“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
– Walt Whitman
On a day not so long ago, I sat on a cooler in a meadow at dawn. Hot coffee in hand, I drew breath on what was to be my final morning of a weeklong deer hunt with my friend Steve. In a few hours I’d pile back into my truck and return to the world of pavement and steel and glowing computer screens. But for the moment, all was quiet. Steve was fast asleep in his tent, and the slightest of breezes set the fading oak leaves to murmuring amongst themselves.
My lazy gaze settled on a pair of ears, bobbing through the suede grass of an adjoining field. It’s Mr. Jack, I thought. And then Mr. Jack was joined by Mrs. Jack. Or perhaps they were brother and sister, or maybe sisters or brothers both. I have no idea. But what I do know is that these jackrabbits clearly enjoyed each other’s company, and were unreservedly relaxed as they hopped toward our campsite.
Soon they were less than 10 yards from sleeping Steve. I found myself beaming as I watched these two hares casually going about their business, having a good time; I rarely get to see two jackrabbits interacting with each other. It felt like I was being given a gift.
And then one stopped and looked directly at me. Without thought, I waved hello. And while Mr. Jack did not exactly wave back, he did cock one ear in my direction before continuing on his way – every bit as casually as he and his friend/lover/sibling had been before they’d seen me.
I sipped my coffee and watched them amble out of sight. It was a lovely way to start a morning.
But you should know something: I kill and eat jackrabbits. In fact, just two days prior, I had stalked, shot, killed, skinned, gutted and cooked one. Could it have been a friend or relative of these two jackrabbits? And how is it that I can feel such pure joy in both the act of watching animals and in hunting them?
I feel a deep kinship with the animals I hunt; most hunters do. We get to know them in a far deeper way than all but a few other sorts of human: We know their personalities, their foibles, their habits. Where they like to live, what they like to eat, and what they might do in any given situation. Yet most of us take delight in being fooled when a deer or rabbit shows us some new quirk of their behavior. Hunt any animal long enough and it ceases to be the Disneyfied caricature of itself most people know and blossoms into a clever, free-thinking entity – an entity not so different from us.
My mind settled onto this seeming paradox the way a leaf settles onto the forest floor. Sitting in this meadow, in this place, as a hunter and a human animal, it felt serenely right in a way I find wildly incapable of explaining to those who have not experienced the same feeling.
This feeling lies beneath rational thought, and no attempt to reduce it to reason can capture it accurately; a picture of the ocean is not the ocean. However, one piece of this feeling centers on the fundamental fact that to live on planet Earth something else must die. It has been so for more than 600 million years. No animal, from an amoeba to the girl next door, can exist without making a mark upon this planet. Dealing death is the business of life.
Many reject this notion as abhorrent. They ask themselves: Are we really no better than the lions on the Serengeti? Should not humanity stand for something at least slightly more grand than being the biggest, baddest pack of wolves on the planet? To such people, humanity’s highest purpose is to transcend the boundaries of the so-called animal world in order to reach whatever state of exaltation seems best to them. With a worldview like this, hunters are retrograde Neanderthals wallowing in Nature red in tooth and claw.
I suspect that the core of such criticism of what we do is an unnatural fear of death, a fear stoked by distance and ignorance. Citizens of the wealthiest nations of the world have created barriers between themselves and the commonplace reality of not only the deaths that their existence requires, but also their own mortality. Death is an abstraction, a goblin lurking inside the dark attic of their mind.
No one is entirely immune to this fear, yet we hunters are men and women who deal death in a very personal way. I have stared into the eyes of hundreds of birds, scores of rabbits and dozens of larger animals as they lay in the dust dying. Their eyes hold mine fast, forcing me to look full in the face the consequences of my actions, forcing me to remember what it is I do. What all life does.
Again and again and again, I see my own death in the eyes of that jackrabbit, or duck or deer. And I am afraid. I know not what lies beyond, nor does the animal I stand over. All I know is that someday, the dying eyes will be mine, staring at a doctor, or a lover. Or the unblinking sky. It is a searing moment that feels like staring at the sun in a windstorm. It leaves me gasping.
But then it passes. The rabbit moves no more. I inhale. I notice the birds are still singing. There is a fly buzzing somewhere. Life continues, at least for me. And at my feet is an animal that will soon feed me and my friends and family.
Why do this? Why seek out death on purpose? It isn’t the death I am seeking, but death is the price I must pay for what I seek. Best I can explain it is that when I rise, kill, and eat – to quote Acts 10:13 — I feel I am living deeply within something larger than myself. There is a serenity to it all. I kill when I am hungry, drink in Nature’s great pageant when I am not. In both there is bliss. It is a fleeting glimpse of the eternity of being.
Which returns us to my meeting with the jackrabbits on that gauzy September morning. The hares, like all of the animals I hunt, are not exactly my friends. But nor are they my enemies. We are players in a much larger game – a game that must be played, whether we choose to take the field or not. And like all games, this one has beginnings and endings. My wave? Mr. Jack’s cock of the ear? It was a salute, an acknowledgement by predator and prey that at on this day, at this moment, there will be no killing. Tomorrow may be different.
NOTE: I suspect this essay will generate some discussion and disagreement. All I ask — require, really — is for everyone to respect each other’s opinions, even (and especially) when we disagree. Discussion and debate = good. Flame war and name-calling = bad. ~Hank