Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Ethics of Hunting

According to the myth, Actaeon the hunter was turned into a stag and torn to pieces by his own dogs.   Many versions add that this was because Actaeon offended Artemis.  He viewed her as she bathed, or he attempted to violate her.  His punishment was to be transformed from hunter to hunted.  His own dogs did not recognize him as they devoured him, (though Apollodorus adds that they later grieved as they searched for their master.)

Just as there are many versions of the myth, so there are many interpretations, and many things that Actaeon and Artemis might symbolize.  The divinity of Artemis suggests to some that hunters seek something much loftier than meat for their table.  Her femininity and virginity suggest to others that hunting represents sexual violence in another guise.

Both of these may be correct, but let me offer a third possibility: perhaps this is a story about virtue.  Actaeon acts without virtue, and he then becomes the victim of his own plans.  He makes the mistake of thinking that a hunter is the rightful possessor of all he sees, and so he fails to act with humility and gratitude.  As a result, he loses everything, including those relationships that were most dear to him.

The myth of Actaeon is a vivid picture of what good hunters know: the hunter is not lord of the forest nor master of nature.  Most of us live our lives as far from predation as we can arrange.  A certain type of hunter attempts to erase some of that distance.  The best hunters may be those who, in doing so, discover their true place in nature and emerge from the forest and field remembering their place with humility and gratitude.  Actaeon forgets who he is when he attempts to take Artemis as his own, and his forgetfulness is absolute.  

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

People Of The Waters That Are Never Still

Generations ago, one of my European grandfathers and one of my Native American grandmothers married, fusing in their offspring two peoples who had parted ways ages before, one heading west to the British Isles, the other to the Bering Strait and across to North America.  I grew up in New York, near where they met and married, and my childhood is marked by memories of that land: tall oaks and white pines, deep forests, rocky crags over which the water pours, never still, always the same, always changing.  The waterfalls of the Catskill Mountains are a constant presence in those mountains and in my memories.  They are the waters of my mothers and fathers, and of my youth.

(Photo: Kaaterskill Creek in New York State)

My family has since lost the languages those ancestors spoke, and this fusion of tribes has adopted the linguistic fusion of English.  I have no intention of claiming a legal place among either of the nations from which I am descended, nor even to name them here. But I find that the memory of both, and of the lands they lived on, is rooted deeply in my consciousness of who I am.  Last year, while visiting the British Museum, I saw a display of various Native American peoples, including my own.  It was the only time a museum has moved me to tears.  The words and ways of my forebears may be mostly gone, but they are not forgotten.  My father taught me to remember them and what they knew of the land we lived on, and often, while teaching me to know the woods, he would remind me that those woods were old family acquaintances.

Jacob Wawatie and Stephanie Pyne, in their article "Tracking in Pursuit of Knowledge," cite Russell Barsh as saying that "what is 'traditional' about traditional knowledge is not its antiquity but the way in which it is acquired and used." Our word "tradition" comes from Latin roots that mean something like "giving over" or "handing down."  Traditional knowledge is knowledge that is a gift from one generation to the next, a gift we give because we ourselves were given it. I am grateful to my father, in ways that I may never have told him - in ways that perhaps words cannot begin to tell - for the traditions he learned and loved and passed on to me.  I'm grateful that he has not let me forget.

There is, of course danger in emphasizing one's heritage and one's roots, especially if we make that the source of a distinction between ourselves and others, or a way of diminishing the lives and traditions of others.  Just as much as it matters to me that I am from the people of the waters of the Catskills, it matters to me that my ancestors shared those waters with one another, people from two continents recognizing, each in the other, the waters from which both arose.

For all that I have received, for the traditions like waters pouring over the cliffs, gifts like the Kaaterskill Creek, let me give thanks.  Let me give thanks with my life, offering to those who come after me, a taste of the sweetness of those same waters.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Taxing Mileage

Several recent news articles have mentioned the possibility of taxing miles driven rather than (or in addition to) taxing gasoline.

On the one hand, this is a fair way of making sure that drivers of electric vehicles share the cost of maintaining roads.

But if it is to be enacted fairly, any such law will have to:
  • avoid placing an unfair burden on rural drivers, who generally must drive further to work and school, and earn less than their urban counterparts; and
  • ensure Americans that the GPS devices that would track mileage are not also used inappropriately by government to track the locations and movements of citizens.
 Maybe any such legislation could be made more fair by correlating the tax rate to zip codes and to vehicle weight.  The latter probably has the greatest impact on road wear, after all, and correlation to zip codes could help keep us from placing yet another burden on farmers, ranchers, and other rural workers.

Pay-to-Play and Democracy

A South Dakota legislator has proposed that SD schools can save some money by introducing "pay-to-play" fees for students wishing to participate in sports, debate, and other school activities.  From a fiscal standpoint this may seem like a good idea, but it is not.  Pay-to-play ensures that only students who can afford the fees (which can be substantial) can participate.  Either these activities are an important part of public education for all students, or they are not and should not be a part of public education.  As I see it, sports and debate and similar extracurriculars can be excellent ways of teaching self-discipline, teamwork, diligence, respect for others, love of learning, and other things that we should want all students to learn.  For just that reason, we should resist limiting access to these activities to just those who - like my family - are wealthy enough to afford them.