Why We Hunt
[Note: The names of some places and people have been changed.]
We woke early, peed off the front steps of the cottage into a dusting of fresh snow, and dressed all in orange. Eating Frosted Mini-Wheats in handfuls from an economy-sized plastic bag, we made our final preparations to be out in the woods all day. I wore two pairs of woolen socks and two pairs of gloves. Between layers of both I slid some hand warmers I’d gotten from the army surplus store. The packaging promised eighteen hours of heat, and I would need it. After eleven years as a vegetarian—and four of those as a vegan—I was left with terrible circulation.
We were calling it “The Hunt.” All told, ten of us gathered outside the cabin that morning preparing to pile into a pickup truck and a few ATVs. The previous day, my friend Stefan and I had arrived in my home state of Wisconsin from New York City for our inaugural try at the yearly harvest. Tom, a family friend, was our guide and supplied our gear. He kept everything we would need—coats and hats and coveralls—sealed in an airtight plastic tub, tossed with pine branches to mask our smell because, he warned, “the deer spook easy.”
The hunt was to take place at Prairie Springs, a 217-acre farm belonging to my cousin Daniel, a hulking man who by all accounts had forgotten more about hunting than Tom had ever learned. And the man was committed. Just five weeks earlier, Daniel, a lifelong hunter and conservationist of some renown in Wisconsin, had had to pull off the road on his way to a Pheasants Forever awards dinner because he was having a stroke. By the day we arrived, he still couldn’t move his right side. He spoke in an imprecise mumble, which worried me as he offered instructions concerning our guns. As we got ready to leave, I lifted his thigh up onto the bench seat of the truck before sliding my Remington semiautomatic 12-gauge, which belonged to Tom’s teenage daughter, over the tailgate. Daniel had obtained permission from the Department of Natural Resources to prop his crossbow in the open window of his truck and take aim from there. Hunters like Daniel don’t miss a season.
Also included in our group was a documentary film crew piecing together a narrative about two slight East-Coast vegetarians who venture into the world of hunters with hopes of learning how to eat meat again. For Stefan this would involve swallowing, once and for all, the disgust that had risen in his throat sixteen years earlier, when he opened the refrigerator one too many times to find the shrinking carcass of a Thanksgiving turkey. Disgust with meat had never been my problem. As a kid, my favorite meal was my mother’s “Sicilian” meatloaf, ground beef mixed with breadcrumbs and eggs and then stuffed with ham and cheese. We had fast-food hamburgers once a week, and until I decided to give them up cold turkey, so to speak, I never gave those meals a second thought. They were simply what we ate.
Still, for a few very specific reasons—from a perfectionist’s love of control to an ascetic’s shame at the slightest pleasure, plus the deepening vanity involved in both—I’d become deathly afraid of food. At seventeen I began calling this fear vegetarianism. Later, in my early twenties, finding myself both more perfect and more ashamed—all is vanity!—I started calling it veganism. Almost two years before the hunt, though, after months of a girlfriend’s nagging and years unsuccessfully trying to defend veganism without much in terms of an animal rights argument, I’d reintroduced meat to my diet. Slowly. Sheepishly. Half-heartedly.
The film crew wanted to show how Stefan’s disgust and my persistent fear might hold up under the heft of two shotguns and the tedium of several days in the freezing woods. The cameras were rolling over a particularly bad time for me, as well, which made it a particularly good time for them. In interviews I explained that I’d been eating meat again for some time, without any love for it, and very, very uneasily—never more so than over the days they started filming. In the months leading up to the trip, months spent trying to convince a woman that she could love me again, it became quite clear to everyone (not least of all, her) that I was no less afraid. And though I’d never imagined killing an animal when I was growing up in Wisconsin, somehow I figured a return home for a hunt with a great big gun might help. Funny as it sounds, I may have been right.
Seasoned hunters, who in time come to call themselves Sportsmen, prefer the term “harvest” to “kill” or even “hunt.” Guns are “firearms.” That the harvest thins the herd is an important and much-talked-about justification for allowing someone as young as twelve to tromp around in the woods with one of those firearms. It also explains why we’re required to shoot a doe before we shoot a buck. Bucks are more attractive to a hunter; with the buck comes the trophy. But fewer does means fewer fawns. In other words, fewer future deer.
If we killed a doe, which is what our licenses allowed, Tom would walk us through the field dressing—that incision from stem to stern that releases all the innards. You leave those in the field. He would hang the deer from a tree, help us remove the hide, and, on a door stretched between two saw horses, butcher the animal. That night, in celebration of our kill, we would fry up the best bit—the loin known as the backstrap, which runs along either side of the animal’s spine—over an open fire. The slightly lesser bits, the shoulder cuts, say, would go for stew. The trim would be turned into sausage. And to the last bite, it would all be captured on film.
