My dad wanted me to be a hunter. He spent my childhood dragging me from place to place in search of monster whitetails. Fifty-one weeks out of the year were spent preparing for the opening of buck season.
In early November my dad and I would hop in his brown, beat up F-150 and we would drive across the mountain to the apple orchard. A man in coveralls greeted us at the gate, and we joined the line of other buck hunters who had come to buy ground apples. For those of you not from a farming community, ground apples fall from the trees before they can be picked. They get bruised and pock marked, and because they are so visually unappealing, they can’t be sold for human consumption. Hunters used to come by the dozens to have the beds of their pickups filled. We dumped the apples in the woods opposite the house. I enjoyed stepping to the top of the giant pile and watching the apples fall every time I shifted my feet.
Dad hunted behind the house every week day and on weekends he and my grandfather traveled to neighboring Hampshire county where they were part owner in a three hundred acre camp. He rode ATVs and hiked and hunted and butchered. And I thought that my dad was the coolest because of it. I couldn’t articulate it, but he lived a life of true adventure. He was out in the elements, hunting for food, a resource we relied on for the remainder of the year.
We were terribly poor when I was a kid. My mom got pregnant with me when she was barely out of high school. She worked as a dish washer and he worked at the family grocery store. They weren’t wealthy according to any standard. The deer that he killed during those times weren’t killed for sport or for fun. They were killed for meat. They were killed to free up money for Christmas presents. I don’t for a second doubt that he enjoyed it, but during those years, hunting was necessary.
When I got old enough, my dad handed me a shotgun and took me squirrel hunting. I was terrible at it. I moved too much and talked too much. I shot squirrels and lost them under the leaves (we didn’t yet know that I needed glasses). I missed more squirrels than I hit. It’s really hard to genuinely enjoy something that you’re terrible at, and my early experiences soured me on hunting. But I stuck with it because it was important to my dad. It was one of the only times that I had his approval, and it was one of the only things we did together.
So I stuck with it. I got a little better each year, and eventually I graduated to deer hunting. The first year I was allowed to hunt for deer, my dad took me with him to Hampshire county. There was snow on the ground and sleet falling from the air. My dad and I hunted the morning and then walked back to the stand in the afternoon. All I can remember of the trip is that he yelled at me for walking too loudly. I didn’t get a deer; I didn’t even see one.
Over the next few hunting trips, I would see a deer, and my heart start beating wildly. I pulled my rifle up and looked through the scope; I struggled to pull the trigger. It was difficult for me to rationalize and understand the taking of life for sustenance. That idea itself is horribly complex. I’d been eating meat my entire lift, and I’d eaten a lot of game meat. Hell, I’d skinned more deer than I could count. But I’d never killed anything myself.
When I finally did kill a deer, I shot it with a slug barrel on my squirrel hunting gun. The deer ran, and it was late in the evening. I couldn’t find it. My dad had to look for it the next day. When he found it possums had eaten part of the hind quarters and entrails. A big part of the deer was unusable.
The next year, I told my dad that I didn’t want to hunt anymore. Despite all the warning signs and red flags, he was surprised and disappointed when I told him. I’d like to say he understood, but I’m not sure he was sympathetic.
Hunting is a tradition that runs deep in my family. My grandfather, great uncles, Dad, my uncles- they are all hunters. I was the first to flat out refuse to go.
The root of my refusal wasn’t in some higher cause or morality. I was a hyperactive kid. I needed constant mental stimulation. I consumed books and video games. I always experimented with new hobbies. I was out of shape, pampered, and I found waking up early disagreeable. Hunting was inconvenient. It required me to wake before dawn and sit in the type of cold that clothes can’t protect against. I hated to hunt.
But I decided to give hunting another chance this year. It’s funny how our values as children invert when we become adults. Everything that I used to hate about hunting is now what I find attractive about it. I love exposing myself to new experiences. I’ve never taken a deer because I wanted to. Hunting was always forced on me. But this year, I decided that I wanted to have the experience of hunting.
So I borrowed clothes from family, and I made preparations for opening day of buck-rifle season. My father and I checked the tree stands and cut shooting lanes. We walked the property looking for game trails, buck rubbings, and scat. I cut pine twigs and then put them with my clothes in a heavy black trash bag. I sprayed earth scented perfume in my boots. I sighted my rifle and practiced my shooting.
My wife wanted to try hunting this year as well. Neither of us slept the night before we were so filled with excitement.
It was still dark when we started walking to the tree stand. The moon was remarkably bright. My wife and I live in the middle of town. Street lights and ambient light from cars made me forget just how vivid and bright the moon and stars could be. There was snow on the ground, and the combination of the full moon and reflected light made the world come alive in the twilight.
