From Winter Solstice to the longest night– -28 in Livingston, -41 in West Yellowstone– to morning. Now we climb from the dark hole of the year.

Here’s to the ducks and geese I saw huddling along ice shelves of the Yellowstone River on my hour walk at dawn, the house sparrows filling out skeletons of lilac bushes in brittle, shaking masses.

“…the terrible oppression of that raging, life-sucking vampire force sweeping over the desolate world. Disembodied things– the souls of those, perhaps, who had perished here– seemed frenziedly calling me in the wind. …We were the only pulsating creatures in a dead world of ice.” –Frederick Cook, 1911

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As much as anything else hunting is an open-ended exercise in not allowing my mind to wander. I can only be successful for so long. Every success goes through the inevitable break down. I have all day.

There are many things to think about. Only some of the time do I think about hunting. There is beauty to the earth and there is complexity. There is adversity. It’s generally rough walking and I carry a burden. Of the time I spend thinking about hunting, only a minority of that, perhaps, is spent thinking about the hunt I am on. Other thoughts I address to the antihunters of the world, whose feelings I respect, and whose judgements I fear. I refer my choices back to this question: Who would want to shoot an animal? Why would anyone choose to do it?

The terrain is rough and my gun is awkward. Again and again it slips off the shoulder strap of my backpack. Over time the tick manifests internally as a crick in my spine. Hunting is nothing if not time outside, though (I can’t speak for road hunters), and there is all the attendant serendipity to redeem it. If I manage to keep enough of myself available. On Saturday I watched a great grey owl swoop and perch among the lichen-draped Douglas firs of a mossy gully.

Moments come and pass, though, and behind each moment is the fact of the hunt. I’m on an emotional rollercoaster– even more than usual, that is. Sometimes I am after the meaning of hunting. There is no such thing. There are only the present circumstances. Sometimes they click and feel right, sometimes they do not. I can refer to traditional lifestyles and cultures, in which people engage directly with the economics of survival; just as easily, these ideals of mine are deflated by the ironies of my situation. I’m always finding myself hugging the property boundaries of private land; either that or I walk all day and see no animals. This contingency of meaning, though, I find a useful-enough insight into life in general, maybe even useful enough to justify the agonizing, the vacillations, the second-guessing, the missed opportunities, the beating up of the self. As always, I am fundamentally uncertain about what I am doing. It’s really something to see how this plays out as feet on the landscape. That good can come of it.

Days that I try to enact a plan are predictable in this sense alone: my plan is a worthless conceit. It symbolizes the puniness of ideas held up against reality. Put that alongside the prospect of death, of my killing something; layer that on the weight of the gun, the discomfort, the crick. The very thought of pulling the trigger– of shattering the scene, of the terror I will inspire in other living beings– will set my heart pounding in my chest. How many of us live with the visceral knowledge of this feeling, the literalness of the heart pound? I fear it’s more than I think. My privilege is that it’s my choice. I remember a thirty-year old description from my dad. He was hunting with a family friend whose heartbeat was audible as a sort of clicking or hiccuping through his open mouth. All around me is this world, this world that might be about to end, end forever for the animal of my choice. Who the hell do I think I am? The world around me looks increasingly strange– and beautiful. Impossibly beautiful. It breaks my heart. I don’t want it to end, I am increasingly terrified of those minutes that will reduce to me and the question of pulling the trigger. I will that moment to never come. Yet this is the moment toward which I am laboring. Is it a win-win, that if I go home empty-handed, at least I didn’t have to shoot the gun? Can every win-win be equally described as a lose-lose?

There are many types of beauty. Some of them will only make you want to live forever. Some of them encompass the reality of the end. Some of them make you bold and wanting more, some of them freeze you in your steps they are so essentially mortal. To die is to be relieved, allowed to forget, become something else. There is something around us that will take us when we are done. Thus I approach the dead. He is shocking– enormous– hundreds pounds of intricacy and color and texture, and (I use this word deliberately, because it speaks to both the good and the bad) a resource. An unbelievable abundance– a wealth, an absolutely shocking wealth of resources, the gleanings of the land that comes in and out of life. Gratitude is responsibility and I must rise to it. Yet it is impossible to say “thank you,” to say those words out loud, without breaking up a little.

My gratitude is responsibility and my work is cut out for me. I pack out alone over two days. On my return trips I walk toward the wavering funnel cloud of ravens that point to the site. Where it came to pass. It’s strange, not to be explained perhaps, but I know what I’m doing now. When I say I love life I mean that I have seen what it will be to have to leave all this.

10/31-11/1/2022

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One more from before the snow: the way to Pelican Cone.

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up close

and far away

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up close

and far away

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