Over the previous months, the filmmakers had taken Stefan and me for shooting lessons at a basement gun club in Manhattan and followed us through a two-day course in hunter safety on Long Island, where we dozed through lectures on fur trapping and the Second Amendment and never once fired a gun. Occasionally the crew would also follow us around the city to get what they called “B-roll,” extra shots they could use as filler while editing the story. Me on a bike. Stefan spinning records at a dive bar. Small talk at a party. And in those moments—the filler, the throwaway—their microphones caught bits of conversation about my fiancée, a painter who that summer had fallen in love with a tall, dark, and handsome marble sculptor from New Jersey while they both taught art in a quiet medieval town in Tuscany. Far, far from my summer alone in New York. And farther still, in every imaginable way, from this cold Wisconsin autumn.
Our party of six hunters and the film crew spread out across Prairie Springs. I was to spend two hours strapped to a tree, waiting—just waiting—for a deer to cross through the valley below me.
My hand warmers gave out long before the eighteen-hour mark. My fingers throbbed. I could not feel my toes. I moved the gun from my lap, put the butt to my shoulder, and spent time looking through the scope, centering squirrels in the crosshairs while my mind wandered. Distant shots peppered the silence all over the county. Better hunters than I were having better days.
We’d been planning the wedding. We’d turned her painting studio into a living room. I’d finished painting the walls and hanging shelves while she was away in Italy.
She’d asked me to visit and then gathered me from the train station. I didn’t speak Italian. The two of them did, and I watched them speaking it together. For weeks they had eaten together with their students at the end of a day teaching—she in the fields, he in the stone shop. He finished her meals and made her laugh. Even with me there, she slid a plate of unfinished pasta his way—past me, while I made no protest at all. The same happened at breakfast. I ate my toast and jam. He ate all of his and all that she left behind. This was how it had gone for weeks and weeks. It was clear she loved him. She once said as much in her sleep and got angry with me when I mentioned it the next morning. He made her feel small and beautiful.
I returned the gun to my lap and tightened the belt strapping me to the trunk of the massive oak. Trees clacked. Leaves fell. Flurries twisted from the gusts. And I just sat through it all. I was alone up there.
We hunger for these uncomplicated moments. Despite the cameras rolling below—which, regardless of their camouflage, certainly put any local deer on edge—I was alone. Really alone. Which is just how hunting is supposed to make you feel. That’s why the Sportsman does it. Or at the very least that is what the experience offers a rookie like me, and what the Sportsman knows in his heart. We sit and wait. Nothing happens. And there’s no harm in that. Hunting is not about the trophy. Hunting is not shooting. It is not even about the harvest. Despite the group and even all that the day still promises, we hunt mostly to be alone.
We’d all agreed to regroup after two hours to warm up and restrategize the hunt for the rest of the morning. I unloaded the gun, in love with the crisp sound and mechanical precision of the plastic slug moving against the metal workings of the bolt—everything interacting perfectly—and lowered it to the ground with a rope. Back at the truck I met Daniel, also unsuccessful with his crossbow, and we drove back to the cottage to plan what he and Tom called a “drive.” Deer drives, they explained, are common—even among the loner Sportsmen—and they often produce results. These older hunters all wanted us to harvest a deer that day. They wanted us to join their club. They wanted us to taste it.
In your typical deer drive, hunters without guns walk together through fields and woods and brush, trying to stir deer into the path of a hunter with a gun. What this means is that during a drive both the deer and the hunters are moving, often between each other, usually very quickly. A study on injury rates among hunters published in the 2008 Wisconsin Medical Journal suggests that this may not be the smartest approach for an inexperienced hunter. While it’s true that “members enjoy the camaraderie before and after the ‘drive’,” the authors note, “unintended shootings during ‘deer drives’ accounted for the greatest number of firearm injuries.” No one here said anything about that.
Our own drive went like this: Stefan and I knelt on opposite sides of a marsh, across the road from a wooded hill. We were told to stay still. Daniel’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Anna, drove a Kawasaki Mule utility vehicle in wide sweeps to clear the slope of deer and force them toward us. I later learned that using motorized vehicles during a drive is not just considered unethical among Sportsmen—as if having a gun isn’t advantage enough against unarmed animals—but the practice is also illegal. Daniel, perhaps not so pure a Sportsman after all, asked the filmmakers to creatively edit footage of his daughter on the Mule. They agreed. The rest of our party, barking like dogs, flushed deer from the woods.
Debatable ethics and legality aside—and say what you will about the ridiculousness of a bunch of grown men pretending to be dogs—the drive worked. Flushed from the hill, two does veered sharply when they spotted me, which was just a moment, a decisive moment, before I spotted them.
The deer bucking off to my left, I quickly turned and fired—the first time I had ever fired a shotgun—without even getting the scope to my eye. I’m not sure which of those deer I was aiming at, but I missed. The gun jammed.
“Fuck,” I spat.
