I like to hunt, but I don't like to kill

  • Mounted head

    John Stevenson

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Unarmed but dangerous critics close in on hunting.

I always edge away from the subject of hunting. I've hunted and shall hunt, but I don't talk about it much - those late-night, throaty recitations of travels and kills make me nervous. It's miserable standing in a corner at parties listening to guys talk about guns and reloading. I hate it when I go to someone's house and have to look at their rifles, while mounted trophy heads stare me down like the jury in a capital case.

But I like to talk about animals. This year the antelope are fat, attended by twin fawns; the deer are well-fed and content, and the elk are lolling in high meadows: wild and sleek and very much at ease. There have been regular afternoon breezes to hold the bugs down and the mountains are a green heaven.

Having lived the best part of my life in the mountains of Utah and Wyoming, as a ranger, grazing cop and field hydrologist, I've lived with wild animals. That is, I've lived where they live, and come to regard them not as strange or symbolic, but as familiar. The animals I hunt are a regular part of my life. I see them when I'm not hunting, most of the year, and they see me. We share the same weather and landscape, which lends us a common identity. There's nothing mystical in that: It seems like a simple fact. We live here together, and share at least some consequences, which makes me feel better about hunting. I'd no more fly to Alaska to shoot a caribou than I'd fly to Manhattan to shoot a stockbroker.

So I know them in ways other than as prey. Of those I've hunted, antelope are the most curious. I can sit in the willows with one finger raised and then crooked, just one motion. A young buck will approach. He'll come within 100 feet, stomp a front hoof, snort, and flee. If I don't move, he'll come closer, perhaps trailed by more timid bucks. Then he'll stomp and huff again, and they'll dash as one, a pretty sight.

To antelope, vision is language. If I can sit still, in the heat, with flies and buffalo gnats inspecting my nose, eventually the brave young buck will come very close. He'll wish to examine in detail, freckle by hair, the creature performing this strange, new one-fingered act. Can he sense that I don't intend to kill him?

I think he can, not being foolish, as we sometimes wish animals to be. But he isn't as wise or mysterious as we, at other times, demand of the beasts we hunt. He's young and tough and full of blood, and inquisitive to a fault. He comes so close that I can see the moist skin inside his nostrils, and the dust in his coat where he rolled, and the mild shock in his eyes as he looks into mine. Then, I end the game.

I stand up. The buck spins, his hind feet kicking grit. He almost collides with his followers, who wheel a quarter-second later, and this time they fly. Zero to 45, in a snap. I can't do that, even with a truck. Hallelujah! Thus I praise antelope.

I can hunt pronghorns on foot, from my house, which makes them sensible prey. For the same reasons, deer are my other game. This part of Wyoming is renowned for noble wapiti. I don't hunt them much. First, they spook. In a place where there aren't battalions of other hunters to drive them to rash moves, it can be hard to get a shot.

Second, an elk is big. Having an elk down in the outcrop jungles means hard labor, skinning and boning and backpacking the meat out. Most elk hunters go huge and heavy, with an outfitter to do all the real work, or with a bunch of friends and packhorses. Some of the locals know the elk trails well enough to shoot one near a road, where they can winch it into a pickup, one-two-three, the perfect Wyoming workingman's hunt.

I don't like the back roads during hunting season: too many trucks with rifle barrels poked out of the windows, like armored idiot-carriers; too many men giving that tight-jawed brotherhood-of-hunters nod; and too many forlorn hooves sticking up from ungutted carcasses in pickup beds in the hot fall sun. It seems foolish to spend what most of these characters do on hunting and then not take care of the meat, but it happens. You'd be shocked - or at least I am - at how much wild meat ends up in the landfill, rotting in garbage bags.

I haven't had much luck drawing antelope tags, so mostly I hunt deer. I wait until late in the season, when the snow brings them down, and go out alone to hunt. But first, I like to watch them. And I've found that some deer like to watch me, and enjoy hearing poetry or songs. Some deer (especially does) will stand and relax, waggling long, willow-leaf-shaped ears and gazing with such soft, dimensionless being, that I nearly fall in love. How can I say this, and then say that I kill them?

Because we have to eat. We garden, too, which in this high, cold country can be more of a struggle than hunting. This landscape grows wonderful grass and forbs, which means it supports good game. In a green year like this, it's good country for elk and deer and antelope (as it once was for buffalo and grizzly bears).

I like to hunt, but I don't like to kill - that's the hard part, to pull the trigger knowing what will result. Shock, pain, blood, death. A deer's pain is no less than mine, and a deer's death no less than a man's. And each time, I can see myself stretched on the frozen ground.

But it doesn't seem to me that deer are afraid of death in the way that we are. For six winters I lived in a canyon in Utah where I could watch mule deer on their winter range, or at least what winter range they had left, above a valley transformed by a nearby college and the Mormon birth rate into streets and houses. Coyotes roamed there, and the deer were sometimes their food. Freelancing, the coyotes would eat cottontails, yap dogs from foothill houses and stray cats: cheap food. You get tired of it.

To eat deer, the coyotes had to organize. I watched them in twos and threes, in the frozen, blue dawns, approaching bands of deer to see how easily each moved away. There was seldom a chase unless a deer broke and ran. Both coyotes and deer moved with a solemn kind of gravity - I'll say respect - for one another.

There was a young buck who limped. I noticed, and so the coyotes, masters of this game, noticed him long before. I watched from the opposite ridge as two coyotes slowly, almost gently, separated him from his band. The buck moved deliberately, knowing that to run would draw a charge from his gray attendants. But a third coyote was waiting, under a roll of willows along a coulee. I could see him and the buck could not. When the buck passed between him and the snow-filled gully, the hidden coyote charged.

