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?