Gerry Cox — the “G” is pronounced hard as in his ancestor Gerhard — was an administrator at Cornell until recently. In his previous life he was an English professor, who back in the 70’s at least once wrote for the scholarly journal English Literary Renaissance, where I was an editor. He is also a third generation bird hunter, a big game hunter, and, most unusually for an academic, a custom rifle maker who once made me an early 20th Century sporter on an SMLE action. As is perhaps obvious, he is also a friend of mine. But that’s not my reason for recommending his book.
Below, Gerry left, John Besse right, in John’s shop in Mag looking a Scott sidelock, once mine, now G’s; SMLE in the style of Empire .
Many of the remaining northeastern hunters started with whitetail deer, and have never progressed beyond the lore of that species. Gerry started late, shooting an antelope in southeast Wyoming after a lifetime of bird hunting. Before his experience, he shared the attitude of many – dare I say it? – upper class northeastern hunters. Bird shooting was socially acceptable; but there was something “wrong” with hunting large mammals– something not spoken of, that was potent and hard to think about, never mind discuss. Easier to dismiss those who hunted big mammals as “poachers” or meat hunters, the last a pejorative…
This odd diffidence might exist because hunting large mammals was far more important to the evolution of our roving restless species than mere foraging, at least to what our species would become.* And because our larger quarry seemed– is-– more like us, killing and eating big sentient beasts is both more satisfying and more frightening– more “serious”.
In his own words: … I was unprepared for what I actually experienced. After field dressing the antelope, I looked down at my hands and said aloud in shock, “I have blood on my hands.” I didn’t have a clue what I meant: the spoken words simply came out of my mouth. I only knew that this recognition involved something altogether outside my previous bird shooting experiences, something mysteriously important/ I dreamed about blood again and again that night. I felt compelled to learn what this meant.
His quest led him to read every justification of hunting, every philosophical animal rights work, and a fair amount of biology and anthropology. Some of the more symbolic or poetic works seemed to hold far more truth than the “rational” and theoretically objective ones. He reads accounts of aboriginal tribes and discovers why “killing beautiful animals” may not be a sin. He teases the reader with a title like “Putting Animals in Their Place”, finding that their place is not where any of the defenders or enemies of hunting think they are. He discusses altered and enhanced states of mind in history and in the present. He combines the insights of these chapters to show us “ways” for us to see ourselves as interesting animals among other animals; then adds the insights of evolutionary biologists to the mix to show how science weaves still more threads into the pattern.
His penultimate chapter is not a simple synthesis (if there is anything simple about his synthesis!). It is called “After the Kill: Making Meat, Feasting, and Story Telling”. In this one he argues that the last sleepy farewells as the hunters and their families leave the table are as much a part of the hunt — I almost want to capitalize the word Hunt– as the stalk or the kill; it is one whole drama. With the next and last chapter, he brings his account to a close; necessary, but I am still at the table, swapping stories and savoring the last of the vodka.
This has been a hard review to write because I have been reading this book since the first drafts. What could I say that would be new? How about that our friend John Besse, the best amateur gunsmith I know a hunter and backwoodsman with a bias towards the scientific rather than the poetic, has read it twice?
Or I could just give you my very considered blurb: “Gerard Cox has always been a bird hunter. But when he saw the blood on his hands from his first antelope, he was so moved that he began his inquiry into the nature and realities of this “serious business” of hunting large mammals, so close to and yet so different from us. His resulting thoughts build into a volume rich in anecdote (and not without humor), covering everything from the esthetics of animals, through altered states of consciousness, to celebrating the pleasures of feasting with friends. A unique union of the philosophical and the earthily real, it will end up on your permanent bookshelf somewhere between Thomas McGuane and Ortega y Gasset. it is that good.”
Blood on My Hands is now available from Amazon in hardback, paper, and Kindle form, under his real name, Gerard H Cox. I would go for one of the dead trees editions; the cover is nice too.
*Gerry has a discussion of how having female hunters expands our vision– biology is not destiny but human nature DOES exist– my not Gerry’s point.