The hunter’s view of landscape: a response to Roger Scruton

Hugh Brody
20 August 2002

Here are some thoughts suggested by Roger Scruton’s article ‘Landscape: the view of the hunters and the farmers ’. In effect, Scruton’s essay explores the hunter who is hidden in the farmer, or the hunting landscape, of both earth and mind – the hunter who exists despite the apparent dominance of farming.

Within this view, there are two realities, folded into one another: the one that is the farmer, the other that is the hunter. Scruton does not propose that there is an equal balance between the two, saying, rather, that in England the triumph of the farmer appears complete. The landscape is shaped, bounded, owned and managed by farmers. Despite this triumph – and here is the crux of Scruton’s insight – scratch the surface of this farmers’ world, and we quickly discover the hunter, alive and well.

I like this idea of the two realities of the landscape, and the realisation that the surfaces – of the land as of the society that owns it – are used and known in more than one way. The farmers with their concerns about precise holdings, individual family rights within their boundaries and their distinctive skills and technology. The hunters with their need to follow animals that ignore the farmers’ rights and leap across the boundaries of farms.

Roger Scruton’s central point that, in England and Wales these two ways of using the land exist one on top of the other, is very compelling; most of the time farmers insist on their boundaries, but yield – on hunt days – to the larger collective and, implicitly at least, to a different way of exercising rights to land. Scruton also explains that in France the farmer and hunter tend to have rights to use different lands (as would have been the case in England when there were vast forests that could not be encroached upon by farmers). But the point is to some extent the same – despite the triumph of the farmers over the hunters of the world, hunting continues on or alongside even the most intensively farmed of agricultural lands.

Hunt and farm: a prehistoric or historic link?

The history of this coexistence has much to do, of course, with the way in which royal, and hence aristocratic, families insisted on their hunting – as part of the fun to be got out of life. Hence the royal forests, from Sherwood to the New to the Inglewood. In these places the royal family, or its appointed representatives and friends, could hunt. And hence at least one important element in the Robin Hood stories – the defiance of royal hunting rights in forests on the part of ‘real and true Englishmen’. The myth of good King Richard against the myth of bad King John.

Thus, deep within the history of hunting, and of the way hunting has played its past in the layering of land-use rights in much of Europe, is the history of the way royalty balanced royal prerogatives with the needs of the people and, through those needs, the strength of the national economy. One of King Henry VIII’s achievements was the yielding of royal forest to squatters’ rights – allowing forests to give way to farms. The right to farm was granted from above; and those on high retained the right to hunt in those forests and across the farms that rapidly replaced them. Much as the right to fish for salmon has tended to be retained by lords and ladies who nonetheless sold the land, through which the salmon rivers flow, to farmers. Thus, there is a relationship to fish and fishing in Britain that is also an example of a ‘folding’ of two realities – of hunter and farmer – into a single landscape.

Thus embedded in the two realities is a deep history of privilege. The right to hunt with hounds across the countryside and fish for salmon in rivers is linked to aristocratic status. Over generations and social revolutions (more so in France than in England), this link has become stretched and complicated. But it is still there to be seen; the hunt is led by grand folk in fine coats and hats, and followed by those lower in the social scale. The existence of hunters and hunting along with farmers and farming is a tribute to the longevity of old regal and aristocratic tastes and rights.

Scruton observes that:

‘English hunting has often been celebrated as an expression of liberality. A farmer or landowner invites the hounds and followers to meet on his land. Private owners are asked if the hunt can enter, and those that agree are consciously offering hospitality. However, the event also involves a collective renunciation of the usual laws of property, and a willed departure from the priorities of farming. In a sense the countryside is being “thrown open” to its pre-historical use….’

This idea of the countryside being thrown up to ‘prehistorical use’, however, may be somewhat misleading. There is a prehistoric use, dating back to a time when all the land was used by hunters and gatherers, and none of it by farmers; or to a time when farmer was first displacing hunter, probably some six to ten thousand years ago. But the balance between the hunt and the farm does not have its roots in that remote era. Rather, it originates in shifts in the way land is owned and used within the history of agriculture. In fact, the place of the hunt in a farming world may well be a relatively recent chapter in the history of agriculture; a struggle between princes with estates and individual landowners taking place, as part of the formation of modern England, between 1066 and 1650.

Roger Scruton does not deny this recent history, though he gives more emphasis to the wide enthusiasm for and participation in the hunt that is to be seen all over the British countryside than he does to its continuing reference to the old, unequal order of things. He points, rather, to the extent to which aristocratic interests have held farming interests in check, and made contributions to the protection and even shaping of landscape.

As Scruton implies, many of those who shoot and fish for wild creatures –including those who pay per day to shoot grouse across a northern moor or pay small sums to fish for carp or roach in a canal – are also concerned about landscape. They may not have much power or influence, but their sport depends on the air and water and earth being full of life. And they add their voices to those who urge that the economics of rural profit maximisation – with its reliance on more and more toxic and industrial farming – be restrained by other values, other uses for the land and water.

