and I urge you to explore it with as much openness as you gave to the idea of hunting.
- Monica Ball, Peoria, Ill.
Monica: You might be interested to read the section on vegetarianism and animal rights in my new book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. I explore some of these issues and ate as a vegetarian for a period of time. You're right: We are capable of living quite well without slaughtering animals. But I think I can defend a very limited carnivory on ecological grounds. Check it out. (Or read An Animal's Place, an article I wrote in 2002 for The Times — it has some, but not all, of this material —minus the vegetarian experiment.)
Q. 6. In my efforts to preserve the hunting tradition, I have read hundreds of articles both for and against hunting. None have explored the topic from such a unique perspective. Regardless of how my question is answered, this is great work. Thank You. My question is: Having the benefit of this experience, do you believe hunting has a rightful place in our modern society?
- Michael Poe, New Providence, N.J.
Michael: Many thanks for the kind words. Yes, I do believe hunting has a place in modern society. The hunter knows important things about nature, and our place in nature, that we need to keep alive. Also there are animals that need predation lest they destroy their habitat (and the habitat of other animals), and we might as well do it if no one else will. It is also, under the right circumstances, an entirely honorable and sustainable way to get one's food.
Q. 7. I am wondering why you didn't field dress your own animal. I understand that you assisted your mentor, who actually did it for you. For every other hunter's first kill (that I've witnessed), the field dressing gutting, however unpleasant, was done by the shooter (perhaps assisted by a mentor, not the other way around). Implicit in Seor Ortega y Gasset's eloquently worded maxim that "one must kill in order to have hunted" is the belief that the dirty work is part of the hunt.
I realize that another reason you went on this hunt was to be able to write a story for publication – I am not belittling that at all, it's done all the time and I applaud you for it. But, I'm curious to know if you'd hunt again, just for yourself?
- Rob DiStasio, South Salem, N.Y.
Rob: I wasn't aware of the tradition of cleaning your animal — lucky for me. I was actually worried about making a botch of it, and letting someone skilled at the art seemed the more respectful way to treat the animal than for me to practice on it. I had a taste of the "dirty work" without desecrating the animal.
Will I hunt again? I'm not sure. I don't know that I would get as much out of the experience a second time. On the other hand the experience was deeply compelling the meat extraordinary, so perhaps I will at some point. But no question, I did this in order to write about it. That's a weakness and a strength, as I see it. I think, having no prior experience, I could see the process with a certain freshness — I approached it with a degree of wonder I might not have had had I hunted since childhood. Sometimes naiveté and inexperience are more useful tools than expertise and sophistication, don't you think?
Q. 8. I couldn't help but notice your recurring feeling of embarrassment. Do you think that has anything to do with a modern desire (and ability) to preserve each and every life so that killing any form of life is frowned upon? Or is it the simple fact that as independent farms cease to exist we become more and more disconnected with our food?
- Sara, New York City
Sara: I think it's natural to feel a certain amount of shame in taking a life, and that that is a healthy thing — it keeps us from doing it recklessly or needlessly. Is it a signal what we're doing is wrong? I don't think so, but it does force us to be conscious and to compensate for what we've taken.
Q. 9. If your interest was in exploring your place in the food chain, why didn't you go to a slaughter house? My question is sincere — you do eat meat and most of it presumably comes from slaughterhouses, unless you're wealthy enough to eat free range meat all the time. Secondly, do you not understand that hunting for recreation or is an entirely different moral and practical experience than hunting for food because that's the only way to get it? What you describe is a safari-like experience with very specific class dimensions. Finally, why do you imagine that all vegetarians are unaware that they too are making ethical compromises?
- Donna Sullivan, El Rodeo, Costa Rica
Donna: I have been to a slaughterhouse, and write about that in "The Omnivore's Dilemma." There are many ways to explore the human food chain, and hunting is only one of them — this story was part of a much larger treatment of the issue.
As for vegetarians, I've heard from many of them, enough to make me realize that perhaps I was over-generalizing to depict them as one-dimensionally as I did. I've met many vegetarians who regard themselves as blameless and righteous in their non-meat-eating, but since publishing this piece, I've heard from many others who have a more complicated sense of their role.
Q. 10. Why do you assume that vegetarians have any more moral clarity or innocence than omnivores? Most of the vegetarians I know have ridiculous exceptions to almost every self imposed rule — sneaking hot dogs at ball parks because of "tradition" or partaking of foie gras in France lest they appear rude to their hosts. At least we meat eaters own up to, and even embrace, our evolutionary hard wiring. We are the ones who sleep with a clear conscience!
Great article by the way! Where are the recipes for all those wonderful dishes you describe? We know what step one is: first, hunt down and kill a wild boar. Second...
- Geneve Hoffman, Maine
Geneve: I haven't met any of those hot-dog-chomping vegans, but I sure would like to. We'd have a lot to discuss.
I don't have a specific recipe for the braised leg, but basically it was six hours in a 225 degree over, in a liquid consisting of red wine, stock made from boar and beef bones, and liquid from re-hydrated dried morel mushrooms. I also roasted a loin, rolled in black pepper and larded with garlic, over olive wood on the grill. Boar is lean so it tends to dry out a bit; the braise was better.
Q. 11. In what ways do you think vegetarians depend on a denial of reality? And do you think that is a greater denial than that of the average meat-eater? Do you pity the tofu-eater-in-denial more than the meat-eater-in-denial? If so, why?
- Jamie Don, San Diego, Calif.
Jaime: Good point about the meat eaters in denial — many of us are. The key, it seems to me, is to be conscious about our eating. The vegan has to be conscious of the fact that, even eating only vegetable matter, animals die in agriculture in great numbers, and the vegan utopia would condemn us to a very long, industrialized food chain (An Animal's Place for the full explanation). As for the meat eaters, it seems to me incumbent on them to take a good hard look at where their meat comes from, and realize all the consequences of that menu choice too.
Q. 12. An animal shot by a hunter can take hours to die. Death by hunter is not a good death. In your earlier article championing humane farming and abattoirs with glass walls, you came across as deeply concerned for animal well-being. So I ask you: shouldn't we leave the killing of animals to people well-trained to do it humanely? And if we must eat meat, shouldn't we think of killing as a regrettable cost, rather than making a form of recreation?
- Jean Kazez, Dallas
Jean: You make a strong point. I was lucky in that my shot was good enough to kill the boar almost instantaneously, but it could easily have been otherwise. Still, death by hunting seems no worse and often much better than death by slaughterhouse technology, which also is imperfect. (McDonald's tolerates a 5% error rate in its cattle stunning operation — animals that are imperfectly stunned and either need to be stunned again or have their throat slit while conscious.) I think depicting hunting as killing for recreation is to oversimplify the experience. But whatever the circumstances, forest or slaughterhouse, it seems to me killing as swiftly and mercifully as possible is essential.
Q. 13. Do you think that as people become more spiritually evolved, they have less of a need/desire to hunt, gather and eat?
- Lela M Cannada-Puckett, Knoxville, Tenn.
Lela: I'm not sure about your premise: that people become "more spiritually evolved." Have we done so? There's plenty of evidence to the contrary. And it seems to me that until we download our consciousness onto silicon, the need to eat will always be with us. Amen.