When my fiancée and I returned to New York from Italy late that summer—about a month before she was perfectly plain about the affair, which was even then more or less still going on—I got a gym membership and started lifting weights. I’d show her, I thought. I’d show him. I also began to bring home hamburgers and baked mac and cheese and eat not just my share but her leftovers, as well, while she exchanged text messages with the sculptor and laughed, and together we sat on our new couch with our two new cats in our new living room, watching an HBO drama she loved about how relationships fall to pieces.
To be fair, she appreciated that I was eating more and making myself stronger. The change came fast, and she liked to see my back become a little broader. She liked the new feel of my arms.
All those burgers tasted good, but only because she was so approving. That is to say, they were not the burgers of my childhood, the ones I ate with abandon. In fact, I was still just as scared as I had been as a vegetarian: but right then I wasn’t afraid of the weight I’d gain if I did eat that hamburger. I was afraid of everything I might lose if I didn’t. I continued to bulk up.
Yet months later, with a deer in my sights, my gun was still a little too big. I was still a little too small.
The single deer harvested by our group that day was gotten later in the afternoon by an old-timer named Roger. While we were having lunch, he’d been sitting under a tree, and a little button buck walked into his sights. He shot and quickly field-dressed the deer, and then returned to his folding chair just as the snow started up again.
Stefan and I showed up too late to learn anything from the field dressing, but we offered Roger the favor of lugging the deer away. Each grabbing a pair of legs, we lifted the gutted animal and slid it along the bed of Anna’s Mule, shoving aside some tin cans. Its eyes were open and glassy. Blood gathered in tiny pools along its hide, refusing to settle into the fur. In the end the deer had been breathing blood; its snout was red. The entry wound, though, was clean and dewy. For Roger, a perfect shot would become a perfect meal.
The next day, Stefan, the crew, and I went to get butchering footage during a tour of a midsized deer-processing operation in central Wisconsin. Our guides were hunters and were very proud of their family business. They showed us piles of deer in the skinning room, some with their racks chopped out of their heads. Hundreds of them, all tagged, all belonging to someone. We looked on as a worker skinned a doe. He used a hydraulic pulley system that lifted the carcass into the air by the neck while its hide remained chained to the floor. He cut off the tail and pulled the remaining tufts with his bare hands. In the final step, someone would wave a blowtorch over the muscle to burn off any lingering fur—like you might do with a chicken, our guide added.
In the adjoining room, the same man then broke down a deer with a band saw and a boning knife. Lifting the shoulder, he found the joint almost without looking and removed the leg with two cuts made in rapid succession. He made several one-inch roasts from the leg, passing it again and again against the spinning saw, and then turning to the body, now with his knife, he removed the backstrap and butterflied it. The whole while he offered us ways to prepare this meat. For the roasts, bake them with a can of cream of mushroom soup and top them off with deep-fried onions from a canister. For the steaks, panfry them in butter.
That day we’d have to settle for stew meat, from a buck one of the processors had killed opening morning of the season. It was an eight-pointer, a nice trophy, and bigger than anything we’d seen. I spooned up two healthy portions onto paper plates from an eighteen-quart roaster oven. Stefan and I took them outside and sat together on a bench, a camera in our faces.
It had been sixteen years since Stefan had last had meat, and, careful with each bite, he ate. What the camera caught on Stefan’s face, while I looked on, smiling, was not disgust. He was moved by the moment. Changed. He let out a whoa, and then covered his mouth with his hand, rubbing his hunter’s stubble, and chewed. After he swallowed, piece after piece, he told me it tasted familiar. It was all he could bring himself to say.
The moment was far less remarkable for me. I just ate. Quickly. Something I hadn’t just done in a long time. The meat itself was also fairly unremarkable, gamier than beef, tougher, seasoned simply with pepper. Served in a basic brown gravy, these were truly the lesser bits.
But eating was easy, even after watching an animal become a steak—probably more so. Our animal had lived a characteristically “deerish” life. We could feel good about that. And meat handled with care and expertly prepared is quite simply more appetizing. It was what we were both counting on. And it hardly mattered that we had missed with our guns. Stefan was right about this meal—it was familiar. It reminded him of what it was to eat before he became disgusted. For me, the stew was something to satisfy a newly uncomplicated hunger.
Over our final weeks together, my fiancée grew meaner and more distant, while I grew more passive and accommodating. Stefan and I took our trip out to Long Island to learn how to handle a firearm. That day she insisted that the hunting trip would be a waste of my time. I disagreed. In truth, the subject was just another thing to fight about in the days before I finally left her.
We’d wished each other well in the end. We’d swallowed our pride. She’d never again ask me to eat her leftovers. I’d never again have to say no. But this had been no waste of time. My plate was clean before I knew it. Stefan’s was not. He handed me the last few pieces of venison, saying it was a little too much for his system but that it shouldn’t go to waste. No, of course not. And just like that, without a thought, I ate the leftovers. It turned out I’d been really hungry for this.
This essay first appeared in the print-only edition of Tin House #39.