Was that the faint sound of steps? Of hooves crunching dry leaves under the thin blanket of snow?
Seated on the ground, I shifted to the right and half-raised my .54 caliber caplock.
Moments later, I saw deer some forty yards off, walking toward me among the pines. Two, three, four of them. I brought the rifle to my shoulder and eased back the hammer. My third year of hunting would come to a close in less than a week and I had yet to kill a whitetail.
The first in line was a doe. My tag was for a buck. The little parade had closed to less than thirty yards now, weaving through the trees. Heart pounding, I stared along the iron sights, watching for antlers.
If the chance came, I would probably shoot. Yet I couldn’t be sure. I had mixed feelings about the idea.
It would have sat more easily if I believed, with Descartes, that animals are senseless: nothing more than animated meat. But I don’t.
How different am I, after all, from my fellow primates? Some days I don’t feel like the brightest monkey in the forest. If my mind was not cluttered with abstract ideas, might I experience the world much as an ape does?
If I cannot exclude all non-humans from the realm of sentience, by what logic can I exclude some, drawing the line somewhere south of chimpanzee? A deer is not a primate, but it does have senses—perhaps different in kind, perhaps different mainly in degree. So does the hawk. So does the rabbit on which the hawk feeds. If we give credence to old teachings and recent science, even plants have kinds of awareness.
Perhaps the world is more complex and more beautiful than we have imagined. And more terrible.
My vegan diet had taken its toll not only on plants, but on animals, too—those displaced by the conversion of forest and prairie to farmland, those minced by the combines that harvested my grains, those gassed in their burrows to protect my salad greens, those shot in defense of the soybeans that became my saintly tofu.
Now my omnivorous diet was taking its toll on vertebrates more directly.
And here I was in the woods, wondering how willing I was to exact that price myself.
The lead doe was closer now. Looking past her, I could see that the second in line was a doe as well. The third, also antlerless, looked like a six-month-old. And the fourth?
Ah, another doe.
There would be no killing today, and no answers. Yet my heart still pounded.
The lead doe stood broadside a dozen paces away, her breath pluming in the frosty air, her ears and great, dark eyes focused on me. All four deer paused, aware of my crouching form. Unsure what I was, they hesitated. They looked and listened. Then, slowly, they turned back the way they had come.
Trembling, I sat and watched them go.
© 2010 Tovar Cerulli