Transitioning from a non-hunter to a hunter is a complicated process, especially as an adult. At some point, being in the woods with the honest intent to take an animals life goes from abstraction to reality. In that moment, that person is a hunter, even if no animal is harmed. I think, but don't know, that something ancestral...primitive...must wake up in a person's mind at that moment.
I started moving with that intent at too young an age to reason about it. It was an experience that wrote itself inside me, without need for expression. There was never a doubt about my purpose when I got my license and started hunting. I do remember the first doe I ever saw with a firearm in my hands. The firearm was a .22, and the doe wasn't a legal target. Yet she is burned into my memory- looking at her through those iron sights, waiting for antlers to grow on her head. All the years of following people around coalesced and I was ready. It was a few more years before I shot my first deer, but I kept camp cleared of squirrels and chased small game until then, never knowing the questions that would need to be answered for someone else to become a hunter...and then a hunter who kills.
In a house where we try, with the limits of modern society and a couple of full time jobs, to take responsibility for our sustenance, game meat is cherished. Lori loves to eat it, and after a few years together, she went through hunter's ed and got her license, unsure of what she would do with it. This feeling ebbs and flows for her. She had her license when we took one shotgun for a walk out around camp. She carried it for a while. As the walk progressed, she handed it to me and mentioned that if we wanted a grouse to eat, I should be carrying it. After a couple of flushes, I spotted a bird on the ground and pointed it out to her. I can't remember if I offered the shotgun back to her or just asked if she wanted me to shoot it, but the end result was the same, a delicious, ground-sluiced grouse. Lori shed some tears as we walked up to gather our dinner. I felt I stole some innocence from her that day- there was new clarity about where our food came from. Raised with the story of Genesis, it struck me later that we had surely eaten from the Tree of Knowledge- Lori was now aware. Aware, in this case, of death in a real, tangible way, rather than as an abstraction.
A year later, Lori and I had a young hunter with us. We'd eaten a tailgate lunch and done all the fun stuff, the hunting was becoming a hunt, which is what I wanted for the youngster- nothing good comes easy. I had the youngster with me, up ahead, and Lori was trailing, shotgun in hand. She mentioned later that walking alone back there with that shotgun, there came a moment, after the efforts of the weekend, where she wanted a bird to be there, wanted to shoot one. The switch was flipped - she had become a hunter. She was moving with intent. She still wrestles with the idea, and hasn't taken an animal yet, but she is a participant now, rather than an observer.
The 2019 season started without snow, but we had some early action. A few of us headed to NH for the early muzzleloader season. We scouted around checking some cuts and ridgelines. It was good to stretch the legs, scout some newer territory, start to get the feel of the woods back into the body. No matter how much I train, how many hours I spend bird or duck hunting, or even scouting for deer prior to the season, the sensation that comes along hunting deer seems to carry more weight. A buddy joined us this year who hadn't been to NH. Not having shot a deer before after a few years of getting into it, there was a different intensity to his approach. He had spent many hours in a stand archery hunting, and had missed a doe the year before with a muzzleloader in VT. He remarked then how quick it happened. It was a step. He had pulled the trigger. I suspect, as an adult approaching hunting as a new endeavor, one must question whether or not the trigger will get pulled. The bullet, or arrow, once loosed, cannot be taken back, and the decision, once made, is final. This is not a sport; it is life and death. He was a hunter, yet had thus far been foiled in his attempts to bring game to hand. After the miss, I think he realized his hunger. He was looking to fill his freezer, so a doe on opening day would fit the bill; the opportunity didn't arise.
Day two found the four of us checking out a new-ish area, as opposed to cruising some older haunts. After a few sightings and a nice long walk, we met for a late lunch and went to a spot near where I'd shot a buck a few years ago. As we stretched into the woods, a shot rang out form my buddy's location. I felt like an expectant parent- wanting to help and wanting to let him figure it out. A miss- foiled again, still too quick for someone who didn't have a catalog of misses and missed opportunities decades deep to fall back on. But there was growth.
Fast forward to VT muzzleloader season, doe tags in hand. Three of us check a few spots and see nothing. Then we sneak in to our last spot of the morning. Dad circles around, my buddy and I cut some tracks, decide to sneak along. Having jumped deer here before, I slow him down and put him out front. He knows how quick it can happen. We ease over a ridge, no deer. Shifting gears, we swing around, uphill. Dad has jumped some deer. All of the sudden, I get to watch the moment unfold. The deer crests the ridge and bounces a couple steps toward us, briefly stops broadside. His rifle goes up and the trigger is pulled. The veil of smoke momentarily obscures the outcome. We head over, the blood trail is followed and my buddy's freezer, and family, will have meat.
I don't know what he felt in that moment- I would imagine, as an adult, some of it cannot be described in words. Not that a child would find the words, but, rather, would not feel the need to articulate it. The feelings are deep and primal; it takes work to bring them to consciousness and spin it around. It is a modern luxury that we think we get to make choices about taking other lives to sustain ourselves. Living it first hand, you realize that there is blood all around us, once the smoke clears. For him, the sharp edges of the experience will get softened with time, the memories shared over campfires and slow-cooked venison will get polished, other hunts will become stories, but there, in that moment, he came through the veil. I felt honored to have been part of it.