“Full Circle”

Outdoor America, Winter 2008

The bullet struck just behind the eye. A kick or two, then stillness. I stepped into the thick, snowy stand of young balsam and retrieved the hare. Its body was warm and supple in my hand, its white coat silky. Five short years before, I could not have imagined doing this: I had been an adamant vegetarian, sure that killing animals was an unnecessary evil.

© 2008 Durga Bernhard

I hadn’t always felt that way. As a boy in southern New Hampshire, I’d loved reeling brook trout up from the depths of the old granite quarry next to my father’s house. I also enjoyed catching bullfrogs. After admiring their glittering gold-and-black eyes and big concentrically patterned eardrums, I let many of them go. Others went into a mesh bag and, back at the house, were dispatched with a quick plunge of my fillet knife down through the spine. Skinned and sautéed, their hefty hind legs tasted like chicken.

I had a hunting knife, of sorts. I don’t know where it came from, nor whether it would have been useful in the field. But the sweep of the blade, the stubby guard, the antler handle, and the sheath embossed with wolf and trees all excited something primal within me.

That same atavistic spirit was kindled the moment I stepped into my Uncle Mark’s room for the first time. He was then living with his sister and her husband on Cape Cod’s south shore. I was in grade school and my mother, stepfather, sisters, and I had driven down from Vermont for Thanksgiving. Walking into that room was like traveling back in time. On the walls were bows and arrows, a powderhorn he had made and scrimshawed, antlers from bucks he had taken, pelts from traplines he had set. Mark, whom I saw only once every year or two, was the only hunter I really knew. He made a belt for me: smooth wide leather embellished with arrows, diamond shapes pressed in as broadheads. Snapped to it was a large brass buckle, a symmetrical cross in a near circle. I wore it constantly.

My “hunting” consisted mainly of target practice. I had a pair of plastic recurve bows and spent hours launching a hodgepodge of wooden shafts at straw bales or blocks of old foam. My father had no interest in hunting but recognized mine. I was 13 or so when he handed me a small Christmas package. Unwrapping and opening the box, I found a double-edged steel broadhead. My little recurves were no match for this deadly looking thing. The message was clear. He was giving me a real bow. That Jennings, its lacquered wooden grip richly grained in reddish-orange, was a huge leap from my plastic toys.

I plinked cans with my BB gun, and later with my father’s .22 revolver—a six-shot Smith & Wesson on a big .38 frame—and my first rifle, a bolt-action .22 Remington. Once or twice I picked off a woodchuck tunneling around the foundations of the house. But I never took to the woods in pursuit of game.

By the time I entered college, my interest in hunting was fading.  My girlfriend and her family were vegetarians, and I was getting into the habit of eating that way. Slowly, I got into the habit of thinking that way, too. I knew that excess beef or pork wasn’t good for me. And I knew enough about factory farming—chickens crammed into tiny cages and the like—to abhor such brutality and lose my appetite for the chemical mysteries of industrial meat. Ecologically, I wanted to eat lower on the food chain anyway. I’d read that more than ten pounds of feed-grain were used to produce every pound of factory beef, and that broad swathes of South American rainforest were being denuded to raise cattle for U.S. markets.

The summer I was 20, I was back home at my father’s place. Out of habit, I dropped a line into the old quarry. Soon enough a trout struck and came in flashing. As my knife severed its head, I felt a rush of hollow sadness. I had not needed to catch or kill that fish. I cooked and swallowed its tender flesh with regret. There were so many other things I could have eaten, things like rice and vegetables, things that would not have felt the hook or even the briefest slice of steel. Soon, I wasn’t even eating eggs or drinking milk.

Ten years later, I crossed an unseen threshold when my fiancée Catherine was studying natural medicine and nutrition. Vegans like us, she learned, could easily end up with health problems in the long run. To avoid bodily depletion, we’d have to be careful to get enough of certain key nutrients. So we started eating locally produced yogurt as well as eggs from free-range hens. Before long we added local poultry to the menu, and wild fish. Something inside me began to stir.

I was again eating flesh: food that, unlike fruit and grain, couldn’t be gently picked from tree, bush, or stalk. Shouldn’t I take responsibility for at least some of the killing? Shouldn’t I look directly at the living animal that was to become my meat? And, to be uncomfortably honest, wasn’t there some part of me that wanted to fish again, even wanted to learn to hunt?

I e-mailed Uncle Mark—still living on Cape Cod, still fishing and hunting—and a long correspondence began. He shared his experiences, the wave of conflicting emotions he felt at every kill, the sorrow mixed with elation and gratitude. I shared the questions that were bubbling up as my convictions came apart and boiled down to basics.

If sustaining our lives inevitably requires death, is the question ultimately not what we eat but how that food comes to our plates? Does it simply come down to respect and restraint—to how we treat soil, water, plants and animals, to whether the tilling is prudent and the killing clean? Ecologically, wouldn’t it make more sense to pasture a beef cow myself or shoot a deer in nearby woods than to buy processed blocks of tofu made from soybeans grown a thousand miles away on industrially farmed land where diverse prairie habitat once thrived?

