Finding Meaning In Meat

One day when I was 12, my dad and I strapped on snowshoes in the pre-dawn light and drew tracks across the forest in our pursuit of elk. Then prints we made joined theirs, and suddenly an opportunity. My father grabbed a tree so I could rest my rifle on his arm. “Steady,” he said. And he was as I squeezed the trigger and ended a life. Elation and a sense of achievement came with killing that elk, but so did melancholy for the death of the animal and a poignant day. The hunt occurred 35 seasons ago, but its terrific intimacy remains in my mind. Near a lone Montana pine: two hunters with a breathless creature, all at rest in light snowfall. I recall a father of pride and a son driven to distraction by a moment dizzying and profound. That free-ranging elk had been taken but not wasted. At nightfall, Mom served tenderloins, and back on the mountain, among shadows and chilly gusts, birds and bears scavenged and gnawed until entrails were replaced by animal desires for more.

How and where we get our sustenance matters. This claim would have sailed past me at age 12. My focus concerned tales of the hunt in Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, and other hook-and-bullet magazines. Stopping then to consider the quality of the meat from that elk I had shot? No. I did always covet the homemade jerky. Wild game stews were delicious. Toasted cheese sandwiches with venison thuringer still rank high on my gastro list. But as an adult, appreciating carnivorous tendencies has grown more complicated. This is largely because my wife and I are committed to helping our children develop meaningful relationships with food. We want the people we love most to appreciate what lands on their dinner plates. Beans are picked and tomatoes harvested right out the back door. Late summer includes time in huckleberry patches. We meander at farmers markets and sojourn to Green Bluff, while steelhead and other trout smoke 25 feet from our house. Out in the garage during the late fall—if a hunter’s luck has somehow aligned with skill and perseverance—my family and friends clutch knives and follow ancestors into the sober tradition of deconstructing beauty.

Butchering at home strips away the veil. Cutting boards and freezer paper fill any chasm between the consumer of meat and the creature that has died. The sharp work to transform hind quarters and back straps into cutlets demands an attention to origins. I figure that if meat eating is a part of my family’s diet, we must know the stakes for the steaks.

Why do I hunt? The question can be answered fairly easily as long as I hover near its surface. That I do so to provide fresh food for my family is accurate but incomplete. The other reasons can appear stereotypical. Hunting is part of my family’s heritage, and tracking and scouting and pursuing tests my physical and mental resolve under a range of conditions. I hunt out of a passionate interest in being aligned rather than distanced from predatory instincts. Being out there with gun or bow in hand sustains a felt connection with the early humans who etched their hunting stories on animal hides and cave walls. With a strong set of ethics and knowledge of natural acts, I believe hunting conditions me for the arbitrariness of life. Nothing predictable. All free range. Pursuit (and checking over one’s shoulder occasionally to avoid becoming the pursued) mandates an intense level of concentration and a genuine giving to the moment. There is life and struggle, isolation and community. Maybe even enlightenment.

Even when I am reminded that people of sophistication do not give in to nostalgia, I cannot help losing my critical edge as I recount the elk adventure with my father, sibling bowhunts in Crazy Mountain fog, and pronghorn escapades with my dear friend Greg. When the folk songs from cassettes we played in his old yellow truck come on the radio these years later, I am transported back to campfires and that little dive bar down the Gallatin. My hunting history flares up with lasting images of high country and iced-up decoys along the Madison. The crazed screams of bull elk in rut will never leave me. More recent memories matter, too. For some I was alone, but many times I have been fortunate to travel with friends who share my reverence and love for animals and the mountains they inhabit. All of these experiences are enhanced by the gravitas that comes with hunting. Other outdoor activities stimulate me, on rivers, in snowy mountains, down singletrack bike trails, but hunting is not a sport or mere adrenaline rush.

My hunting narrative reminds me of grand adventures and trips with clean endings. I am also summoned by regret. Pursuing and killing are serious endeavors. They can (and should) inspire humility and revelations about the fragility of life. I know this, in part, because of a once-magnificent antelope hunt. I had closed the distance on a nice buck bedded several hundred yards away. Crawling for over an hour across windswept grasses brought me to within 100 yards. Undetected, I whistled and the buck stood broadside against rolling hills and Big Sky blue. The shot was smooth, just like that one with the elk when I was 12. It seemed I had prepared well and stalked perfectly. Here we were again in the realm of finality. At the first sonic disruption from my .243, a bright red splotch appeared on the buck’s left side. Mortal wound? Not quite. I triggered more action, but even after the last bullet casing hit the ground near my feet, the buck was still free range. My family and I searched that country for hours with nothing to show. “This happens sometimes, even to the best of hunters,” my dad reminded me. Of course he was right, but many years later, I still wince in remorse for the suffering I caused.

My friend Erik suggested that photography is the ultimate form of hunting. It requires many of the skills hunters must employ but also the proper light at the right time of day. I agree, and so this form of pursuit should suffice. For me, however, I hunger for an interior wild that requires more than images. The kind of wild that compels me to be with deer and elk and to stalk, wait, guess, predict, and, when conditions are right, make a kill. This personal truth comes out when I look in the mirror at canine incisors and see eyes positioned for searching. My place in the lineage honors the way of the bears, cougars, and wolves. I accept my role as predator, even though doing so violates the catch-and-release ethos of photographers and the (questionably) progressive stance of many non-hunting meat eaters. Insightful arguments against hunting exist; I concede that human systems have evolved to the point where people like me do not need to hunt for food. But being a predator keeps me grounded. Hunting reflects a full commitment to variables out of my control, like my own life’s inevitable conclusion. Why I hunt has to do with facing fears and staying honest. The blood on my hands is problematic but also an application for authenticity, a reminder to stay closely connected to the actual in a world increasingly seduced by a virtual everything.

Recommended Reading

Ortega y Gassett, Meditations on Hunting

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

David Petersen, A Hunter’s Heart: Honest Essays on Blood Sport

Jim Posewitz, Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethic and Tradition of Hunting

Mary Zeiss Stange, Woman the Hunter

James Swan, The Sacred Art of Hunting: Myths, Legends, and the Modern Mythos