LILY RAFF McCAULOU ’10 | The KWF Experience
When I applied for a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship, I knew my proposed study plan was unorthodox. It became clear just how unorthodox it was during my admission interview. That’s when a member of the panel read out loud my topic title – “The ethos of hunting” – sighed and asked: “Are you sure you wouldn’t want to study something a little more… broad?’”
I declined, then went on to explain why this topic was worthy of an eight-month academic pursuit.
Growing up near Washington, D.C., I didn’t know anyone who hunted. Hunters, I figured, were probably just barbaric gun nuts. Then, at 23, I moved from Manhattan to Bend, Ore., to cover a rural area for a small newspaper, The Bulletin. There, I began interviewing hunters for my articles and realized that although I had long considered myself an environmentalist, these hunters – most of whom scoffed at the “E” word – were more knowledgeable and thoughtful about animals and nature than I was. Eventually, I decided to buy a gun and join them.
The more I immersed myself in hunting, the more intrigued I became. The topic touched so many facets of my life: what I ate, how I viewed the landscape around me, my connection to previous generations, my relationships with animals, my fear of death.
I believe that, at its best, journalism introduces readers to subjects that shed new light on their own lives. It also helps to connect communities that don’t seem, at first, to have much in common. My own transformation from gun-shy urbanite to competent hunter seemed to align with these journalistic ideals, so the topic of hunting actually seemed like a perfect fit for the Knight-Wallace program.
My explanation made at least a little sense, I suppose, because I landed a fellowship: eight glorious months of international travel and seminars by experts on everything from Chinese-U.S. relations to ragtime piano. I found a few courses that related – albeit tangentially – to my study topic, including a psychology class that examined how humans “created” dogs from wolves, through selective breeding. At Wallace House, we Fellows went around the room several times a week and introduced ourselves by listing our names, most recent jobs and study topics.
This had the unexpected benefit of getting me used to talking about a subject that’s taboo in many circles – especially academic ones. More than one guest raised an eyebrow when I mentioned that I was at the University of Michigan to study hunting. But many of them couldn’t resist asking me about it.
In fact, I was surprised by how many people – even non-hunters from urban backgrounds – were interested in my topic. Ultimately, this encouraged me to do what had been in the back of my mind all along: write a book.
I landed a book deal shortly after I returned from my fellowship. My book, Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt my Own Dinner, came out this summer.Looking back on it now, almost every chapter contains some vestige of my fellowship year. There’s research from my dogs-and-wolves class, references to Moby Dick (one of many hunting-related novels I had time to read that year), even personal anecdotes from deer hunting in northern Michigan that fall. In one sense, my study topic was perfectly typical: it led to a year that was nothing if not broad.
Lily Raff McCaulou, writes a weekly column for The Bulletin (Bend, OR) and is the author of “Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner.” Her views on hunting, the environment and gun rights have appeared in The New York Times and on NPR.