long . lines and ripples

Thoreau on Hunting Sports

Henry David Thoreau, in Walden, on why hunting sports should be part of a young person's education:

Yet notwithstanding the objection on the score of humanity, I am compelled to doubt if equally valuable sports are ever substituted for these; and 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,-make them hunters, though sportsmen only at first, if possible, mighty hunters at last, so that they shall not find game large enough for them in this or any vegetable wilderness,-hunters as well as fishers of men.

Princeton Edition of Walden (2004), 212

"Hunters as well as fishers of men." Even a passing familiarity with the Bible should be enough to set off an alert. The first time this lines appears in the Bible (King James version) is Matthew 4:19, when Jesus recruits his first two disciples.1

And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then He said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men." They immediately left their nets and followed Him.

Matthew 4:18-4:20 (King James Bible)

In the biblical story, we are not told why the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew stopped fishing to follow Jesus. They must have found him charismatic, and what he said compelling enough. Jesus does not tell them that they must abandon their trade. Instead the "make you fishers of men" line promises a transformation and elevation of it. By speaking on Jesus' behalf, the disciples will "catch" new people and bring them to his message.

Thoreau's individualism makes for an uneasy evangelist, but he does expect people to leave the fishing rod and gun behind when they reach maturity. It would be better said that he expects people to convert themselves by a deeper grasp of their own actions:

We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected. This was my answer with respect to those youths who were bent on this pursuit, 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.

Princeton Edition of Walden (2004), 212

Hunting makes a person more familiar with all animal life. In taking life, the hunter comes to see that it is not so different from one's own. For Thoreau, a plausible route to the humane appreciation of all non-human life begins with killing animals.

Such is oftenest the young man's introduction to the forest, and the most original part of himself. He goes thither at first as a hunter and fisher, until at last, if he has the seeds of a better life in him, he distinguishes his proper objects, as a poet or naturalist it may be, and leaves the gun and fish-pole behind.

Princeton Edition of Walden (2004), 212, 213

Participation in the activity is necessary to mature beyond it. The hunter has a crude and obvious relationship with nature: he or she needs a gun or a fishing pole to attack it, and to bring a piece of it back into his own world. But what is the tool of the naturalist? What does she bring back? The richness of the activity comes through distinguishing her "proper objects," as Thoreau does for himself in the table of contents to Walden:

Image description

The hunt is invaluable as an opportunity to study, providing the raw materials of experience necessary to understand animal life on informed terms:

Perhaps I have owed to this employment and to hunting, when quite young, my closest acquaintance with Nature. They early introduce us to and detain us in scenery with which otherwise, at that age, we should have little acquaintance. Fishermen, hunters, woodchoppers, and others, spending their lives in the fields and woods, in a peculiar sense a part of Nature themselves, are often in a more favorable mood for observing her, in the intervals of their pursuits, than philosophers or poets even, who approach her with expectation.

Princeton Edition of Walden (2004), 210

If Thoreau knew another way other than hunting, he might suggest it. But that was his own upbringing. Notice that the poet and philosopher appear again, this time in an unfavorable comparison. If they attempt to make something with nature, leading with interpretative zeal ("expectation") rather than observation, they are still less informed than the lowest hunter or lumberjack. Thoreau had to spend two years at Walden Pond before he wrote the book. Perhaps some of the details read as so tedious and superfluous exactly because fewer contemporary readers are in a position to observe with the intensity of a Thoreau.

Whereas Jesus makes an offer of conversion-"Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men"-Thoreau suggests a chance at individual evolution, a practical education that could lead to something more. The hunt must be both preserved and abandoned. It must suffer a loss of esteem for every person. The transformation has no value if it is not discovered. Thoreau explains this process of "education" through a primitivist anthropology and theory of civilization, writing:

There is a period in the history of the individual, as of the race, when the hunters are the "best men," as the Algonquins called them.

Princeton Edition of Walden (2004), 212

While Thoreau is hardly boosting his own culture in Walden-he lives in a hut away from society in part because he feels estranged from it-he nonetheless makes his argument through a ranking that treats his own culture favorably. The Alogonquin Indian hunter is his example of the cultural starting point, someone who does not just practice hunting, but achieves social status by excelling at the hunt. And at the top of the hierarchy is…Thoreau? But his primitivist anthropology only goes half-way. If traditional hunting cultures are consigned to a lower value on this question, membership in European civilization does not guarantee ascent or improvement.