The walk to the tree stand wasn’t far, but we took our time creep-walking, trying to minimize our sound. It was nearly impossible to walk quietly through the ice-crusted snow, but we tried. Kellie walked ahead of me with just her rifle. She waved her hand behind her as she crossed the ridge where our tree stand overlooks a creek bed below. I could make out the fuzzy silhouette of a buck standing a little more fifty yards away. Kellie raised her rifle, shook her head and then lowered it.
She couldn’t get a clean shot from where she was. Her hands were too shaky, she needed to rest the rifle. She moved toward a downed tree, taking a few steps and then stopping when the buck raised its head. She stalked the deer for several long minutes. I sat on the ground, watching, and hoping she’d be successful. Kellie reached the tree. She sat her rifle on it and readied herself to shoot. The deer ran off while she was trying to find it in the scope. She let out a quiet, frustrated groan, and then each of us laughed with excitement and disappointment.
We saw a few yearlings and small doe the rest of the morning, but nothing we could get a shot on or had a desire to shoot in the first place. The snow melt running into the creek provided a backing track to the singing birds and the barking squirrels. Kellie started to shuffle in her seat around eleven, and I knew it was time for her to leave. We crept back out the same way we’d come in, jumping up another doe on our way back to the car.
I went home just long enough to drop Kellie off and grab a bite to eat. I couldn’t wait to get back to the woods. I imagined a monster buck passing under my stand the entire time I was eating lunch. I’d heard people talk about buck fever, but I never experienced it myself.
I climbed back up in the stand, alone, and within an hour a button buck wandered into my hollow. He wasn’t a monster, but he was an adult deer. He would provide delicious and healthy meat. I wasn’t nervous when I raised the rifle. I watched him through the scope, waiting for a clean shot. The buck walked broadside between two trees. I put my crosshair just behind the front shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The shot rang out and reverberated up and down the hollow.
I’ve known people who view hunting as cruel. They think that the act of shooting a deer with a rifle and then eating its flesh is somehow worse, somehow more perverse than buying shrink-wrapped meat from the store. But what those people may not know is that most hunters feel a deep connection to the land they hunt and the animals they kill and eat. My dad and grandfather both spoke constantly about the responsibility of the hunter to kill an animal clean, to only take the shots that you know will end a deer’s life quickly and humanely. The deer I shot was dead before it hit the ground. Both lungs and the heart were punctured.
We use every part of the deer. The neck makes a wonderful roast. The hind quarters are used for roasts and steak. We cut the tenderloin into medallions and fry in butter for breakfast. The front shoulders get de-boned and ground for hamburger. We treasure that meat because the effort to secure that nourishment is real for us. We walked the woods. We sat in a tree, cold, for hours, waiting and hoping. We spent time away from our families, and we pulled that meat from the forest. We took the guts out and the skin off. We cut the meat from the bones and packaged it.
That is a deep connection to food that many people don’t get to experience. It makes a person so much more thankful for prepackaged convenience. I was more aware of the human effort and animal sacrifice that brought me my breakfast sausage this morning as a result of my experience hunting, as silly as that sounds. I am thankful that I don’t have to rely on my skill as a hunter alone to feed my family.
I’ve hunted more since that first buck, and when I go out to sit in the woods, I’ll bring home a deer about a third of the time. That’s not a very good average if you’re depending on that meat as a primary source of food. I often think about my forebears that had to hunt for survival. The failure that I feel after spending an entire day hunting only to return home empty handed must pale in comparison. I can swing by the supermarket on the way home. But the idea of taking a chance, of suffering through the elements without knowing if that suffering will bear fruit, is appealing to me as a spiritual practice. It’s humbling in this world that discourages patience and encourages instant gratification to be made to realize that the universe doesn’t give a damn about what you want.
And spiritualism is an inseparable part of hunting in my estimation. A person goes and sits in the woods with nothing to do but watch and wait. Sure, some people take books, but any serious hunter will tell you that a hunter who reads the entire time won’t see anything. People wrongly assume that a person can hear deer coming. I was one of those people. You can’t. Deer move silently through the woods with uncanny precision. They never break a twig or rattle leaves. Doing nothing increases your chances of a successful hunt infinitely.
The only thing you can do to increase your chances of success in the woods, is nothing. To do nothing effectively and for long periods of time takes an inordinate amount of effort that isn’t apparent to the uninitiated. Hunting white tail deer in West Virginia requires diligent watching and mindfulness. Deer are camouflaged well and make little noise, and the key to bringing one home is seeing it before it sees you. The hunter has to keep a close eye on his thoughts.
I don’t pretend to know much at all about hunting, this year has been my only experience with deer hunting since childhood. But what I can say is that I intend to hunt next year, and that I am thankful for the meat that will sustain those I care about.