Hunting lessons

Deer hunting season has been over for three hours now, and we have to chalk this year up to experience. No deer, but something of an education.

We learned about how, where, and when to look for deer, and what we should smell like while we’re doing it. We learned about deer blinds and tree stands, driving and stalking, guns and ammunition. I learned that waving your hunter-orange hat is the universal sign for “Don’t shoot me.”

I also learned that I’m not cut out for long stints in the woods, standing still and doing nothing.

There’s a lot of that in deer hunting. Hours and hours of it, sometimes. You stand (or sit), keeping noise and movement to a minimum, trying to act like a tree, listening for a sign of deer. Most hunters I know, while they acknowledge the hardship of it, find good in it as well.

I’ve cited Tovar Cerulli, who blogs at A Mindful Carnivore, before. This is what he has to say about being in the woods at dawn, waiting for deer:

I can’t recall ever taking so much pleasure in simply sitting, eyes closed. My mind went still, letting go of its churning thoughts about the next chapter I would be drafting for my book, or about the research I’m doing in grad school, interviewing hunters who came to the pursuit as adults. I was hardly even thinking about deer.

And he’s not alone. There seems to be an almost universal sense among people who frequent the woods – hunters, campers, hikers – that peace, or freedom, or meaning, is to be found there.

A couple of posts ago, when I griped about spending so many deerless hours in the trees, astute commenter Brooke posted a Wendell Berry poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,” by way of encouragement:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

And I want to be encouraged but, if there’s a gene for finding peace and freedom in the great outdoors, I was born without it. Maybe it’s linked to the gene for musical ability, or negotiation skills. While I think the woods can be very nice, especially when the sun is out and the weather is warm, having to be silent and still in them is, to me, nothing but a chore.

I envy what Wendell Berry and his fellow agrarian contemplatives find in the woods, and although I don’t share their sensibility, I enjoy reading some of them. E.B. White, when he left New York City for a farm in Maine just before the advent of World War II, wrote a number of wonderful essays anthologized in One Man’s Meat. Berry himself writes engagingly about agriculture, although I part company with him on some environmental issues. Walden, for the record, I loathe.

My problem, I think, is that I am soulless. I don’t look for meaning because I don’t believe life has any beyond that with which we endow it with our words and deeds. I think the plants and animals in the woods are interesting, but I don’t find majesty or mystery. My strategy for controlling anxiety is distraction, not contemplation, and sitting quietly with nothing to do doesn’t clear my head. How can your head be clear when the bathtub needs scrubbing? Are the property taxes due? What on earth am I going to make for dinner? Is that a deer tick?

So, in the many hours I spent in the woods over the course of the last two weeks, there was no peace. There was no tranquility. And there sure as hell was no ten-point buck.

But there was a doe. A real, live doe.

I heard her as I stood, still, next to a tree about twenty yards down from a ridge. She came from my right, behind me, and as soon as I heard the leaves rustle I knew it was a deer. A deer doesn’t sound like a squirrel, or a hunter, or the wind. The noise was a set of sharp, quick hoofsteps in the dry leaves. Clip … clip … clip clip.

The sound got closer and I slowly turned around. There she was, maybe thirty yards away, crossing my field of view across the ridge. She was easily in range, but there were two problems. First, I was facing down the slope, and to turn around and get a shot without spooking her would have been difficult. Second, she was right on the ridge line, which meant I couldn’t see what was on the other side of her. One of the cardinal rules of gun safety is to know what’s beyond your target.

She went by behind me and headed down the slope and into the woods to my left. I had a shot. For someone of my minimal skill, it was a long shot, probably fifty yards. It was through trees and brambles, but I had a shot.

I pointed my gun. I saw her head and chest, looking very small above my gun sight. But it took me just a moment too long to line up the notch on the sight with the bead on the muzzle. It wasn’t quite right, and I didn’t have confidence in the shot.

I didn’t take it. She went on her way, out of range.

In eight days of hunting, that’s the only deer I saw. Kevin saw none, although he heard at least two. I am haunted by the sight of her, and how a more experienced hunter would have handled the situation differently and undoubtedly gotten a shot. But I am constrained by the idea that I am out in the woods, with a deadly weapon, inexperienced and unsupervised. While I’d very much like to bring home a deer, my first priority is handling a gun safely and responsibly.

