I don’t like killing things.
That may come as an unexpected confession from a devoted hunter, and one that has a somewhat precipitous body count when it comes to deer, squirrels, and birds. I’ve got a lot of blood on my hands—not in the least figuratively. No more, though, than any regular consumer of meat. I don’t like killing things, but I don’t think twice about it.
Each year, there’s a first blood. The hunting seasons take a siesta for the summer, and I join them, wet-wading the creeks and farm ponds of Central Virginia, casting flies and lures to the traditional southern variety of sportfish. The return of autumn and crisp days brings the annual opening days, and the ensuing fight between life and death that rages in the woods between man and beast, illustrated by the dying embers of hardwood trees. Some years it’s a squirrel. Some a bird flushed from cover. Some a deer that gives its life and welcomes me back. Usually, it comes late in the calendar year, but the ritual smokes out the feeling of expiration and renews my sense of what it means to be.
This year, it was a deer. A six-point buck, roughly three years old, built like a race horse. I took its life in the young of a harsh October morning. Squirrels danced haphazardly in the limber crowns of sweet gums, and resident geese onk-or-ed on high on their way to splash-down in the nearby farm pond. He was relaxed, munching on clover in the gray shadow of a pine thicket, as the sun illuminated a bluebird sky, before beams of light could get a direct shot at the ground. He was preparing for the day with a trip to the clover patch.
My shot was good. I’ve never missed with this old .243. He rolled over in his tracks, before the foul effect of flight adrenalin could marinate his muscles with the taste of death. I have no precise body count, but the cosmic tally he marked was one of several. My nerves are considerably calmer prior to the shot now than they were years ago with my first. I don’t like killing, but I understand it, and I embrace it. And I’ve learned to do it with dignified purpose.
A dagger of guilt flashed through my mind as I approached the buck and took a knee. Of course, his spirit had long since departed, but it’s a motion I require of myself, to pay respects to the dearly departed.
Dearly? Perhaps if I enjoyed the act of killing, I would not be so attached to the animal, so profoundly touched by its passing. But Dearly? The offensive voices of a defensive, out-of-touch society scream at me: What reasons have you for killing this creature? Is your life worth more than its?
It is not. I know that there is no hierarchy in the value of lives. There is only predator and prey. In that moment of sustenance acquisition, I thought of the coyotes and the rabbits that probably jumped at the echo of my rifle shot through the pine thicket. One’s existence is dictated by the other in a series of checks—the coyotes’ by the health of the rabbit population; the rabbits’ by the vitality of the coyote population. I thought of the rearing of a pup coyote, and the rite of passage that was its first kill—the rite of passage that was my first kill—and the realization that in order for one to live, another must die. Too many skip this calibration. Even the realization, in the context of modern society, seems foreign.
But I seek it out annually, in some holy October arena lit by the dim light of a waning or waxing day. And though I do not enjoy killing, I have come to cherish the emotional consequences. To take a life and stare into the inanimate eyes of a fellow being is to declare one’s own mortality, to claim a culturally forgotten equivalence within the ecosystem, a clear position within the food web.
These consequences I hold as advantages over the faction of humanity far-removed from the drama of nature—to experience in their rawest form remorse for loss of a life, respect for a departed champion of their environment, integrity as a steward of the Earth, thankfulness for a bounty endowed unto me, human for my inclusion in all of it. And I promise my continued participation to the animal and to the Earth in repayment for the perspective.