Fishing and Hunting are Meditations

The thesis of this article is that fishing and hunting are ways that men (and women) can seek meditative quiet, commune with nature, and spend intimate time with friends. Of course women can fish and hunt, and I’m sure some do, but traditionally these are activities associated with men; one website claimed that 90% of hunters are men. I personally have never hunted, although my father took me fishing once or twice. But I’ve known many men who remember hunting or fishing trips with their Dad as important and memorable bonding experiences.
The other aspect of hunting, especially, is that it is a men’s role that goes back to the dawn of human pre-history. In hunter-gatherer societies, which preceded agriculture, men were mostly the hunters, and women were the gatherers. In those distant times, hunting–and to some extent fishing in coastal areas—were not just ways to commune with nature, they were survival itself. If the hunt was poor, or if environmental circumstances made the surrounding terrain devoid of game, the whole community would go hungry, or even starve. Even today many men hunt in order to supplement the family food supply with meat.
Also, for many men fishing and hunting are recreational, enjoyable activities with a rich connection with special vehicles (4 wheel drives or boats), equipment (fishing gear and firearms), and complex rituals and tasks before, during and after the hunt. As a lifelong meditator it may be my bias to connect these activities with meditation, but I think of quietude and proximity to wild nature as providing essential qualities contributing to mental health. Of course quietude isn’t always a feature of these expeditions. Sometimes there is a radio or a boombox in the boat or the tent. Sometimes alcoholic drinks come along with the food to contribute to a party atmosphere.
Nevertheless, partying or not, around the tent there is an expanse of forest; around the boat there is calm open water. Nature is all around and it speaks with an ancient voice. There is also an unmediated sense of direct survival in the environment. You are not going to the store to buy fish or meat, and you are not earning the money to buy the goods by working at one job (or two or three) that is often the farthest thing from great nature. In true hunter-gatherer societies, the objects of the hunt, the game, were spirits, even gods, to be respected, spoken to, and worshipped. The religions of our modern age—a couple of millenia old though they might be—are young and new compared to the ancient gods of bison and deer, fish and water, sun and moon.
I have read that hunting and fishing are in considerable decline. It is not just that in the modern rat race of survival there is little time for spending long days and nights in the lakes and the woods. It is also that the lakes and the woods themselves are shrinking, being cut down and built up by agribusiness and urban and suburban development. It is easy to extrapolate from today’s explosive population growth and the need for raw materials to feed a vast industrial machine, and see that there will come a day—not too far in the future—when there is little expanse of nature, little populations of wild fish and game, and nowhere to refresh our ancient spirits with a clear moonless sky.
Climate change is not helping. With heat comes drought. The world is drying up. In California, where I live, we are in the midst of a 1,200 year drought. Lake Mead and Lake Powell—the two largest dammed lakes in the country, that support 50 million people in five states—are at 25% percent of capacity and dropping. Sunken boats and decaying human bodies are emerging as the water level falls. In Italy it is the same. Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake once ringed by fishing resorts and boat harbors, is shrinking rapidly.
So it is no wonder that fishers and hunters are finding fewer and fewer places to venture, and less and less time in their lives to travel far. There are multiple dimensions of value in returning to the wild, where life began and where our heart quickens with instinctive familiarity. When we lose that, we will lose one of the great repositories of mental and spiritual renewal. When I was young I spent years at Tassajara Zen Monastery in the Big Sur mountains of California, surrounded by hundreds of square miles of National forest. My Buddhist teacher called Tassajara “a place of great nature,” and traditionally monasteries and places of spiritual retreat worldwide were built in those places. The location itself was a teacher. When we meditated in the early morning, we could hear the croaking frogs and the roaring of the creek just a few steps away.
When the last forest succumbs, when the last lake wastes away, where will we go to find refreshment in the sources that gave us life? And if there comes a time when there are no more such places, then how shall we live?