Book Review: Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt my Own Dinner by Lily Raff McCaulou
Lily Raff McCaulou is from Bend, Oregon, by way of Takoma Park, Maryland, and New York City. She lives in Oregon with her famous dog, Sylvia, her fly-fishing husband, Scott, and her likely soon to be famous son, Sam. Her first book has recently been published, Call of the Mild, and I suggest that you should read it and that you'll find it enjoyable. I did, but not for the reasons you might think.
I don't know Lily Raff but I did grow up with several folks that theoretically could be related, as they were often referred to as Riff Raff. Not Riff Raff from Rocky Horror or the evil anthropomorphic cartoon wolf gangster from Underdog, but the more common variety. You should buy Lily's book not because she is a capable writer (she is), not because you will agree with all of her views (I certainly didn't), but because Lily Raff McCaulou has what many lack: authenticity. Lily is honest about what she thinks, feels, and equally honest about how she arrived at her views. One of the greatest qualities of hunter – nonhunter communication is that there is so precious little of it. Those who don't think they like, much less “approve” of hunting seldom understand why they have the perspectives that they do. Likewise, the "live life through goofy bumper-sticker" crowds as well as the "purple home-defense zombie-killer" crowds marginalize themselves through their own inability to articulate and communicate their values and their feelings to others.
As to who is “confused” about relationships with animals, that's the easiest question of the day to answer: we all are. Lily mentions my favorite author on this subject, Hal Herzog, in her book. While the sport of cock-fighting is repugnant to most whether hunter, fisherman, or photographer, the life of the fighting rooster is clearly superior to the McNuggets we feed our kids, or perhaps ourselves. I don't know how hard you have to whack a chicken to grow McNuggets, but it seems to me the nugget-producing whack sequence couldn't be considered part of Mother Nature.
Lily quite correctly observes that the notion of hunting is sadly political. Of course it is, but what isn't? No one much cared that Sarah Palin went hunting with her father when she was playing high school basketball. Nor did anyone care when she was a sportscaster in Anchorage. No one cared when she was elected to the Wasilla City Council or became Mayor of Wasilla. She became Alaska's first female governor, and, at the age of 42, the youngest governor in Alaskan history, the state's first governor to have been born after Alaska achieved U.S. statehood. Hunting with Dad was no issue until the national stage invented it as one.
To be fair to Lily, her book is subtitled “A Memoir,” so it is neither strictly about hunting, cooking our own meals, or restricted to anything specific. Parts of it stray very, very far away and are intensely personal. I learned all I needed to know about mushrooms from Grace Slick, so mushroom hunting, cross-country skiing, lawnmowers, and baby rabbits are not exactly in the "learning to hunt dinner" category.
Lily is a very good observer; her adventure in what finally led to the purchase of a Benelli Nova 20 gauge should required reading for any gunshop owner that cares at all about customer service and more than a few firearm manufacturers could learn from it as well. Lily is hardly wildly pro-hunting, much less pro-NRA, but she explains why.
Part of the human experience is invariably contradictory. We always give far greater weight to what we personally see, hear, taste, and feel than what is warranted. While we might lament the loss of the dinosaurs or perhaps the wooly mammoth, it is more of a theoretical lament. Consider that Mickey Mouse, actually a sleazy, somewhat creepy character originally (Steamboat Willie) was heavily given the cute treatment. Walt Disney wanted Bambi to be true to life. So, Disney had a pair of fawns shipped in from Maine. He instructed his artists to watch carefully as an anatomist dissected the decaying carcass of a newborn deer. The drawing originally produced by the Disney animators were lifelike, but found to be not nearly cute enough to pull at the heart-strings of the public. As a result, the Disney artists were told to make Bambi cute, far cuter than life. It is, by now, the standard process of making the head bigger and adding abnormally large eyes. Bambi's muzzle was shortened, all adding up to a tragic distortion of Nature for commercial and entertainment purposes.
While saving animals from extinction sounds good, only the really cute animals easily get the funding-- like the Giant Panda. With a large head, small eyes and dark and wrinkly skin, the critically endangered Chinese giant salamander gets no such love. Lily Raff McCaulou isn't immune from irrationality, none of us are, an example from Lily would be the plight of the California Condor.
