Heart of the Hunt
A vegetarian tries to figure out what hunting means to the hunter.
By Terri Sutton
Al Schroeter and I are bumping down the Echo Trail out of Ely in his battered pickup, catching the day's first gold on the hilltops, falling into shadow on the swampy bottoms. My hands gingerly cradle a scalding tin cup of coffee. I've sworn off caffeine, but I'm sipping this thick stuff because I'm cold, and because I've already stepped so far out of the comfortable shell of opinion and habit known as "me" that all rules are off. I'm wearing a blaze orange acrylic stocking cap. I'm going hunting. My kick-started brain spins. I feel lost. Good, I decide. I think that's why I'm here.
A week before, on the phone, Al's guffaws bounced on the wires between Ely and Minneapolis. He's a rangy, beetle-browed giant, with a voice to match. "Sure, I'll take you hunting," he enthused. "But, Terri, why?"
Al has known me as a dedicated non-meat-eater for the decade-plus since his shaggy punk-rock band first slept on my floor in San Francisco. I've known him as a loony outdoorsman since I heard that he -- three days into a Lake Calhoun ice-fishing marathon -- resolutely ignored a fed-up girlfriend screaming from shore. Al moved north a few years ago, with a vegetarian wife who mostly doesn't mind sharing him with two bird dogs and the woods.
For a moment, I couldn't think how to answer him. Because I don't get it, I finally said. Because I've never understood what hunting means to the hunter, and maybe it's time I should.
The October sun is brightening the high yellow aspen leaves when we park in a rutted clearing amidst the Superior National Forest. In the quick calm we hear the dogs -- Maybelle and her daughter Dixie -- whining and scratching back in their kennels. Before Al lets Maybelle out, he slides his shotgun out of its naugahyde casing and shows me the short barrel -- chosen for its easy handling amid dense forest growth, Al says. He passes me the unloaded pump-action shotgun. I bobble it, my hand slipping with the pump. "Eek!" I exhale and almost throw it back at him.
Al buckles a bell collar on Maybelle. "Hunt 'em up!" he says sternly. She races off into the brush and we saunter after her, Dixie weeping hopelessly behind us. For a short bit we walk trail as a huffing Maybelle streaks through the scrub. So this is hunting, I think: The dog does everything. Then we're over our heads in saplings, and it's all I can do to keep upright. My confounded eyes offer up screwy snapshots: branches at two inches; mossy log underfoot; Al's gun to the left and ahead; branches at zero inches. It's as if we're hiking through a moving kaleidoscope, which might feel divertingly trippy except that one of us is packing.
Tutored with stories of stealthy Hiawathas, I'd envisioned the hunt as a hushed, contemplative endeavor. Instead we're crashing through crunchy leaves and brittle saplings, Maybelle off to the side a-ringing her bell. And Al's talking: directing the dog, directing me, and simply jawing, because he does that. "Yeah, you don't tell people about your favorite covers -- the locals'd use 'em like walleye holes. May-belle! Come! We're gonna head round this way. See this leaf? That's woodcock splash. It looks fresh." Surrounding all our noise I hear the forest, which on this windless morning sounds like merciless patience.
Then the bell stops. Al stops me. Silence. "She's locked up." Al locates the dog, her body poised in midstride, head angling off to her right. "That bird's just staying put," notes Al, "sure it's invisible." We step closer behind Maybelle, quiet. "There it is, about four feet off her nose." I look, and I see brown leaves. The moment extends liquidly around us, filling our lungs.
Later Al will tell me: "When Maybelle goes on point, I know I have time to think about the bird's probable course, what my best shots are; I have time to adjust my hat." For me, watching, it seems like we all become something other than conscious -- more like functions, levers, within an old and efficient machine. The bird appears to fly up at the same time the gun goes off; it is falling, light to dark, even as it rises.
"Down bird!" Al commands, and Maybelle leaves her point to snuffle for the woodcock. "Was that loud?" he asks me, grinning. "Not really," I say, although the shot still echoes. The whole moment was loud, not just the gun.
Maybelle brings Al the bird, and he brings it to me. Patterned in deep brown and black, the woodcock fits exactly in Al's wide palm, its neck draped over his wrist. "How do you know it's dead?" I wonder anxiously. Al wiggles the loose little head, with its thin stilt of a beak. I can't see where it's shot, but Al has blood on his hand. I hold out my two, and he tips the bird onto them.
The body is hot. I didn't expect that. The eye is black and glassy yet, the white ring around it emphasizing the gleam. Drawing out the wide wing, I can feel its tensile strength. The needle bill, with which the woodcock probes dirt and wet leaves for earthworms, opens to reveal a slim tongue. These details escaped me the last time I stalked woodcock, a spring evening years ago when some friends and I drove to Elm Creek Park Reserve near Osseo to witness the male's whistling courtship flight.
