In March of 2011 I read this article. It is one of my favorite pieces of literature and I have gone back to it many times, because I identify with it well and it echoes a lot of how I experience nature.
In the article an avid hiker/backpacker challenges himself to better understand the people he shares nature with and in effect becomes a better outdoorsman. Those people he is trying to learn about are hunters, men and women who take to the fields and streams that he frequents wearing bright orange and stalk the forest trying to take a part of it. This article inspired me to learn hunting, and four years later (this past November) I became someone who I would feel worthy of calling a hunter.
First, I think a lot of people shoot animals without being what I would call a hunter and I didn't want to be one of those people. I didn't want a freezer full of deer that someone else cleaned and butchered for me. I didn't want to look down from a deer stand hoping I would get lucky. For me, hunting is about 5% of making the shot, and 95% preparing an opportunity for yourself. Making those preparations is why it took me four years to pull the trigger on an animal, in this case a deer. Animals are beautiful, worthy of respect, and if I was going to remove one from its home, I was going to be worthy of doing so. I wanted the respect from the animal to be the reason I was comfortable making the decision to consume it.
In becoming a hunter I learned so much about the animals I wanted to hunt which were mostly deer and rabbit. My way of looking at the woods changed completely based upon what I was looking for. Where deer sleep, and what they eat and when they do these things in the day all had a huge impact on how I planned my hunt. All of this preparation was absolutely the reason that I had a deer in four hours on the first day. I was practiced with my rifle, I was confident in my location’s attractiveness to deer, and I was there at the time of day that they would have been coming to visit. I was actually down to the hour on when I thought I would make my shot because I put the time in. Luck comes into it, but Seneca said that luck is where preparation meets opportunity and no one has put forth a better definition since.
There were a couple reasons besides community with nature that I wanted to become a hunter as well. Primarily, I wanted to continue to eat meat. I enjoy meat of all kinds, but there are moral compunctions which are tightly intertwined with eating meat. By purchasing meat, you're making sure that someone else is dealing with that conflict for you. I don't blame you for that or expect everyone to be a part of meat production in any way, but I prefer to know myself deeply. I needed to answer the question for myself of whether or not I could kill an animal for food, or if I was only comfortable when someone else did it for me. Only with that knowledge could I go on to make the decision to continue to eat meat.
Next I wanted to participate in a more primal part of myself. One of my favorite authors is Jack London. If you haven't read his works like The Call of the Wild and White Fang you absolutely should. I've been around the campfire and seen an ancient part of myself in the flames. It's mystical and I'm not unique in that, but Jack London can capture it for you if you refuse or are unable to see it.
I never thought I would have a moral compunction at killing an animal if I thought I was ready. That burning part of me has been put out by multiple combat deployments. I've known for a long time that there is a switch activated within me that not everyone has. I hope you never need that switch because it only appears when life makes it necessary, but once you realize that the switch can be controlled, you can silence the machine. The outside world will cease to be a concern, you will not shake from nerves, you will fall back onto muscle memory, and you will make the shot.
I don't remember how cold and wet the ground was though my clothes were muddy when I stood up, and I really thought I would cry but I didn't. It was right above freezing and the sun was at a low angle behind me. I couldn't feel my fingers. I was so far away that I had to check with the magnification of the rifle scope to be sure that this wasn't a big dog. But I silenced the machine, and when I saw those antlers and confirmed the target, I placed a shot directly behind the shoulder blade, and the deer was dead within ten seconds.
If you're not familiar, some of this may seem gory, but I assure you that this is how you get any meat you have ever eaten. Some man or machine does some version of what I'm about to describe and there's no way around it. Steaks simply don't come from trees.
When you have successfully hunted an animal, you have to field dress it. You do this for two reasons.
1. It's heavy to carry back a deer in the first place, even more so if all of the organs are still in place. Because I was in a conservation area (and had won a lottery to hunt there in the first place where only 100 deer would be taken from 7000 acres of prime Missouri wilderness, Weldon Spring if you're curious) there would be no four-wheeler to just haul the deer back. I put him on my back and walked to the road where I could back my car in. This was about 20 pounds easier without the offal. I had brought a couple lawn bags to wrap him in to not make a mess all over myself, but it was not an easy trek.
2. You want to be careful to not let the meat spoil. Removing a large mass of body-heat is a quick way to help cool the meat and prevent bacterial growth.
After you field dress and transport the animal you have to butcher it. This includes removing non-essential parts such as the pelt, and head. Normally people will just pay to have a professional do this, but I wasn't trying to shirk this off on anyone. The whole point is to earn it, so paying someone $200 to do it for me was against the point.
So in my backyard on the patio I hung the deer by his back legs and removed his pelt. I was specifically trying to do it in a way which would leave me a deer-skin rug pattern. I think I achieved that. None of this animal was going to be taxidermied, but I wanted to learn everything I could from the experience, and part of that would be tanning. While I was able to make the pelt in the right shape, I realized by the end of the butchering that I was about done with deer hunting for the year, and was not going to complete the rug by preserving it.
I was able to remove the antlers, but the best way I found to do that was very much barbaric and involved a Sawzall. I wish there was a better way but I really couldn’t find one and I wanted the antlers to use next year in the hunt. If a large buck hears antlers clashing together, he will go investigate to fight off invaders to his territory, so I wanted to keep my antlers for next year.
Once you have this point complete, you take the animal to the ‘primals.’ What these look like differs everywhere, but I prefer the European method which leaves you with the ability to create a Guard of Honor Roast. If you’ve never seen one, they are grand. A deer size one would blow people’s mind since they are usually completed with Lamb.
This was one of the major things I really liked about butchering the animal. I got to make the cuts that I wanted. Steaks are as thick as I wanted. I kept the rib racks whole (except for one which was lost to the fatal wound). I got the best cuts of meat in the exact way I preferred. It was really freeing to realize that the standard way that American butchers prepare an animal were not going to dictate how I prepared mine. But I wouldn’t have been able to do this was I to have paid someone else to do it. I don’t know if I’ll pay to have it done next time, but if I don’t it will be for this reason.
All in all I would not recommend hunting as a way to get to know yourself. It is intense and requires dedication which is repaid by the experience, but costs a lot of time which you may not have. For me, the environment, the outdoors, and understanding my place were worth the investment. But that’s a steep price to pay and many people simply aren’t that interested in that understanding.
I will continue to hunt. I enjoyed it very much and will enjoy getting better at it. I doubt I will hunt bigger game than deer until the Rocky Mountain Elk population which is being introduced into Missouri is ready. Until then it will be duck (a new challenge) and rabbit.