For almost all our history, humans lived as hunter-gatherers. Civilized life is, in the sweep of the centuries, a very new development. If you could somehow pluck a person out of a randomly selected moment in human history, odds are that person would know intimately how to kill and gut and skin and cook an animal. The past produced us, as fire produces heat, and surely we must be shaped by the lives of our ancestors.
Are we? In 2018, hunters are six percent of the population. The skills and attitudes that underlie the tradition are slipping away. Recently I had dinner with a friend whose grandfather organized a hunting club and built a lodge where several generations of several families gathered every deer season. Now, he says, the club is turning gray; there are fewer kids and fewer kids who want to learn to hunt. Who asks about the work it takes to put meat on supermarket shelves, the scenes of corralling and slaughter and gutting? Just as funeral directors keep the preparations for burial well out of view, slaughterhouses veil the bloody reality. Modern society outsources death.
Is this healthy? Maybe the human psyche is infinitely malleable, and homo sapiens can zoom-evolve into a different sort of creature. But maybe not; maybe the anxiety, loneliness, and anomie so common in our culture are not part of the necessary human condition. Maybe we’re still made for a world where we each have a hand in the essential business of living. Maybe, somehow, humans have created a world they don’t quite belong in.
My father was no rebel, but in one way he was odd. Despite a youth in New York City and an (almost) lifelong allegiance to the Democratic party, he was a dedicated hunter, the only one in our suburban D.C. neighborhood. Imagine the sensation when his station wagon pulled into our driveway carrying a dead bear on top! (My mother dutifully did her best to cook the meat.) So I learned to hunt, as soon as I was old enough, and counted it a necessary mark of manhood even though I didn’t know any other kids who hunted.
My father died a year ago, and it’s been a couple of decades since we hunted together. Still I set out after game every November; my 7 millimeter Mauser, my hunting knife, and my sense of belonging are all gifts from him.
A little math shows that my success rate as a deer hunter, over the last forty-five years, is roughly six percent. But once, several years back, I set out up Cedar Mountain, deciding that a tangle of mountain laurel on its flank was a November haven. To walk through a patch of mountain laurel (without crawling) is almost impossible; to get through quietly, impossible. Once rifle shots echo on opening day of hunting season, wouldn’t deer seek these impenetrable acres?
So I hunted the edge, walking with as much stealth as my feet could find, pausing every few minutes to listen and look. I climbed almost to the top of Cedar, where the laurel gives way to open oak and birch forest, followed around the edge of shrubbery and began to descend. The morning offered what I’d see if I shut my eyes and imagined “November”: dense dark-gray clouds, slick brown leaves underfoot, breath a small hanging fog.
I noticed an oddly level, roughly circular stretch of ground, and bent to examine it, wondering if charcoal had been fired there once upon a time, or a cabin built. A noise, and I glanced up to find a doe staring back at me. I straightened. The doe vanished. I knew, from many other meetings with deer, that I should wait. Wait, pretend to be a tree, and watch.
Ten? No more than twenty minutes later, the doe returned, maybe twenty yards away. Deer are curious. I raised my rifle, and shot her through the chest. She sprinted forward, ten yards or so, and collapsed. Standing over her as she shuddered towards death, emotions swelled and popped inside me.
I felt — pumped, the way I’d feel if I’d hit a difficult shot to win a basketball game. Guilty, for feeling even a moment’s triumph in the death of a fellow being. Awed, by the presence of a passage out of this world. I felt a duty, to … thank the deer’s soul for its gift? (But the doe had given me nothing; I’d taken.) Death demands rituals; they help us assemble all these emotions into something coherent. No-one has ever taught me any hunting death rituals, so I made one up: knelt and bowed my head. This seemed inadequate to the point of silly, but it was something.
I stabbed the doe’s chest, right below the breastbone, and worked the blade down. With the stomach open, I could reach inside and carve away everything. I’d heard somewhere that the meat would be better preserved if you removed certain organs first, but I didn’t even know which was which, and my bare wet hands were turning numb in the cold air. So anything I could cut, I cut, and, leaving a steaming mound of guts atop the leaf litter, buckled my knife and shouldered my rifle and dragged the doe downhill.
