Family / Sporting Life

Field Journal Muse: Processing a Rite

When I was a young boy- let’s say second grade or so, I was a bit squeamish around some of the outdoor process. There was always a friend that could just go in the woods and come home with a frog in his hand or grabbed crawdads in the creek with little fear of a nip to the fingers. I admired this early childhood machismo- but it wasn’t me. I’d run an eagle claw all through a nightcrawler, even rip it in half, but I was flinchy grabbing a sunfish. I knew those fins were there and they flopped spastically. When dad told me I was going on my first dove hunt, I talked about it the whole week leading to it. When the first bird went down, he sent me out there to retrieve it. It was still warm when I put my hand on it. It’s eyelids were closed and violet. The bird suddenly hand a spasmodic twitch in my loose grip. I dropped the bird and peered around to see if anyone saw me inside the cornrow that concealed me. 

Through the early years, breasting fowl over a bucket or gutting a fish barehanded became a rite of the process. Just a habit and responsibility of participating and enjoying sportsman activities. The nature of taking small game and fish in my early years came with developing a great respect for habitat, sportsman habit, and enjoyment- but very little of the deeper spiritual traditions wrapped in the life of the quarry or implications on me as the hunter.

Big game hunting was not part of our family tradition. My father, by way of his father, by way of his father- were bird hunters. Bird hunting by nomenclature where we live meant quail. They took rabbits back when more folks commonly kept and took pride in trial dogs. Dove hunting was a way to end each summer. 

In my late teens, I began deer hunting with my best friend. His family was full of renown outdoorsmen, literally people that history will remember for it- but our circumstances were the same. Both of our dads were busier working than getting out there.  We were neophytes and seekers. In the early nineties, this meant reading articles in outdoor magazines, ordering VHS tapes by mail, and hanging out in local gun stores with a cast of characters. We hunted in some odd places, climbing oak trees with diminished odds. Lots of habitat that was not cultivated and barely scouted. We thought we knew what we were doing, but the results- out there with no guidance or mentorship- spoke for themselves.

Then we took deer. It took years of trying- working through stories and the lore- the anticipation and the mystery. All that time sitting in the cold with a doubt and lascivious anticipation to kill and our hands were finally wet…

Thursday night I was out past my bedtime with an obligation that was fun, Friday night I was out past my bedtime too- the Uber from the city brought me home at midnight. The alarm went off at 4:30 am. I have taken my sons hunting in a plantation hunt club that I’ve been affiliated with for over a decade. This year I decided to commit every Saturday morning of the gun season to taking them hunting on the local patch of land we are blessed to have access to. It is five minutes from our house (beds). My boys have taken more deer collectively in their early adolescence than I have in my life. They have done this all while enjoying meals and hunt club fellowship, warm rides to a stand, and comfortable sittings in habitat that was groomed for them before they got there. They have been dropped off feet from a ladder and climb back into the truck feet from the base of the ladder. Their deer are put in the truck by ‘the help’, they usually have gotten a photo back at the big house on the lawn, then the help goes off to process the deer at the skinning shed. The meat comes home in the cooler and if they had a really great hunt the cape goes to a taxidermist and they get a nice late Christmas gift for their bedroom. They have all gone down to the skinning shed a time or two. Comments of their memories are both that the animal looked the most dead when it was hanging and a strong recollection of the smell . . .

The great appeal of the hunt club is a strong fellowship and separation from life. No work, no school, no signal, no mom, no more teacher’s dirty looks. The time I need to be a dad to four sons. The time I perceived that they needed with me as a son. The time for them to do “man things” in an emasculating world. Every culture has a rite of passage- the young brave that makes his first kill. Many see it as blood and violence and machismo, but also are culturally sensitive to appreciate its spiritual significance in cultures we connote as more primitive than our own. We have puberty, turnover the keys to the lawnmover, an expectation that “your grades count toward college now”, and first communion. In my culture, coming along with dad to hunt- maybe even with a Clark and Rusty style beer share, is a silent rite of passage. The hunt club has always been a nicely packaged part of our lives. Something that bypassed the DIY experience I had as a young man. It lacked truth and the visceral component . . .

I was very tired this morning. I sat in a double blind with my son Sam. This Saturday was a 0% new moon, the air was still and it was comfortably warm for dawn on in early December. A quarter mile away, I had sent out my son Forrest across the farm. Armed with a flashlight, rifle, and specific directions to a tree stand he had confused with so many others we serviced months earlier, he bravely went out into the darkness to hunt solo for the first time.

At 7:30 AM the sun had risen to drop the temperature like it does just as the dew changes. I resisted the temptation to text him- but I did. 

“U see anything”

“3 just slipped out, wait 4”

We had discussed that this was a good day to take some does. We have a family rule about only taking branch bucks that are better than your last. I had reserved the afternoon time to deal with hunting- after hunting. 

“Forrest- be patient- they’re chasing and if they’re out in the field I’d watch the edges for buck for awhile”

“Dad now twenty does”

I went ‘radio silent” and as did he. Our decision to hunt more at home was a commitment to have better stewardship over the land that we have right here at home. This land is owned by the same dear friend that I learned to hunt with some thirty years ago. While we’ve always pittled with it, we’ve never given it the love and time it deserved. We have both spend a great deal of time and resource hunting other places. We decided to turn that back to what we had right in front of us all our lives. It wasn’t just about the deer or the land. It was about our friendship, our families, and our boys. A stewardship around hunting. Hunting not shooting. Hunting in July when the mosquitoes are biting and the poison ivy is all over the trees you are clearing. Hunting when you are scraping the rust off old ladder stands and spraying a coat of rust-o-leum while all you friends are a the pool. ‘Hunting’ in early September by tip toeing through woods and finding scrapes, rubs, beds, and sometimes jumping a massive sleeping buck. Knowing the land. Being a hunter, not just being dropped off to be a shooter over a food plot not knowing the depth of the habitat just beyond a corn feeder.

