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Archive for October, 2007

The Beginner’s Mind

My husband and I started hunting last year. We are both adult onset hunters from non-hunting families. EZ even spent most of his life as a vegetarian (Montana cures vegetarianism, in case you were wondering). Our good friend, R, of horribly accident prone fame, taught us to hunt. Fortunately, he seems to have much better luck with hunting than with seemingly more innocuous activities, like car camping. R is a passionate, ethical, and competent, life-long hunter and we were very lucky to learn under his tutelage. We hunted many days with R our first season, but for all the time we put in, I had one second worth of a shot all season. I hesitated and ended the season empty handed. EZ got a nice doe early on in the season.

This last Friday, Eric and I went here to hunt:

This beautiful little spot is along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. It was chock-full of mule deer. They all hung out high on the sides of buttes. The lack of trees and the wide, open spaces meant that the deer always knew where we were except in special cases. From across the valley, we spotted about 15 deer hanging out in the bowl of this butte.

So we snuck up the right, front side of the butte, as viewed in the picture. By the time we climbed up there (we had spotted them from over a mile and a half away), there were only two does left. One about 220 yards from me and the other 150 yards away or so. I was on a rock outcrop, so I found a rather awkward, but effective enough way to brace my body, laying prone. One rock was supporting my chest and another held up my hips. My legs were strewn akimbo over a jumble of other rocks. Comfort is of little concern in moments like this. I tried to find a good rest for my rifle and ended up with my hand braced over a pointy rock and the rifle resting in my hands.

I eyed both deer in my scope. I decided that the closer one was the more reasonable shot for me. I flicked off the safety, having chambered a round just before I’d crested the hill. I looked at her. She seemed aware of my presence, but unconcerned. My brain started churning. “Wow, she’s pretty scruffy. Wonder if she’s sick. Maybe I should pass on this shot. But she’s fat. Really fat. She’s fine. So what is that, like, a hundred and fifty yards? So how much will the bullet drop [Note: I shoot a .270, so the answer is hardly at all]? I think I should be riiiight there [moving crosshairs]. But her coat… that one book said if their coat’s all messed up, don’t shoot it. But she’s so fat. Whatever. Shoot it. [starting to pull trigger] Oh dang, when I start pulling my heart is thumping on this rock and it bounces me a little. But I’m staying well within the kill zone. Oh shit, I wish someone would just come here and tell me to shoot.”

I looked over at EZ, who was stationed behind the crest of the hill about 15 yards away from me. He gave me a goofy two thumbs up. “Oh, what does he know? He can’t see her. He can’t see how scruffy she is. She’s fat, Kim. She’s healthy. Just shoot her.” I tightened up on the trigger again. And at that precise moment, she took a step. I released. She took another step. And another, then she started the all four legs bounding that they do. I tried to whistle to get her to stop. But I found my mouth dry and unable to whistle.

Then, she was gone. Over the rise and out of my life. Her partner followed quickly. I collapsed on my awkward perch. Head hung down between the rocks. I felt my eyes begin to sting as I rose back up and cleared my cartridge and flicked the safety back on. It was over. The only decent shot I’d ever had and I pissed it away turning mental cartwheels around the problem. I was so angry at myself. Eric walked over and asked what happened and I dissolved into tears. If you ever hear anyone say that there’s no crying in hunting, they’ve never hunted with me. When I’m around, there’s a lot of crying. I’m generally not too much of a crier, but the quiet intensity of the situations hunting presents is like no other activity humans undertake. When that intensity releases, I cry.

This scenario, from what I’ve gathered, is something almost every neophyte hunter encounters. Hunting, in particular the moment of the would-be kill, at least the first time, reveals and intensifies one’s weaknesses. In everyday life, I’m a little on the over-thinking, indecisive side. In that moment, indecisive and overthinking were ALL I was. The moment crystallized my weakness. I’ve heard stories of other hunters who let off a few willy-nilly shots their first time that land nowhere near the deer. I imagine that they might be a tiny bit impulsive or excitable. Anyhow, from the folks I’ve spoken with (and here in Montana, there are plenty of hunters to relate their ‘first-time’ story), every body has got their weird thing they do the first time they have a real shot. Whether or not they were successful in actually pulling the trigger and getting their animal seems largely dependent on whether they have someone by their side encouraging them or not. They all tell me that once I pull the trigger that first time, I won’t have this problem again.

