Early thoughts on conservation by Henry Ward Beecher

The cruelty of field sports is much in the headlines these days. Though hunters take the greatest share of criticism, fishers are also often challenged for real or imagined unkindness to their quarry. The issue is an old one, as is evident from this short essay by Henry Ward Beecher. Though modern notions of sport· fishing, such as catch-and-release, would probably have seemed odd to Beecher, the basic philosophy he expresses has remained intact.

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) was an exceptionally powerful public figure from 1847 to 1887. Clergyman, editor, abolitionist, and author, he gathered an enormous following – people who were not so much concerned with his theology as with his dramatic presence. His sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, once remarked “he has had the misfortune of a popularity which is perfectly phenomenal. “

Beecher wrote on many subjects, from agriculture to politics to religion. In fact, he rarely separated topics, as can be seen in this essay, which appeared in STAR PAPERS, or EXPERIENCES OF ART AND NATURE (1855).

The following note came to us some weeks ago. But so grave a matter could not be digested as hastily as if it were a mere state paper or the programme of a rcvolu· tion. It required, and has received, judicious reflection. – New York. May 31, 1854

Henry Ward Beecher in the mid 1800's

RESPECTED SIR: – I was arguing, for pleasure, with some young men, saying that they (fishes) were per· mitted to he caught only for food; and that they ought to have the liberty of the sea as much as they (the young men) the road, and further declared it kidnapping to catch them; – when they cited your example of catching fish. I could say not one word. What could I say against such authority?

“Sorrowfully, for the fishes, but taking this occasion to express my affection for you, I am, etc.”

The writer argues against fishing for only pleasure. Of course, he exonerates all fishermen who fish for the New York and Boston markets, all fishermen on the British Coast and off Newfoundland, since they can hardly be presumed to fish for “pleasure.” To stand for hours hauling up cod for market is sport nearly equal to drawing water at a fire out of a well fifty feet deep, with an old-fashioned well-sweep, or with a frozen rope. We presume, however, that when one is catching fish under a sense of duty, there will be no sin if he takes pleasure in it.

Neither will any blame attach to those luckless wights who have what is termed “fisherman’s luck,” which may be explained to be a whole day’s tramp, in dismal weather, with very wet clothes, after fish that won’t bite, with tackling that seems pre· determined to vex you by breaking or snarling; a state of things which hunger and weariness seldom mend. In a hot day, after a misty morning has cleared up, and let the sun out to do his best, this experience may be varied by sitting in a boat upon a lake, sunk down between so many hills that not a breath of wind ever gets down to it. If you are a man of piscatory perseverance, you can philosophize upon the probable sensations of martyrs with whom slow fires are set to reason, for instance, upon the folly of dissent and heresy. No breadth of straw-brim can save you from the upward glances of the sun reflected from the water. Hands and wrists, face and neck, will furnish memorials of the sincerity of your pursuit.

But, after such experience, is the man to have superadded the charge of inhumanity? Is it possible to treat a fish worse than he is treating himself?


These considerations aside, we will answer the question as it is usually put by the non-fishing philanthropist. It is not right to make up our enjoyment out of the suffering of any creature. If the pleasure of hunting or of fishing were in the excitement furnished by the creatures suffering, then it could no more be justi­fied than any ocher form of torturing, as practiced hitherto, upon moral principles, for the good of men’s souls. A benevolent man should find no pleasure in mere animal suffering.

But Isaac Walton would not accept the case thus put, as truly representing the facts. He would say, and all true sports· men arc scrupulously at agreement with him, that no man should take a single fish, or bag a single bird, beyond the num· ber which can be used for food by himself or his friends. To fish all day in solitary lakes, or in the streams of the wilderness, when it is certain that not one in twenty of the trout taken can be used, is not any more a violation of humanity than it is of the public sentiment of all true sportsmen. A man who would stand at a pigeon-roost and fire by the hour into the dense mass of fluttering birds, only to kill them, is a butcher and a brute. We shall let him off from the severity of this sentence only by a confession that he is a fool, expressed by that universal formula of folly, “I did it without thinking.”