7:40 AM. The sky crackled with a shot. It was hard that morning to know where it came from. There were four of us hunting in a mile long line on the land. The same number of guns or more were on several neighboring lands. Two minutes later a second shot from the same vantage with the same crackle. It was staccato and felt broken from the first, as if it was a cleanup shot. 

“Dad I killed two does”

“Can you see both of them down and dead?”

“Yes sir”

“Stay in your stand I’m proud of you”

I was proud because I was clear on all the weeknight hunts that the boys want to shoot does, but it is inconvenient to get deer to a processor on a work and school night. This Saturday was proclaimed a meat hunting and doe culling day. Forrest took it quite literally- even more so than my adult partners that discussed it but passed deer over.

Sam and I were loosing patience with our stand. I must confess that with the week before me, I was dosing off.  I was eager to see Forrest and congratulate him. Because we didn’t have to cross our fellow hunters, I rode out to get him. He had made to shots at 150 and 175 yards, both exactly in the shoulder, both clean, ethical immediate dropping kills. I left him and Sam with the four wheeler and walked back toward the farm house alone through a long newly planted field. I dialed in the harvest report and called our local processor that had been rumored very busy. Sure enough, “if you came five minutes ago- you’d be on my last hook.”

When the boys brought the deer back to the barnyard, we celebrated. Forrest gave the play-by-play to us. We loaded the deer under a tarp on a trailer and I drove to our home. I went in for a cup of coffee and to say good morning to my wife. Forrest is a modest and stoic young man. His only gloating to his other three brothers was a subtle smile. His emotional disposition is one that thrives on affirmation, his brothers built him up. In the background, I was trying to find an alternate processor. I had a huge headache, was exhausted, and hungry. Casey had a little pity on me when I privately told her I wasn’t in the mood to go dress the two deer. Admittedly, I haven’t done it myself in almost two decades. There was a feeling of inconvenience, but also inadequacy- as I had done a somewhat sloppy job of it in the past- much of which with the same childhood squeamishness of the first times I pulled the guts out of the chest of a catfish. Coming down the stairs, I had a slight realization Forrest was privy to my feeling and that it was minimizing his accomplishment . . .

We pulled that trailer back out to the farm and up to the pole barn. The crank and gambrel were not longer there from so many years past. Forrest looked around. He cut the hocks like he had seen at the plantation shed and ran a piece of rebar through. He hoisted the deer toward the rafters as he drove ahead of a long strap on his four wheeler. He found a metal cement mixing pan and put it under the inverted deer and stepped back. I had Forrest cut away the lower legs with a reciprocating saw. I made a Y-shaped incision from the inner thighs to the abdomen and down across the thorax. This was a very shallow incision with a very sharp blade. I don’t own a skinning knife and I held this razor sharp pairing knife between my thumb and finger like a scalpel. I did not break the inner fasciae. I cleanly dissected away the plane of outer hide to reveal an essentially naked animal that looked so much like meat hanging to age in butcher shops. It was an educationally intriguing moment.  By the nature of process, there was not blood, no smell, it was surgical, and not particularly gross.

Then I made a dissection of the rear of the animal and a deeper slash down the front of the animal. The abdominal viscera immediately plunged through and downward. The cold and peaceful image of death of a the once pelt covered animal is replaced by immediate reminder of life. Warm organs, the complex machines of life. As I disemboweled the animal there is a deep feeling of responsibility. The innate spiritual nature overwhelms me, an emotion that is hard to explain. It is primitive and feels like it belongs. The same emotions of facing the animal flow through me like the ones from my early childhood. The responsibility of handling the fish with respect if I am going to catch it. I hope that Forrest is behind me learning. I hope that he is behind me having the same emotions. I hope that he is absorbing the same respect for creation and the complexity of life. I am very scientific in my explanation of the organs and each ones purpose. I drop the abdominal organs into the pan and dissect through the diaphram into the thoracic cavity.

There is no wonder that we have parted the subjective onto body parts. The intellect being in the mind and such. As the smelly guts are dropped way. We see blood. There is a the greatest sense of life and then the reality of death as I take away the heart and lungs.

There is no mystery why young men put firstkill blood on their face, no mystery why so many cultures have the young warrior hunter partake in the heart. I have thoughts of great Nordic warriors and all aboriginal people- who have done this over and over for thousands of years. All in front of a boy that my seemingly and would otherwise believe that, “chicken comes from styrofoam packages*.”

Some times very great things come from unplanned circumstances. The ancient Jews thought God was going to deliver them a great king and they were given a child amongst the detritus habitat of the oxen and ass. I am so happy that I didn’t crawl into my bed for a Saturday afternoon nap while our “sport” was at the butcher shop. 

*We live in a brave new universe. One full of fear and under girded by a safety net that we no longer even perceive. We are marching into a reality that is altered- one in which we have sold our Cartesian sense of self to a silent machine.

*note this has an honest and realistic description of a hunting experience, life and death that is culturally accurate and acceptable as I traditionally know it and likely offensive and misunderstood by others. I know many follow this blog because of other interests (food, style, etc.). I have always tried to write about real experiences that are relevant to my life. That includes a diversity of topics. I hope you enjoy- or have mercy on me.

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