So, I am disappointed in myself, but hopeful that I will overcome it and get my deer this season.

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Someone recently said to me, “I love animals too much to hunt.” I hunt (I’m kind of a crappy hunter, but that’s beside the point for now), so I was a little flabbergasted by the implicit judgement in that statement. To me, hunting and loving animals is not antithetical.

I buy all my beef by the quarter from a local rancher whose beef is entirely grass-fed, hormone-, antibiotic-free. She doesn’t use any chemical fertilizers or pesticides and she only uses spot herbicide treatment on one particularly insidious type of weed that only exists on one remote corner of her ranch. I need to nail down local sources for my chicken and pork (of which I don’t eat much), but all that I buy is at least organic, pastured, or hormone/antibiotic/pesticide-free. I am picky about my meat. Very picky. For as frugal person as I strive to be, one might question why I willingly dump so much money into meat.

Maybe I read too much about food production, but I simply cannot stand the industrial channels of meat production. They are very hard on the environment. They produce sick animals and tainted meat. They are cruel and they are disrespectful to the very animals that sustain us. I can’t stomach it. Most people follow these same channels of thought and the logical conclusion to them is to become vegetarians. I respect this conclusion, but I feel that from an evolutionary and human health standpoint, it’s simply not healthy. (Also, with my particular allergies, my diet would be woefully incomplete without animal proteins).

When I started hunting, just about a year ago, I gained a new respect for the animals I eat. I am not the sort of purist that claims that if you can’t kill an animal, you don’t deserve to eat it. However, when you work hard countless hours to find a good, ethical shot at an animal. When you take an animal. When you slice it open and field dress it. When you butcher an animal that weighs more than you to stock your freezer, you can’t help but respect your food. You respect what that animal gave and your own work. You know what it takes to get living flesh to the table.

If one eats meat, the process from living animal to meat on your plate something one should at least be aware of, I believe. You should know the journey an animal took to get to your table. You should give thanks for the Earth’s and God’s bounty that brought such important nutrition to your table. You should be at peace with the life that animal lived and the death it had. If you are not comfortable with it, you should seek out meat from other, more ethical sources (check out http://www.eatwellguide.org/, http://www.eatwild.com/).

I take the same approach to hunting that I take with purchasing meat. I deeply believe in ethical hunting. I have and will again decline to take shots that I’m not nearly 100% sure I can make, or shots that I feel have any reasonable chance in wounding or killing an animal I can’t retrieve. Honestly, if I just don’t feel right about something,even if I can’t explain it, I don’t shoot.

I have two wonderful dogs. The old guy, Barry, is gun shy and has zero instinct, so he’s merely family. Stanley, our German Shorthaired Pointer, has incredible instinct. He loves ‘im some birds. Now, he hunts with us in addition to being a member of our family. He is so happy when he’s out after birds. And there is no greater bond I’ve ever experienced with a dog than the moment when he brings you a bird that he scented and pointed and you shot. You are a team at that point. Dependent upon one another and grateful for the service the other provides. It adds a whole new level to the human-canine bond.

What I am getting at is this: I am not greatly driven by emotion in my regard to animals other than my dogs. I am not prone to nostalgia. But my respect and love for all animals is great. Even greater, however, is my love and respect for nature, as opposed to the individual. I am not perfect, but I am steadily, consciously, moving toward a relationship with nature with which I can be at peace.

I didn’t catch what dietary persuasion this young lady hails from, as starting a debate on hunting would have been out of place in the conversation, but I bristle at this argument (that hunters love animals less than they do) from any less than a strict vegetarian. If you are willing to give up good nutrition and your species’ role in nature, ok, you might love animals more than me. You probably value the individual animal over nature as a whole, but you probably really love that animal! However, one tells me that they love animals too much to hunt from behind their Big Mac or industrially-produced chicken breast/pork chop, he or she is a) woefully ignorant or b) a damn hypocrite. And that, my friends, is that.

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