Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ruminations of a Carnivore

This is a broad head tip to a crossbow bolt that I used on Tuesday September 24th to kill my first deer. For some time now I've been wanting to try my hand at hunting.

My motivations were varied. On a very simple level, my family had been in a serious car accident with a deer on the highway in 2009. That event helped bring my attention to the overpopulation problem among deer in North Carolina (like many places).

Also, I have started to become suspicious of the hormones and antibiotics present in our food chain thanks to modern animal farming techniques.

Lastly, I was aware that, as a meat-eater, my relationship to my food was very distant. If I want pork chops, I just hit the grocery store and select whatever looks best. How often do I think about the fact that they came from an actual animal that used to hang out and do whatever pigs do? It's not all that often. Lately it's occurred to me that it would be worthwhile to have a closer connection to (and respect for) the food that I eat. I heard somebody on the radio once talk about how "giving thanks" takes on greater significance when you had some connection to the animal outside of the styrofoam tray.

What follows is my experience as a hunter. There are some photos of a dead animal. There's some blood. If you're squeamish about such things, be forewarned.

In North Carolina you have to take a hunter safety course before you can get a license to hunt. For a guy like me (read: city-slicker, white-collar, air-conditioned, clean-fingernail suburbanite) the class was actually rather helpful.

Even more helpful is having a dad who has been doing this a while. He hasn't been hunting his whole life either. But he has been at it for the last 12 years. Not only did he let me borrow his crossbow, the deer stand is one he built on his land. These are the woods I grew up playing in. It turns out they're great for deer hunting. Anyway without his encouragement, advice, equipment and land, I would not have found myself with this view yesterday.

But I'm getting a little bit ahead of myself. I had decided to follow in my dad's footsteps and use a crossbow. I like the idea of it being stealthy compared to a booming rifle. It's also convenient that the hunting season is much longer.

What I learned along the way as I prepared was fascinating. Deer have a good sense of smell. I was wearing scent-blocking clothes. The rubber boots on my feet were better at masking scent than leather. I had showered using scent-masking soap. My dad gave me some farewell squirts of scent-blocking spray as I trudged down into the woods late yesterday afternoon.

I had obsessed about the type of shot I was looking for. The worst-case scenario for me was to severely injure the animal. I wanted a clean, quick kill. In hunter safety class they called it "an ethical kill." A friend of mine, Scott, had given me great advice and encouragement. He talked up recipes for the heart and encouraged me to avoid striking it with my shot. I wanted a double lung shot. So get both lungs, but don't hit the heart. So I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to figure out where I would aim in different scenarios. I dreamed about it. Also, you pull the trigger and follow through. Don't jerk your head up to see where your shot went. This became my mantra. Follow through. Don't jerk your head.

So when I was all suited up and heading down to the woods I was focused. I really wasn't sure how I was going to handle all of this. Would my heart be racing too much to aim? Would I be able to breathe? Would the idea of shooting an animal cause me to break down crying? Throw up? Maybe I wouldn't even pull the trigger today. Or ever. 

I came around the corner in the trail that leads to the clearing. Two bucks greeted me. They darted off and were gone. Shit. So was that it? Oh well. I climbed up into the deer stand anyway and settled in. I just tried to focus on even, relaxed breathing and just looked around. There were squirrels. I heard frogs in the creek behind me. A hawk was screeching in the sky, causing the squirrels to go on full attention.

I was surprised to see a coyote wander up after I'd been there only about 10 minutes. It was super skittish and never fully came into the clearing. It never stopped sniffing the air as it walked and was gone before I knew it.

Then honestly I just got kind of bored. I started fussing with my phone and got lost in playing with it for a bit when I heard something. I looked up and saw a doe coming into the clearing with somebody close behind. It looked like a fawn. I though, "Okay. I'm not killing the mom with her baby right there." Then I noticed that the other deer was a button buck--a buck with just two little knobs like starter antlers. I decided that it didn't appear to be dependent on its mother any longer. The doe was a viable target. I drew a bead on the doe.

Of course then I thought about how the bucks sometimes arrive after the does have tested the area. So maybe I should be patient. So I waited.

Then I realized I was new at this and that it was silly to be greedy. Besides, the bucks had just run off. There was a good-looking doe in front of me. Here was my opportunity. I aimed again. I thought very carefully about where I wanted the shot to go. The doe held steady in its place. Then it scratched its head with its hind leg. Then it settled in again. I fired.

BAM! Even though the crossbow is quiet next to a rifle, the sudden pop of the bowstring shattered the silence. I jerked my head up to see where my shot went. No! Both deer seemed to jump straight into the air and were gone into the woods. No!

Crap. Did I miss? How could I have missed. I missed! I gathered the things out of the deer stand and got ready to climb down. As I was taking inventory I heard a crash off to my right. It sounded like something heavy breaking through limbs and branches. Maybe that was a good sign? Here's the exchange with my dad.

I found the bolt. It was lying in the dirt and appeared to be clean as a whistle. How could I have missed completely? I picked it up. It was sticky. I looked at my fingers. They were red with blood. Huh.

I wandered in the direction of the sound for a few steps and then came back to meet my dad who was zipping down the hill in his Gator. In hindsight, this may have been the most interesting part of the day. We set about looking for a trail of blood. No kidding, I was standing there looking at the floor of the woods thinking how impossible it seemed that I would just so happen to find blood when I found blood. It was just little spots. But then there were more. And we followed them for just a short while before we found it.

So I was worried that it was going to be kicking or thrashing. To my great relief the animal was absolutely lifeless. It ran maybe 100 yards before dropping dead. I examined my shot. It looked good. Textbook maybe. Anyway, I was relieved that the doe appears to have died quickly. I'm sure I was completely awkward, but I tried to approach with a healthy dose of reverence. My friend, Scott, explained the German tradition of der letzter Biss, or the last bite. I slipped some greenery into the mouth of the doe for her letzter Biss.

Then came the job of dealing with a dead deer. I dragged it out of the brush to where we could get it into the Gator.

It had been my plan all along to field dress and butcher the deer myself. My dad very kindly held a light for me and patiently read from my field guide book as I tried to deal with everything. To save you, dear reader, all the gory detail I am happy to say that I successfully gutted the animal without doing anything to spoil the meat. But it took me forever. It was dark and I was starting to get hungry and irritable. With Scott's advice in mind, I carefully removed the heart and liver and saved them in a freezer bag. We took the rest of the deer to a processor up in Walnut Cove. He told me to avoid all the trouble and risk spoiling the meat, by letting them do everything next time--though he acknowledged I'd done a good job of gutting it.

They hosed it off and got right to work skinning it, but what you see here is a result of the work I'd done.

Expect recipes and meal stories to follow later. For now I'm pleased to report that this was a very positive experience for me. Was it horrible? No. Awesome? No. Not that either. I've heard folks describe it in nearly spiritual terms. It wasn't that for me even. I have to say that from pulling the trigger to getting elbow-deep into the guts, it was all very much okay with me. I didn't relish the slaughter of this beautiful animal. But it didn't give me the creeps. It all seemed very natural to me. I do look forward to tasting the meat. I am proud to report that I did it and it makes me feel like a slightly more self-aware carnivore.

Again I couldn't have done this without my dad. Thanks a thousand times over, Dad.

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