“Hunting in Maine is not obviously riven with centuries of class and privilege” writes Helen Macdonald in H Is for Hawk, a book that, though recommended with high praise by Robert Adamson almost two years ago, I’ve just gotten around to reading. I could plead “lack of time,” but the truth is I have a habit of resisting books that get a lot of attention in the press. It’s a perversion, but one I can’t seem to shake. Though many such books peak and then fade into oblivion, there are probably some (there must be!) that are “for the ages.” I can’t say for certain that Macdonald’s book will take its place alongside such great bird-of-prey literary masterpieces as “The Windhover,” “My Mother Would Be a Falconress,” and The Peregrine, but it is quite good.
For me the book held two big surprises: the first was that, while largely reviewed as a book about Macdonald’s grief for her father, it is more accurately described as a book about her relationship to a dead author: the emotionally complex Arthurian, T. H. White. The second surprise was that late in the narrative Macdonald travels to Maine to visit an American hawking friend. “There are no vast pheasant shoots [in Maine] where bankers vie for the largest bags, no elite grouse moors or exclusive salmon rivers. All the land can be hunted over by virtue of common law, and locals are very proud of this egalitarian tradition,” writes Macdonald. This trans-Atlantic cultural difference concerning hunting, though easily apparent, had never occurred to me. Perhaps because I neither hawk nor hunt.
Yet one can’t live in Maine and stay completely ignorant of hunting culture. Steve and I had only been here a few months when our then neighbor, a teacup-sized woman in her sixties with a neat hairdo, proudly told us that she’d secured a coveted moose-hunting permit that year and thus had a freezer filled with moose sausage, ribs, steaks, and other tasty bits. In ensuing years, I learned about the traditions of Maine hunting from stories students wrote. Their personal narrative assignments often included hunting anecdotes, especially when it came to writing about Thanksgiving, which is a hunting holiday in Maine. When families, food, drinking, and guns gather, the inevitability of eventfulness augments. I remember one story a student shared in which her wheel-chair bound Vietnam vet uncle shot a deer through a bathroom window while sitting on the john. I was so stunned by the image I neglected to ask: why on earth had he brought his rifle into the bathroom?
This particular kill was no doubt illegal, because there are laws about how near to inhabited homes you can hunt. Before we moved, the real estate agent who tried hard to undermine my dreams of a “cozy cottage” by driving us around to a series of dark, shabby capes, shared a fait divers that had recently shaken the region: a beloved local had mistaken a woman out hanging laundry for a deer and shot her to death. She had been wearing white gloves. I was so stunned by the image I neglected to ask: if it was cold enough to wear gloves, why was she hanging laundry outside?*
In describing the differences between British and American hunting, Macdonald quotes a hunter from a 1942 article published in Outdoor Life: “One of my grandfathers came from northern Europe [to the US] for the single reason that he wanted to live in a country where he could try to catch a fish without sneaking onto some nobleman’s property where the common people were excluded.” I think of the chauffeur-communist’s discomfort in those hunting scenes in Downton Abbey, or that scene from Renoir’s send up of the aristocracy, The Rules of the Game, in which the servants walk ahead of the nobles acting as “beaters,” hitting trees with sticks in order to rouse the prey. Guns, horses, riding kits, all very elegant, and stately. And very old world. When the privileged hunt in America, it’s embarrassing. Dick Cheney misfires and shoots Harry Whittington. Quail are released a few feet in front of him and he misses. A dentist goes to Africa and kills the lion everyone loves. It’s tacky and unappealing, and culturally inexplicable.
While hunting in the United States may not be “riven with centuries of class and privilege,” it might be—insofar as it has become connected to the debate over the second Amendment—be riven with something else: distrust of giving working, poor, and underclass rural people access to “free” food—the kind of unprocessed food privileged people like myself now pay dearly for in fancy restaurants serving delicacies such as “locally sourced” moose prosciutto and elk jerky. Doubtless there are rich people in the United States who own guns and hunt—especially in Texas or out west—yet I imagine they do so for sport, not food. I’ll admit, however, that when the issue of gun rights comes up—and I know hunters are always cited as “good” gun owners—the “poster child” that arises in my mind’s eye is a white, working class Mainer. The kind of person with a freezer full of deer or moose meat, the very same who would have either worked on or been chased off the estate of a nobleman in centuries past. But sometimes I also see a teacup-sized woman in her sixties with her small L. L. Bean-booted foot atop a downed 800-pound moose.
*this part of the story turned out to be apocryphal