One hundred and sixty yards is roughly the length of one and a half football fields. It’s also the distance of the first shot I ever took while hunting. I’d spent all day out in the snowy January woods of West Virginia stalking a herd of whitetail through the woods, following their single file tracks around pine trees, through leafless snagging weeds. The tracks lead to an open field where one grand buck and his ladies and children moved nervously on a white background. They bunched together, the big male turned his head this way and that. I hid behind the grey tree trunks and propped the barrel of my rifle into the nooks of a tree’s branches trying to find a line of sight that didn’t obscure my scope. They remained bunched together and moved as one and they kept moving. Not a good shot, keep following them. Moving out of the field they hoofed down a hill and beyond view. I followed and kept my distance until they settled in another long sloping field and took my place behind a mound of earth covered in frozen leaves, ice, and snow. I struggled to get a good view and they kept their haunches to me, white tails nodding back and forth, agitated. They kept moving, unsure of where I might be but gambling that I hadn’t flanked them. They kept moving down the long field bordered on three sides by thick woods. They kept moving and were gone.
I grew up fishing but since my parents were divorced and I only saw my father twice a month I didn’t get to fish as much as he had when he was young. My favorite fishing story involves catching exactly zero fish. When I was in college, my father called me on the way to the Smoky Mountains to trout fish. He had my two older cousins with him. They were going to be fly fishing which I’d done very little of. He called me at 7:30 am on a Saturday morning. “Get up and get ready. We’ll be by in about 10 minutes to pick you up.” I complied and 30 minutes later I was up to my tits in cold mountain stream water casting at a 10 inch Brown Trout near a waterfall. I was massively hungover and happy as hell. My family fishes. It’s what we do.
My father grew up making cork lures with his dad and brother which they sold in local bait stores. This was in the mid 60s. The simple lures had little eyes painted on them with feathers of different colors all designed to mimic the movement of a fish’s body as the lure moves through the water. It’s the most primitive lure design you could possibly come up with and it still works well just as it always did despite the glut of new and improved lures on the market. It’s a real connection to the past. When I speak to my father about this he says “they were just trying to make an extra bit of money.” He acknowledges the connection but he never thought about it at the time because he was so immersed in it. He fished probably three times a week growing up. Not so for me. I went fishing probably every four months, if that. It took me years to learn basic things like knots because I wasn’t tying them every day or even every month. So, every time we went to a lake or a stream I had to relearn these things and it always embarrassed me. I always felt like I was just hanging around, useless. My cousins knew how to do these things. I always had to ask.
But, no one in my family hunted, not really. My father and grandfather hunted squirrels and rabbits when they were younger. They hunted birds a bit. As a boy, we had a Boykin Spaniel for years that we’d take out and he would flush doves in the air and we would shoot badly and miss them. Then we’d go home. This wasn’t a lot of fun. I went turkey hunting exactly once, nothing. Hunting isn’t easy. It’s work. It takes knowledge and it takes practice. It also takes patience and being comfortable with physical discomfort.
I hunt for a lot of reasons. I hunt because I’m an environmentalist and a conservationist. I hunt because I believe that I’m closer to the Earth when I’m engaging with it and there’s something at stake. It doesn’t have that ‘tourist’ feeling that hikes do where you’re taking posed photographs on top of low mountains clasping your best friend, putting your stamp on the experience. In hunting there’s something at stake. Something could very well die. In fact, that’s the goal. I hunt because I want to know the life I’ve taken every time I put a piece of flesh in my mouth. I want to know that I said a prayer before I went out into the woods and that when I’m using the body of the animal that I have killed I am appreciative of it. I hunt because I can wrap my young brother in a whitetail pelt and it will keep him warm. I hunt for competence and familiarity with tools and the land. I hunt for independence and to escape from the shame of industrial meat production. What I do is the antithesis of the stockyard. It’s the key to that imprisoning gate. I hunt because my family is there and the animals and wind and sun are there. I hunt for love and I hunt to escape.
I hunt because we don’t know how to do anything anymore. Our list of essential skills has vanished. All we know how to do is make money and pay other people to do things. Fine, but think about that. We can’t do anything. We can’t feed ourselves, even with a garden. We can’t clothe ourselves. We can’t build anything at all. There is nothing at all that we can do for ourselves. If you can then you’re the exception and you’re becoming more and more exceptional. I hunt for competence, discipline, and craft.
The shot was one hundred and sixty yards according my rangefinder. My heart was racing. My hands shook. I’d taken shots at this distance at least a hundred times but this time a life was at stake. A bad shot meant suffering. It meant a buck disappearing into the brush, wounded. It meant, possibly, an hour or more spent trying to end that suffering. It meant a beautiful animal spent that time choking on blood in fear, trying desperately to hide. I pulled the trigger and the buck rolled back to his left. He took a half dozen staggered bounding steps, fell, and lay still in the snow. As the adrenaline died down I started coming to myself again. A friend took a picture of me with the buck. I’m crouched but I didn’t pose with the animal. Looking at it now I’m actually standing between the lens and the buck like I was guarding it from the picture. Maybe it’s the modern equivalent of a cave painting, something to memorialize the hunt. Maybe photos are just habit. I’m still conflicted about this photo.
We butchered the animal and set aside the hide to be sent to the tanner. All the cuts of meat were put in a cold room for the evening and I remember looking at it all, about 80 pounds total, and I remember being so thankful. I remember thinking that this would be what I ate for the next 7 or 8 months depending on how I stretched it. I recall a feeling of deep symbiosis. It’s hard to describe, maybe, but easy to understand the reasons for this. I felt ‘not alone’. How strange is that? It felt like a ritual and I felt like I was not alone. I had never felt that when fishing.
Over the coming months every time I cooked for someone and I made meat I told them how beautiful the buck had been and how thankful I was. It made real for me the truth that for every thing that lives on this planet something else must die and it made real the truth that this animal’s life was saving me from death. I hunt and I’ll keep hunting.