The buck plunged into the deep snow and floundered, as the three converged. The kill was quick, and the feast was slow and luxurious. I was living on rice and beans, and it made me hungry to watch.

The other deer shied a mere 100 yards up the hill. Some observed, some dozed, as if knowing that the day's risk had come and passed them by. To die, whether by tooth or bullet, hurts, but I don't feel the need to linger and philosophize. None of this is conditioned by hook-and-bullet magazines, because I never read them. My friends who write for them complain bitterly about the blockheaded editors, and the tyranny of the advertisers. And those shrill, militaristic articles - 'Ten Surefire Tactics to Bag a Trophy Buck' - leave me colder than liquid nitrogen.

I hunt wild animals because I like to eat them. I wait until the snow brings them down, in a good green year like this; otherwise, I can eat potatoes or eggs or broccoli, and be happy. I hunt and garden to eat, not to escape from any other part of my life.

If I lived in a city and wore a suit and drew a big salary; if I lived entirely in rooms and cars and jets; if I existed in money and reputation rather than a landscape, I wouldn't hunt. I imagine, without knowing, that in such a case hunting would seem contrived, rather than a decent part of my life. I live where the animals live. And hunting season, in this part of earth, is an invasion. Sure, the barkeeps and moteliers and outfitters all make the best part of a year's income, but not all of us like it that way. Industrial cowboys in pickups line the back roads, and blue-jowled Texans in bush suits fly into posh camps and herd elk with 'copters. Altogether it's a hateful sight, this army of occupation.

That doesn't necessarily make me mean. I remember helping a one-legged man load a little buck into his camper shell. He didn't flag me down. I just happened to notice (who wouldn't?) a one-legged man with a crutch trying to drag a deer through thick sage. He probably shot it from the window, but so what?

I helped him load up, and then we shared some cheap bourbon at 7:35 a.m. He said about 20 times how much his family loved that ol' deer meat. I would have given him the big doe I got, too, but I didn't think he'd accept, what with pride, and besides he had only one tag.

But I begrudge, ferociously, all those overequipped, self-glamorizing geeks who turn the hills above our house into a free-fire zone, with no right except a license they bought from the state. And the price of a gun. Not just a gun: a Weatherby custom .300 mag in tiger-ass maple with a variable laser-zeroed scope. And three changes of basic camo duds, and a one-piece insulated shooting suit, and seven-layer slushproof hunting boots, and polarized shooting glasses (tested in Operation Desert Storm), and a 4WD mega-truck, a 26-foot, self-contained trailer, and a mini-satellite dish to catch the late sports.

In idle moments, I begin to suspect that the main point is to buy an awful lot of stuff and then stage an invasion (a la frontier myth), and finally (in a fit of self-loathing, hostility, displacement, projection, penis envy - whatever the shrinks calls it) to kill something. Of course, this is only how I think in idle moments. If you saw me during hunting season, you wouldn't suspect a thing. I'll share a thermos of coffee, or a drink. I'll try to get your rifle unjammed, or catch your horse. I always carry spare gas (which I never need) and help change flats in the snow, and answer dumb questions, and even chain up to pull trucks with NRA stickers out of the mud: I live here, and it comes with the territory.

But if you see my lips move, I'm probably saying: Go back to the 'burbs, Ralph, and chow down on that fatty beef. You subsidize it. Happy heart attack. Stay home.

Sometimes, in not-so-idle moments, I think that we cash-starved residents of America's happy hunting grounds should get all the licenses - the state could still print them and take a cut, but the licenses would be ours. We could keep them, and eat nothing but deer and elk and antelope and moose, or we could sell them, at such rates as the free market would bear. Or we could go out and do all the hunting ourselves and sell the wild meat, properly shot and cared for, and then ship the hides and antlers to the Asian fetish-and-nostrum market, for premium prices.

We'd have a lot more incentive to protect the wild animals and preserve their habitat, instead of carving it up into ranchettes and peddling it as we do now. Or maybe we could just have ourselves a howling big party each October, and dance naked around a bonfire, and burn the licenses in sheaves, like autumn leaves in New Hampshire. And let the animals run, let "em burgeon and proliferate, multiply and replenish. And instead of slaving for dollars and wrecking the country we live in - overgrazing cows, hacking new roads, serving charred T-bones, and nailgunning summer homes into dubious existence - we could learn to live with the wild beasts again, all of them: deer, coyotes, pronghorn, wolf, elk, buffalo and grizzly.

In fact, living with the animals might teach us about living in general. And we might find we have more in common than we thought, like some obvious common enemies. Maybe we could teach beaver to blockade access roads. Teach antelope to romp on the shiny hoods of new Cherokees. Teach bull buffalo to flip minivans. And teach bull elk to charge real estate agents and perforate the bastards.

To even the odds, we could change the rules: Texans should hunt with blowguns, and lawyers with fountain pens. Rifles (single-shot, open sights) would be reserved for single mothers, grandparents, disabled veterans and the poor. We able-bodied, decently fixed types could use bows, javelins, atlatls, bolas, Swiss army knives. All hunting expenditures would be ferociously regulated: 90 percent direct to habitat conservation, 10 percent for gear. Instead of ulcer orange, we'd wear paint and feathers and pelts, and learn to tell the difference between an elk and Uncle Bob. And the highest law, covering everything from hunter safety to vandalism, would be this: Whatever you shoot, you eat.

Then, instead of a dumb, predictable invasion (and purchasing event), hunting would become a real, no-shit adventure again - dangerous, terrifying, and fun. Great Griz and Holy Buffalo! May we live to see the day.

C.L. Rawlins is poetry editor for High Country News, and once herded sheep.

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