There is a place I go where the snow falls on hemlock and spruce. A spring burbles forth from the sand, it's pool wearing a crown of watercress. The water runs away, to a place I have never followed. I'm content to sit there, and watch through gin-clear water as miniscule grains of sand gurgle and churn. I saw a bull frog there one time when I was a kid, and always somehow expect him to be sitting there again, awaiting my return, but he never is. When the snow rests on claret branches of red osier dogwood, above the chatoyant pool ringed in deep winter green, I think it is one of the most beautiful places in the world.
There is place I go where the quartzite and shale jut and tumble jaggedly from the ground. Pine and spruce cling bravely to seemingly impossible haunts. I marvel at their toughness -- life just want to be. Blackberry brush can make short work of light pants and pale legs there, but when I summit the ridge the view dulls the pain. A vista like that could drive a man to write poetry. Not this guy, but some guy. The wind often whips and the river far below peeks from the trees on the bends. At the right time of year, you can look down at the turkey vultures sailing effortlessly on thermals.
I live and work in the city. In a great city that I love, no less. Madison is a place with a thriving downtown, wonderful entertainment venues, and a gorgeous campus. Lord knows, I've sipped or guzzled my fair share of beer at the terrace or in parking lots before a football game. There are outstanding restaurants everywhere, the Dane County Farmers Market is an absolute jewel on the Capitol Square, and the people are almost always genuinely happy to see you.
But they aren't always "my people." As an outdoorsman in the city, I'm often reminded that I don't quite fit the mold. When people here learn that I enjoy being outside, they love to talk about camping, snowshoeing, and bird watching. All things I enjoy doing on a regular basis. But when the subjects of hunting and fishing come up they can sometimes drift away to the the next conversation at the cocktail party, a sidelong glance of disdain shared with their vegan doula life partner in the dreads. Being a gun owner in this progressive town can sometimes feel a bit like being a leper.
Yes, I kill things and eat them. So does everyone else, even if it's just broccoli. I'm simply taking out the middle man. I can see the line between taking in the beauty of a deer and eating it. Deer hunters watch deer without touching a gun or bow for the sheer enjoyment of it more than anybody else. I simply don't have a problem stepping up to the plate, and getting a little blood and guts on my hands. You cannot get more free range organic than that.
But people have prejudices and preconceived notions about hunters and fishermen. They range from the bloodthirsty killer, stalking the woods to maim, wound, torture and kill anything that crosses his path to the bumbling Bubba, too dumb to get a job and check to spend down at the food co-op. I am decidedly neither of these. I am consistently stilled by wonder and awe outside, and dedicated to learning about what I see and feel.
My father was an expert in the woods without being much of a hunter. I seldom saw him stumped on the identification of a tree, flower, or bird. And when he was, a point was made to go home to the sagging shelf of field guides, and look it up together. This often lead to informal lessons in anything from evolution to forest succession to the carbon cycle. No rods and guns needed. I still carry much of that knowledge with me whether I'm carrying a creel or binoculars and bird book. It opens an entire world of beauty and understanding to me every time I step off the path.
His brother, my uncle, is an amateur astronomer, among many other brainy and impressive things. I remember him pulling out into the frigid Michigan night as a boy for a chance to view Halley's Comet through his telescope. I don't think we ever saw it that night, but I went back to school so enthralled with it, that I did my 5th grade science fair project on the comet. While I'm nothing more than a debutant star gazer now, I did take with me enough to learn many of the constellations visible in my part of the world, and I can find my way out of a navigational pickle if needed on a clear night in the woods or on a stream.
Growing up near the Kettle Moraine, we were inundated with glacial geomorphology in school as youngsters, and I can happily recognize some formations while afield, often boring my hunting companions with soliloquies on kame, eskers, and erratics. Thanks to Brian, Woody, and a host of great cooks I know, I enjoy foraging. Mushrooms, ramps, wild asparagus, and many others all find their way across my table. This year, I want to pickle milkweed pods. What? They look delicious. And when it really comes down to it, I enjoy nothing more than a good long strenuous hike or paddle. Work up a nice little froth and get the joints all loose and bendy. No other gear required.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that most of us out there in the glades and valleys are not simply killers blinded by the thirst for bloody meat or knuckleheads fueled by Pabst and beef jerky. It's not a Disney flick out there, but neither is it Saw 5.
So, how do we, as active participants, carnivores armed with modern weapons and ancient incisors, fit into the web? With forethought and respect.
If we wish to exist out there, it is our duty to learn. You don't have to be a walking taxonomic key, channeling Linnaeus at every turn. There is pleasure to be had and knowledge to be gained without learning every name of every flower and bug. In fact, I think some people (I'm looking at you, fly fishermen) can fall back on book learning and Latin a little too much. I can remember asking my mother the name of a certain iridescent beetle on a leaf in the sunlight. She replied, "I have no idea, but just look at how beautiful it is." Genius.
As hunters and fishermen, our most important objective, our singular duty, has to be making a clean kill. We're taking a life to enjoy the meat. That also means the respect has to extend to the campfire and kitchen.
Sometimes a dinner bombs. We overcook things, forget ingredients, or fail to learn proper technique. Personally, I view this shortfall in the same light as poor marksmanship. Practice in the kitchen is, for me at least, just as important as practice on the shooting range. Without it, we are cheating that animal terribly in the exchange of karmic currency. Not only do we owe it to the animal to bring the end as painlessly and quickly as possible, but we owe the respect needed to prepare it well, and enjoy it in good company.
|Blue rare venison, fairly chased and respectfully prepared|