by Hal Herring
I was sitting in the airport in Grand Junction, Colorado, reading _The Drake, and killing time. I’d dawdled with friends and missed my flight home to Montana. I flipped open the magazine, and read a few paragraphs in a story called “The Triumvirate” about the three Montana rivers that form the mighty Missouri.
“Downstream you can catch bigger trout below Holter Dam. You can troll for walleye and sauger in Fort Peck and snag a paddlefish around Slippery Ann, but this is where the whole serendipitous shooting match has its start. Three valleys, feeding together to form, moment by moment, something unique to the world.” Even for the Drake, that is some powerful verbiage. I flipped back to see who had written the story, and found that it was Allen Jones, a novelist, a friend of mine, sometimes editor, sometimes fishing and hunting buddy. I should have known as soon as I read the first sentence, because nobody writes like Allen.
Allen’s book, A Quiet Place of Violence: Hunting and Ethics in the Missouri River Breaks, has just been published in paperback and as an e-book this summer. I first read the book in hardback in 1996 or so, and it is still on my shelf next to Patterson’s Man-Eaters of the Tsavo, Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa, and Jim Posewitz’ Inherit the Hunt. It’s a classic, a thinking man’s journey into conservation, hunting, history, philosophy and honest blood-pumping pursuit, set in one of hunting’s last great landscapes–the untamed Breaks country north of Montana’s Fort Peck Reservoir. Allen has been hunting the Breaks for 30 years now, with forays to Africa (he’s a certified Professional Hunter there, or was), Alaska, and almost everywhere else.
A Quiet Place of Violence is written as a question: why, in an age of supermarkets and urban sprawl, are so many of us still, in every essence of heart and soul, hunters? It is a question as familiar as it is fundamental. But the answers here are far more profound than anything I’ve read elsewhere.
Allen takes the reader along with him through a single archery elk season in the Breaks, beginning with scouting in the heat and mosquito swarms of August, and ending in the ice and wind of deepest winter, which at this latitude and in this part of Montana, marks the end of contemplation, and the beginning of survival. Along the way, we are introduced to a new way of seeing the hunt, and our part in it. The question of why we hunt is carefully considered and then discarded. The conclusion: of course we hunt. We have hunted for millennia. Hunting made us, and it is the fact that so many human beings no longer hunt, or understand the world of nature and wild animals as a hunter does, that is–or should be–so deeply disturbing.
It is this disconnection from the natural wealth that sustains us that has made the conservation and natural resource protection of the past two decades so increasingly controversial and difficult. In short, it is no mystery why the most prominent American conservationists of the 19th and 20th centuries were hunters: hunting returns human beings to the essence of the earth. It transforms the abstracted visitor to the woods and rivers into an inhabitant, and inhabitants, unlike visitors, pillagers, or transients, do not lightly wreak havoc on the systems they know and depend upon for their existence. It is no mystery why, now, as fewer people hunt, and as metastasizing technology distances those of us who do from the most basic experiences of the hunt, we seem to no longer understand what it was, exactly, that men like Teddy Roosevelt or, in a more modern sense, like the late Jim Range (a lifelong conservation warrior who helped to write the Clean Water Act) fought so hard to accomplish, and why.
Allen’s view is that hunting is a given for human beings, and the farther we depart from a hunting life, the more abstracted (and distracted) we become.
This is a book of ethics, a journey far beyond the quid pro quo conservation ethic (i.e. I hunt, so I must take care of the land and waters that provide me with game) to a more fundamental place–what is truly right, in this profound relationship of hunter to hunted? Although no stranger to the rifle and the freezer doe, Allen is primarily a bow hunter and a dedicated trophy hunter–using the most basic tools to seek the most difficult quarry, trying (and not always succeeding, for the mind, as the Zen masters like to say, is a monkey) to become that inhabitant. It’s a fascinating journey for the reader, not the less so because the guide here is no kind of fanatic or holier-than-thou purist. He’s one of us, just with more energy for questions and more knowledge to bring to the table about what to ask.
This book is a young man’s exploration, a young man’s work. The epic hikes after elk, into lost coulees and trackless thickets of wind stunted Ponderosa pine, are mirrored in the intellectual energy on the pages here. As Allen points out in the forward he wrote for the new editions, he could not, as a man in his early forties, write this book today. But the explorations of hunting and culture and emotion in A Quiet Place of Violence remain fresh and provocative today. There is almost nothing dated here, and that is remarkable, given that the book was written in 1994.
The staying power is rooted in the clear fact that this is a book written by a lifelong hunter who has thought it through, who has read everything, has questioned and reasoned and pondered, and then offered us a beautifully-written narrative of what he has learned. The arguments here are deep. Most of us will never need them to explain our gut-heart devotion to the hunt. But what is truly found here, for those who will follow Allen into the Breaks, will enrich your experience and understanding of hunting for the rest of your life.