I picked up killing mammals where I’d left off almost 20 years earlier, by putting a bullet through a woodchuck’s skull. It wasn’t hunting. It was an extension of agriculture, like the thousands of deer killed by American farmers each year to reduce damage to crops, and the rabbits and rodents minced by grain combines. One summer day our green beans were suddenly half gone. Beside them, a hole had erupted from the sandy soil. The tunnel originated in unknown parts and emerged neatly in the middle of our vegetable garden. I borrowed a friend’s .22 and shot the bean-raider. Ashamed that I had no idea how to make use of the meat, I dug a hole and buried the body.

That year I bought a mid-weight freshwater spinning rod, a net, a few lures. Along the edge of a shallow pond a rainbow struck a flashing spoon. In a stream’s deep pool, a brookie went for a hook decorated with bits of red and white yarn. I pan-fried them.

The next summer, Catherine pointed out an impressive photo in the newspaper. A local angler had hauled in a new state-record lake trout from Lake Willoughby, a deep fjord-like piece of water an hour to our north. The fish was more than 35 pounds and most of four feet long. A state biologist estimated it was more than 30 years old. When I mentioned the fish to my youngest sister, she replied, “Too bad it didn’t get to die naturally.” I thought I knew what she meant. A creature that venerable has earned special respect. I wouldn’t begrudge it the chance to die of old age. But I wondered: Why do we distinguish ourselves from “natural” predators? Surely it isn’t just because we use synthetic fishing line, flashy lures, bullets, and arrows, rather than tooth, beak, and claw. How far have we gone in accepting the dangerous illusion that we are separate from the rest of life?

That same summer I bought a used bolt-action .22, nearly identical to the one I’d had as a teenager. It had been years since I’d owned a gun. Taking time to sight the rifle in and get to know it well, memories were triggered: the smooth feel of a hardwood stock, the image of a front sight just below the target’s center, the sharp smell of gunpowder. Catherine, fortunately, had no objections to firearms or hunting, provided I put safety first.

By autumn, I’d taken a hunter education course and had begun asking Uncle Mark about deer rifles. I’d read instructions on how to field-dress animals large and small. And I’d started seeing with new eyes. I noticed game trails with keener interest. When I crossed bobcat tracks, I was just a curious conservationist. But when I found sign of deer or hare, I became hungrily attentive to details and patterns. When I came across fresh scrapes—patches where a recent dusting of snow had been disturbed and the leaves beneath pawed up—I looked to see where the buck was headed.

But I was still uneasy with the idea of calling myself a hunter. On one hand, the word brought Mark’s careful respect to mind. On the other, it conjured thoughts of fatal shooting accidents in the news and of the deer parts unceremoniously dumped along our road each autumn. It made me think of the time years before when someone slashed both tires on one side of Catherine’s car; we had put up a sign telling hunters to stay clear of the house we were renting. It made me think of the young buck my logging partner and I once found near a small brook. The whitetail had taken a bullet in the chest but was never recovered by the hunter. Could I stomach being associated with all this?

Late that October, a local hunter gave me a few packages from his freezer. Neither Catherine nor I had cooked red meat in many years. With rare exceptions—her brother’s delicious Italian meatballs at our wedding the year before, his even more exquisite slow-cooked braciole at Thanksgiving—we hadn’t even tasted any.

One week when Catherine was out of town, I thawed a piece of steak. My first attempt at cooking and eating a chunk of wild meat seemed like an oddly private thing. I sliced it thin, lightly sautéed the strips in a cast iron skillet, then let them simmer in a creamy sauce with onions and mushrooms. The moose meat felt strange between my teeth, the flavor only distantly familiar. It settled uncertainly in my stomach as I imagined the huge dark animal it had come from. A night or two later, I sat down to the leftovers. The strangeness was gone. The flesh went down easily, tasted rich and good.

I dug around in a bottom drawer and came up with the well-worn belt Mark had made for me 25 years before, encircled by arrows with the big brass buckle. When he first gave it to me, I had to punch extra holes to snug it around my small hips. Now it was too short. I mentioned it to Mark and asked him for suggestions on how to make a new one.

That winter a cardboard box arrived in the mail. Inside was an old hunting knife Mark had found amidst his basement’s bewildering array of tackle and gear. It was secured in a heavy-duty sheath he’d crafted for me, a red buck on its front, black deer tracks hidden by the haft. With it were a deer call and a new belt, decorated with arrows like the old one, but narrower and with its own buckle of polished deer antler bearing the scrimshawed image of a flint arrowhead Mark had scratched there years before. The belt went around my waist immediately.

A year later, I stepped in among balsam saplings to retrieve that soft, white hare. It was the second snowshoe I’d shot within a hundred yards of our house. I looked down at a living being transformed to meat, the stain of blood on snow. A familiar hollow grief welled up. I had hunted because I enjoyed the challenge and was compelled by the chase: finding fresh tracks by chance, circling the thicket to be sure my quarry had not escaped, catching a first glimpse, circling wider to intercept the hare along a low, densely wooded ridge.

But why had I killed? I had wanted to succeed in the hunt, yes. But, having done so, did I need the meat from this particular warm, limp form? Clearly not. I would enjoy it, but my body did not depend on this one for survival.

What I did need was the honest confrontation, the reminder of what it means to eat. This one creature’s heart had stopped beating, but its flesh was far from lifeless. It would go on, not as bobcat or coyote or owl, but as human.

© 2008 Tovar Cerulli