I spent a lot of time this year thinking about history, both my personal history as well as hunting and the relationship between humans and wildlife. I have written about my experiences growing up, hunting at a young age; how my upbringing in the landscape has influenced the way I interact with the environment as well as my relationship to my family. I have been studying native North American cultures and how hunting, in many cases, shaped their social and religious systems. All of this research has helped bring my current body of work to where it is now.
Being out in the landscape is hard to describe. I feel comfortable; I feel like I belong, I feel normal. I feel alive; primal. I hike and sweat, my back soaked underneath my heavy pack. I’m not carrying a burden, however. If I were carrying that load up stairs, in an urban environment, it would be unbearable; out in the landscape, I don’t even feel it.
I do feel the majesty of the out of doors, I do feel the sense that there is something bigger than me. There are systems at work out here, systems that don’t care about human life. I notice where runoff creates a small, inch deep ravine down the side of a ridge, I see that its shape mimics that of the wash it eventually flows into and how that wash carved it’s way through the landscape. I feel how these geological structures are shaped.
I find a game trail; I follow it, my eyes plastered to the earth. The ground is littered with deer tracks and scat. From that sign I learn things, the size of the heard, approximately the time when they’ve passed through, what they have been eating and most importantly I can tell, with reasonable certainty, whether or not there’s a buck in the group. I have a tag in that heavy pack of mine, and a rifle slung on my shoulder.
I hunt; I always have.
I started when I was a young boy, my father would take me with him when he would hunt small game (dove, quail, rabbit..etc). I don’t remember the exact age when I started hunting, but I would guess I was somewhere between three and five years old. Thinking back on that now, I realize how incredible that is, that my dad would bring a 3-5 year old along with him. Never mind the dangers of being in the desert, the fact that he would have to keep an eye on a 3 year old boy who would constantly get into everything and run off at any chance he could. I imagine it was a mix of hunting/fishing or being out there in the elements and the fact that my father encouraged me to explore, question, play and learn that kept my interest. Damn did I learn so much. Obviously I learned how to hunt and fish, how to tie a Palomar knot and how to navigate down a steep ridge, but there are major life lessons and deeper, more complicated concepts that were instilled in me at such a young age. I took cues from my father, I saw what excited him and that in turn excited me. When he would kneel down and show me coyote or fox scat or an owl pellet and we would dissect it, I learned about predator/prey relationships. When he would shoot a dove or quail, I would go retrieve it for him, I learned about that animal, what they looked like, how they were shaped, I learned about male/female relationships, why males were different from females and reproduction. I learned about life and death. I learned about biology, anatomy, ecology and most importantly conservation and land ethics.
When I was seven or eight my dad gave me a shotgun, it was a single shot, hammer action 20-gauge shotgun. I was finally allowed to hunt, although I was so small that when a dove was inbound I would have to hand the gun off to Dad, he would cock the hammer and hand it back to me. My father trusted me, an eight year old, with a loaded firearm. He instilled in me a profound respect for firearms, the realization of how fragile we are and how precious life is; that we can be here one moment and gone the next.
While I don’t remember the first small game animal I killed, I do remember the first time I saw my dad kill a big game animal. It was September 22, 1995, my sister’s birthday, a month before my 10th birthday, before I was legally allowed to hunt big game. It was opening morning of Pronghorn Antelope season, this was a big deal, it had taken my father fifteen years to draw that tag. We were hunting in Big Chino Valley, just north of the town of Prescott, AZ. My father and I had been up here to scout, to locate the herds, the bucks, to study the terrain, testing equipment, sighting in his rifle and his back up rifle and researching the behavioral patterns of the Pronghorn herd. Previous to this trip, my father and I hunted deer and javelina in spots that he knew like the back of his hand so there wasn’t a need for extensive scouting, but like I said, this was a big deal. Finally, the day was here. We drove to our spot in the dark of the early morning, gathered our gear and crawled to our “opening morning spot”. Sure enough there was a herd just beneath the ridge we were on, the problem was that none of them were big enough. You see, AZ game and fish states that a legal, shoot-able Antelope buck has to have pronghorns that are taller than it’s ears. This is to ensure that you’re harvesting a mature buck that has been through at least one breeding cycle. After watching that herd for a while and making sure we didn’t miss a legal buck, we moved on to another area.
Almost immediately, we located a legal buck he was about a mile away but moving towards us. My father got into the prone position; laying on his stomach, his rifle securely resting on his pack and me, sitting on the ground between his legs. As the buck approached, my dad’s adrenaline rose, I could hear his breath quicken. By the time the Antelope was in range my father was shaking. The buck stopped, I heard my father breath in deep, exhale, hold; a single shot rang through Big Chino Valley. I heard the whap as the bullet made contact with the animal. The shot was low, below the shoulder, the leg was broken, it was not a mortal wound, and the antelope ran. I could feel the panic my father was experiencing. We approached the area where we last saw the buck, my father on my left. The pronghorn startled us just as much as we startled him. I remember seeing him laying beneath a tree out of the corner of my right eye, he jumped to his feet and before I could alert my dad, Pops swung his rifle and shot, putting the bullet directly in the animal’s chest. The buck ran 50 yards, crossing in front of us, dropped, let out an excruciating, guttural cry and expired.
God, I felt that. I still feel that, it’s been 18 years and I still feel that. I’ve never been able to describe the feeling in a way that’s adequate, so I will defer to one of my favorite authors, Steven Rinella, in describing how killing a large animal inevitably gives him a sense of sorrow:
“I feel compelled to question what I’ve done, to compare the merit of its life with the merits of my own. It’s not so much a feeling of guilt. There’s no moment when I want the buffalo to stand back up and walk away, no moment when I wish that the bullet would retreat back into the barrel. It’s more complicated than guilt. Seeing the dead buffalo, I feel an amalgamation of many things: thankfulness for the meat, an appreciation for the animal’s beauty, a regard for the history of it’s species, and, yes, a touch of guilt. Any one of those feelings would be a passing sensation, but together they make me feel emotionally swollen. The swelling is tender, a little bit painful. This is the curse of the human predator”
Once I came to terms with what I had just witnessed, it was time to gut and skin the buck. I watched my father as he made an incision from just under the buck’s chest plate to his anus. I helped pull its organs out, its stomach, intestines, heart, liver and lungs. We then hung him up in a tree and began to skin him, carefully cutting and pulling the skin away from the meat so as not to ruin the cape. We had over a mile hike back to the truck so my dad decided to quarter the animal. Basically that means cutting the animal into smaller pieces so it’s easier to travel with.
I don’t remember much from eating the antelope, but I do remember my mom cooking brisket and how delicious it was. I would take leftover brisket sandwiches to school and brag to my friends about it. I didn’t comprehend it at the time, but I really felt that connection to my food. That sandwich carried with it experience. Not just the experience of that particular hunt, or of the months prior scouting, but all of the experiences of my childhood spent hunting. That sandwich is now remembered in every experience since.