Thoreau on raw woodchuck, and his complex attitude toward hunting (Walden 149)

“I caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for that wildness which he represented… I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Thus begins a chapter called “Higher Laws,” and Thoreau dives into a frank and strangely ambivalent (for him) discussion of hunting and fishing. On the one hand, he talks of enjoying fishing and says “perhaps the hunter is the greatest friend of the animals hunted” (apparently referring to hunters favoring conservation). And though he had sold his own gun, “when some of my friends have asked me anxiously about their boys, whether they should let them hunt, I have answered, yes — remembering that it was one of the best parts of my education….”

But he says this of youths “trusting that they would soon outgrow it. No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds its life by the same tenure that he does. The hare in its extremity cries like a child.”

Most people never outgrow it, Henry admits. “The mass of men are still and always young in this respect.”

So in some ways Henry doesn’t sound like a modern proponent of animal rights. He doesn’t condemn hunting — and this is a man who does not mince words when he disapproves of something. He respects nature’s predatory characteristics, and he recognizes those instincts in himself. He knows that nature is bloody and that he is part of nature. He looks at hunting and fishing as stages to go through, a way of learning firsthand of nature’s bloodiness.

And yet, “I have found repeatedly, of late years, that I cannot fish without falling a little in self-respect.” This, he believes, “is a faint intimation, yet so are the first streaks of morning.”

He can feel himself changing — and he says that abstaining from meat is a way to preserve one’s “higher or poetic faculties,” but he writes about it without his usual cocky self-assurance. With “every year I am less a fisherman, though without more humanity or even wisdom….” And he admits that if he were to live in a true wilderness he’d be tempted to become a hunter and fisherman.

I haven’t read Peter Singer, whose Animal Liberation is a basic text of the animal rights movement, but I’m thinking of his concept of the expanding circle of moral concern, the idea that altruism began within a narrow circle to protect one’s own genetic line, and that it has gradually expanded because of our ability to reason. Again, at this point I’m getting this second-hand from other writers, but when Thoreau recognizes that a non-human animal “holds its life by the same tenure that he [a human] does,” isn’t that what Singer is talking about?

And don’t Henry’s musings capture the mixed feelings that so many of us have? I like meat. It’s delicious, though as the years pass my wife and I find ourselves eating less of it, desiring less of it, partly for reasons of health, partly as a result of learning more about the brutalities of factory farming. Thoreau had “no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals.” Is he right? Time will tell.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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