Deerstalking: Contemplating an Old Tradition by Page Lambert

Four strands of wire, barbed, ran in tight horizontal lines next to the highway.  Four hoofed legs hung limply, earthbound, the struggle gone from them now as the last breath was gone from the buck.  He lay draped over the top wire, suspended between his world and ours.

The deer have grown fat and courageous, browsing in the meadow, sleeping in the thickets of oak brush, wandering across the roads.  This deer had seen several hunting seasons already, bounded across many highways, vaulted easily over many fences.  But this time he misjudged the distance, confused perhaps by the unnatural speed of an oncoming car.  Such a waste, a loss.  I cursed the highway silently, this ribbon of death, this by-product of progress.

We’ve watched the deer all summer, seen the fawns grow taller as they stood next to their mothers in the meadow, counted the muddy hoof prints left behind them at the spring.  The young bucks band together and cruise the countryside, sensing change.  On weekends, I follow Hondo down the deer paths, walking in single file through the woods with Matt and Sarah, our eyes searching the ground and trees around us.  With each sign, droppings on the path or a patch on the limb of an aspen rubbed antler-smooth, we feel one step closer to their world.  We get one magic glimpse of forest life.

Our first hunting season on the ranch approached.  The Bear Lodge Mountains in which we live are part of northeastern Wyoming.  Our small town is known as the whitetail deer capital of the world.  Enthusiasts come here eagerly each fall to hunt the public forests and private ranchland.

Many are responsible, hard-working men and women who look forward to being in the hills and outdoors.  They, like Chris, a local friend of ours, marvel at the quickness of the whitetail and give thanks if they are skilled and lucky enough to bring meat home to their families.

But hunts do not always work out as expected.  Last year, Chris, a wildlife biologist, came across a badly wounded buck in the woods.  He faced a difficult choice: fill his license by shooting the suffering animal, whose meat by now was ruined; shoot the animal but leave him untagged and continue hunting, which would have been illegal; let the animal die a slow death and move on in search of a healthy buck who could provide meat for the table, a legal though immoral choice.  He reluctantly chose the first, meatless option.

There are those hunters who would not have fretted over Chris’s dilemma.  They bring no honor with them and leave no honor behind then they are gone.  I have heard them boast of their prowess while eating locally raised chicken-fried steak at the corner café.  I have seen ungutted deer riding their tailgates, heads slumped with the weight of heavy, useless antlers—imposing trophies to be hung above mantels—testimonials to tall tales.  Their peers may not know that the flesh of the deer rots by the roadside, but the hunter knows.  Such people are less than hunters, and to call them hunters is a betrayal to men and women like Chris.  They have been unfaithful to an age-old trust and have broken the link that joins them to life’s cycle.

Matt is keenly aware of the ambiguity of the situation; his questions to the point.  All summer we have shared the land with the deer, felt privileged to see them.  Then hunting season approaches and he knows his father will hunt.  Matt looks forward to the chance to hike the woods and walk the deer and cattle paths, but he feels an inner conflict even at his young age.  He anxiously awaits this chance to be with Mark, man-to-man.  But at night, when I am tucking him into bed and we are alone, he speaks in questions.

“Remember the fawn we saw this summer, Mom, the one out in the horse pasture where Dad was fixing fence?”  And then I remember, too, the newborn fawn hidden in the deep grass that first hot day of summer.  Panting from dehydration when we found him, he was much smaller than normal—a twin perhaps.  Hondo, our black Lab, towered over him, delicately licking the fawn’s drooping ears while the kids and Mark hurried to the house for warm milk.  They returned too late.

“Remember him, Mom?  He was so cute.  He had those little spots all over him and he wasn’t any bigger than our cat.  How come his mom just left him there?  Do you think we scared her away?”  We could have, I knew.  But I wondered why she had chosen a spot so close to the barn to give birth.  Were we less of a threat than the coyotes on the hill?

“I wouldn’t want to shoot a doe, Mom, ‘cause what if she had a baby?  Do you think someone shot her mom?”  No, I explained, it wasn’t hunting season yet, not for another five months, and by then the fawns would know enough to raise their own tail-flags at the first sign of danger.

“I want to go with Dad to shoot a buck when I get older.  How old will I have to be?”  Then I remember a story my own father told me, not about the first time he ever hunted, but about the last time.  He and my mother were spending their honeymoon by Lake Tahoe, near Yosemite.  As they walked together through the forest, my father spotted a five-point buck near a clearing in the trees.  He knelt, lifting his rifle to take aim.  My mother stepped quietly away, watching him.  Their eyes met and he saw a sad, rueful expression on her face.  Across the clearing, the buck stood motionless, alert and wary, nostrils flared.  Then my father saw the doe—standing a few yards away from the buck, staring straight at my dad.  He looked from the doe’s wide, frozen eyes to my mother’s.  Then he lowered the rifle and, taking my mother’s arm, walked away.

When you are grown, Matt, will you remember the fawn who died in the grass?  Will you say a prayer for him, as well as for the deer who graces our dinner table?

“Mom, can I ask you something?”  Of course, but I may not have the answer.  I wait patiently for the question, and it seems to take a long time.

“Mom, how come I want to hunt so much but I get sad inside at the same time?”  I see the beginning of a tear in his eye and wonder if he has noticed the one in mine.

Ah, the double-edged sword.  I should have all the answers, yet I have none.  Mark respects life, he understands why I anguish over the buck draped across the barbed wire.  What inner drive is it, then, that causes him to hoist the rifle onto his shoulders and traipse quietly across the draw and into the thickets of oak brush in the cold pre-dawn?  Filling the freezer is part of it, but it is not the entire answer, not in this age of supermarket convenience, which fools many into thinking their meat grows in plastic wrap.  The answer goes deeper than that.

