Pondering the State of Nature… in Nature

The weather was beautiful this afternoon, so I went on a long-ish walk. I headed north up the clearing in front of my camp, where, just beyond visible range of my cabin, I found dozens of deer tracks, coming and going from every which way. It almost seemed like they’d gathered for a little cocktail party, or perhaps a protest of some sort, as those seem to be in vogue these days.

There’s this steep ravine that cuts across my property, west to east, that splits my property roughly into two-thirds and one-thirds. My camp is on the one-third side, and since I rarely cross that ravine, I’m generally confined to a relatively smaller portion of my property, and there are acres and acres that I probably haven’t even seen yet.

Today, as I was walking down the ravine, I noticed a rock cropping up on the north-side (the less visited side), so I clambered up the steep slope to see what I could see. As I reached the top, a frightened flock of birds beat a hasty retreat. When I said “beat”, I meant that quite literally, as the flapping of their wings reverberated through the crisp air like a dozen drums.

I didn’t get a good look at the birds, but the awkwardly loud and hectic flapping suggested that these birds were pretty big, and also not entirely accustomed to this “flying” thing they were attempting. Though I know little about fowl, I somehow imagined that these birds might make for good eating. If they’re sticking around this time of year, they must have a nice layer of fat to keep them warm, or so I imagined, and I could almost taste sizzling fat and juicy bird flesh on my palate (though, on second thought, I realized I was remembering the Peking Duck I had in Beijing last summer…).

As I had my shotgun with me, it occurred to me that I could try to hunt these birds. Though, I quickly realized that it would probably be illegal to do so, this being California where hunting seems quite heavily regulated. Besides which, I didn’t know what kind of bird I’d be shooting at, so there was no way to know what kind of regulations even applied. So, it seemed safe to assume that it’d be illegal.

Standing there among the snow and trees, I contemplated the incongruity of these two realities I faced. On the one hand, there I was in the middle of nowhere. I had a shotgun, conveniently loaded with birdshot. Beyond those bushes were birds that sounded tasty. I was hungry. Shooting those birds seemed like the most rational thing I could do. Yet, I had to contend with the other reality, which lay beyond my property borders. Those birds, though presently on my land, are legally property of the people of California, and therefore regulated (most likely) by the California Department of Fish and Game.

So, I turned around, and trudged off feeling somewhat defeated; a man living in the woods, who can’t hunt. I might as well have been a wolf without fangs, or a mountain lion without claws. While this seemed absurd, it occurred to me that we muzzle dogs and declaw cats. We’ve domesticated ourselves as much as we’ve domesticated wolves into dogs and lions into cats. To be a modern human, as it turns out, is to be something not quite human. It’s almost as if we’re not good enough to be, well, us.

Modern humans, it seems to me, are an oddly self-defying and self-denying species. We find ways to feel guilty about everything, and this seems particularly true of Americans. We’re guilty about food, and we’re guilty about sex — two things a species can’t do without. We even find ways to feel guilty about drinking water. And while some may point at our country’s Puritan roots, this belief that we somehow can’t be trusted can be traced to early political philosophers who influenced the rise of modern governments, including our own. The 17th century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, argued that the State of Nature for man was one of perpetual conflict, and famously described life in such a state as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” He then argued that a better life could only be possible in a civil society, one in which we must cede our rights for the sake of peace.

If I recall Hobbes correctly from my college readings, he argues that, by nature, we are in a state of constant war because each individual acts to serve their own interests only. In other words, in the State of Nature, I would shoot that bird because I want to eat it. Conflicts arise if others also want that bird, and when two guys with shotguns fight over a bird, well, at least one of their lives could indeed end up nasty, brutish, and short. And even if nobody was there to fight me over that specific bird, humans have hunted animals into extinction, including on this very continent. We all know about the White Man killing off the plains buffalo, but less well known is the strong possibility that Native Americans (or their ancestors) drove other large tasty fuzzy animals (like the wooly mammoth) into extinction many thousands of years before those Puritans showed up in their funny hats and giant belt buckles. I don’t know about others, but I wish we still had mammoths. And if the California Department of Fish and Game (and Large Fuzzy Animals) had been around 15,000 years ago, it may very well be that we’d actually still have mammoths, and saber tooth tigers and North American lions, and other such wonderful beasts. So, perhaps Hobbes does have a point after all.

There are people in our country today who want a smaller government, fewer regulations, and less intrusion. As I stood there today with my shotgun in hand, I wished I could simply shoot whatever I wanted, when I wanted. But, if we are to deserve such a society, that is, a society that is slightly closer to the State of Nature, then we must prove Hobbes wrong. If we are to cede fewer rights and still get along with each other and our environment, we must each act responsibly and intelligently. If we don’t want the Department of No You Can’t to regulate us, we must regulate ourselves, and act not only out of our own self interest, but also in the interest of our fellow man and our future generations.

The question is, can we?