Crouched low, uncertain in the deep dark, we heard above us the trill of the wind through the male's wing feathers and his chirping song, inscrutable music to an invisible dance. This bird, leaking warmth into my hand, cannot hide itself. But its weight, the tactile substance of its soft feather sand bony bill, strikes me as a mystery equally bottomless and off-balancing.
As Al drops two more woodcocks and a pair of grouse, missing a single cunning grouse that refused to fly, the thunking reality of all these interrupted ascensions chips away at the wonder of a bird in the hand. Whatever your respectful intentions, a shot bird still flops cruelly to the ground. My eye tries to keep the downed bird flying into the what-if dimension, into the web-work of ghostly flight paths envisioned by writer Robert F. Jones. Jones would have it that spirit birds, forever "winging on out as if they'd never been hit," eventually weave the hunter's "rough winding sheets." I'm not sure nature writes its stories with such satisfyingly karmic ends.
The hunting creed assumes that the lives of prey can and should be sacrificed for the sustenance, physical or emotional, of the hunter. Most people who eat meat pay someone else to kill food for them. Hunters pay to kill. Their refusal to distance themselves from killing intrigues me: I don't know whether they deserve my disgust or my respect. It's the latter that has shot up lately.
Nearly two decades into vegetarianism, I've lost a bit of the self-righteous edge: I keep running into contradictions. Plant-eaters tend to trumpet the animal cruelty and environmental destruction caused by meat-eating -- a valid, constructive criticism, and disingenuous too. At the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico, researchers have been watching runoff pesticides and fertilizers from heartland farms liquidate the ocean life over an area the size of New Jersey. Part of the dead zone bears my name. Whatever you eat, because you eat, something else doesn't. The hunter doesn't try to elude responsibility for human appetite and its consequences.
A year earlier at Thanksgiving, Al presented our gathering with his fall harvest: woodcock pan-fried, baked, and served with a reduced red-wine sauce. I did not refuse a sample -- per the worm diet, it tasted rich and steaky -- partly because I knew that these birds had enjoyed a wild, unfettered existence, and partly because I wanted to acknowledge the labor that had brought this food to the table. I'm a gardener; I plan and plant and weed and water, coaxing life and dealing death. Al scouts and trains his dogs and talks woodcock for months, preparing for the hunting season. Perhaps the hunt and the garden should be considered together, the hobbified versions of ancient, essential pursuits. Perhaps when you shoot, as when you dig, you remind yourself that food is not just bought, but earned.
At our final stop on the Echo Trail, Al strolls up to an aspen stand and pronounces: "Last time there was a grouse here." As if summoned, a grouse rattles up, brushing our teeth for us. I think I am uneasy around these deaths because I have not earned them.
Brad Gatzlaff has been up since 3:30 a.m., hunting. First he and a friend drove to Weaver and huddled in their duck boat, grousing as mallards and teals landed in the middle of the water, out of reach. Then he walked out to his deer stand -- which he has used for more than 20 years -- and did some housekeeping. Now, 10 hours since his first cup of coffee, he's heading to public lands south of Kenyon and West Concord, aiming for pheasant.
"We need something for the game bag!" Brad cries. His wife, Mary Madison, who doesn't hunt, laughs from the back seat. Their blond Labrador pup, Blue, who is learning to hunt, eagerly leaps into the front and is shoved affectionately back.
Two years ago my long time friend Mary wed this sandy-haired, straight-spined guy from south-central Minnesota -- the co-owner of a forest management business -- and moved south. Whenever I make the trip for dinner, the three of us end up in long, tangled conversations in which we high-five over the essential stuff (love, family, nature) and argue stubbornly about anything slightly less abstract. The fact that the urban liberal consciously made her bed with the small-town conservative, and he with her, keeps us semicareful. Hunting, of course, is one locus of disagreement. "I can't come around on the deer thing," Mary admitted before I came down. "This year it's even worse -- maybe because of Blue."
Now we near the long decline of land, with its thicketed creek, and Brad wails. "Aaak! Look at all the trucks." I count five, and pick out nine orange figures spread across the furred draw and grassy rises. It's odd to see so far, after the close focus of the northern woods. Brad passes the trucks, parks a couple hundred yards up the road. "We'll try these fields, see if they left anything for us."
The day is fairly balmy, the low sun scuttling behind quilted clouds, but the north wind is blowing fit to buck any lingering duck all the way to Louisiana. I wade into the left side of a thick scrub stand with Mary. Brad and Blue take the right. Nose to the ground, Blue chugs through the mounded prairie grass like a low-slung vacuum cleaner. I shuffle and wait, shuffle and wait, hoping to raise up a showy red-faced rooster, the bird Al disdainfully typed "a balloon with feathers." Instead I find tawny big bluestem, the labial seed pods of the milkweed, and a foot-chilling grassy swamp. Fleeing the water, Mary and I forge through a thicket and lose Brad; this open prairie sweep is deceptive.