It is partly the challenge of the tracking, meeting the whitetail, alert and cautious, in his own territory, knowing all the while that the deer sees more, is deaf to nothing—an intuitive creature.  But that still is only part of the explanation.

It is also the sensual and gratifying sound as one foot after another touches the earth, causing the dry leaves to mate with the dirt.  It is stepping outside our door and breathing the same air that the deer breathe, seeing them graze on our meadow.  This is no more our land, thought, than is the sky above us our sky.  Our ownership is fleeting, superficial, man-made.

Part of the answer is looking up into the sky when the sentinel hawk takes flight and circles, knowing that somewhere nearby a buck watches the same hawk, hears the dry leaf.  It is the memory deep within of a great-grandfather walking a similar path, seeing a similar hawk.

That is only the first, conscious layer of memory.  If I peel back the layers, go centuries deep, draw the bowstring taut and chant a song of praise to the Great Provider, I begin to sense the natural order of things.  I begin to put the pieces together.  My father’s story was romantic and he did the right thing, for him, at that moment in the woods.  But I know now that the antlers which will adorn our log walls will not be a trophy, but a key to an ancient past.

When Arthur Amiotte, a Lakota artist and writer, tells of the time he killed his first animal, he tells also of the rituals that accompanied this first kill.  His grandmother invited many people, preparing a feast of celebration.  All shared a cooked morsel of the tiny bird who had died so that a six-year-old boy might experience this rite of passage.  All understood it as “a significant moment which needed to be impressed” upon a young boy’s mind.

How do I put all this into words that my son will understand?  I talk to him about God, I read to myself from Deuteronomy, and I try to teach him about honor—esteem for all that lives, respect for all that dies.  He learns these things from me, and from his father, but I envy Mr. Amiotte his traditions and wonder what our ranching neighbors would think if we invited them to taste a bite of baked blue jay or sautéed garter snake.

Some of them would understand, especially those who still take the time to deep-fry the oysters cut from the scrotums of the bull calves at branding time.  These are not eaten for the nutrients they contain but rather for the vitality they symbolize—the actual seed of life.  When Mark brings venison home for our table, I want Matt and Sarah to appreciate the hard winters that were endured, the fawns that were fathered.

The double-edged sword cuts deep, right to the quick.

On opening day of hunting season Mark did, indeed, bring a deer home.  It was snowing lightly, the timid winter sun hung close to the earth.  He headed out past the barn and across the draw, the dry snow crunching beneath his feet.  He tracked the deer for two hours in the early morning, and then shot him clean—dropping him fast.  He had to drag him a mile, up a steep-sided aspen gulch, through the tall brush, and then out of the woods and across the hay field.  The well-developed buck almost outweighed him.  When I first saw the deer, stripped of his tawny coat and hanging by his antlers in the granary, he was stretched taller than either of us.  His muscles lay exposed, covered by transparent membranes.  I touched a front hoof and it moved loosely in response, not yet stiff with death.  That night I fried the tenderloins cut from his back for supper and saw his glassy eyes in the hot grease.

Eating wild meat was not new to me; back in Colorado we often had elk in the freezer.  But this was my first time to experience it from beginning to end, from deer grazing in the meadow to meat frying in the pan.  When Mark brought the heart and liver into the house and Matt and Sarah asked to see it, I was confronted by a moment of truth.  To understand this thing, I needed to face it full on.  I reached inside the plastic bag and withdrew the heart.  Matt and Sarah stood on each side of me, their expressions full of curious amazement.

“That’s his heart,” they said, needing no answer.  It was warm in my hands, the pulsating memory still strong.  I had never seen blood so red, not even my own.  It clung to my hand and to the spaces between my fingers.  For a moment I felt the civilized layers of memory peel away once again.  Genetic impressions surfaced, revealing the beginnings of a nervous system no longer guided solely by instinct, but which had embraced tradition as well.  The blood on my skin became, for a split second, familiar.

I slowly placed the heart back in the bag while Matt and Sarah “oohed and aahed.”  With reluctance, I washed the stubborn blood from my fingers, glad that I had held this deer’s heart in my hands giving to him a proper farewell.

The questions Matt and Sarah ask force me to look inward, to examine my beliefs and actions.  Sometimes this probing makes me uncomfortable, for it strips me of my cloak of rationalization.  Hunting is not a tradition to be taken lightly.  Traditions, like legacies, are passed on from one generation to the next and should have meaning and value.  We should not be afraid, nor should we forget, to celebrate even the smallest of birds, the tiniest of snakes.

When Matt is grown and has a family of his own, he may also choose to hunt and fill his winter freezer.  And if his children question him, as he questions me, I hope his answers do not come too easily.  I hope that he will still shed that solitary tear.


* Previously published in In Search of Kinship (Page Lambert, Fulcrum Publishing, 1996); Heart Shots: Women Write about Hunting (Mary Zeiss Stange, editor, Stackpole Books, 2003); and Parabola: Magazine of Myth and Tradition (The Hunter, Summer 1991).

Contributors:

Page Lambert’s writing is found inside monumental sculptures at the Denver Art Museum, online at Huffington Post, and in dozens of anthologies about the West. Co-founder of the writing organization Women Writing the West, she is the author of the memoir In Search of Kinship and the novel Shifting Stars. More recently, Fulcrum Publishing asked her to write a chapter on the rural west, which is included in their 2018 title, The Light Shines from the West. Lambert teaches graduate writing courses at the University of Denver, leads outdoor writing adventures, is a member of the International League of Conservation Writers and an advisor for the Rocky Mountain Land Library. She writes the blog All Things Literary/All Things Natural from her Colorado mountain home.

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