Pollan’s hunt

Having established the rightness of meat-eating, Michael Pollan is free to go hunting. He chooses to hunt for a wild pig, which he feels more comfortable killing because it is “regarded as a pest in many parts of California” (338). While I can appreciate his decision to leave alone the “wild native species that…is threatened by loss of habitat or overhunting” (338), I can’t help but think that in going after the pig, Pollan is adhering to what Jo-Ann Shelton called “an age-old paradigm that assigns value to animals in accordance with human interests.”

Guiding Pollan in this hunt is a by the name of Angelo, whom Pollan has met through Bay Area foodie circles. For Angelo, hunting pig is motivated by procuring the best food. He tells Pollan that he hunts wild pig because ‘it is the most delicious meat’ (339), and Pollan goes so far as to say that Angelo is hunting “not so much pigs as prosciutti” (339).

Also prominent in the hunting trips is the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset. Pollan introduces Ortega y Gasset as an author of the kind of “hunter porn” that he says “never failed to roll my eyes” because of its “straight-faced reveling in primitivism, the barely concealed bloodlust, the whole macho conceit that the most authentic encounter with nature is the one that comes through the sight of a gun and ends with a large mammal dead on the ground — a killing that we are given to believe constitutes a gesture of respect” (336). (It is surprising that Pollan should object to the idea that killing an animal might be a gesture of respect just three pages after he tells us that we should eat animals with respect.)

Pollan enjoys the experience of hunting for the heightened attention and “sharpness of focus and depth of field” (341), known to Angelo as “Hunter’s eye” it brings him. He even suggests an explanation for this experience:

Later it occurred to me that this mental state, which I quite liked, in many ways resembled the one induced by smoking marijuana: the way one’s senses feel especially acute and the mind seems to forget everything outside the scope of its present focus, including physical discomfort and the passing of time. One of the more interesting areas of research in the neurosciences today is the study of the brain’s “cannabinoid network,” a set of receptors in the nervous system that are activated by a group of unusual compounds called cannabinoids…Scientists still aren’t certain what the evolutionary utility of such a system might be. Some researchers hypothesize that the cannabinoids, like the opiates, play a role in the brain’s pain relief and reward system; others that they help regulate appetite or emotion.

The experience of hunting suggests another theory. Could it be that the cannabinoid network is precisely the sort of adaptation that natural selection would favor in the evolution of a creature who survives by hunting? (342)

He finds hunting so enjoyable, that he decides that Ortega y Gasset — whom a few pages earlier he dismissed for asserting that “the greatest and most moral homage we can pay to certain animals on certain occasions is to kill them” (337) — perhaps “wasn’t so crazy after all, not even when he asserted that hunting offers us our last best chance to escape history and return to the state of nature, if only for a time — for what he called a ‘vacation from the human condition'” (343). (As for the “cannabinoid network”, the term seems to be exclusively a colloquial one. Google Scholar and PubMed searches return no research on the subject, but plenty of cannabis advocacy sites will be happy to fill you in on the topic.)

When Pollan finally encounters wild pigs, he finds himself without a bullet in the chamber of his gun. He leaves the shot to Richard, a member of his hunting party. Pollan describes Richard’s shot:

The pigs had their heads down, eating acorns, utterly oblivious to our presence. Then the woods exploded. I saw a pig stagger and fall back against the embankment, then struggle drunkenly to its feet. I pumped my rifle but it was already too late: The other pigs were gone. Richard fired again at the wounded pig and it crumpled. (346)

The fact that it took a second shot to kill the pig creates problems for Pollan’s ethical considerations. Pollan has declared that he can in good conscience eat “a wild animal that had been cleanly shot” (328), but the evidence suggests that a clean shot is not so easy to make. Even Richard, a more experienced hunter than Pollan, is not able to give the pig the swift death that might be considered acceptable.

