Hunting. Encyclopedia Of American Folklore

The seeking and taking of game animals in a variety of ways. Over time, hunters have
evolved stylized modes of pursuit and capture, to which they may attach social and moral
significance. Until recently, most anthropological studies of hunting focused on
subsistence societies exotic to the investigator, while materials collected by folklorists
largely comprised accidental texts—hunting songs, tall tales about hunting, and related
lore about animals—gathered in the course of building collections of tales, songs,
superstitions, and folk speech. Hunting is, indeed, abundantly indexed in symbolic
discourse, flashing through everyday speech in sayings like “hot on the trail” or “that dog
won’t hunt” (said of a bad idea). Songs like “Rabbit in a Log,” and “Groundhog,” which
allude to traditional techniques of harvesting and preparing game, are standard fare in
bluegrass and old-time music repertoires. In more elaborate figures, hunting has inspired
children’s games (“hare and hounds”), square-dance maneuvers (“chase the rabbit”),
virtuoso imitations of fox chases on fiddle, bagpipes, harmonica, and banjo, and that
paramount practical joke, the snipe hunt.
However serious attention to hunting as a form of symbolic interaction in modern
society, exemplifying what Victor Turner called the “liminoid phenomena” of complex
industrial societies, has been sparse. Only in the 1990s have scholars begun to explore
how, through hunting as ritual performance, American hunters come to terms with social
and natural hierarchies, and their own positions within them (Hufford 1992; Marks 1992).
In the United States, the Civil War roughly divides historically distinctive phases in
hunting. Before the Civil War, hunting was part of rural life, providing a pleasurable
break from routine as well as putting food on the table. After the Civil War, an
industrializing, urbanizing nation—grappling with the detachment of civilization from
nature and the separation of livelihoods from the land—radically restructured access to
game. As the frontier ebbed toward closure, hunters’ associations lobbied for regulations
protecting wildlife from market gunners and wilderness from the whims of irresponsible
landowners (Ives 1988; Marks 1992). This had the effect of removing game from local
control and of pitting backwoodsmen and farmers, who deemed hunting necessary to
their ways of life, against urban, elite men of means, for whom hunting offered a form of
respite from the modernizing world. The battle lines having been drawn, game became a
different kind of cash crop—luring metropolitan dollars into the pockets of seasonal
guides and other providers and institutionalizing a running conflict between game
wardens and poachers. Stock narratives of poachers as heroes and wardens as buffoons
have flourished ever since within thriving traditions of local resistance (Hufford 1992;
Ives 1988).
Social relations continue to take shape around the political production and stylized
acquisition of wildlife, which varies not only regionally but across the social spectrum.
For instance, on the outskirts of Middleburg, Virginia, red foxes race over rolling hills,
pursued by packs of pedigreed hounds, followed in turn by red-coated women and men
leaping fences on half-bred “hunters.” In the mountains of Tennessee, “one gallus”
hunters pause in their conversations around ridgetop campfires to decipher the voices of
unseen hounds, “singing” on the trails of gray foxes. In West Virginia in the spring, a
solitary man dressed in camouflage, his back against a tree, coaxes hen-like calls from a
small wooden box to entice a wary gobbler. In December, fathers, sons, uncles, nephews,
grandsons, and neighbors, encamped for a week in southern New Jersey gun clubs,
organize “deer drives” to flush bucks out of patches of woodland. Each winter, in
marshlands along the routes of migratory waterfowl, some gunners conceal themselves
with retrievers in duck blinds and eye the skies over their decoy spreads for signs of
descending ducks. Others (traditionally a clientele of high social status) are propelled in
railbird skiffs by local guides looking not only for railbirds but also for opportunities to
perform rites of reversal on their wealthy patrons. “You couldn’t hit the side of a barn,
Admiral!” said Albert Reeves, a “mudwalloper” from south Jersey, recalling with relish
an incident from his guiding career (Parsons 1987).
Such acts of engaging with game are portals on myriad domains built around the
central idea of sportsmanship, an idea combining principles of conservation with a
gentleman’s code of honor. Hunting as the stylized enactment of sportsmanship is thus
distinguished from hunting as the mere taking of food for livelihood. Sportsmen, as
stewards of wilderness, are enjoined to take no more than their fair share and to retrieve
and use any animals they cripple or kill. In a curious twist, the sportsman on the postfrontier hunts not because he needs to, but because his hunting is needed in order to
protect what remains of wildlife and wilderness. From the sportsman’s perspective,
hunters’ license fees support the land, and their vigilance and discipline keep the stock
culled and the species healthy.