Even in Thoreau's time, hunting and fishing were not an activity his peers needed to participate in.2 They had become something between a utility and recreation: justified by the average person because they might yield a useful product ("Commonly they did not think that they were lucky, or well paid for their time, unless they got a long string of fish"), but pursued in the halfhearted manner of leisure, in what were considered the socially appropriate places, times, and phases of life for recreation. In consequence, the hunter neither succeeds in catching reliably (because he is a halfhearted amateur, because game is scarce, etc.) nor in achieving the restoration that he or she actually came for. Success is tied to an outcome, to a goal which-if the hunter better considered it-would be abandoned. "The mass of men are still and always young in this respect," Thoreau concludes. The hunt continues, not as a means of education, but as a permanent display of immaturity:

I have been surprised to consider that the only obvious employment, except wood-chopping, ice-cutting, or the like business, which ever to my knowledge detained at Walden Pond for a whole half day any of my fellow-citizens, whether fathers or children of the town, with just one exception, was fishing. Commonly they did not think that they were lucky, or well paid for their time, unless they got a long string of fish, though they had the opportunity of seeing the pond all the while. They might go there a thousand times before the sediment of fishing would sink to the bottom and leave their purpose pure; but no doubt such a clarifying process would be going on all the while. The governor and his council faintly remember the pond, for they went a-fishing there when they were boys; but now they are too old and dignified to go a-fishing, and so they know it no more forever. Yet even they expect to go to heaven at last. If the legislature regards it, it is chiefly to regulate the number of hooks to be used there; but they know nothing about the hook of hooks with which to angle for the pond itself, impaling the legislature for a bait. Thus, even in civilized communities, the embryo man passes through the hunter stage of development.

Princeton Edition of Walden (2004), 213

Almost as bad as the forever hunters, in Thoreau's view, are those who, once they left off hunting, had no more use for the pond or the woods. They have stopped paying attention entirely. "Civilized" community, such as his own, offers a way out of dependence on the taking of animal life, but it is just as (perhaps more) likely to separate people from the animal entirely. For Thoreau, loss of contact is the companion danger to the crude taking of animal life.

And what of Thoreau? Where does he fit in this chain? While at Walden Pond he is no danger of losing contact with the animal world. On the contrary, naturalistic observation makes up the main subject of the book. He admits that he still fishes from time to time, and while he claims he did so "for the same kind of necessity that the first fishers did," he does not appear to fully accept his own argument.

I have found repeatedly, of late years, that I cannot fish without falling a little in self-respect. I have tried it again and again. I have skill at it, and, like many of my fellows, a certain instinct for it, which revives from time to time, but always when I have done I feel that it would have been better if I had not fished. I think that I do not mistake. It is a faint intimation, yet so are the first streaks of morning. There is unquestionably this instinct in me which belongs to the lower orders of creation; yet with every year I am less a fisherman, though without more humanity or even wisdom; at present I am no fisherman at all. But I see that if I were to live in a wilderness I should again be tempted to become a fisher and hunter in earnest.

Princeton Edition of Walden (2004), 214

Thoreau the naturalist is still in search of his "proper object," gaining intimations of it and then letting it slip out of view. When the biblical Jesus found his first disciples and promised to make them "fishers of men," he presented them with himself. In effect he was promising to let them do to others what he did to them: to turn them toward his own person. He wanted to catch them all.

Thoreau does not exactly refuse to evangelize, otherwise he would not have written Walden. But the relationship between Thoreau and his audience is not privileged. He is a failure at achieving what he desires: in Christian terms, a sinner who keeps falling back into sin. But that failure leaves him no less obligated to advocate for it. He has no ready-made object to substitute for the gun or fishing rod. In this argument I suppose I find myself rediscovering a little of Thoreau's transcendentalism. The object will never be in stable view. It is always a breakthrough, a "certain instinct…which revives from time to time," a "faint instinct" like "the first streaks of morning." He has moved away from the rewards of a hunter or fisher without identifying the rewards that will substitute. The polemic about why one should not hunt has become an explanation of why one does. Everyone is a hunter.

  1. The account of the first disciplines appears twice in consecutive chapters of the Bible, first in Matthew 4 and then in Mark 1.[]
  2. While he is at Walden Pond, Thoreau's primary source of food is a field of bean crops that he cultivates near to his cabin.[]


Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Princeton University Press, 2004 [1854].