Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Hunting for a Sense of Place

Awaking well before sunrise, I slid out of bed, ate a light breakfast, and slipped quietly from the house. The cool moonless sky greeted me; stars were twinkling over the faint city glow. After three days of stormy weather, this clear morning was an unexpected surprise. Getting into my truck, I noticed Orion twinkled brightly overhead and smiled to myself, thinking of our shared purpose. A few bullets, my grandfather’s .270, an orange vest, hunting license, a knife… I went over the things I needed for my food harvesting mission. I was ready.

Driving east out of town, the road was empty underneath the orange vapor of the street lights. I couldn’t help but remember the years I used to wake up in the dark and run under the same lights to the YMCA to workout with my Dad before school. I crested Alabama Hill and headed around Lake Whatcom, past the house I grew up in with the now neglected hedge I used to have to trim, past the homes of several successive best friends, and past the wind hewn sandstone caves overlooking Agate Bay that I used to ride my bike out to and imagine camping in.

I turned and drove up into the hills above Lake Whatcom and parked my truck beside a gated logging road. It was still completely dark, but having walked the road a couple days earlier in the light, I didn’t feel the need to use a flashlight. I walked ½ a mile along the logging road, climbed up through a recent clear-cut, and found a spot to stand at the edge of the forest in an area where I had seen fresh deer tracks and browse a few days earlier. Silently, I watched as the sky lightened, the stars faded, and the ground around me begin to take shape. A Barred Owl hooted in the distance and a slight breeze loosened yesterday’s rain drops from high in the trees behind me, causing them to patter sporadically in the darkness. A delicate fog drifted across the clearing and slowly melted into the ground as twilight faded into morning.

High above, a Raven cawed, as if proclaiming my presence to the world. Coarse wing beats carried the black form across the soft gray sky, and then it circled and called rapidly above the middle of the clearing. Was this a sign? Berndt Heinrich writes about Ravens helping Wolves find deer, and Sam has noticed unusual behavior among the birds before kills. No deer were in sight, but perhaps around the corner…. 5 minutes later, I heard a long flat call that didn’t sound like any bird I knew and then in another 5 minutes, movement! I slowly raised my binoculars. Three Black Tailed Deer were working their way along the edge of the forest. The lead, a 2 point buck was just entering the forest. The other 2 trailed by 20-30 yards, and I couldn’t immediately tell if they had antlers or not. I slowly lowered my binoculars and the lead buck flapped his ears and turned to face me. I paused and the buck resumed its slow progress through the forest. I slowly reached for my gun, and raised it to follow the buck, but it was too far into the shadow of trees to risk a shot. I was going to have to move.

I lowered my gun, pulled off my shoes, and started stalking the deer. 10 slow steps later, I caught a glimpse of the deer’s tail as it flashed and trotted deeper into the forest and over a small hill. The forest floor was soft with fresh rain and I quietly crept amongst the Sword Ferns towards the top of the hill. My plan was to crawl to the crest of the hill, and hope to get a shot at the deer on the other side, but the way ahead was strewn with dead branches and I realized that I wasn’t going to find a silent path through. I crouched down and decided to take another look at the two trailing deer. They were nervously following in the footsteps of the lead deer and I was now in their path. As they approached, I noticed short antlers, which meant that I could legally hunt them in this area. I quietly chambered a round and waited to see what would happen. The first of the two crossed my path not more than 30 feet away, sniffed at the ground, paused, studied me briefly, and then continued on.  I raised my gun and studied the other deer through my scope. If it followed the same path, I would get a broadside shot. I took a few breathes to calm myself as it walked straight towards me, but finally it turned to the side, walked behind a tree and paused as it emerged on the other side.

I knew this was my moment. I found the deer’s shoulder, shifted my aim slightly back, and squeezed the trigger.

Having never shot a deer before, I had only the stories of a few friends to guide my expectations. They spoke of some deer running several hundred yards before lying down, and so I had practiced tracking deer to give me more assurance that I would not waste the precious life that I hoped take. However, this deer moved little and died calmly as I whispered my thanksgiving. I will eat its flesh and wear its skin with newfound reverence for the world that sustains me and the soul that trusted me, to take life and carry on living, respectfully.

I removed the guts thinking of the morning’s message from the Raven and hoping it would enjoy the bits that I don’t care to use. Then I hauled the deer the half mile to my truck and drove out to Dad’s house. He showed me how to hang the deer up, and using his father’s old skinning knife, we pulled the hide off. It has been 55 years since he last dressed a deer with his father, but his stories of how my grandfather butchered game were both instructional, and grounding.

Generally, people that hunt grow up in families that hunt and learn through emersion and mentored experience. Certainly, that is how I learned to fish. Dad taught me how to tie flies, how to cast, and how to land a fish. I didn’t have to discover where the fishing was good, we just went to places that he knew were good. For the last decade, I have wanted to hunt my own meat, but Dad didn’t hunt when I was growing up and so I didn’t absorb it like I did fishing. I slowly had to develop my own tracking skills, scout out my own places, and develop my own sense of confidence that I needed to hunt. Despite all this, having shot my first deer, I am still struck by the power of place and resilience of knowledge. It is no accident that my first deer came from hills that I explored when I was young, or that my long deceased grandfather contributed the tools and know-how to kill and butcher my first deer. Knowledge is rooted in place and the deeper I connect myself to my natal bioregion, the more its natural and cultural heritage speaks to me. A sense of place can be cultivated individually over the course of a lifetime, but only really flourishes when developed communally, over the course of many generations. Landscape becomes an ancestral journey and stories become rich with context and meaning.

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