Thursday, October 13, 2011

Herding and Shell Hunting in Eclectia's High Country

When one thinks of insects and Eclectia, the first thought that normally occurs is of the meat hunters, often criminals convicted of capital offenses. While not every meat hunter is in the profession for such a reason, the number that are ensures that meat hunters tend to be held in low regard. As an example of this, there are few faster ways to start a brawl than to refer to a shell hunter as a “meat hunter.” That the word “hunting” in “shell hunting” itself is a misnomer is beside the point.

Shell hunting grew out of a decorating craze that arose from spacers purchasing brightly colored chitinous (Chitin = bug shell material, light and flexible) parts of slaughtered insects while on shore leave on Eclectia. Originally considered a waste product by the meat industry, the “shells” were given away at first. After a few collectors evinced great interest in procuring desirable examples, the butchers began to actively set aside attractive pieces. Eventually, the market for shells of commonly hunted species became sated. Another problem for those marketing designer shells is that the methods used in meat hunting tend to do damage to the most desirable sections of the prey. The butchers met the problems by offering noticeably higher prices for undamaged shells from less known species. Thus began shell hunting as a business.

A first point to be made about shell hunting is that rather than shooting the prey, it is instead trapped. Once the insect is immobilized, it is carefully dispatched in such a manner that the valuable chitinous shell can be removed without damage. The next operation is to thoroughly flesh or remove all meat from the piece. Besides reducing the weight of the shell to be transported, this also removes residual meat whose scent might attract large predators. The meat scraps thus obtained are either added to the stew pot or used as trap bait for certain kinds of prey. After cleaning, the shell is cached with others until the shell hunters move down to the trading post at the end of the season.

While there are a few individually owned trading posts, the most popular are those of the Palmer Company. Smaller hunting operations often meet traders at rendezvous held up in the hunting areas. Here the small trappers can trade their harvested shells for supplies and credits. These gatherings can become quite boisterous and it is not unknown for almost all the trapper's profits to be spent on drink and drugs, or lost in gambling. The wiser traders generally hold back some credits of the trappers so as to ensure that once the party is over, their customers will have the supplies to see them through the next season and the trader can profit at the next rendezvous. It is noted that alcohol and recreational drugs are not supplied nor tolerated at Palmer Company trading posts, and only “friendly” games of chance are allowed on the premises. Opinion is divided on the reason for this. Some maintain that the rules originate from Floyd McKenna-Hosho, the owner's, personal religious beliefs or his philosophies, while others argue that its just good business.

A second group are the bugherds. These usually family-based operations produce insect products by protecting smaller, more docile insects such as the dermestid beetle family and aphids from predators such as doodlebugs (Myrmeleontidae) and “spotties” of the Coccinellidae and moving the herds to fresh pastures when needed. To aid in this, bugherds have bred a form of watch animal from the mantids. While somewhat less than completely domesticated, these “shepherdbugs” can generally be trusted around the herd if kept fed regularly and will attack other predators to defend their “prey” (i.e: the herd). A main product is honeydew which is milked from the aphids. Besides local use as a beverage (usually thinned with hot water), the sweet syrup is in demand as a base for foods and is fermented to produce honeymead, a wildly popular drink among the wealthy.

After the eggs are laid, the herds are moved to market. There, dermestids and surplus aphids are sold at auction for their meat and other products and as breeding stock. The auctions are held in various small villages scattered throughout the High Country stock areas. At the village--which often consists of a Palmer Company trading post, a tavern or two, several places of worship, and stock pens—the buyers arrive in their hoppers. There is a festival air as different families and parts of families come together, often for the first time in a year. The auctions take about five to seven days, in which time betrothals are made, weddings are held, and brawls are enjoyed. At the end of the auctions, the stock is loaded aboard jumpers (the heavy-lift version of the familiar hopper), purchases of supplies are completed, farewells are said, and by the next morning, the village has shrunk back to its normal population.

