Fall brings spiritual renewal in outdoors
September 14, 1999
Each September, after hunting for as long as a month, finally, at some perfectly unpredictable moment, an animal appears intimately close, inexplicably insouciant. At times like this, it’s understandable that traditional hunting peoples around the globe were and are adamant that animals sometimes “give themselves” to hunters at least to those whose hearts are good. As Leslie Marmon Silko sings in her transfigurative Deer Song: “I will go with you/because you love me/while I die.”
And here before me now stands the bull. Suddenly, all the weeks of sleep I’ve happily missed, all the miles hiked and mountains climbed, the rain and hail and cold endured, merge toward a denouement.
Re-enacting the essential drama of human history, my universe shrinks to a single hair on the auburn chest. Arm and shoulder muscles flex, bending the bow. When all feels right, fingers relax and arrow leaps away.
The elk, unaware of the carefully concealed predator, reacts as if it had been stung by a wasp, wheeling and running a few steps then stops and gazes calmly about, flicking its ears at flies. Does it even know?
“Please,” I whisper, “die fast.” As if granting my plea, the young bull sways, stumbles and falls. Soon comes the release of a final breath breath, anima, soul; spirit leaping away from flesh.
Easing close, I touch the animal with my bow it doesn’t react then fall to my knees and peer into those dark, inscrutable eyes. And in those mirrored orbs is reflected my own fragility, my own ephemeral mortality. To fail to feel the unity this implies, one would have to be spiritually numb. This is a sacred moment.
Suddenly, from out in the silent woods and not so far away, rings one brassy bugle, followed by the sharp crackling of heavy hooves crushing brittle downfall and a bemused chorus of birdlike cow and calf chirps. Life flows on. The cows among that little herd are already pregnant, or soon will be. And if the Colorado mountain winter is hard, there’ll be one less mouth competing for increasingly scarce cervid browse.
Down in the valleys, where the highways bristle with an unending floodtide of urban refugees, there are some that would condemn “my kind” as savage anachronisms. But as I turn to the bloody task at hand, I suffer no sickening sympathy for my prey. My uniquely human empathy intense feelings of love, of shared circumstance and common fate is visceral. Gazing at this gorgeous beast, my eyes cloud with water and I accept this without shame. Yet, and at the same time, I am positively electrified, buzzing with what Ortega calls the “good hunter’s almost mystical agitation.” This, too, I accept without shame.
I draw my knife and begin the gritty task of making meat: unzip hide, open belly, plunge in both arms to the elbows and struggle by Braille to set free a hundred pounds of steaming organs, which I ritually inspect and attempt to name, as if performing an internal inventory on myself.
As always, I’m awestruck by the rock-hard muscularity of the heavy heart.
Hart’s blood. Heart’s blood. Heartsblood … warm and wet on trembling hands.
I bag the meat in four pillowcase-sized sailcloth bags and hang it high from sturdy ponderosa limbs, hoarding it from my fellow forest carnivores. Tomorrow, my friend Erica and I will make two, maybe three slow trips up and down this mountain to pack out every last scrap of deboned meat and the small but artful antlers.
A job of work it is, and I love it. Like getting in my winter’s wood, all 10 cords of it, or gathering mushrooms, nuts, wild onions and berries, this traditional brand of hard work is good hard work, what Pulitzer poet and former bowhunter Gary Snyder calls “real work,” in that it exercises the spirit as well as the body. Unlike a city friend’s precocious young son who recently felt compelled to ask, “Daddy, who killed this chicken we’re eating?”
I know where the meat on my table comes from, and at precisely what costs to all concerned. Taken in this grateful spirit, each meal of self-got wild meat is at once precious memory and sacrament.
In the end, we find sacredness only where we seek it, and only if we seek it. True hunters, spiritual hunters a minority, but a growing and maturing minority seek and find sacredness in aspen grove and piney wood, in mountain meadow, rocky canyon and rushing stream; and yes, in blood-stained hands. (David Petersen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colo., http://www.hcn.org. He lives and hunts in the mountains outside Durango, Colo.)