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A balanced look at killing your own dinner

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When U.S. city-slicker Lily Raff McCaulou was 26, she decided to pick up a gun to learn to hunt. She not only wanted to catch her dinner, but also to explore her relationships with animals and think about the true meaning of environmentalism.

In Call of the Mild, this journalist, blogger and first-time author takes an insightful look at the pros and cons of hunting while examining her own biases and feelings about killing her own dinner.

It all started with her decision in early 2003 to give up her life as a film and TV production assistant in New York and move west to become a reporter in Bend, Ore., pop. 76,000. At first she didn't seem to fit with the small-town lifestyle, but she put down some roots and met an outdoorsy guy, Scott, whom she eventually married.

Scott takes her fly-fishing, which she deems as her "gateway to hunting." She gradually becomes more comfortable out in the wild, learning to pay more attention to her surroundings and nature itself.

In the course of her job as a journalist, she begins to meet hunters and learns it's not just the thrill of the chase that draws people to the sport. For some, it's the chance to be out in nature and to have that real connection to the food they eat.

"Growing up, I never knew any real-life hunters," she writes, "And I never talked or heard much about them. So without even realizing it, I based my opinion on the anti-hunting propaganda that had bombarded me from a very early age."

Raff McCaulou tends to wander back and forth in time, starting off with her first pheasant hunt before briefly touching on her time in New York and then her move to Bend, all within a few pages. But she keeps everything in the present tense, lending a sense of immediacy to her story.

She discovers it is harder to learn how to hunt than one might think. For all that hunting is a traditional activity, most of the know-how is passed on through families over time. She starts by taking a hunter-safety course and goes on a few hunts to observe, finally working up to her first bird hunt.

Her deceptively plain writing style highlights her fear of guns and the thought of killing another living creature while capturing her excitement at learning something new.

"Shooting my first pheasant gave me the same exhilaration that I got from reading my favourite chapter books when I was nine or 10 years old: the world around me suddenly became bigger than I had ever imagined and, at the same time, it moved closer within my reach."

A series of personal tragedies, including the suicide of her brother, takes her away from hunting for a time, but also serves to remind her that life is fleeting and must be lived to its fullest.

Eventually, Raff McCaulou gets back to the sport by taking up deer hunting, and then decides to tackle her biggest challenge yet -- an elk.

She uses her own story to examine other issues related to hunting -- its environmental impact, conservation, the politicization of hunting, poaching, food production, cooking and food security. Her research is detailed but doesn't overwhelm and puts hunting into a broader context.

Call of the Mild is an enjoyable, balanced look at what it means for one woman to put food on the table -- one animal at a time.

Julie Kentner is a Winnipeg writer who put up "no hunting" signs with her family on their southwestern Manitoba farm.

Call of the Mild

Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner

By Lily Raff McCaulou

Grand Central, 336 pages, $28

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2012 J9

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