Nothing is more clearly received as common-law among gentlemen, than that the suffering of the victim is not to be allowed to give pleasure. It is to be abridged in every way. And prolonged suffering, or needless suffering, is a fundamental violation of good rules. We fear that we must make an exception against those who follow hare or fox hunting.

A man who would stand at a pigeon-roost and fire by the hour into the dense mass of fluttering birds, only to kill them, is a butcher and a brute. We shall let him off from the severity of this sentence only by a confession that he is a fool, expressed by that universal formula of folly, "I did it without thinking."

The true source of enjoyment in field-sports is to be found in the exertion of one’s own faculties, and especially in such a carriage of one’s self as to be superior in sagacity and caution to the most wary and sharp-sighted of creatures. It is a con­test between instinct and reason. And reason has, often, little to be proud of in the result.

But, aside from the pleasure which arises in connection with seeking or caking one’s prey, we suspect that the collateral enjoyments amount, often, to a greater sum than all the rest. The early rising, the freshness of those morning hours preceding the sun, which few anti-piscatory critics know anything about; that wondrous early-morning singing of birds, compared to which all after-days songs are mere ejaculations; -for, such is the tumult and superabundance of sweet noise soon after four o’clock in summer mornings, chat one would think that, if every dew-drop were a musical note, and the birds had drank them all, and were deliciously exhaling each drop as a silvery sound, they could not have been more multitudinous or delicious. Then, there is chat incomparable sense of freedom which one has in remote fields, in forests, and along the streams. llis heart, trained in life to play by jets, like an artificial foun­tain to flow along the rigid banks of prescribed custom, seems as he wanders along the streams, to resume its own liberty, and like a meadow-brook, to wind and turn, amid flowers and fring­ing shrubs, at its own unmolested pleasure.

One who believes that God made the world, and clearly developed to us his own tastes and thoughts in the making, can not express what feelings those are which speak music through his heart, in solitary communions with Nature. Nature becomes to the soul a perpetua.1 letter from God, freshly written every day and each hour.

A little plant, growing in silent simplicity in some covert spot, or looking down from out of a rift in some rock uplifted high above his reach or climbing-what has it said to him, that he stops, and gazes as if he saw more than material forms? What is that rush of feeling in his heart, and that strange opening up of thoughts, as if a revelation had been made to him? Who, that has only a literal eye, could see anything but that soLitary flower casting a linear shadow on the side of the gray rock? -a shadow that loves to quiver, and noel, and dance, to every step which the wind-blown flower takes? But this floral preacher up in that pulpit has many a time preached tears into my eyes, and told me more than I was ever able to tell again.

Indeed, in many and many a tramp, the best sporting has been done on my back. rlat under a tree I lay, a vast Brobdignag, upon whom grasshoppers mounted, and glossy crickets crept, harmless and unharmed, with evident speculation upon what such a phenomenon could portend. Along the stems creep aspiring ants, searching with fiery zeal for no one can even guess what. They race up that they may race down again.

Indeed, in many and many a tramp, the best sporting has been done on my back. Flat under a tree I lay, a vast Brobdignag, upon whom grasshoppers mounted, and glossy crickets crept, harmless and unharmed, with evident speculation upon what such a phenomenon could portend. Along the stems creep aspiring ants, searching with fiery zeal for no one can even guess what. They race up that they may race down again. They are full of mysterious signs to each other. They knock heads, touch antennae, and then off they rush fuller of minute zeal than ever.

The blue-jay is in the tree above you. The woodpecker screws round and round the trunk, hammering at every place like an auscult·doctor sounding a patient’s lungs. Little birds fly in and out gibbering to each other in sweet detached sentences, confidentially talking over their family secrets, and expressing those delicate sentiments which one never speaks except in a whisper, and in twilight. When you rise, the birds flutter and fly, and clouds of insects flash off from you like sparks from a fire when a log rolls over.

The brook that gurgles past the tree, feeding its roots, and taking its pay in summer shadows, varied every hour, receives a portion of the off-jumping fry. For a grasshopper, unlike a bomb, goes off without calculating where it shall fall. Far off its coming shines. Before it had even touched the water, that bold trout sprung sparkling from the surface and sunk as soon, leaving only a few bubbles to float away. There! If the trout has a right to his grasshopper, have I not a right to the trout?

I’ll have him! After several throws, I find that it takes two to make a bargain.

