I’ve officially been a hunter for three weeks.
I thought by now I’d have a handle on what it is I’m doing– hunting, killing, and eating animals for food– but if anything my thoughts on the subject are more complicated than ever.
More than a handful of squirrels have made their way into my kitchen into a wide variety of dishes. It’s fair to say that in the past three weeks the majority of my protein has been squirrel. I’ve been having an exceptional time experimenting with recipes and cooking techniques, but the deliciousness of squirrel doesn’t make up for the fact that I killed these animals that would have otherwise continued living– at least for a while.
One of my goals was to have an understanding of what it really takes to put meat on my plate. I think I have a better handle on that now. Every single time I pull up my shotgun and point it at a squirrel I am filled with a mixture of emotions– I want to shoot it to be successful, to eat squirrel, to complete the hunt; But I also want to spare it, let it live, and avoid the still-difficult cleaning process.
I’ve learned that acquiring your own meat is an incredibly labor-intensive process. The days of target practice, the never-ending research, the scouting on foot and via the internet, the hours spent hunting, even more hours spent skinning and gutting my takes, the days soaking squirrel meat in brine, the hours of slow-cooking to make the extremely lean meat palatable; It’s a lot of work, a lot of time to put into a meal.
A side effect of all this effort is a deep appreciation for the meat itself, for the life of the animal I snuffed out with my 20 gauge. There’s no way I’m going to put in all that time and effort– take a life– for something that doesn’t taste good. There is an extra motivation to cook it right, cook it well, make it delicious.
It’s a strange thing to chew the meat from a bone while picturing the living, breathing animal sitting on a branch in the woods, but this is my new reality. This is where meat comes from.
Another goal was to feel closer to my place, my region, the land around me, and without a doubt I do. In three weeks I have learned more about the woods than any book could tell me. While looking for squirrels I have seen amazing things.
The most exciting moment was early Sunday morning. I was sitting under a tree where I’d shot a squirrel the day before; The area is full of squirrel nests, grasses, and a mixture of acorns, walnuts, and feral apple trees. I’d been sitting under that tree when I heard a plop, the sound of a large squirrel jumping from a tree to the ground not five feet away. I had turned, raised my gun, and shot the squirrel.
I had been sitting there motionless for ten minutes, waiting for the woods to forget I was there. To go about its business. Suddenly I heard a strange sound to my right, a sound I couldn’t identify. Another squirrel? Then, without moving my head, I saw a grey figure in my peripheral vision.
A giant mink? A racoon? Possum? In a split-second I realized it was a big coyote, and although I hadn’t heard its steps through the woods I did hear its breathing.
It was that close.
I stood up quickly, making myself seem large, and waved my hands.
Totally surprised, the coyote stared at me for a second before disappearing into the deep brush. Like a dog.
I stood there, heart pounding in my ears, adrenalin pulsing through me, gasping for air. I don’t think I was in any real danger– I had a gun after all, and I hadn’t cornered the canine – but it is really something else to find myself that close to such a large, wild predator.
A predator who, like me, was stalking the woods for food.
I felt a connection to that coyote, the connection I was looking for: To be a participant in the terrible and wondrous game of life an death that is constantly played out. Not a spectator simply passing through the woods, but an active member of the ecosystem.
An hour later I saw the coyote again, again before it saw me. It was about 20 yards away through thick saplings and brush. I watched it stalk, expertly moving through the woods without a sound. Since I can’t whistle, I clicked the roof of my mouth and waved the same way I’d signal a nearby human hunter: Hey I’m over here, I’m hunting too. The yote saw me and turned around, presumably headed to new hunting ground.
Later, hunting a stand of pines where I’d shot a red squirrel and buried its entrails under a log the day before, I found the spot completely cleaned of all squirrel parts. I imagined that coyote discovering the squirrel and enjoying an easy snack. Again, we were connected. We both like squirrel.
Yet another interesting personal discovery was my new ability to sit still. Anybody who knows me knows this is not something that comes naturally; I tap, I bounce my leg, I look around. In hunting there is a very good reason to sit still. To look– really look– without turning my head.
Like every other liberal arts student I dabbled with meditation in college but never found it to be especially fulfilling. Hunting, however, truly is a form of meditation.
Sitting still under a tree holding a loaded gun, counting to 100 over and over again, slowly scanning the woods; I’ve never found a more focused meditation. Before I hunted I’d read about this phenomenon– hunting could be a mediation of sorts– but chalked it up to the romanticizations of amped-up hunters. How could you be zen with a gun and camo?
But it’s true. It’s a reason to be still and focus. To use your senses in a most primal way, to pick apart every sensory input in an attempt to decode what is wind, what is leaves, and what is dinner. It’s easy to talk about “returning to primal man” or our “carnivorous evolutionary beginnings” but I won’t go there; All I’m saying is I personally find hunting to be meditative.
Lately I’ve found myself calmer and more focused. I’ve also noticed my peripheral vision, or at least my awareness of it, seems to be improving. I’m noticing more. Paying more attention. I am severely lacking in these departments and am hoping these traits continue to improve.
Another discovery is the cuteness of squirrels. Before, squirrels were just squirrels: Glorified rats that live in trees, get fed in parks, dig in trash, perhaps sneak into your attic. But seeing them up close, although they are dead, I have to admit they really are cute. Cute like puppies. Little whiskers, cute little eyes and ears, stubby little noses… Especially red squirrels, the small variety of local squirrel bigger than chipmunks but smaller than grey squirrels.
This weekend I killed two of them. I am so completely torn between how adorable they are and how good they are going to taste. I have no idea how both of these thoughts can exist in my head, but they do.
I make no apologies for writing “cute like puppies” and “I killed two of them” in the same breath.
Hunting is complicated. Eating meat is complicated. Cows and pigs are cute too.
In my three weeks as a hunter I have learned there are no simple answers. I still don’t know if hunting is good or bad. I don’t know if eating animals is the right thing to do. I thought killing and eating animals myself would make things clear, provide an answer. If anything, it’s done the opposite: Every meal is a moral exercise, a self-examination, an attempt to reconcile the conflicting thoughts of adorable, sentient animals and delicious food. Killing and surviving. Awareness and obliviousness.
I hope that never changes.