Garden-raised vegetables are probably the tastiest, and eating food raised from seeds you planted yourself always gives a deep sense of satisfaction. But nothing beats hunting for connecting you to the land.
I came to this conclusion recently. Over most of my life, I equated hunting with killing, even though I was raised in Montana, where it's normal to see antlers and hooves in pickup truck beds every fall. My family ate game meat every year, mostly courtesy of one of my aunts and her husband. Our freezer often had white-paper-wrapped packages of antelope, deer and elk.
How to describe my awakening? About four years ago, I hiked into one of Montana's western valleys below pine-covered mountains. Flurries of light snow fell from a low and cloudy sky. I followed a set of deer tracks, stepping slowly over brush, the rifle heavy and cold in my hands.
Other than the tracks and the occasional scat pile, I hadn't seen evidence of anything larger than a chipmunk, but with the snap of a twig, an antlered whitetail leapt from his bed 80 yards away and presented himself, broadside. I raised the rifle and had the spot behind his foreleg in my sights. I pulled the trigger. The gun kicked, and the deer crashed to the ground. Then he struggled to his feet and vanished downhill, into thick brush. Shaking with the violence, elated and terrified at once, I saw where a spray of blood in the snow marked the place of impact.
The animal wasn't hard to follow. He fell often and left a vivid blood trail. I found him a few minutes later and killed him, although he continued to breathe for long moments, his gasps throwing pink flecks of foam onto the snow and arrowroot leaves. I became inexplicably scared as I gripped his antlers and cut through his fur and hide, severing his jugular.
Since killing that handsome buck, I've killed 10 large game animals. Sometimes, when I'm hunting, I become overwhelmed by the way a forest or plain, broken by deep ravines, can seem empty. Then as if by magic, a huge mule deer or a troop of five does will appear like spirits out of a dream. Unless a bullet captures that dream, the phantoms vanish again, leaving only faint sets of tracks.
Now, the euphemisms surrounding hunting leave me cold. It seems wrong to whitewash the violence. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, when reporting the number of animals checked at game stations, refers to the "harvest." Others use the term "fair chase" to describe ethical hunting. It can make hunting seem like it's masquerading as a kind of agriculture, or an even-handed game.
Hunting does not involve players on a field. Hunters kill their prey. As an activity, it may present dangers and help to control wildlife populations, but there's nothing fair about it. "Fair” has other meanings, though, that better describe my experience. The word also means beautiful, and there is something beautiful about getting meat the hard way, rather than buying it shrink-wrapped at the grocery store.
By confronting the whole process, a hunter knows the animal that later becomes sustenance. My family, I know, has become acutely aware of the life that ended in order to feed us. The meat isn't just an ingredient. It is the remainder of a living thing. Its heart had been beating, and I stopped it.
This fall, I spotted my first kill, a whitetail doe, in a stand of pines on the southern flank of a mountain east of Missoula. She glanced at me and flicked her tail. I thought she would bolt, but she continued staring at me. A few moments later, the doe descended the slope, and I leaned against a tree to steady the gun. She picked her way into the crosshairs in my scope. I pulled the trigger, and she pitched forward into the pine needles.
I have to say my hands shook as I began to gut the deer. They always do, if only a little. Then I dragged her carcass over the dry ground for several exhausting miles to a road and waited, by then in the black night, while my partner walked to his vehicle and drove back for me. Finally, at home, I hoisted the animal, head down, to the rafters in my garage. After butchering the deer, I had just over 31 pounds of meat, wrapped and in the freezer. We'll enjoy some of that meat on New Year's Day.
Robert Struckman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Missoula, Montana.