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My Dad and the Ethics of Hunting and Meat

Sunday. Woke at 6am and truck stopped at my drive and stayed there. I’m wondering, what the hell are you doing dude? I need to go out and pee. Dogs want out. Another PU stops. I look out the window behind me and see six bull elk browsing their way across my camp. Whoa! Magnificent. They were just grazing and very slowly making their way across. Well one of those yahoos must have radioed back to the others because for the next hour and half there’s been a steady stream of ginormous 4×4’s going by, with guys dressed in full camo, slowly cruising, binoculars in hand, looking for those elk. I don’t get the full camo while driving a huge, loud, bright red 4×4. Does wearing the camo render one’s truck invisible? Do you really think you’re gonna get a shot off from the front seat? Do you really think those elk are gonna hang around waiting for you? These hills are filled with elk. Get off your fat ass and take a hike! At a stroll, those elk are doing 3-4 miles an hour. At an easy trot probably 10, so they are loooong gone. I’ve seen what may even be the same group a week or so ago up on the mesa behind me. Nights are getting a little chillier so they are probably starting to move down into lower grazing. Pretty soon these yahoos can get up in the morning, put on their camos, sit at their dining room table with their morning coffee and just wait for a bull to stroll through their backyard. Where I’m camped is little more than a backyard of Flagstaff. I’m only 15 miles from town. I can hear Route 89 and see the settlement of homes a mile or two away from here. (I’m roughing it.)

Bow season is open. You betcha I’m wearing my Day-Glo yellow running vest when I go hiking later.

I’m not opposed to hunting. It’s just the way it’s done these days. A little rant here. My dad was a hunter in the best sense of the word. One buck, one bullet. When I as a kid he hunted for eleven years with his friend Al Holzer and Al’s dad, who we called Oppa, a German immigrant who had left Germany in the late 30’s when he saw the writing on the wall. He and his wife, Omma, ran a general store and butcher shop in Phoenecia, NY, which was then a tiny hamlet. Now there is a big Buddhist meditation center there because of it’s beauty and remoteness.

Omma was a fabulous crafts person who inspired me greatly. She taught me the European way to knit so that the needles do the work and one doesn’t have to “throw” the yarn. She made ceramics with clay that she dug from Muddy Brook and rag rugs on a big loom. Oppa would take the 10 or 11 year old me on nature walks and show me where the deer had browsed the branches off the winter trees and a fawn had died because it was a harsh winter or where the larvae of trout lived under rocks in Muddy Brook. Oppa drove a war surplus Willys jeep that would shake the fillings out of your teeth. Even at 10 I knew they were “my” people; kind, observant and in tune with the natural world around them. In summer we would go up to the “old” cabin, a log cabin way up the hill that was only reachable in summer. In the winter Omma and Oppa lived in an apartment over the store. I remember it was warm and there was a bear skin rug, probably a bear that Oppa had killed himself. In later years as they became too old to deal with and maintain the old place they build a more modern A frame in the meadow at the turn off the very steep and rocky road up to the old cabin.

The old cabin was made of logs and rocked a little when you walked across the floor because the porcupines had chewed one corner of the log foundation. There was a cast iron stove in the kitchen, the big kind with four “burners” and an oven. The cabin was very because it was built under the protection of giant, old growth firs. I remember sitting in the dark living room listening to small radio and hearing Simon and Garfunkle’s Sounds of Silence for the first time.

I always wanted to go hunting with my dad since when I was small I was a Daddy’s girl, and we hadn’t yet come to the years of conflict and mental illness. One summer Al’s family and ours spent a weekend at the old cabin. We were shooting cans with a .22. I haven’t shot a rifle now since my teens, but I was a very, very good shot, much to the dismay of the macho husbands of some girlfriends. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as they say, since I have my dad’s eye as well as his army medal for sharpshooter. Legend has it that he was a sniper during the war. Like most of his stories there is no way of ascertaining the validity of any of his war stories. They all seem to contain some truth along with a lot of contradiction. At any rate, we were target shooting and little chipmunk came down the tree. I don’t remember exactly how I cam to shoot it, whether I was challenged, or if I challenged myself, but I shot the chipmunk dead with one shot. I had conflicting feelings about it, so in order not to “waste” his life, I decided to skin and dissect him. I had shot him in one side of the gut and out the other, so the skin was actually not much good for anything, but skin him I did, separating the skin from the underlying fascia (a skill I was later to use in human dissection) then stretching the skin on a board and salting it to dry. I then started to take him apart, as well as a unsupervised 10 year old can, looking at his organs, and how his food was oozing out from the holes in his little stomach. It was all very queezy but I willed myself forward so that his little life would not be in vain. After I had done, it was time for dinner and what was up was rare hamburgers. I didn’t have much appetite at that point and as I remember skipped dinner and had very bad dreams that night. I lost my desire for hunting that afternoon. As sad as it was for the chipmunk, the experience of taking even one little life, changed me for life.

