The deer was dead before it crumpled to the ground. I later found that my rifle slug had torn away the lower portion of the buck’s heart. He took a few drunken steps after the bullet’s impact — then his legs folded for the final time and he laid still near a fallen birch tree.
A tendril of gun smoke escaped the end of my rifle barrel as I watched the deer fall. I approached carefully — with all those familiar mixed feelings of regret and elation. After thirty-five years my hands still trembled — adrenaline shortened my breath.
Deer hunters are hunters only until the animal is dead. Lawyers call this reducing an animal to possession — an ancient legal term that fits very well. By virtue of that one rifle shot — the buck was reduced from a free-roaming public resource, full of life and wildness, to a private personal possession which belonged only to me.
Everything that was important before the rifle shot — the wind direction, the angle of the sun, the quiet footing, the sound of the approaching hooves on frozen ground, the flash of brown and white between trees, the glimpse of antlers, the sight picture through the scope — all of this was meaningless now that the deer lay at my feet.
From this point forward I was no longer a hunter. My job — my responsibility — now was to gather what nature had provided.
For us deer hunters it’s all about the hunting.The obsession is so strong it has spawned a multi-million dollar industry. We have our own channel on ESPN, outdoor retailers cater to us almost exclusively from September to January each year. We are a “deer nation” and camo is the new black.
For the most serious among us it is a year-round preoccupation. All our attention is on the live animal and how to make it ours by killing it. This is nothing more than biological hard-wiring based on eons of evolutionary pragmatism. The hunt for the animal is where our focus lies.
But it’s the gathering that sets us apart.
The excitement of the hunt and the adrenaline rush of the rifle shot are the easy sell. Some of us celebrate it with a high five — as if it were no different from a touchdown or a hole-in-one. The new tradition is an immediate cell phone call to friends and loved ones. We collect trophies to commemorate the hunt — photos, videos, fireside stories, taxidermy.
But when we lay our first trembling hand on that still-warm flank — or when we reach down to handle those antlers which have never felt a human touch — the responsibility begins. This is where the deer hunting videos end and the outdoor television programs fade away to commercial. The hunt is over. Unsheathing the knife and turning the deer onto its back begins the gathering process.
After the shot, I find myself a half-mile from the truck and alone. It was the same way the first time I ever did this. A stranger appeared suddenly, that time, out of a gathering snowstorm. After hearing my panicked rifle shots he arrived to find me in shock — rifle empty, kneeling in the wet snow next to a still-bleeding doe. A teenage hunter overcome with the fading excitement of the hunt and the awesome responsibility of what lay ahead.
He talked me through it — although it would have been quicker for him to just take over and get back to his own hunting. Every knife-cut was my own and at the end I dragged the doe away alone while the stranger went back to his unfinished business.
For me, it’s still an anatomy lesson every time. A childhood’s worth of sacrificial chickens and turkeys did not prepare me well. The larger stock on the family farm was always trucked away to the slaughterhouse by my softhearted uncle. I work slowly at the task — trying not to make a mess of it. My dad used to say that respect for the animal doesn’t end with the sound of the rifle shot.
This is what makes deer hunters different from the majority of Americans. When the knife makes the first probe — through skin and then muscle. This is what they don’t understand about us. What’s the attraction of a pastime (sport?) where you are routinely expected to calmly eviscerate a human-sized animal that you’ve freshly killed with a powerful rifle?
We can’t explain it well ourselves and we avoid talking about it. It’s not the part of the experience that we celebrate in print or film for television. But it’s such a necessary part of who we are. This is what connects us to the animal — more so than any rifle shot. And more so than any later butchering that takes place. The after-the-fact dis-assembly of cold muscle groups, under florescent light in a garage or workshop, is a much different, much more clinical thing.
Out here we are doing the gathering under the open sky in the deer’s element. The knife gets sticky because the blood is still cooling and congealing as we work. When we set the liver aside on a granite slab to cool — it comes away pasted with pine needles. There is a gush of remaining blood when the chest cavity is breached — and steam too if the weather is cool enough.
One year my hunt ended at sundown on a bitterly cold and windy opening day. Walking from camp to truck, I was lightly dressed and headed home when the buck walked out into the trail ahead of me. The shot was quick and close. As it got darker and colder I set myself to work barehanded– I remember being grateful to the deer for that shared, slowly-fading warmth.
The folks who buy their meat on little Styrofoam trays will never understand this. It may be best not to try to explain it. They like the stories about the thrill of the hunt and our expert marksmanship.
But for us gatherers, that storytelling is all in the future as we kneel here in the woods to do our work. This is a much quieter moment. And as we pull the shattered heart, still-warm, from the rib cage of the deer — we offer a silent prayer.