While principles of sportsmanship guide the construction of hunting domains,
possibilities for enacting sportsmanship and debates about what constitutes it in practice
are endless. The ideal of sportsmanship is debated and played out in class ways. Cast as a
gentleman’s code of honor in an aristocratic setting, the ideal is recast among working
men to embody egalitarian principles of honesty, loyalty, fair play, and fellowship.
Domains of hunting are as varied as the communities of sportsmen taking shape
around their chosen species. Each domain orders its denizens, categorizing animal
players as quarry, allies, and “trash”—players that interfere with the hunt by distracting
hounds or competing with hunters for quarry. For coon hunters, “trashing” describes the
behavior of a hound diverted by rabbits, possum, or deer. English-style fox hunters call
this behavior “rioting,” intolerable in the pedigreed hounds of their subscription packs.
Hilltoppers, working-class fox hunters who breed their own hounds, contend that
pedigree is no guarantee of superior performance, that a “potlicker” with the proper
disposition and training can “get out there and do the job” just as well. For working-class
hunters whose packs consist of individually owned hounds, the hunting pack can be a
study in egalitarian principles of fair competition, honoring the leader, and sharing the
leadership. Thus, hunters explore the underpinnings of social hierarchy, justifying or
challenging them through discourse about animals (Hufford 1992; Marks 1992).
What distinguishes hunting from other secular rituals in industrial societies is the use
of animals, ostensibly to enhance the hunters’ grasp of nature and the human position in
it. At the heart of hunting rests a paradoxical relationship between hunters and their
quarry. Jose Ortega y Gassett argues that the hunter and the hunted must be located at a
precise distance from each other on the zoological scale (Ortega y Gassett 1972:124).
Maintenance of that distance is crucial to tenets of sportsmanship, whereby hunters
relinquish their superiority to give the quarry a competitive edge. Thus, they limit their
capacity to kill animals by rules that make practices like hunting during breeding seasons,
shooting into a flock of feeding waterfowl, or “spotting” (using lights at night) or
“dogging” (pursuing with dogs) for deer illegal. Lowering their status in the animal
kingdom, hunters ingeniously seek to enter and inhabit the ordinarily uninhabitable.
Imagining themselves from the perspective of their quarry, hunters may contrive to blend
with the landscape through camouflage clothing, use of animal scent, decoys, deceptively
designed watercraft (such as the Barnegat Bay “sneakbox”), temporary “blinds,” sink
boxes, and tree stands that stud the landscape, as well as permanent cabins and camps.
Animal helpers, especially dogs, help define and sustain a precise distance on the
zoological scale. Through breeding and training, hunters shape hounds to meet regionally
distinctive conditions for hunting particular quarry. Walker hounds bred to tree racoons
and pursue foxes in mountainous terrain are deemed less well suited to conditions on the
Atlantic coastal plain than Maryland hounds (Hufford 1992). Hunters preferring the chase
over the kill favor hounds bred to follow the trail on the ground rather than on the wind.
Mountain Feist dogs are bred to follow the movements of squirrels by eye through
treetops. Blocky and compact English Labs are “wrestlers,” shaped to storm hedgerows
in search of downed pheasants. Bushy-tailed “decoy dogs” (Nova Scotia duck-tolling
[luring] retrievers) are designed to lure ducks for waterfowlers. This breed is modeled
after foxes seen cavorting about on banks, using their tails to lure their prey within
snatching range.
In conversations and in writing, hunters constitute their quarry and assign meaning to
the zoological distance they traverse through empathy, pitting their mental acuity and
physical stamina against the intelligence or guile of a most worthy adversary Hunting
domains are staged on the margins, in areas set aside for time-out activities. Not
surprisingly, the quarries centered within these marginal worlds often emerge in
narratives as paradoxical, anomalous creatures—protagonists of stock tales of tricksters
subverting the hunt: the turkey who steals the call box; the flock of ducks departing with
the decoys; the buck that melts into the swamp; or the fox that loses a pack of dogs by
running through a flock of sheep.
Hunting domains persist as enclaves of wholeness in a world fragmented by industrial
expansion. Such worlds are powerful resources for identity building, conferring
wholeness and authenticity on their inhabitants. Over time, hunters become historical
personages in their domains, evaluated as sportsmen and comrades. Their abilities,
personality quirks, and accomplishments may be registered in nicknames, place names,
names for hounds, CB handles, and narratives of hunting exploits and blunders.