When we catch up with him, my nose is dripping and my hands are numb. But we've discovered palm-sized bird nests cradled in the crooks of sapling branches. We drop down with the slope to a wind-ragged creek. "If I shoot into the water here, you can see the shot pattern," offers Brad. I nod, and he fires. The water dimples in a two-foot-wide oval swath. It's the first shot we've heard in an hour -- the first I've heard, close by, since Al downed our last grouse. The sound hits me like a slap: Hey, lady. This ain't a nature walk. "You wanna try it?" Brad asks. I slough off my gloves. The gun weighs heavy and cold in my arms. Brad shows me how to jam the gun butt into my shoulder.
I aim, realize the gun has fallen away from my shoulder, readjust, aim again. Press the safety. Squeeze the trigger. Simultaneously, I feel the kick, see the water spray, and squeal. "Wow!" Brad and Mary are laughing. Mary steps up, takes her first-ever shot: The barrel rears upward, as I'd felt it leap in my arms. "Where did it go?" she squeaks breathlessly. "I think you hit the trees," says Brad.
I'm jealous -- I want the gun back. Brad passes it over from Mary. I try again, fumble less, spray the water just where I want to. I'm thrilled all out of proportion. I feel electrified and huge, like my bones are lit up in neon. I realize I could stay here all day, shooting that gun.
Returning to the truck, I fall back, trying to warm my aching hands, diligently shuffling the straw. Mary's gathering a bouquet of dogwood stem, sunflower pod and bird's nest. Blue swims the grass between Brad and scent, milkweed seed fluffs rising behind her like bubbles. A hundred feet from the truck Brad and Blue stop, the dog pushing hard in the straw. Mary calls out to me, and I turn to answer; when I look back at Brad, the hen has flown. The day's only bird, and I've missed it.
In the Suburban, with the heater booming, Brad gripes about his day. "I would've liked to have at least seen more birds." Blue is sacked out in the back seat. The warmth loosens up muscles stiff from leaning into the wind. Brad talks about some wild turkeys that fooled him into thinking a deer was approaching his stand last week. "You just about puke out your heart, you get so excited. "Can't be a squirrel, no -- Oh, it's a gol-darned turkey."
"What else gets your heart racing like that? Besides running, and -- that's not really it. If it is a deer, you really lose it. And if it's a buck, well, you're going to be there the next year, that's for sure."
I think: That's the clearest explanation I'm going to get.
The next morning, I watch Blue fasten in on a scent. She thrusts her nose into a hillock of grass. A long-tailed rooster bursts from the straw, whirring upward, iridescent yellow and brown and red. The bird pauses once, the gun's barrel resting with it, then they both rise and shudder, together, in the air. The bird drops. I wake up with the shot still in my ears. My first kill, I think, groggily. In the dream, I was the hunter, wearing Brad's clothes. And I was also the fallen bird. Something has died inside me. And something else is winging out now, "as if it had never been hit," into the real world.
I'm sitting in the woods near Ely in the dark, no gun, hunting deer. I'm wearing a blaze orange vest and hat, though I can't see them. Also: long underwear, flannel jeans, socks, mukluks, shirt, sweater, scarf, and down jacket. Temp's around 30. Time's a little after 6 a.m.
I close my eyes for a bit and drift, coming to as I'm falling backward. Straighten up. Breathe. The moon lights up a snow crystal at my feet. When I next open my eyes the black pines have defined themselves against graying air. The forest is so still I can hear the absence of sound. It's a struggle to get a full breath, I'm listening so intensely.
A rifle booms, far away. A crow flies first. Then a jay and my beloved chickadee, leaping above, it seems, from tree to tree. A plane buzzes over. More rifle shots, still miles away. A small red squirrel hurries by, not three feet from my boots. Behind me, a tree creaks.
I hold my breath. And the sound comes again, but from farther to my left. And again: a dry leaf, heavily crunched. I'm straining to sit still; my pulse is slamming in my ears. What is this stealing up on me: reverence or terror? The silence eventually extends. I gulp air. My heart slows. The day brightens. At 8 I walk out, teeth chattering.
During dinner in Ely the night before, we'd bumped into a hunter still adorned in piece meal blaze orange. "How'd it go?" my companion had asked. "Well, I got a little buck," the man admitted, with noticeable distaste. "I let him pass by, but my buddies bugged me until I went back after him." His mouth pursed.
"I wasn't ready. It's not the killing I'm into so much as the hunt." The answer struck me then as pat, though his discomfort didn't. This morning, I think I understand. This morning, I finally feel I have earned, if such a thing can be done, the deaths of those first birds with Al.
I realize that I have to keep earning them: If hunting demands anything, it is a constancy of attention, a kind of faithful listening to prey and gun that only begins in the ear. I don't know when -- or whether -- my aim will stop a bird's rising flight. I do know this: My mother-in-law has offered me her father's old 12-gauge, and I haven't said no.
Terri Sutton is a free-lance writer from Minneapolis.