  • A note on High Country etiquette:

    In the High Country, when served any liquid whether hot or cold, it is proper to blow on the liquid before the first sip. Before refrigeration became widely available, hospitality dictated that the host serve his guest a drink as hot as possible. The guest was expected to automatically blow on the drink to cool it as a way of acknowledging the thoughtfulness of the host. Today, this has carried over even to cold drinks. Anyone at all familiar with the culture takes great pains to adhere to this custom, as to not blow on one's drink is a deadly insult and has led to brawls, murder, and blood-feuds.


  1. Hi Walt,

    Nobody has made reference to bug traps in any stories I know of. I had actually thought it would still be possible to sell part of a shell, even if broken.

    In my already submitted story "Dilligence," I make reference to a "Zirconia Trading Company" but would have used "Palmer Company" if I'd known about this post in advance.

    Also, in that story my character Elsa muses on the history of hunting with the complaint that hunting used to be a family affair but had become a business. But this never mentions trapping as it should have if that were the big change. Instead she complains about hunters having more advanced weapons, leaving her in a position where she couldn't compete.

    So my story is somewhat in contradiction to your post. Not totally so, but enough to make me wish I'd seen this information prior to writing my tale...Oh well...

  2. Highly interesting post, Walt! This now has my mind clicking... :)

  3. Travis, all is not lost. Eclectia's outback is a BIG place. With the planet having a mass of 1.68 that of Earth, unless there are much greater deposits of heavy elements, this argues for a greater surface area. Also, I, at least, envision the planet to be rather less connected than present-day Earth (even in our present, there are isolated areas where all sorts of what we would consider backward and dark things are practiced--as an example, this morning's BBC World News feed carried a report on human sacrifice in Uganda), trying to use a cell phone in West Virginia brings home that even parts of the U.S. aren't totally connected. In the U.S., there are large areas that are just plain empty. I rode Greyhound from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Pennsylvania several times. Travelling I15 through Utah between Cedar City and Nephi at night, I saw a total of three lights; one, that coming from the widows of a house, and the other two, streetlight-like watch lights at a pair of ranches four hours apart.

    It would be expected that each ecosystem would have its own individual flora and fauna. This would effect what products are harvested and how this is accomplished. Just because shell hunting is going on in one area, doesn't mean meat hunting isn't being pursed a couple of hundred kilometers away. While Buffalo hunting was beginning to become big down on the northern plains, beaver and other fur trapping was still going on in the high country and herding was taking over the southern plains. This with hard rock mining flourishing in the mountains. Within 50 miles of Deadwood, you had all of these activities going at the same times.

    As to the Palmer Company, I'd expect it to have rivals. Back during the fur trade period, roughly 1825 to 1860 (it never totally went away--I've run traplines myself), Hudson's Bay Company was the Walmart of the Canadian West (which extended as far south as northern Wyoming, southern Idaho, and what became the state of Oregon, until the U.S.-Canadian western border was settled in 1846 with the Oregon Treaty setting the border along the 49th parallel, after the "54-40 or Fight" rhubarb). But they had competitors for the trade such as the Northwest Company (Canadian), John Astor's American Fur Company (American), and the Rocky Mountain Fur Company (American). There should be plenty of room for the Ziconia Trading Company to be snapping at their heels. (As a note, Hudson's Bay Company is still doing business in western Canada, and in 2009 did 6.8 billion dollarsUS of business and had 70,000 employees.)

    The problem Elsa experiences in "Diligence" was also experienced during the early buffalo hunting period when the Sharps 52 caliber rifle was introduced in 1850. With its consistent kills at 1,000 yards, it eventually drove the 45 caliber out of the buffalo hunting business. (A realistic example of what was possible with this rifle can be seen in the movie, "Quigley Down Under," starring Tom Selleck--a good flick and a reasonably true depiction of some of the things going on in Australia during the period.)

    So, as I said, Eclectia's a big place--have fun!