I am not a vegetarian. I know the meat I eat has been killed and possibly not in the most humane way possible, all though we can always try to vote with our dollars and where we purchase our meat. I have eaten game meat, moose and wildebeast, and found it delicious and nothing like farmed meat. But I think I would be a failure as a person killing and dressing (such a polite word for gutting and skinning) even a chicken. I still struggle with the fact that I eat meat. I tried being a vegetarian for six years and then I just craved animal protein so much I caved. As I’ve gotten older it seems to be an almost daily necessity. I remind myself that I am just a piece in the circle of life. Soil feeds grain which feeds insects which feed fish, amphibians and reptiles which feed mammals which feed us and the greater carnivores. And as omnivores we are just in the middle of that food chain with other small mammals, coyotes and the like. Some day the worms will eat me. The great carnivores like wolves and big cats are really above us in the food chain and indeed we could be food for them. But as a society, of which I am part, we are so out of balance and out of our place in the pyramid, that I have that social imprinting in my relationship to meat. Compounded by the brainwashing of industrial farming. I think that society has HAD to divorce itself from knowledge of it’s meat source because knowing with every bite what the last days were like for the animal one is eating, would really kill the appetite. No pun intended. Which is why in the supermarket you can’t find meat that looks anything like the animal that provided it. Maybe in the asian and latin barrio markets, where whole smoked ducks or goat heads hang in the window, but even that is fast disappearing. The only animals one sees in the supermarket are pictures of happy, frolicking pigs or “contented” cows. The size of this deceit is staggering. I’ve often said that if people want to eat meat, they should kill it themselves. That would keep it in perspective. What if you went to the store and bought a live chicken, took it home, wrung it’s neck and plucked it? Or a pig? My God would it be a different world. I can only dream. And feel like a hippocrite.

Back to my dad. He hunted for eleven years. The first year he shot a medium eight point buck and the antlers hung in our house for ten years. Ten more years he hunted, and nine years came back empty handed. He hunted with Al and Oppa up near Phoenicia in a place called Slide Mountain, very rugged territory. They would go out for several days together, splitting up and then, making rough camp in the woods. Hunting season in NY is in November. Often it snowed. Good for tracking, not so good for sleeping. When he came back empty handed there were always the stories. Sometimes he saw nothing, sometimes they were too far away. Sometimes Al or Oppa got a buck and we had some venison. One year a large deer teased him and stood perfectly still, a perfect shot, but with it’s head behind a tree and important parts in the bushes, so for the entire time he couldn’t see if it was a buck or a doe and held his shot. Finally the deer walked out of the bushes and it was a doe with a fawn at her side. Year after year it was the same. In the eleventh year his luck was to change. He was alone, sighted a huge buck and had a clear heart shot right behind the shoulder. He took his shot and was sure he had hit his mark but the deer bounded away. He had hit it. He was able to track to blood a short way to where the deer finally fell. He cocked his 30.06 and approached slowly. The deer leaped up and antlers down, charged him. He took another shot, and the deer fell in front of him. His first shot had been good, but the big buck had kept going on his adrenalin unfathomable will to live. There was a question of whether the second shot had even been necessary, but better than being gored. After ten years my dad’s patience and integrity had finally paid off. The buck was 165 lbs, eight huge points and a record for the area.

That was the last time my dad hunted. I was probably fifteen or sixteen at the time, and he was sliding steeply into the mental illness that would take his life. But this is the legacy he gave me: a deep understanding, appreciation and affinity with the natural world, extremely keen observational skills; a great sense of direction, ability to track and read weather. I am happiest when I am using those skills in wilderness.

So guys dressed in camos, looking with binoculars out of giant crew cab 4x4s on a well maintained gravel road just seem a little ridiculous to me.

As a P.S. I saw something online about there being several “quiet areas” in the Coconino National Forest here in Arizona.

“There are three unique recreational areas on the Coconino National Forest. From August 15th (bow hunting season) until December 31st each year, the areas are special: they are open only to foot, horse or bicycle traffic for the purpose of providing a unique, non-motorized recreational experience for the public.

Hunters, (the recreation group who requested this special area designation), desire areas where they can hunt on foot or horseback without the intrusion of motorized vehicles. Also the value of the area during these special periods for wildlife, horseback riders, hikers, mountain bikers and other forest users cannot be overlooked. Wildlife for example benefit from the absence of noisy vehicles through stress reduction, much the same as you and would, (I would add, especially during the rut in the fall!!!) yet may still be hunted in these areas during regular hunting seasons. The hunters who prefer this “back to basics” approach, where the presence of a vehicle does not favor the hunter’s success, and where the hunter’s skill as a stalker and woodsman are everything, believe that “this is the way it was done in the old days” (pretty shallow explanation) before people started “ROAD HUNTING”. In order to provide the experience intended, driving in the area to pick up a bagged animal is not allowed during the vehicle closure periods.” www.fs.usda.gov/detailfull/coconino/alerts-notices/?cid=stelprdb5357868

Yesterday I went over to Sunset Crater just before sunset. In a scenic turnout overlooking the lava fields I found three guys each with $5000 spotting scopes looking for deer on the mountain across the highway, approximately 5 miles away. That is some serious assistance. (And some very expensive meat.) They said they were bow hunters, the season being open here now, and one had his pretty blond wife and kids with him, wife and kid dressed in full camo. And in the hunting section of Walmart there is camo in pink for the ladies. Isn’t that cute?

3 Comments

  1. Patty
    September 7, 2014

    Kerry, I love hearing about your dad. I remember him so well and still have photos from our weeks camping at Lake George. I admire your ability to take the positive lessons from him and incorporate them into your own life. I try to do the same. You are on a wonderful adventure and I’m enjoying reading your accounts. I’m taking this trip with you in my head 🙂

    Reply
  2. jill Stanley
    September 11, 2014

    That is great childhood memories. I envy your relationship with your dad. (Mine taught me nothing,only gave me his quick temper.) Quests my nature soul came from grandparents. Now you got me thinking…..

    Reply
  3. kerry obrien
    September 13, 2014

    Schizophrenics are twice the fun! Fortunately I’ve been able to benefit from both the good and the not so good. Not saying it’s easy. It brings me great satisfaction to share this with others. Thanks Patty.

    Reply

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