While maintaining their own perspective, hunters paradoxically must aspire to the
quarry’s point of view, for, as Ortega y Gassett observes, “the pursuer cannot pursue if he
does not integrate his vision with that of the animal” (Ortega y Gassett 1972:124). The
ability to “think like a duck” (fox/ quail/racoon/bear/squirrel/railbird/or deer), necessary
for successful hunting, lends itself to the formation of human identity. As James
Fernandez argues, in order to gain identity, humans must first “become objects to
themselves, by taking the point of view of’the other,’ before they can become subjects to
themselves” (Fernandez 1983:35). Animals provide what he calls primordial metaphors.
In line with “taking the animal other,” hunters often sport images of their quarry on caps,
bumper stickers, mailboxes, stationary, and t-shirts. Regionally distinctive quarry thus
become resources for regional identity.
Though deemed avocational, hunting is cast as a true career through language. Hunters
speak of the “calling” that continually draws them into a world that takes a lifetime to
complete. In some traditions, hunting practices mark the transition from one stage of life
to another. A boy killing his first buck may be ritually sprinkled with the animal’s blood,
while hunters past their prime commonly eschew killing, having proven themselves in
youth and mid-life, as multipronged buck “racks” mounted over domestic hearths attest.
Mock shaming rituals keep the pressure on those not old enough for this dispensation. A
hunter smitten with “buck fever” may be conscripted into the “shirttail club,” whose
members are required to yield up a shirttail for failing to shoot at a deer widthin range or
for firing and missing.
The recurrent aspects of hunting provide continuity over long lives and offer elderly
hunters an organizing principle for their life stories. A famous example is Siegfried
Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man (1944), but examples abound in sportsmen’s
magazines (such as Hunter’s Horn, which Duncan Emrich once said deserves a spot on
every folklorist’s bookshelf), as well as in memoirs, written and tape-recorded for
posterity (Hufford 1992). In these stories, a normative pattern of maturation emerges, as
the autobiographer details the mastery of tradition and the concomitant molding of a
disciplined, other-centered sportsman from a self-centered youth eager for trophies of
The world of hunting is a potent conversational resource, engendering sociality among
hunters away from the field. Through narrative, hunters constitute a world in which they
appear as characters who exercise sportsmanship and fellowship (or whose exercise of
sportsmanship is vigorously debated by those present at the storytelling.) This fellowship
is generally a fellowship of men, shaped through conversational practices in which quarry
are not the only tricksters. Positioned at the margins of everyday life, the sociality of
hunting conjures a prankish milieu in which men trick each other. Just as the sociality of
men hunting includes a fair amount of teasing and practical joking, so does the sociality
of hunters narrating, telling stories termed “lies” because exaggeration is expected. Tall
tales, such as “The Wonderful Hunt” (Tale Type 1890), constitute a form of practical
joke designed to dupe the gullible hearer. As the hunter in the story may get the better of
a colleague, or as an animal pulls one over on a human, so the narrator hopes to bag his
listeners, who must in turn be “good sports” about being “taken in.” On the other hand,
pranksters and liars are expected to exercise restraint and not take undue advantage of the
unsuspecting. Thus, the necessary exercise of sportsmanship in dealing with animals
spills over from narrated worlds into human affairs.
Mary Hufford
Bauman, Richard. 1986. Story, Performance, and Event. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Emrich, Duncan. 1972. Hound Dog Names. In Folklore on the American Land. Boston: Litde,
Fernandez, James. 1983. Persuasions and Performances: The Play of Tropes in Culture.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Hufford, Mary. 1990. “One Reason God Made Trees”: The Form and Ecology of the Barnegat Bay
Sneakbox. In A Sense of Place: Essays on American Regional Cultures, ed. Barbara Allen and
Thomas J.Schlereth. Bowling Green: University of Kentucky Press.
——. 1992. Chaseworld: Foxhunting and Storytelling in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press.
Ives, Edward D. 1988. George Magoon and the Down East Game War. Urbana: University of
Illinois Press.
Marks, Stuart. 1992. Southern Hunting in Black and White: Nature, History, and Ritual in a
Carolina Community. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Ortega y Gassett, Jose. 1972. Meditations on Hunting. New York: Scribner’s.
Parsons, Gerald. 1987. Commercial Hunting of Freshwater Railbirds: An Ethnographic Perspective.
Paper delivered before the Maryland Ornithological Association, Upper Marlboro, MD.
Turner, Victor. 1977. Variations on a Theme of Liminality. In Secular Ritual, ed. Sally Falk Moore
and Barbara Myerhoff. Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, pp. 37–52.