A notably vulgar bird, the California Condor became extinct because of its very poor ability to reproduce (one egg from a mated female every two years), and its propensity towards chewing on large road kill, before there were roads. The stupid condor has no sense of smell, so it tends to ignore bird and reptile carcasses. Habitat has made things tough for the condor, so bringing back the massive herds of Bison and elimination of humans would be its best hope. The condor does not have the ability to reproduce until the age of six, so it was Mother Nature who actually condemned this vulture to extinction, throwing in the dirty trick of climate changes associated with the end of the last glacial period and the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna.
Wind turbines and power lines have done the condor no favors, either. In the eternal nature's way of “survival of the fittest,” the nasty 'defecating on its own legs to get comfy' condor ranks as one of the least fit. As for hunting, the condor is a too cute and backhanded way of just attacking hunting. Lead has a very high level of molecular cohesiveness and modern jacketed lead bullets blow through big game like butter. For a condor to sicken itself on one of my bullets, it would have to learn how to use a shovel and start digging for lead a very long way from the kill site. I mention this not because Lily's concern is insincere, I don't believe it is. However, the human experience is still contradictory, for all of us, perhaps the reason Lily apparently expressed no written concern about the condition or positioning of the entrails of her Bull elk, or the bullet she personally selected to use.
Midway through the book, about page 198, Lily ponders if it is wrong to kill animals. I think I can help with that one: no, it isn't. Animals have always killed animals, nature kills animals, weather kills animals, and Bambi kills and injures humans. The most dangerous animal to man in North America is indeed deer. A pest is not a pest until we label it as such. Pesticides choose winners and losers, but a pest is no less of an animal because we call it a pest. We control pests because we want to feed ourselves, to grow food, and do not want the disease of vermin to sicken or kill our loved ones or ourselves. The Black Death was one of the most devastating events in human history, occurring from 1348-1350. It killed 45-50 percent of the population of Europe, with the cause (at the time) thought to be “bad air.” Apparently, it was the oriental rat flea that spread the bubonic plague, taking some 150 years for Europe to recover to its pre-plague population levels. Would you kill fleas and rats to save your family? Likewise, would you not hunt and raise animals to prevent starvation? Prior to her next book, I hope Lily ponders the necessity of fighting elective wars, and wonder where environmentalists were during Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan . . . and the ethics of the cruise missile. It is a matter of prioritizing things. If we truly wished to save songbirds and doves today, as a society, the most effective method would be to simply ban all cat ownership.
I'm proud to be a hunter. The true hunter is closer to nature than any other, the true hunter puts in far more than he or she takes. The true hunter cares more about healthy game populations than any other group and pays to preserve them for future generations. Without Theodore Roosevelt and John Olin, our heritage would now largely be lost. Wildlife is a renewable resource, after all. What Lily got perfectly right is the seriousness with which a hunter pursues his game, and the gratitude that flows from the experience. Gratitude for the opportunity, gratitude for the experience, gratitude and respect towards the game itself. Respect that takes the form of hunting only what we are sure will be utilized and taking game as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Hunting has always left a very light environmental footprint, less every few years . . . for there are markedly less hunters every few years. As far as not hunting, to not hunt is largely to sleepwalk through life, something like looking at the party through the window. Hunting is not at all about death. Quite the contrary, it is a celebration of life and nature. It enriches the soul.
Admittedly this is more commentary than book review; but I'd like to finish up on the note with which this was started. Lily Raff McCaulou writes with integrity, honesty, and passion. I breezed through her 303 page memoir in one evening and thoroughly enjoyed it. I believe most folks will, not because it feeds you just more of what you might already think or have been told to believe. There is no growing or learning, no stimulation of mind or spirit by reading the same old mindless mantras.
Lily's journey is a worthy one; it is a story that will make you think, question, ponder, and inspire you to learn more. It asks the reader to think and reason: in so doing you'll be more understanding of divergent points of view and perhaps take the time to ask yourself why it is you think about animals and hunting in the way that you do. The world has always been analog, not digital, with few absolutes. Lily Raff McCaulou has given of herself most generously in Call of the Mild, her first book, and I'm grateful for her efforts. And, I'm looking forward to her next book as well.
You can get your own copy of Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt my Own Dinner most anywhere, including Amazon, etc., both hardcover (as I did) or in electronic form.
Copyright 2012 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.