Two traditions, two individualities, two forms of knowledge

There is, however, another difference between hunters and farmers that is also touched on by Scruton. Hunting economies depend on detailed knowledge about one, relatively large area. The success of hunting depends on being able to predict animal, fish, bird and plant distribution at different times of year, and even across long cycles of change. These predictions cannot be made without a multitude of observations – from observations that reach back in time through several generations (in order to know cycles of change), to observations made by those using the land in the present.

Scruton quotes Plato’s The Laws: ‘there can be no more important kind of information than the exact knowledge of your own country; and for this as well as for more general reasons of pleasure and advantage, hunting with hounds…should be pursued by the young.’ And there is no doubt but that those who love to hunt and fish often have extremely detailed knowledge about the creatures they pursue and the landscapes they pursue them in.

But the knowledge of hunter–gatherers should not too quickly be identified with the knowledge of those in agricultural societies who hunt for sport. There is a difference of degree; hunter–gatherer systems rely on a level of detail that would astound the most informed hunter with hounds. There is also a totality to the knowledge; hunter–gatherers rely on different kinds of integrated understandings. The facts about animals and plants are allied to their origins and their connections with the supernatural. Knowledge is carried in myths – acting as a mnemonic (so much easier to retain complex data as part of a good story) as well as a reminder that success and failure depend on a relationship with that which is being sought.

In the hunter’s mind, an animal has to agree to be killed; for the gatherer, a plant has to be treated with gentleness in order to be willing to grow and provide food for humans. The word ‘respect’ is to be heard again and again when hunter–gatherers talk about their lands and their resources. Respect for that which they kill and eat; respect for the stories in which they learn how everything fits into their world; and respect for one another.

Those who hunt with hounds or cast a fly for a salmon may or may not know a great deal about their sports, and may or may not show respect for their quarry or their fellow humans. An extended, holistic knowledge, informed by beliefs about the porousness of the line between them and their prey, are not inherent in their activities. The royal families and their aristocratic relations are not committed to encyclopaedic knowledge about their lands, nor to shamanic ideas about the way their lives and other kinds of life are inseparable. The hunter for sport may well do better by virtue of these qualities; but the qualities themselves are not integral to the sport’s tradition.

There is, as Scruton describes so well, a bond between all who participate in a hunt. But those who manage hunts are not dependent on the sharing of the means of production – the outmoded term that so effectively directs attention to what can matter most. Indeed, public perception sees in the hunt a symbol of old-established inequalities. The argument about whether these inequalities are benign or malign (as in Roger Scruton versus Raymond Williams) may be ongoing. But the inherent inequities of rural Britain are hardly in doubt.

The hunt, as it moves across fields and woods in defiance of boundaries around privately owned lands, may appear to transcend this rural inequality. But it does so for brief periods, maybe in a day of exaltation, and without making any difference to the existence and nature of inequality. Indeed, I suspect that the concentration of lands in more hands (over the 19th and early 20th centuries) and then in fewer hands (in the late 20th and early 21st centuries) has strikingly little connection with the hunts that have their own territorial arrangements.

Compare this with the economic realities of hunter–gatherers, with their relationship to the means of production. Different hunter–gatherer societies have different ways of managing and using territories. But it appears that each of these societies, despite their differences, has institutions and customs that ensure that everyone lives at more or less the same material level. If there is an abundance of food, everyone eats well; if there is a dearth of food, everyone is hungry. Land and animals are not owned by individuals. Distribution is not a function of variable riches. And where use rights give privileged access to one group of families rather than others, there are systems in place (from the famous potlatch of the North Pacific Coast to the routine sharing of all meat among Arctic hunters) to ensure that benefits are distributed through the population.

This way of life, which I have tried to evoke with the term ‘egalitarian individualism’, is different from – indeed, opposite to – the way of life of European agriculturalists. In our systems, we are hierarchical individualists, with ranking that is allied to wealth. After the hunt, the enthusiastic collective of participants breaks up into its separate social parts; those who own the land tend to go to one kind of home, one level of material well being; those who do not, to another.

These are crude social categories. Hunter–gatherers are not easily distinguished from some kinds of subsistence agro-pastoralists, or from farmers who rely on slash-and-burn to make their fields produce. And some of those who own land in Europe are not wealthy, while many who do not own land are. But Roger Scruton’s focus is the hunt with hounds, and leads us to a rural Europe, that pastoral scene caught, as he points out, in so much art and literature – as well as in the rhetoric of the political quarrel over hunting.

In this, rural Britain, the hunter with hounds exists as a reminder of a particular way of being in and using the landscape, and urges a distinctive (and beneficent) way of managing land. But not, I would argue, as a reminder of the hunter–gatherer who would be as bewildered by boundaries around farms as by the pursuit of animals that culminates, most strangely of all, in not eating them. There are two hunting traditions at issue here – one has its roots in the privileges of royalty, the other in the egalitarianism of aboriginal hunter–gatherers. They share things, but not in their origins, nor in the depths of their cultures.

Hunting’s compulsion of respect

‘But scratch the surface of our countryside,’ says Roger Scruton, ‘whether in its real or its represented form, and the vision of the hunter quickly shines through.’ This is a remarkable truth about Europe. Many people do love to hunt, and have relationships with the land and its animals that are not born of economic opportunism or allied with urban indifference to the health of the countryside. Many people delight in pursuing creatures because when they do, they can bring parts of their mind to life that otherwise tend to remain somewhere between dormant and defunct.