That deer, though, will be what gets me out to brave the cold and the tedium, the ticks and the greenbriar, next year at this time. There will never be tranquility, but there will, some day, be venison.

21 people are having a conversation about “Hunting lessons

  1. Wowzahs! Not even a teeny tiny trace of soul-awakening majesty out there? I guess if you tally up all the hours spent, fossil fuels burned, and expenses (guns, ammo, camo, blind, blaze orange, and what-have-you) the meat isn’t worth the endeavor without any peace or enjoyment in the process. But I didn’t realize you were hunting with DOE PERMITS!! Did you both win the lottery or just you? That changes just about everything – except all the discomforts! Maybe next year a cow share!

  2. But the fact remains that you managed to camouflage your scent enough to get a deer to come close enough to shoot, even if all the conditions weren’t right for the shot- that’s something, at least. And you kept a level head and considered the consequences of that shot, instead of wildly shooting, which is what I probably would have done.

  3. “I don’t look for meaning because I don’t believe life has any beyond that with which we endow it with our words and deeds. I think the plants and animals in the woods are interesting, but I don’t find majesty or mystery.”

    I’m exactly where you are in terms of the meaning of life. And yet…I do see mystery too. I have a mind that has trouble settling down as well. But there is in nature something that is *other* and I recognize that whatever meaning I assign to it is a flimsy, inadequate, arbitrary thing which cannot capture the beauty, intricacy and sometimes even majesty of life. Life is an inexhaustible wonder to me, and when I really taste it, engage it, feel my place within it, I do find deep peace, however briefly. I suppose it’s the sense of bringing that otherness and myself closer together, a fleeting wholeness, rightness. That’s as much as I get, but it’s nothing to sneeze at. I would wish for you the same, if you wanted it.

  4. Sarah — You got that right. Believe me, I’ve tallied up the fossil fuels, expenses, and discomforts. We’ll have to bag quite a few deer before we’ve paid for it all. I’m doing it because I want to know what it’s like to harvest my own meat from the wild (and we both had doe permits, but for different areas). Besides, getting meat from an overpopulated source, that’s been eating the things in the woods that humans can’t eat, seems like a good use of resources. I’d have to drive around an awful lot before I used more fossil fuels than it takes to grow a cow.

    But that’s almost beside the point. I’m not doing this to save the planet. I’m in it for the primal satisfaction of feeding myself. And I learned that pointing a gun at a deer in the woods is about as primal as it gets.

    Paula — I’d like to report that I managed to do that, but the truth is I went out stinky and was lucky enough to be downwind.

    Kate — I would wish it, I think. And it’s not like I’m bored by nature, or that I take it for granted. It’s still astonishing to me that little seeds in a paper packet actually sprout to become plants. (Or don’t, as is sometimes the case in my garden.) And that those tiny little turkey poults turned into big giant birds we could actually eat. And that animals and plants co-evolve so both can survive. And that I can go out and, in theory, bring home an animal that was born and bred in the wild and feed myself and my family with it for a year.

    What’s missing is the bond. These things interest me and engage me, but they don’t touch me. And, on one hand, I’d very much like to feel what it is that you, and so many others, do feel. But not feeling it is an essential part of my nature, for better or for worse. If I felt it, I wouldn’t be me.

  5. Souless? With all the passion, wit and chutzpah you have, my dear you are not souless. So you don’t have a eureaka moment when you’re cold and bored sitting in a deer blind, big whoop. You live life and take on very engaging endeavors, you write beautifully, cook wonderful dishes and touch many souls through words and deeds. Sister you are soulful.

    Bummer you didn’t bag any venison though. Damn it!

  6. This may or may not be of any help, Tamar:

    Early in my deer hunting, especially in my second and third years, as I got impatient about getting a deer and began to doubt that I ever would get one, I had trouble finding peace or meaning in the woods. I wasn’t having transcendental experiences, or even that many tranquil moments. I was getting cold and tired.

