My First Hunt

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This is no essay about a twelve-year old, if that’s what you were expecting. I was already middle-aged when a lead and copper missile, willfully launched by my own trigger finger, took the life of a wild animal for the first time. And though I’ve seen my words on many subjects in print before, I knew this little piece would be a hard thing to write.

Oh, it’s not just because I was new to the outdoors and hunting. A few paragraphs about a city boy going off into the wilderness would have been easy. Nor was it because I didn’t like hunting. I did and every day of the past six years I seem to find a way to like it even more. No, it’s that I discovered right away that hunting is hard to get your hands around. Once you’ve gone beyond the woodsy travelogues, beyond talking about the tricks of the trade, you’re in the deep end of the pool. Even the words that come to mind to describe how I felt during that first hunt only scratch the surface. They don’t go all the way in. There’s a lot of mystery there.

One mystery is why suddenly, at the age of forty-four, I had to hunt. Urgently, as if the date were time-stamped in my genes. I remember the very day. A quiet, serious fellow at work mentioned that he hunted, just set it right down on the desk between us. Which is uncommon talk in LA, where offending somebody’s sensibilities can be judged more harshly than any physical blow. But he took a chance and that was what sparked it. Three rapid-fire months later, I could make the same claim:

I am a hunter. Blooded, bonded to it, licensed by the state.

I liked my new title. It conjured up beautiful memories and expectations of great days to come. But there’s mystery there, too. How can joy and sadness dwell in that same deadly moment? Why does that strange emotional mix stay with me, fading in and out, but never disappearing completely? Or is it like a hangover, this low and steady hum just below my surface, propelling me to the cure-all of another hunt?

Even right after that first hunt, my desire to go out again was not some wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if-someday thing, simmering without urgency on a back burner in my mind. It was alive, with a consciousness and an agenda of its own. That hasn’t changed. Whenever I chat with someone for the first time, that other me is right there sizing up his opportunities, feeling free to butt in with questions that have nothing to do with the conversation: Own any land? Have any relatives back in the Midwest? Oh really, does your cousin see many deer where he lives? When I mail order too much from Cabela’s or Bass Pro Shop, my wife knows it wasn’t me. It was him.

But why do I love it so much? When I was deep inside that first hunt, lurking in the brush, crosshairs on my eyeballs, and then later, with blood-streaked hands, my mind did wander past 3250 feet per second bullets and human scent-blocking clothing, to things not in the catalogs. For instance, what brought me here? Why do the air and water taste different in this place? How many minutes have ticked by with me just standing here, beside my kill, studying his every tooth and bruise and whisker? I started out with a curiosity about why people hunt, myself included, when we don’t have to. I think maybe the answer is that we do. Even with fast food drive-thrus, donut shops, juice bars, coffee shops, and supermarkets on every corner. Maybe even more so because of that.

Most hunting writers don’t talk about these things. It’s all how or what or where, not why. Not what was it like? Don’t misunderstand, all that stuff about terrain, weather, ballistics, and equipment has its place. I need the education and I’m grateful for it. But once in awhile I do jump out of my chair at home, a hunting show on TV, and yell that’s it! That’s what I’m talking about! Like when I watched a woman take her first deer, a gray old Roman-nosed whitetail, with one shot across a field of broken yellow stalks and frost. As he fell, as the guide sputtered an excited tally of the antler points, I saw her hand rise to her heart, heard her whisper, solemnly, “it’s so powerful.” And she’s right. So right. It’s not about the points. That thing that I experienced on my first hunt, the thing about it I fell in love with? The thing that connects me to all hunters since the beginning of our time? There’s no category in the Boone & Crockett record book for that.

It may be that something of the animal stays with us; that the hot breeze or cold tingle we feel isn’t just its spirit passing by but moving in. I don’t know. But I do know that what the Algonquians called the manitou is not destroyed by bullet or broadhead, just ask the beast that’s bursting through my wall at home! Saber-toothed, black ears out like bat wings, eyes as wild as the day that pig and I met. I know he hears me when I greet him in the evenings. My family shrugs and groans oh dad. But that boar and I are close. No one knows me like he does.

The wilderness—and the freezer in my garage—echo with spirit sounds. But take away all the people and the supermarket is quiet as a tomb. For me, it’s a fact that no meat tangled up in Styrofoam and plastic wrap will ever taste as good as a wild animal harvested with my own hands. But why is that? What reason could there be? I think I saw it explained on a cave wall once, on the Discovery channel, but I didn’t speak the language then.

Of course, we don’t need to know these things and maybe we’re not meant to. It might be wise to do as the Native Americans have always done: go into the woods with reverence and a deep appreciation for whatever you take out, but don’t insult the Giver with questions. Me, I’d like to keep trying to figure hunting out, though I’m in no real hurry. I suspect the answer will be elusive. It’ll flash or flutter by one piece at a time, on a banking duck’s wing or in the glint of a buck’s dark eye. I took my sons pheasant hunting a few years back (their first hunt, my second) and saw something of what I’m trying to say in their hands, as they gently smoothed the feathers of birds they’d knocked from the sky. It’s all there, if you don’t look away. But enough of this meandering; it’s time to dust off the decoys and change the transmission fluid in the truck. Another new season is just a week away.

~ by zenhunter on October 6, 2007.

One Response to “My First Hunt”

  1. That was lovely. I’d love to read the entry in which you figure hunting out, but for some reason, I don’t think anyone ever will! Just another thing to love about it…

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