Salena Zito: America’s Outdoor Awakening, Thanks to MeatEater’s Approach to the Movement

BOZEMAN, Montana — Steven Rinella has a very hard time sitting still. This is not just an observation. It is, he says, what makes him who he is.

“I was born with this wanderlust to move, constantly, as far as I could. It’s more than I have a very hard time holding still: I like to go places. I like to understand the people, their history, their social norms, the stories behind their lives, what they ate and how they prepared it,” explains the writer and outdoorsman. We are talking from his office in Bozeman, Montana, Rinella having just returned after several weeks hunting and fishing with his family at his cabin in Alaska.

His wanderlust for tracking, hunting, cooking and storytelling has generated a multiplatform empire that includes his reality show, “MeatEater.” In it, Rinella travels to far-off places to track and hunt animals, typically followed by painstakingly prepared and often exotic meals.

In his wanderings, Rinella says, he ponders who was there before him — not yesterday, or last year, but as long ago as the Ice Age. “I often look at some of my favorite periods in deep history that involve these nomadic hunters,” he explained. “People who did move around a lot and cover a lot of ground. Even in our understanding of surviving on the Great Plains, they would cover this enormous amount of ground. I imagine these people’s base skill set, it would be adaptable to so many different places, and so I admire that,” he said.

It is a notion that conflicts with his love and respect for the person who was born of, and remains in, a certain spot. “And they know it inside and out, they know everything, they know every lead, and if something is different, they know. They know what the weather’s like every year, where the wind blows from on such and such day. I love all that,” he said of the more rooted hunters across the country whose experience spans dozens of generations.

“These are two very different ways of going about your life. I could be happy in each, but I’m happier as the person who can just go anywhere and hack my way through it because I’ve accumulated enough knowledge to be adaptable,” he said. “I’m happier at this age in that nomadic space.”

Rinella and his team have spawned a cultural movement of sorts through their multiple platforms, one that has nothing to do with politics or tribalism and everything to do with freedom, responsibility, giving back, and the great outdoors. The Instagram posts alone are worth carving out a portion of your day to follow.

It is a movement that may not be on the radar screens of Madison Avenue or Wall Street executives. Yet for many of the young, up-and-coming set behind them, their imaginations have been captivated; they are watching, listening, buying and getting out there.

So have a lot of other young professionals across the socioeconomic spectrum who may not have come from that generational tradition of hunting or fishing but who are finding themselves wanting to escape their hyperconnected, constantly online world. They want to step outside of that and do the most primitive, basic thing imaginable: hunt.

“It definitely was not a stated goal of mine to intentionally reach people who had never considered hunting before. But there is certainly an inevitability to it, that if there’s something that you love and you are able to capture in a media product,” Rinella explained.

Rinella said whether it is a television show, a podcast, an essay or a book, if people see someone love something and why they love it and how they love it, that inevitably is infectious. “Imagine that you’re speaking to a person, and you don’t like dogs. But you’re speaking to a person who really knows dogs well, and they’ve experienced many, and they’ve come to love them, and they understand the other person that doesn’t like them. These two people sit down and talk. What are the odds that first person is going to come away from it liking dogs even less?” he explained by way of analogy.

Rinella says that type of persuasion proves to be naturally seductive to people; there is an irresistible quality to it. “I think that had I gone in and said to myself, ‘I am going to go and do whatever’s in my power to change people’s minds about hunting,’ I probably would have wound up doing some really goofy, ineffectual thing like, ‘If we don’t hunt deer, deer will be overpopulated.’ Well, that doesn’t mean anything to people.”

According to Rinella, that kind of approach doesn’t inspire and speak to people. Instead, he continued, “I think just by saying, ‘Here’s this thing, here’s how I understand it, here’s what appeals to me about it,’ that works for people.” Which explains why a large segment of the MeatEater audience might never hunt but at least understands why people do it. It’s no longer thought of in the Disney caricature way, in which a shadowy man with a gun kills Bambi’s mother.

A natural-born storyteller, Rinella earned a master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Montana. When he discusses the importance of the relationship he has with nature, his words are intoxicating. You want to experience smelling and feeling and contributing actively in the outdoors, and you want to do it responsibly because of him.

Rinella’s approach is simple: He does not advise. He does not tell people what they need to do to be happy. What he does do is open minds.

Hunting and fishing numbers over the last year and a half have exploded, and it would not be a stretch to say Rinella and his network have played a role in attracting new people wanting to take refuge in outdoor sports. They provide an active example of the skills, creativity and camaraderie that can develop when hunting and foraging for food, as well as the reward when one has a hand in putting food on the dinner table. The spiking popularity of hunting and fishing reverses what was a steep, yearslong decline that many feared would lead to the near-extinction of the sports.

While Rinella is an integral part of this awakening, he is, in truth, a reluctant evangelist for the movement. For him, it isn’t just about hunting; it is about tracking the animals and understanding our role in the food chain. He admits he takes a lot of pride in how he communicates about conservation and about the ethics of hunting, as well as in demonstrating the thrill and skills of tracking an animal and preparing the feast afterward.

Being outdoors is great for all people, Rinella says, but he also doesn’t want everybody hunting, nor does he think hunting is for everybody. “But I do think everybody can learn something by understanding hunting. And we all become closer to our food and to nature.”

It is something that is profound and powerful.

PHOTO: Hunting. Photo by Bureau of Land Management. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). 

Salena Zito joined the Washington Examiner in 2016 as a Western Pennsylvania-based columnist and reporter covering national politics and culture. She is also a weekly columnist at the New York Post, contributes to The Wall Street Journal and co-authored “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics” with Brad Todd. In 2018, she won first place for her columns in the Associated Press for her coverage of American politics, and she also won the Barbara Olson award for excellence and independence in journalism.

She has taught journalism at the Harvard Institute of Politics, Washington and Lee University, and Hillsdale College.

She has interviewed every president, vice president and candidate who sought their party’s nomination on both sides of the aisle in the 21st century.