I started hunting in the autumn of my 30th year, compelled by conflicting desires.
As a horticulturist enamored of growing my own food, I have pulled trout from lakes, dug and roasted white knuckles of garlic that glazed the lips and fingers of friends through bread and pasta by candlelight.
To have clean meat – born of berries and grass, nuts and leaves – seemed a glimmering goal. It spoke of completed cycles.
But I was intimidated by stereotypes. I still hold notions of the Coors-swilling, overweight, bearded redneck, ablaze in orange and camo. I sense extreme political and religious views, an ignorant drive for dominance and death. Even now, after 15 years of hunting, the myth lingers. I cling to my side of the chasm between “them” and “me”.
But the friendships I have shared during the hunt say otherwise. They remain rich and meaningful, and I write this to share memories of those who have taught me.
It was my friend Toby who first saw my fire and took me out. As I kicked through the golden October leaves and soil, lighthearted and naïve, he pointed out the twin sweep of tom wings and the “j” curls unique to turkey droppings. He animated the battle between two bucks, their hooves, knees and antlers gouging and striking the ground. Toby made thickets, watering holes and streams come alive with stories of growing up scouting and hunting in the La Plata Mountains near Durango.
Later, I learned that Andrea, a combination honeyed Hawaiian surfer girl and badass Colorado horsewoman, someone I had already met, was an accomplished trainer of hunting dogs – and I needed one. I had opted for my dog Zoë because I dreamed of chasing pheasants and grouse.
Andrea lives with menagerie of cats and dogs, manages 23 horses and raises sheep. She has trained more dog species than I can name and scored 104 percent on her Hunter Safety exam. As we were training Zoë, I would chase her around lakes and wetlands in awe, amazed by the woman I wanted to be. It was she who whipped out her scalpel and helped me to gut my very first solo-hunted buck.
Andrea and her husband Matt now live on a 30-acre spread where they are raising a daughter, Penelope, who will know where her food comes from. From them, I have earned not only about hunting, but also something of canine connection. And we have agreed that when Zoë’s time comes, he will be buried on their property.
I met Lancey when I was a Division of Wildlife volunteer, cleaning hatchery trout runs once a week. Profanity belied her intelligence; her love of beer challenged my love of Zins and Cabs. The kinship was immediate. We practiced target shooting at the Red Feather Lakes, sharing stories of our dead mothers.
Maxwell provides a counterpoint to the Coors-swilling stereotype. He’s a wine distributor and also a former English professor, pianist and single-track long distance runner. I adore not only his dark humor, but also his deft cooking skills. He will roll his eyes in disgust and spit out a deflective joke if he reads this description of him a “foodie,” but that he is. Thanks to his bird dog, Madrid, a Spanish pointer, a somnolent Disney character with drooping red eyes, I’ve had the pleasure of both pheasant and grouse prepared à la Maxwell.
Some hunters, like Anthony, are driven to connect with all that is earthly, real and sensual. He’s a yoga and ballet instructor, as well as a contractor. Anthony hand-built a mountain home, installing a Japanese hot tub and converting a satellite dish stand into a solar panel tracker with all the panache of Macgyver. Anthony has grown food in his sunroom; spear-fished and caught lobster off the Cali coast. A few years ago, he began to hunt elk in his backyard at Marble. I ran into him last season when he had had an elk in his sights.
But he only wanted the sight. And he let that one go.
Yes, we want the meat, but often, the spirit of the moment overrides that.
When I make a kill, I know that I’m looking at the same guts, tissue and meat that are inside me. I have a spiritual teacher who has taught me the same lesson, forcing me to examine my own grossness, my smallness in relation to the cycle of life and death, of birth and harvest.
My friend Lancey almost walked away from hunting when a baby elk returned and stood watching as she field-dressed its mother. I have cried alongside the body of every sentient being I have shot, feeling an incredible hypocrisy.
I don’t hunt female big game any more – carriers of life are they. But young males, well, they’re delicious! (I tell myself I’m furthering the gene pool).
At first, as I quarter an elk or deer, the large, warm expanse of gray and tan hair is a horror. That very first cut as I unzip his belly is both humbling and empowering. Because the immensity of the life I’ve taken overwhelms me, I must honor it and revere the meat I harvest. A soul has moved on through me into its next iteration in the universe. I have stolen nothing. But I will share this nothing with loved ones and others who have both less and more than I.
There is nothing like the feeling of giving savory bits to a loved one. Every hunter shares the backstrap and tenderloins, small cuts on a large beast. To present an elk lasagna or grouse bourguignon is a priceless, rare treat. We do this not so much to brag, but to say, “My beloveds, I honor you. Will you share with me?”
Often, hunters will give friends frozen meat that has “expired.” Well-wrapped wild meat lasts far longer than store-bought. For people like me, a solo-flyer mommy, it’s not a left-over, but a blessing during dark winter months of less income.
I feel the pull of hunting every fall. Pregnancy and mothering took me away for a while, but now, my daughter and I wear our Wildlife Goggles every time we drive a county road or engage in a walkabout. As she grows, her questions prompt me to dig deep, deliberating the hows and whys in this cycle of life and death, of birth and harvest.
I originally hunted as a way to break my own mold: bookworm, artist, writer. I wanted not only to break loose, but also to harvest my protein. I wanted to meet my own opposite and to embrace the contrast.
I got way more than that.
While hunting has forced me examine my own double standards, it has also enabled me to find “The Moment” — a time when perspective shifts and life’s irrelevancies fall away. In that time, I become an animal myself. I understand that – as it is with all creatures in this cycle of life and death, of birth and harvest – my priorities truly are food, shelter and water.