    In that sense, my recent experience (the description of which you quoted) was an anomaly, born of the extreme busy-ness of the past few months: it was a relief to just sit and be quiet. All that history underlies that line, “I can’t recall ever taking so much pleasure in simply sitting…” I do, of course, hope to find that same pleasure again and again in future years.

    Also, you accomplished something significant in having that shot opportunity and refraining, knowing “it wasn’t quite right.” That’s huge, listening to that wise voice of doubt. When the shot is right, I suspect you will know that, too.

    If it’s any further consolation, my uncle (who has decades of hunting experience) was recently told that a big buck was seen wandering near his parked car. At the time, while my uncle was in the woods nearby, hunting. As he said, the gods have a sense of humor.

    • Oh, and I, too, have been “haunted” by how a more experienced hunter would probably have handled situations I have found myself in, and would probably have gotten deer that I have not. But I’ve been far more darkly haunted by the couple of occasions on which I have taken shots I shouldn’t have, and only by blind luck avoided wounding an animal. This has me thinking about a possible blog post…

  7. Nature possesses a certain alien majesty to which even I am susceptible. The sense of being in it but not of it cannot be found in Thoreau or Wendell Berry; you will have to go to someone who writes for adults, like Wallace Stevens:

    She says, ‘I am content when wakened birds,
    Before they fly, test the reality
    Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
    But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
    Return no more, where, then, is paradise?’
    There is not any haunt of prophecy,
    Nor any old chimera of the grave,
    Neither the golden underground, nor isle
    Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
    Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
    Remote on heaven’s hill, that has endured
    As April’s green endures; or will endure
    Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
    Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
    By the consummation of the swallow’s wings.

  8. I’ve just recently begun visiting your blog, but I can tell you’re one of the least soulless people around. This first season, you may have been thinking about so many of the “how-to” details that that the “why-to” just wouldn’t settle down. And these days, we don’t get much practice just sitting with an empty mind. It’s sure not easy for me. Maybe by next year you’ll be ready to give it another try.

    On some future hunt, may you find both venison AND tranquility.

    One thing you can take comfort in… You made a good choice to pass on the shot if you weren’t certain. When the deer was on the ridgeline with only sky behind it, that’s a good time to not shoot–especially if it’s in a relatively populated area.

    And when you just weren’t sure, then that’s another good decision. I’m relatively new to hunting myself, and I sometimes hear more experienced hunters talk about taking shots that may have been a stretch for them. Maybe that’s part of hunting.

    But I’ve decided one thing about these situations. Sometimes I feel small regrets over shots I didn’t take. Still, I’ve decided I’ll never regret the shots I dodn’t take as much as I would the ones I did take, but shouldn’t have. A gut-shot deer that suffers needlessly just isn’t worth it.

    I’m glad you don’t have that kind of story to share. You made the right choice that day.

  9. Soullessness (and being comfortable with it) is almost certainly genetic. It seems to me that taxing our “lives with forethought of grief” is an integral part of the exciitement of being human. As for tranquility, we’ll have a lot of it when we’re dead. Sorry about the venison, but glad you didn’t take an iffy shot.

    • Tamar – I don’t know for soul (and I also loathe Walden), but I can say for certain that you and your mother share the wordsmith gene.

  10. Wow. Mom does not pull punches. I agree with her. I’ve not loved the posts on deer hunting; I would never hunt, never kill an animal. And tranquility does not come to me in the woods, only fear sometimes, and the certain knowledge that I am not of that ilk. But my heart sang when you did not take a shot at the doe. If a human must kill to eat, better it be done by one with wisdom, caution, and the good judgement you displayed by not chancing a shot.

  11. Tamar, I think this is one of my favorite posts yet. Thanks for sharing what your beliefs are, and also letting us in on the experience. I agree that whatever majesty and importance we find is generally placed by us on things we find either beautiful or to hold meaning. I also find it brave of you to say that you believe in (your) soullessness, because really to me, that is very personal. Especially when so many are quick to disagree with your views, or recite a belief that you neither put stock in or share an iota of (this has been my experience at least). Whether your quiet mind comes in sleep or in the woods, I sure as hell hope you bag a deer next year!

  12. Couple thoughts:

    I think once you’re successful, your relationship with the woods will change. That or just spending more time hunting. These things don’t happen right away.

