“Life and Death”

Northern Woodlands, Winter 2006

Finding the kill site was easy. A few days earlier, on the first morning of rifle season, a pair of nearby shots had cracked the frosty quiet of sunrise. I was curious whether the hunter had been lucky enough to take a buck in those early hours, so I went looking.

Tufts of white and brown hair snagged on fallen branches said that a deer had been dragged along a narrow game path. A hundred yards farther, the drag signs stopped. The body must have been pulled up to the path from the right-hand side, across a slope covered with rocks and wild raspberries. Avoiding that tangle, I kept to the path and circled around to the hemlock-cloaked shoulder of a ridge where the hunter might have fired those shots. I could have missed the spot in the brush below, but for the blaze-orange trash. Someone had field-dressed a whitetail there, leaving behind a pair of giant, bright, plastic gloves, complete with the wrapper advising: “Don’t Litter.”

It was my first deer season and I’d been hunting alone. While scouting, I’d also found a treestand over illegal bait—two blocks of salt. Another day, a bowhunter told me he’d fatally wounded a young buck but failed to find it; he paid only brief lip service to regret.  In a neighboring town, two local men were caught jacking deer with a floodlight.

Now this trash dangled from my hand, a potent expression of disrespect: for the land, its owners, and the graceful animal whose life was forfeit.

Even though these incidents paled in comparison with the more flagrant crimes other hunters had described to me, I didn’t care for the unseen company I was keeping. I left my rifle locked away the next weekend, knowing I’d soon have the chance to hunt with an uncle in Massachusetts.

For years, slobby, callous hunting confirmed my own anti-hunting sentiments. Though I grew up fishing and happily eating anything but Brussels sprouts, I became a vegetarian at 20, refusing to take life. I recall the last brookie I caught that year—the body jeweled in scales so fine they blended into a smooth glistening skin—and the sharp twinge I felt as my knife severed the head.

A decade later, I began eating flesh again. I had come to see that my body might need animal protein. And I had come to accept that, whatever I ate, my life was sustained by the deaths of other organisms. I could not achieve innocence by consuming only vegetables, grains, and soy products like tofu. I knew that the clearing of land for agriculture had destroyed millions of acres of forest habitat, and that many farmers had to kill deer to protect crops, including soybeans.

To my uneasy surprise, I started to think about becoming a hunter. If I was going to eat fellow vertebrates, I couldn’t hide behind the sanitized illusion of plastic packages on the supermarket shelf. My first kill was a snowshoe hare. I tracked it in an inch of fresh powder one afternoon, noting where it paused and stood to nibble the bud of a maple seedling, the toes of each rear foot clearly outlined. I finally spotted it crouching among the bare branches of a fallen balsam top. Part of me took the shot and gutted the hare.  Part of me watched, digesting the idea. I carried the animal to my house 70 yards away, skinned it, and simmered the meat, following a recipe my uncle had sent.

Yet I do not fish or hunt solely to kill and eat. As Canada’s famous ungulate expert Valerius Geist put it, “I no more hunt to kill deer than I garden to kill cabbages.” Nor do I hunt to help manage local game populations. I hunt for a complex web of reasons: to learn about myself and the place I inhabit, to be nourished by the land and participate in its rhythms, to answer a call for which I have no name.

Now that autumn often finds me in the woods with a bow or gun, disrespectful hunters gall me all the more. With their arrogance, they demonstrate how close contact with the land can further alienate us from it. Approached with humility and reverence, such contact helps us recall our place in the natural world, reminding us to celebrate all those lives intertwined with ours.

On Cape Cod two weeks after that first pair of early morning shots, sunrise was greeted once more by a sudden blast. Hearing it from where I sat a quarter-mile away, I knew my uncle had made a clean kill. Minutes later we stood in the misty rain, thankful yet grieved, the whitetail lying there at our feet. We moved quietly through the rest of that day’s work: the drag out, the drive back to his house, and the long hours with boning knives. Although no deer came my way in our four days together, my uncle insisted that I leave with half his venison, as generous with me as the land had been with him.

© 2006 Tovar Cerulli