Lao Tsu

Tao and The Art Of Riflecraft

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Hunting isn’t always about seeing, hearing or scenting our quarry (or other wildlife). Nor is it always about engagement or direct action with quarry. The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, in his classical text ‘Tao Te Ching’, demonstrated how sometimes it was ‘nothingness’ or ‘passivity’ that were the virtues that bring about success. He also described, convincingly, how sometimes what we often perceive as ‘weakness’ can be ‘strength’ and vice-versa. Often ‘subtraction’ can bring ‘addition’. Don’t worry … I’m not preaching a religion here. The ‘Tao Te Ching’ was, in fact, an atheist text putting the universe and nature (the Tao) at its heart. It was written around 600 years BC and is a real mind-opener.

Lao Tzu reasoned that though the hole in the centre of the cartwheel held nothing, it was an important attribute. Sure, it was an empty void. Yet without it, there could be no space for the axle; to connect two wheels. So the ‘usefulness’ is in the void … the spokes and the rim of the wheel are irrelevant without the void. Similarly, he considered the clay pot. A common, everyday object. Until clay is moulded to create a cavity it is not a vessel. It has no use to us. It’s the void, the empty space within created when shaping the clay, that gives the pot its usefulness and creates a vessel. This is the value of ‘nothingness’. Like the cartwheel, the rifle is nought without the barrels bore. Yet the bore is but an empty space. The long net is another illustration. It is the empty spaces within the mesh that trap the moving animal and catch its limbs. An ingenious device, designed around the use of  empty gaps between solid twine. So what has all this got to do with hunting, I hear you ask? Think about this in a hunting context. Often … when hunting … it is the nothingness, the space, the pause or the inaction which brings the most benefit.

We are used to hearing sound all around us. Birdsong, machinery, the lowing of cattle, the white noise of a myriad insects. So silence … complete and utter silence … brings us alert. It’s a primal, survival thing. It spooks us. Silence usually precedes calamity or danger. The stalk of a large predator, the advent of a summer storm or the descent of the winter blizzard. When the stormcock shrilling atop the high ash stops its warning song, the rain is nigh. When the woodpigeons (en-masse) cease their soporific murmurs in the summer wood, the deluge is close.

Passivity is simply inaction, yet not all inactivity is negative. Take sitting behind a net or inside a hide as an example. Sometimes the hunter learns much about animal and bird behaviour through observation, without actually hunting at all. Positive passivity. The ‘stayed’ shot can be another example of ‘doing nothing’ being the right and most positive action. Resisting the shot at a milky doe rabbit, for instance. Not through mercy but through pragmatism. The litter of kits offer the hunter more meat and more sport if saved from starvation. Another illustration is the held breath before tickling the rifles trigger. Stopping the movement of the chest and stomach to steady the aim. A moment of inactiveness crucial to the execution of an accurate shot.

The air … zephyr, breeze or wind … is invisible and intangible. It can be the friend of the hunter (used wisely) or the enemy (taken for granted). At its fiercest, the wind has a power only surpassed by raging water. For anything in nature to resist the gale, it must bend; it must be supple. To stand fast against the windstorm, rigid, is to run the risk of failing. Which is why the mighty oak, with it’s deep roots (its strength), may topple in the tempest … yet the humble reeds can survive. Their pliancy (their weakness) bending to the gusts and standing to the calm between. We can, of course, learn from this. Often passivity can win against aggression. Walking away from the quarrelling ‘anti’ can be better than standing your ground. It takes two to argue but you can’t reason with the prejudiced. You don’t need to justify your way of life to a bigot. They are looking for an argument. You are not, so to acquiesce is often the way to win. The clever hunter can work the wind, which is often cyclical, like ocean waves. Blow, blow, lull; blow, blow ,lull. We can study this rhythm and adjust to it when shooting; perhaps ambushing a warren. Learning the pattern allows us to time the shot to coincide with the lull between gusts. Thus using the ‘nothingness’ to our benefit. Another example is how the woodland hunter appreciates the cover of the trees. Yet it is often the areas where there are no trees where hunters actually grass their quarry … the forest glade or the woodland ride.

So in hunting terms, when can ‘subtraction’ bring ‘addition’? Well, often actually. There is a very obvious case: the removal of pest predators to increase the survival rate of vulnerable species, livestock and game. There are more subtle examples too. To sharpen your knife requires grinding the dulled steel from its blade. Bluntness to keenness occurs through subtraction, which is why your favourite blade will eventually be sharpened into oblivion. For the squirrel hunter, the loss of leaves from the canopy above brings more opportunity to see and shoot their prey. The autumn barley harvest is a positive subtraction which also leaves us with the stubbles. An addition to the pigeon hunters prospects.

The whole point of the ‘Tao Te Ching’ is to subscribe to a universe of balance. Yin and yang. As hunters, we must put back in as much as we take out. We must recognise when silence can be more powerful than noise. When it is better to be empty rather than full. To appreciate that sufficient is better than excess. That flexibility is better than rigidity. This, as we know, is how Nature herself works.


Copyright, Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2017

The Hunters Way. An extract.

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The Hunters Way, Chapter Two

“Nature’s balance displays beauty and decay in equal measure.

She shows benevolence and cruelty in equal measure.

What is good for some of Her charges is bad for others.

What is bad for some of Her charges is good for others.

The gale-felled tree shelters the ground game and hides the vulnerable.

The leaf fall feeds the soil to grow and sustain the next tree.

The wind disguises the vixens stalk and the rabbit falls prey.

The zephyr exposes the foxes musk and the rabbit lives.

The long summer day allows Her charges to forage and feast.

The bitter winters chill presses them to merely survive.

This years diseased rabbit warren bears no fruit.

Next years warren is fertile and abundant.

The sun rises, the sun sinks. The moon waxes, the moon wains.

The tide flows, the tide ebbs. Seasons rise, seasons fall.

The Hunter watches and adjusts to Nature’s conditions.

He takes when it’s right to take and leaves when it’s wrong.

He adds where he can and expects no credit.

He sustains what is important and protects what is vulnerable.

So that it is there tomorrow. So that it is there forever.”

Though many of us will never find that enlightenment, we can all find Nature for it surrounds us. Yet few truly do. I mean real Nature, not false Nature. I don’t mean a walk through the blue-bells or a trip to the zoo. I don’t mean staring at a television documentary or reading a glossy wildlife magazine. To really find Nature you need to go into the wild and watch it in all its glory or its modesty. To understand Nature, you need to understand life and death, growth or decline, health or disease, compassion and cruelty. Most importantly you need to understand man-kinds role in Nature. We are a participant in this eternal drama, not the author of it. That honour falls to a much more reliable entity. Nature herself. As one of the higher organisms in Her design … and one of the alpha predators … we can influence that drama but should never seek to control it. The Hunter, who spends much of his time steeped in the study of the wild world around him, is in a position to respect Natures work. To see first-hand what Nature is capable of. To benefit or to suffer at Natures hand. The human Hunter is just another predator in Natures design yet has the benefit of not just reasoning but conscience. No other wild predator has the latter. For that reason alone, the Hunter must exhibit control, restraint, compassion and respect at all times. He must learn to conserve and to farm, not to slaughter. To protect the vulnerable species, thus helping maintain Natures balance, yet never annihilating other species. This is what I call The Hunter’s Way.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler December 2015. Find the book in this websites Books section.