    Soullessness? I don’t think that precludes the relationship with nature that many, if not most, hunters feel. I agree with you that there isn’t a lot of meaning to our existence – that it just IS. But that doesn’t mean that the existence of everything on this planet isn’t amazing. I’ve been photographing duck feathers with a macro lens lately, and I am all the more humbled by the intricate and complex blend of utility and beauty that I see in life when I look that closely.

    The shot you didn’t take? GOOD FOR YOU. You did the right thing. Don’t waste a microsecond thinking about what a more experienced hunter would’ve done. That’s not you right now. It may be in a few years.

    Finally: Trade your woods for a marsh – come hunt ducks with me in California sometime! I can’t assure great hunting, but you would not go eight days without seeing a duck.

  13. To be witness to your process with the large questions that loom over life… I very much appreciate your ability to articulate your authenticity!

    I can’t speak for the whole village here, but the statement “I don’t look for meaning because I don’t believe life has any beyond that with which we endow it with our words and deeds.” is an intensely powerful one. I think I hear you say “The meaning of life is what we give it”? Souless, I doubt.

    I’m looking forward to your next adventure.

  14. Thanks, all, for a slew of interesting comments. I very much appreciate the hunters in the group, and the confirmation that not taking the shot was the right thing. I suppose I knew it, but it’s good to hear somebody else say it.

    As for my soullessness, as my mother points out, it runs in the family. Mom’s Uncle Bill Dahlquist (that’s my great grandmother’s maiden name), who sat in the Minnesota state senate several generations back, explains it liike this. “Before the great enlightenment, there was only darkness and chaos. And then the doors were flung open and the light shone in. The Dahlquists, unfortunately, were behind the door.”

    Trust me on this one.

  15. Hi Tamar,

    I was 15 in 1971 when I took a long ten-week canoe trip through the “Maine Woods” with a camp group comprised of 10 boys and 2 men. Even at that young age I had spent a lot of time outside but never like this – we were “out” – days from contact. One of the reasons I signed up for the trip is that after the second week we were assigned an exercise called “a solo.” It was trendy at the time: Outward Bound was doing them. I had read about it: 72 hours by yourself in the woods without food. As I read more about it I found something that said that it was not a survival exercise. It happened in mid-summer and you weren’t going to starve to death in 3 days. It was an exercise in how well you could live with yourself.

    After a couple of weeks of “being out” I did my solo. I took a knife, matches, poncho, toilet paper, journal and pencil and the clothes I was wearing including all my warm stuff. I may have taken a sleeping bag – can’t quite remember. They dropped me off across the lake from where the group had camped. I built a shelter against a rock with my poncho and piled leaves on the ground to insulate myself. And then I sat for three days as the sun and stars went overhead. It rained one day. The story in my head: what if an animal attacks me; what if I get injured; what am I going to do with my life; what is it like to grow old and die; and a thousand more fears and questions ran through my head for two days. On the night of the second day, I was sleeping under the tarp. I had built a small fire to keep myself warm when the sap or damp in the wood caused one of the logs to explode sending embers into my sleeping area. I woke with a start and put everything out before falling into a deep sleep. The next morning I woke at dawn and the story had turned itself off. I watched the sun rise over the lake, felt it’s warmth without judging; I watched the shimmering reflections on the water for most of the day without a thought in my head. That day, I had animals come by me. It’s almost as if the story makes a noise in your head. Turn off the story and the noise is gone. That night I went to bed and slept the night of the dead. The following day they came and got me and took me back to the world that I had thought of as “out”.

    I struggle with this same issue daily every morning in meditation – how to still the mind and simply be present? It’s really, really hard. But I think in that struggle is where hunting is. When I got good at fly fishing, the story was gone. I was simply present – without meaning.

    Best, Kim

  16. I was going to say …it just takes time. Good responses.
    But Kim, You nailed it.

    Like everything else, you have to learn how it be by yourself, and in the woods. It’s a body thing. Not a mind thing. And you touch that by “doing”. I think our fast paced instant gratification culture –cultured form our ability to abstract the world around us –is a habit that is not easily disengage from.

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