At length one must go home. I never turn from the silence of the underbrush, or the solitude of the fields, or the rustlings of the forest, without a certain sadness as if I were going away from friends.

But we shall be deemed superficial if we leave it to be believed that this is a fair exposure of the joys of fishing. What have we said of mountain brooks, and the grandeur of dark gorges, where one is well nigh in a trance, and almost forgets to drop his bait; or does it mechanically, and draws forth a fish as if it were a very solemn deed. What have we said of sea­fishing, a snug boat, a smart breeze, a long and strong line ending with a squid. We sweep along the flashing waters as if racing. A blue-fish strikes the glittering, whirling squid, with a stroke that sends electricity along the line into the hands of him that holds it, as you would believe if you saw the sprightli­ness with which he hauls in his Line. Back and forth you sweep the waters, your boat apparently as much alive as you are, and enjoying as much!

Then you lie under some fragment of a boat, or upon some dry seaweeds, while your distant dinner is sputtering and reeking in the kitchen of the rude hotel, used only in summer, by people seeking health or amusement, in out-of-the-way fishing places. 0, how the heavens swell roundly out, and lift themselves up, with a wild attraction, that makes you gasp, as one sighs and gasps who is deeply thinking of some profound horror! The sea is running out in fiery lines, crossed by the sun, on every wave-swell; white sails lie cloudily against the distant horizon, and dim and spectre-like, as they are, how they open the whole world of islands and continents to the imagi­nation, whence they come, or whither they are going. But the dinner-horn sounds, and sea, heavens, islands and continents, ships with homesick voyagers, sink down like a dream in the morning, and we make haste to the universally respected duty of eating. There is no prejudice against that. Sober men, careful, earnest men, yea, all of them eat, and as zealously as the flippant and the careless.

Then comes the going down of the sun. The boat puts us across the main land. The wind has gone down. The surface is clear and level. Shadows from the land fall far over on the bay, and the light that yet plays upon the surface is ruddy and mellow. The oar is thoughtful, and dips and rises gently. At each pull the oarsmen pause, and musical drops, through which the light flashes, trickle back to the deep whence they had risen. Each drop is a sphere, and in each sphere might have a­risen the mother of beauty, liquid Venus Anadyomene. And so came we into life, and so sink away from it, into the great Eternal Sea.

The day is over. The cars have received us. Our thoughts have dismissed all their fanciful forms. We talk of failures, of brilliant strokes of policy, of banks, and ships, of what this man is worth, and what his neighbor was worth just before he became worth nothing. In short, we are sensible again; fit to plod on the streets, so as to have good, sound, prudent men call us a safe and discreet man!

But to return to our correspondent. Will he be pleased to say to all disputants who quote our example, that we never fish except with a remote culinary inspiration; that we never catch more than will supply the reasonable wants of the family, and that, too often, unfortunately, we stop far short of that.

The gentle gurgling of the brook, what is it to a thoroughly practical man but a remembrancer of the savory simmering of the frying-pan? It couples the practical and domestic end of fishing with the physical and poetic excitement of the operation! Alas! That a world should be so barbarous as to con­demn piscatory sports so long as they contribute to excercise, taste, sentiment, and moral enjoyment; and that all objection ceases when a man can prove that he labored for his mouth alone. It is all right, if it was eating that he had in mind. The frying-pan is in universal favor. This is the modern image that fell down from heaven which all men hold in reverence!

Inform your friends, if you please, that our skill in fishing is principally displayed upon paper; and that our excursions usually turn out to be a little of fishing, a good .deal of wander­ing dreamily about, yet more of lying under trees, or of being perched up in some notch of a rock, or of silent sittings on the edge of ravines and trumpeting waterfalls. And, finally, inform them that we are guiltless of shooting, and seldom feel an im· pulse to explode powder, except when we see respectable city stupidities killing little singing-birds. We sometimes feel an inclination then to shoot the unmannerly fowler. No gentle man would shoot a singing-bird. And now, if our correspondent’s friends will, in spite of his excellent dissuasions, still go a-fishing, our only wish is that after two seasons of fishing they may do what we have not done-catch so many fish as would, if sold at a fair price, pay the expense of their tackle.