Pollan doesn’t manage to kill a pig that day, but a member of the hunting party offers him some of the day’s kill. Even though he already has his meat, Pollan decides that he needs to go hunting again. Aside from feeling a need to at least shoot his gun, Pollan sees another reason to go again:

And then of course there was Señor Ortega y Gasset, who, as you might expect, was not about to accept me into the fellowship of hunters until I’d actually killed an animal. Mere spectatorship, or “platonic” analogues of hunting such as photography or bird watching, doesn’t cut it for him. (349)

Ortega y Gasset, it would seem, has progressed from eye-roll-worthy to maybe not crazy to somebody whose respect Pollan needs to earn.

Pollan does manage to kill a pig the next time, and the experience induces an emotional rush:

My emotions were as surging and confused as the knot of panicked pigs had been on this spot just a moment before. The first to surface was this powerful upwelling of pride: I had actually done this thing I’d set out to do, had successfully shot a pig. I felt a flood of relief, too, that the deed was done, thank God, and didn’t need to be done again. And then there was this wholly unexpected feeling of gratitude…More than the product of any labor of mine (save receptiveness) the animal was a gift — from whom or what I couldn’t say — but gratitude seemed in order, and gratitude is what I felt. (353)

This idea that the pig was a gift has mixed implications. On the one hand, Pollan clearly acknowledges that the pig isn’t something he earned, and he feels gratitude for it. At the same time, he suggests that it was somebody’s to give to him and thus legitimizes his taking it. In this way, he manages to express gratitude for the pig without acknowledging what it has lost.

There is something missing from Pollan’s surge of emotion. He writes,

The one emotion I expected to feel but did not, inexplicably, was remorse, or even ambivalence. All that would come later, but now, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit, I felt absolutely terrific — unambiguously happy. (353)

By my count, that’s actually two emotions that Pollan did not experience, but in any case this marks another step in Pollan’s evolution on hunting. Indeed, by now, he sees himself “playing the hero’s part” in “this most improbable drama” (354).



  1. […] goes hunting, shoots his sow, and even enjoys the experience. Yet when he finds himself disgusted by the sights […]

  2. trutta said

    Wow…did you ever miss an awful lot in your reading, and review, of Pollan’s honest and insightful piece on the complexities of being human -an animal whose neocortex has allowed it to live in a bubble, separate and now confused. Your bias… your apparent need to solidify life as some easily definable boxed set of rules…has blinded you. Stay in your bubble. It’s safe in there.

    A tidbit you left out from Pollan’s piece:

    The fact that you cannot come out of hunting feeling unambiguously good about it is perhaps what should commend the practice to us. You certainly don’t come out of it eager to protest your innocence. If I’ve learned anything about hunting and eating meat, it’s that it’s even messier than the moralist thinks. Having killed a pig and looked at myself in that picture and now looking forward (if that’s the word) to eating that pig, I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu eater. Yet part of me pities him too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris. Ortega suggests that there is an immorality in failing to look clearly at reality, or in believing the force of human will can somehow overcome it. “The preoccupation with what should be is estimable only when the respect for what is has been exhausted.”

    “What is.” I suppose that this as much as anything else, as much as a pig or a meal, is what I was really hunting for, and what I returned from my hunt with a slightly clearer sense of. “What is” is not an answer to anything, exactly; it doesn’t tell you what to do or even what to think. Yet respect for what is does point us in a direction. That direction just happens to be the direction from which we came — that place and time, I mean, where humans looked at the animals they killed, regarded them with reverence and never ate them except with gratitude.

    • Adam Merberg said

      It’s ironic that you should come along and say that I missed that quote, because I actually wrote about part of it in another post.

      Anyway, I agree that Pollan’s exposition has some merits. However, nothing in the quote you post or elsewhere in the book changes the meaning of the parts I’ve written about here, so I’m not really sure what your point is. I don’t claim to have said everything there is to say about the book, nor do I argue that the things I’ve taken issue with in this post make The Omnivore’s Dilemma a bad book. Given the high praise the book has received from critics, I do think it’s worth expressing a different opinion, so that’s what I’ve done.

      Since you seem to object to the fact that I haven’t said everything there is to say about the book, I have to ask, have you also taken other reviewers (for example David Kamp) to task for not pointing out any of the books numerous inaccuracies (i.e. “Polyface Farm is completely self- sufficient in nitrogen”)?

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