Those who pursue animals rely on a mixture of facts and intuition; they must pay close attention to everything around them. And if they are to be successful, they should not be too restrained by the boundaries set up by private ownership. In this particular freedom of mind and movement lies an intense pleasure of the hunt. Those who live by hunting know this, for they must live it to the full; and they suffer extremes of loss and disarray when denied the right to do so.

The irony of this comparison between the joys of the hunt and the lives of hunter–gatherers, however, lies in the nature of colonial history. The rulers of Europe have condoned, where they have not directed, the mass destruction of hunter–gatherer societies. When Cooke landed in Australia at the end of the 18th century, he arrived at the edge of a continent of hunter–gatherers – a thousand languages, several thousand hunting peoples. British colonial policy resulted in the dispossession and impoverishment of all of them. Similar processes decimated the hunter–gatherers of North America, Southern Africa, Siberia, Sri Lanka…. Many of the wealthiest and most powerful of families, made wealthier and more powerful by the colonial adventures that brought such destruction to hunter–gatherers, have been the most skilful and enthusiastic of hunters with hounds – one of the sports of kings.

Roger Scruton’s accounts of this sport are sophisticated and compelling. He understands that there is an importance to hunting that goes far beyond the squabbling politics of Westminster. He is surely right when he says that, ‘the thrill of jumping is not – as many people imagine – merely an equestrian experience. It is the thrill that comes from the dissolution of a boundary…for a brief moment you are laying aside the demands of farming, and the man-centred individualism that farming engenders, and roaming across a landscape that has not yet been “taken into possession”.’ But it is for ‘a brief moment’. When the day is done, and the thrills have passed into stories at the dinner table, far too much of the land remains in the hands of those who profit by destroying it.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for leaving hunts free to hunt lies in the way the intensity of the thrill will be defended by people who can use their wealth and influence to save the countryside – not for foxes so much as for skylarks, cuckoos, warblers and hosts of water-born insects. The gradual disappearance of so much life is far more dreadful, far more cruel, of much more serious import, than the fate of the hunted fox. A central preoccupation of so many hunter–gatherers – respect for life – speaks to an alliance against the excessive disrespect, of both town and country, towards that vast, mysterious and fragile web of the countryside. This countryside that is man-made and man-managed is of more concern to those who hunt in it than those who do not. They tend to respect the place as a whole, rather than any one bit of it or any particular way of using it.

I realise that these reflections on Roger Scruton’s essay sit rather to the side of his central thesis. He does not contend that there is some profound, atavistic link between the hunter with hounds in the Wiltshire countryside and the hunter with a harpoon on the Arctic sea-ice. That there are similarities that pertain to a relationship to land, knowledge and a certain freedom of mind are trivial when set alongside the differences between these two kinds of activity, and the people who do them. There is a temptation, when talking about hunting with hounds, to slip into crude notions about ‘real’ human nature – a slip Roger Scruton is too wise to make.

Planning by different rules

My last thought, stirred by reading Scruton’s essay but a step still farther from it, is that hunter–gatherers are notorious for their apparent inability to make plans. This is an appearance, for it pertains to what those who visit hunter–gatherers from other kinds of society notice and often are perplexed, not to say infuriated, by. Before I understood this absence of plans, I would seek to establish what we would be doing when. And I would be confounded, again and again, by being assured of one thing today and its opposite tomorrow. This was not bad planning so much as good judgement. The hunter waits on events, many of which lie in the changing natural world around him (the direction of the wind, the probability of storms, the most recent news about animal movements); some are social and familial (a close relative has taken ill, news has come of a gathering at a neighbouring village); and some are internal (a dream, a changed sensitivity, a hunch of some sort).

By paying attention to all of these, the relationships between people, land and animals are maintained; and decisions about when and where and what to hunt and gather are made with the greatest possible sophistication. In this domain where facts, obligation and intuition play against each other until the very moment of decision, there is no such thing as ordinary planning.

This feature of the hunter–gatherer mind and economy touches on the material and metaphysical, as, of course, on matter and mind being treated as inseparable. It is also linked to an absence of ritual or formal structures that arrange timetables and are a form of overarching planning. Ritual and planning are far more evident in societies that do not depend on hunting, and where precise management and routine organisation, which are at the heart of agriculture, are the norm. Hunting with hounds, rich in ritual and ceremony, dependent on much planning and organisation, is appropriate to an agricultural culture.

At least to look at. In its need to move freely over the land, its love of the land as habitat for the wild and the wild thrill of the chase itself – here it may leap clear of the strictures of the agricultural society where it originates, and enter, in some ways and for brief flashes of freedom, a place where hunting can take us. But the fox-hunter chases an animal held to be ‘vermin’ – a term for creatures that are unwelcome to farmers. And, at the end of the day, however wild it has been, the calendar, not the magical surprises of weather, animal movements and dreams, decides where the next chance for the hunter’s brief freedom will take place.

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