Downhill ended at Cedar Run, a series of spills from one pool to the next. I’d forgotten to bring a rope, so all I could do was grip the back legs. I tried to drag my prize along the edge, but when the edge turned steep, down splashed the body and I. It was a pull of almost a mile, into pools and out, past rocks and over them. I’ve never worked harder in my life.
Because my Geo Metro had a hatchback, I managed to lift the doe inside and bungee-cord the hatch shut. I drove the doe to a guy in Craryville who does butchering during deer season. I’ve done the job myself before, but learned that if you don’t have the skills, you end up with an awful lot of stew meat that could have been part of a chop or a roast.
I killed a wild animal for meat. Was this an immoral act?
“Aw Jesus! Seriously?” That’s what I’d hear, if I asked another hunter about the morality of the act. The first Buddhist precept tells us to “Abstain from taking life.” Friends and acquaintances, when I mention that I hunt, are usually appalled.
Those who oppose eating meat stand on firm ground that’s getting firmer. We draw a circle of reverence around all human life, fueling furious struggles over abortion, the death penalty, assisted suicide. So why shouldn’t animals be welcomed inside the circle? Is there any rational reason it’s evil to kill homo sapiens, while all other species are potential tools, or prey?
Maybe most critical: as climate change year by year drives the global ecosystem towards chaos, it’s becoming clear that one of the simplest ways to help is to make your meals from vegetables.
But a meat-eater who stands against hunting fails to make sense. How could it be morally correct to buy meat in a store – where it’s source is likely a factory farm – rather than take on the task yourself, ending a life as free as any creature’s can be?
But do I really hunt because hunting is morally superior to shopping? No. I hunt because I love it.
I felt a fool when I was fifteen, got lost in the mountains, blundered out onto a dirt road, and walked the wrong way until a couple of contemptuous old guys redirected me. But that day helped me realize that navigating trail-less is only another problem to be solved. When I lost the Pacific Crest Trail under snow last summer, when I get confused in an empty corner of the Taconics, I don’t panic, because I’ve gone the panic route already. I’ve hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and bushwhacked many miles around the Taconics and Catskills, but hunting, more than anything, taught me how to be in the woods. I’m never so alert, so socketed in to the day, as when I hunt. Is it because a life is at stake?
Everything registers. A scrap of pawed-up ground might have been cleared by hungry deer. A round-ish depression in the grass might have been a bed. A gouge or scrape on a tree might have been left by a buck rubbing antlers. But I’m also acutely aware of impressions that have nothing to do with deer: the odor of smoke, the smudged color of the sky, breeze shaking witch hazel flowers. The purpose of hunting is death. It makes me feel more alive.
I have no evidence, but why not wonder: could meditation have its roots in hunting? Certainly, the experience of sitting on a stand for an hour, attempting to rivet your senses onto the slightest sound and movement, is similar to an hour spent trying to listen to your breath. I didn’t become serious about meditation practice until middle age, but it immediately felt familiar: how elusive focus can be, how easy to fall into a trance of useless thought, and how often moments of silence and clarity dawn. Those are precious minutes, when you perform the rare feat of actually paying attention. For most of human history, watchfulness in the woods (or deserts, or tundra) must have been a constant occupation. It seems odd, but not at all implausible, to imagine that the tradition the Buddha eventually shaped into teachings against killing, and towards inner peace, began with the search for meat.
Hunting, I feel like I fit in the woods. Of course I’m armed with a high-powered rifle made by steel mills and chainsaws and lumber yards and factories. Yes, my fleece-lined jacket was made in China, and arrived in America via a shipping container. But the alertness and patience needed to hunt come from me. It feels honest. Doesn’t life subsist on death? Don’t daily deaths enable our comfortable world? Aren’t i confronting this with my own hands and eyes? I trust the discomfort of hunting.
But — couldn’t I live with less death? Be the cause of less suffering?
I don’t know how to know, without bluntly facing the dilemma. That means I’ll probably be very quietly walking the mountains again in November, walking and waiting, with my 7 millimeter Mauser and my doubts.