Into the Woods: Deer Hunting, Rites of Passage, and Paleo
“For us hunting wasn’t a sport. It was a way to be intimate with nature, that intimacy providing us with wild unprocessed food free from pesticides and hormones and with the bonus of having been produced without the addition of great quantities of fossil fuel. In addition, hunting provided us with an ever scarcer relationship in a world of cities, factory farms, and agribusiness, direct responsibility for taking the lives that sustained us. Lives that even vegans indirectly take as the growing and harvesting of organic produce kills deer, birds, snakes, rodents, and insects. We lived close to the animals we ate. We knew their habits and that knowledge deepened our thanks to them and the land that made them.”
― Ted Kerasote, Merle's Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog
From a cramped tree-stand, fifteen feet above the forest floor, my father and I watched the world come awake. As the first rays of sunlight peeked through the canopy the birds began their call and response, squirrels rustled through the deadfall, and a coyote padded silently down a game trail. In that first light, the temperature seemed to fall, and I was thankful for my thick boots, gloves, and coat.
We had climbed into the treestand when it was still dark, making our way through the woods with headlamps and flashlights. We tried to move silently, with voices hushed and movements slow, but against the utter silence of the sleeping forest, we were loud, and brutish, and out of place. We had entered the domain of the squirrel, and the racoon, and the deer. Without our heavy coats, our treestand, and the high powered rifle that I clutched close to my chest, we would have no hope of success, but technology is the ken of mankind, as natural as teeth and claws and sharp noses are to other animals.
It was fall in South Georgia, and it was the rut, the time when female white-tailed deer are fertile and the antlered males, known simply as bucks, were hot on their trial. During the rut, the males grow aggressive and careless. Awash in hormones they fight and mate and sometimes miss the strange scent of a human perched high above. As the day went on, we saw several small bucks, "six points" that were not yet mature enough to harvest, but the fact that they were moving, and in our immediate vicinity, was promising. To pass the time my dad whispered stories of old hunts, of successful harvests and missed shots, occasionally he would "rattle" or "call", imitating the sounds of buck in the hopes of drawing one in. It may have worked.
I was looking out across a field, scanning the underbrush for the tell-tale signs of a buck on the move: a patch of brown, a flash of white, and a rack of antlers, eight points or more ideally, and wider than the ears, a sign that the deer met the requirements of my Georgia Fish and Wildlife Commission hunting license. My dad's line of sight was perpendicular to my own, and with a pair of binoculars, he extended his vision deep into the woods. "Right there", he said, the tone of voice that immediately conveyed a sense of urgency and importance. I turned to my right and at first I saw nothing, only the trees grey and brown, but when I lifted my rifle and peered into the scope I saw him.
He was muscular and lean. A large eight point buck with antlers that signified his rank. This was not a "monster" buck, but certainly a mature male, a prince of the forest who was probably three to four years old. His body presented a clear profile and his head was turned towards us, but it was unlikely that he noticed the unusual sight of two humans perched high in a tree. My heart raced and my hands shook, but I was prepared. In my mind I had seen this scenario play out, and I knew what I had to do, breathe, aim, and squeeze, but preparing for this moment involved more than shooting a gun.
When I was a child, my dad required that I attend a two day hunter's safety course and several times after that, he had taken me out target shooting, instructing me in the proper use of firearms. Owing perhaps to my penchant for video games, I was a decent shot, and was confident in my ability to accurately aim and fire. Every few years my dad and I would go on a hunting trip, but every time I secretly hoped that no deer would present itself and my secret wish was always answered. Despite the fact that I ate meat, I couldn't imagine killing a creature that, for all intents and purposes, was as intelligent as our family dog. The hypocrisy of this stance became clear as I got older, but bloodying my own hands was a step I remained hesitant to take. My perspective changed however, when I adopted the Paleo diet.
At first, I embraced grass-fed and grass-finished beef as the ideal. This gave me an ethical "out" as my food was now free from the brutality of conventionally raised meat. I could enjoy a juicy bite of steak without the concomitant pang of guilt that came from knowing how beef was raised, but after a few years, even grass-fed beef began to lose some of it's savor. No matter how I justified it, I was still outsourcing the bloody work of killing my food to a stranger, I was still distancing myself from my food, I was still separate from the animal whose body would become my meal. This thought is what brought me back into the woods. This time, I was ready to take responsibility for not only the act of eating, but for the act of killing.
With the crosshairs of my rifle aimed behind the shoulder of the deer, I exhaled and squeezed the trigger. The explosion shattered the silence of the forest and the hard kick of the gun made it impossible for me to see the results. My dad shouted, "You got him!" but my heart was beating so fast that I could hardly aim the scope of the rifle to see for myself. After what seemed like an eternity, I was able to level the scope and train it on the spot where the deer had stood only seconds before. In that spot lay the deer. His ears twitched and he attempted to raise his head, and then he laid still.
After a few minutes we climbed down from the treestand. We walked towards the deer, and counted off the steps to estimate the length of the shot. I stepped and counted, one, two, three, until I reached one hundred and sixty, and was upon him. He had a beautiful fawn colored coat and large brown eyes. I reached down and laid my hand upon his body and felt the warmth. There was a bullet hole in his neck and from it ran a small trickle of blood, but he still looked as if he could stand up and bound across the forest. He didn't stand up though, and so we dragged him across the floorboard of the beat up golf cart that served as our ATV and made our way back to camp.
The deer weighted approximately two hundred pounds, but after processing, yielded around fifty pounds of meat. On my back porch, I now have a small freezer stocked with bundles of smoked sausage flavored with jalapeno peppers and cheddar cheese, ground meat, tenderloin, and backstrap, all wrapped in white butcher paper and sealed with a strip of masking tape. I chose not to mount the head.
Now, despite being separated by time and distance, eating this meat brings me right back to the South Georgia forest on that cold fall morning. I see the buck in my mind's eye and know that he was a beautiful animal, an animal whose life that I ended. I also know that I will respect his sacrifice and tell his story. With his death I will be fed, as will my wife, my family, and my friends. His blood is on my hands and it is a responsibility that I entered into fully aware of the consequences.
There is nothing pretty about killing, but without death, life would not go on. Everything that lives today does so because of the lives that have come before. Death and life are locked in an eternal embrace, with the former always outpacing the latter.
When my freezer full of meat is empty, I will go hunting again. I will pull on the heavy boots and gloves, don the bright orange vest, and carry my gun into the woods. I will sit in the cold morning as the forest stirs around me and I will wait, and watch, and if a deer comes into my sights I will shoot, but I will also pray and give thanks.
If you enjoyed this story, I encourage you to listen to my conversation with Steve Rinella, writer, hunter, and host of the TV show Meat Eater. My conversation with Steve helped prepare me for my own first hunt.
I also discussed this hunt with Charles Mayfield, Crossfit gym owner, co-author of Paleo Comfort Foods, and avid hunter.
If you are interested in going on your first hunt, check out the Whitetails Unlimited resources page.