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To see an elk in the woods.

To watch it dozing in the weak winter sun. Or browsing the knuckles of last summer’s grass. Or stepping slowly through the pine duff, pausing between each step, its brown melting into the forest, its outline blending into the static of dead branch and flaking bark and gangly sapling.

To point a gun at the heart of that elk and kill it.

I grew up hunting with my dad. I would tag along, that is. There were a lot of things about hunting I didn’t like: waking up in the dark, moving slowly in the cold, inhabiting hour after hour of ghastly suspense. I didn’t want any animals to die. And, I wanted us to be successful; to be done.

Despite all that, I went because I wanted to. It seemed important and the venison we ate was meaningful to me: I saw it come off the bone. I packaged it at the kitchen table with my mom and dad. All that wasn’t enough to make me want to shoot something– that would take another twenty years.

From fishermen and hunters I’ve often heard this justification: their sports give them greater intimacy with the things they love. I always considered that to be terribly self-serving. Is it not significant that, in the process, they kill the things they love?

I still think that argument is self-serving. And, there’s no sense in denying that hunting does give me more intimacy with animals than I ever had before, far more, and that I value that intimacy. I am challenged by it. It has lead me to learn more, care more, and see more. I still have never seen an animal and wanted to shoot it. I force myself to do so, it regularly brings me to tears, and then I set about the incredibly laborious business of treating this gift, this life, with as much respect as I know how.

Slicing the hide, extracting the viscera, stripping the bones–these activities, undertaken by choice, are the compulsions of a serial killer. I don’t know how to argue that. I do know that my responsibility is proportionate to my awareness: that I have a lot of hard work to do. This fall, for the first time, I saved the largest organ of the body– the skin– and figured out how to turn it into brain-tanned buckskin.

Fleshing

Ripening

Graining

Drying

Thawing

Fat-liquoring

Breaking

I will build things from this leather. Because, as a consumer, I am an agent of death. Because I am beholden to the complexity of the elk. The elk will continue to inhabit my life– it is a morbid thought. It is also a constant reminder: what I take, what I use, what I do with it. The impact of my life. The cost of my existence. Why, and for what, I am here.

A First

Thought: I’d like to listen to the Beatles right now! And a following thought: there’s no Beatles on your iPod. And there never has been.

Rather than cancel each other out, these two thoughts send a shudder through my basis of reality.

***

Hopefully This Helps Clear Things Up

I was not a young person with big ideas.

I was a young person lacking spectacularly in ideas.
It was spectacular considering the feelings that served as placeholders– this unmeasurable wealth of feelings.
But I had no idea.

It is unusual, while walking the residential blocks of town, to pass another walker. It is much more unusual to pass a walker who is not accompanied by a dog.

Do people have dogs because they need encouragement to walk?
Or does the category of walkers overlap, let’s say, 85%, with the category of dog walkers?

Lastly: what is the man who walks without the dog?