Although I was a vegetarian for years, my family’s attempt to eat more locally raised and sustainable food led us toward occasional meat-eating—chicken, beef, bison and pork raised on our farm or by neighbors. As part of this omnivory, I have spent several years contemplating whether I might also take up deer hunting.
In theory at least, hunting is a skill I want to cultivate in order to keep my family (and others) fed, especially if any link in the complex and vulnerable food supply chain should ever falter. I suppose some primal “provider” instinct still abides deep in my DNA. From a broader ecological perspective, without wolves as natural predators, deer become so populous that both the local ecosystem and the herd suffer in the absence of human harvesting. And in terms of global energy economics, eating venison shot on our farm is about as low-carbon as food gets, compared to the expense, labor and energy required to raise domesticated livestock, even with humane and organic methods.
Despite my convictions about the value of hunting, my inner vegetarian was ambivalent, even after I set aside the stereotypical parody of hunters as testosterone-fueled, big-truck-driving, red-state rural rednecks. Although I have butchered our farm-raised chickens, I still have qualms about taking the life of any animal. Most important, our young daughters lamented the idea of Papa shooting Bambi, and I hesitated to become in their eyes a man capable of such violence, even in the name of providing family sustenance. But with fear and trembling, this year I finally decided to hunt.
Over the dozen years I have lived on this farm, I have spent much time in the woods. Normally, I go there to work: cutting timber or firewood, gathering nuts, clearing trails. I am in charge of the task and the time frame. When I came to hunt, however, the equation changed completely. I had to be still and quiet and utterly aware of any noise or movement. I paid attention to game trails, buck scrapes and other signs of which I had been oblivious for years. I became mindful of how the wind carried my own creaturely scent. I watched the sun rise or fall through the leafless trees. Twice I witnessed great horned owls kite silently from their perch in a shadowy flap of wings. I watched, I listened, and I waited, senses on full alert.
After a few early morning and late afternoon hunts, I finally saw a doe, feeding alone near dusk on the red clover in one of our hayfields. My heart pounding, I clicked off the safety and held the deer in the scope crosshairs until I had a clear, 60-yard broadside shot: a clean kill, I hoped. Almost overwhelmed by the difficulty of extinguishing another life, I gave thanks, asked forgiveness and pulled the trigger. The shot hit home. The doe ran 20 yards and fell.
In The Second Coming, the Catholic writer Walker Percy describes his novel’s protagonist, Will Barrett, stumbling around in a fog of wealth and social convention. He is alienated and distracted, unable to be present to himself or others. I can relate to Will Barrett; I often feel similarly insulated and anesthetized. Whether from stress, self-absorption or the endless allure of technology, consumer goods and packaged entertainment, I tend to forget my physical reality as a creature of nature and my spiritual reality as beloved of God—and in both, my deep connection to the world and to others. I know I am not alone in this, and I likewise know that such abstraction makes possible much of the abuse and atrocities committed against people and the planet.
Hunting, however, showed me one way to tear away the scrim between myself and the wonderful, ambiguous, God-soaked world around me. Feeling part of the utter aliveness of the woods and its creatures, and even dealing death within that aliveness—both felt compellingly real.
I rarely encounter the sacred as vividly when sitting in a church pew as I do when sitting in the woods. I have often blamed the church for this, and not without reason, considering its checkered history (and present) and its sometimes lackluster liturgies. But I suspect that Gandhi was right, that the change I want to see must begin in my own heart and habits. I experienced the woods differently only when I came to them in a new way. What if I attended Mass with similar watchfulness and expectation, longing for God as the deer longs for running streams?