17 thoughts on “Pondering the State of Nature… in Nature

  1. I was actually contemplating these things recently myself. I live in Montana, and we’ve always taken pride in standing up to the federal government in an attempt to protect the individual rights of our citizens. Lately it seems all we are doing is protecting the right to drive under the influence, or promote the rights of individuals to the point where we appear mentally in league with the Neanderthals. We are rebelling just to rebel. This kind of irrational thinking makes it difficult for me to trust that “less” interference and restrictions are the best answer. I may not be ready to blindly and willingly follow Big Brother into the future…however, I am equally not okay with trusting the sole judgment of others. People are often their own worst enemy.

  2. I’m going to guess you spooked turkey. Could have been something else, but ol’ Occam says “turkey” Season opens 3/26, need CA hunting license and upland game bird stamp.

    Stop sleeping in and listen carefully at dawn, just before there’s enough light to see. If you hear gobbling, that settles it. 🙂

    • Might’ve been turkey, though they seemed a little small for turkey, even for wild ones (which I know are smaller than the supermarket variety). My guess was more along the lines of pheasant, but I’m not sure… I think I caught a glimpse of reddish-brown color.

      • We’ve got loads of wild turkey on our property — they usually hang out in small groups of 2 to 6. Though they can fly, I don’t think I have *ever* seen them take flight. They typically just run away gobbling.

        We also have a lot of quail, and they take flight as a group with quite thunderous flapping of wings. Sounds like what you spooked might be bigger than quail, though.

  3. Great post, sir. I’ve recently discovered your Project 31 blog and am vicariously sharing your “in the wild” experience from the comfort of “civil society.” The best thing about being away from civilization, even temporarily, is that it gives perspective. It also provides a respite from the constant electronic and traffic buzz and an opportunity to think.

  4. Here in WV, if you are a resident landowner, you do not need a license to hunt on your own property. Is it the same in CA? Also, I find that the laws get fuzzier the hungrier you get.

    • My understanding is that, in California, legally, there’s no distinction between hunting on your own land vs public land. The difference, of course, is that there are no game warden or rangers on my property to catch me hunting. So, in reality, I could hunt on my property and get away with it, as long as I don’t, you know, blab about it on my blog 😉

  5. If they were turkeys you would have heard them cackle and squabble. From the thunderous wing sounds you described they sound like geese. Twenty five years ago geese were an anomaly, today they have become so over populated they are like rats with wings. In the southeast US they are best known for destroying crops and spreading disease and crapping all over the place.

    Sad thing is one would have made a nice (gamey) meal, however taking one would not have been a state offense as much as a federal offense. Had you killed one and transported it away in your car, you would have lost your right to hunt, and have your gun and car confiscated in addition to a large fine combined with a federal record.

  6. The ability of society to self control and self sustain worked great for millennial…Think of small bands of hunter gatherers. When population rose the trouble began….as it is today 90% of the worlds troubles are due to overcrowding…overcrowding, hunger, political unrest, environmental degradation…this list can go on and on.

  7. Good discussion guys, I think we’re hitting on the differences between Negative Liberty(I can do whatever I want whenever I want) versus Positive Liberty(We live with other people in a society and need to make sure there is equality in what people can do and can have access to). So we see the Ron Pauls and Teabaggers are all about Negative Liberty and then we have Fish And Game which takes a Positive Liberty viewpoint and says we need to regulate this hunting so everybody who wants to can have a chance to hunt. They are securing a freedom–fun stuff!

  8. wow, moontree, thats the answer. If “we” only had less people “we all” would get along! thats like having an abortion because I love this baby so much I could never want him to live with anyone else.

  9. Could have been pheasant, though the tend to stick more to fields and ditches. Could also have been grouse or chukar, some of them get a bit larger and closer to the coloration you describe.

    I hope you see them again and can get a picture! 🙂

  10. Yes, indeed, we can regulate ourselves. We did so for thousands of years – for the majority of human history, before the advent of civilization (humans living in cities, and cities by definition require the importation of resources to sustain themselves, an inherently unsustainable practice). You should look into Derrick Jensen’s work (he’s an author/activist/radical environmentalist). Modern humans would need a lot of re-humanizing to be able to self-regulate, given the domestication you mention, as well as a significant degree of dehumanization, but if we can find a way to reject this crazy culture, perhaps one day we will indeed be human again… The State is oppressive, so the sooner we shed it, the better.

  11. My guess is it was Grouse – aka “Thunder Chickens” – you spooked.

    Aldo Leupold wrote:

    “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”

    Our “domestication” (good description) has disconnected us from nature. Few give any thought to basic survival needs. We buy our subsistence with labors disconnected with the earth.

    In my experience, those that raise their own food or hunt (not recreationalyl) have a much better connection to and appreciation for it. When dining on an Elk roast or enjoying Dungeness Crab or a fresh salad with tomatoes that I harvested the meal experience is greatly enriched. I recall the efforts of the hunts or the care I gave the garden. The flavor is infused with memories and experiences, not something I get when eating packaged food from the grocer.

    As for regulation I believe it is a necessary evil though self regulation should still be exercised. This year I had licenses for Grouse and because I saw so few of them – our wet cool Sping resulted in high brood mortality – I chose NOT to harvest them though I could legally take four per day.

    I saw Ray Meers said during one of his talks that he wasn’t so sure this farming experiment was going to be sustainable. We are part of the web of life not separate from it and we had less impact as hunter/gatherers.

    Good discussion.

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