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Good Letters

At the cycle’s center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.

—James Dickey, “The Heaven of Animals”

After the brief warmth of days barely above forty and lingering nights well below freezing, the snow that fell last week has become hard and brittle. Crystal upon crystal picks up the December light, reflecting the first hints of pink that within the hour will turn dark purple on the undersides of clouds over the western ridges here in central Pennsylvania.

The deer begin to enter the bedding ground around a quarter to five, and the first we spy are a pair of fawns who play an improvised game of tag beneath the tree-stand ladder.

The cold makes it hard to stay still and raises questions that hover around the discipline of hunting: How to calm the body? How to quiet the mind? How to honor a life in the same moment you take it?

Hunting at its root is spiritual. That is, if your religion is grounded in an incarnational understanding of the world, in a belief that the sacred and the physical are always entwined, woven so tightly that the two can never be divorced.

Why should my hand shake as I slide the dressing knife under the sheath of skin that surrounds the throat, the line I’ll draw from chest to anus? Why should I taste salt as faltering tears mix with sweat from the effort of saving what remains of the recently departed life I’ve chosen, willfully, to end?

To take a life, to somehow honor that life in its taking, is a difficult task, and as I grow older, with less of my own life before me, it doesn’t get any easier. Yet I can see in this transaction, in this exchange of one life for another, the deepest and oldest of religious stories and know someday in my own death that I will play a new role in this tale.

In the tree-stand, my son Noah, who’s thirteen, sits to the left of me, and where the pair of fawns had played their game of tag a few moments ago, now several yearlings congregate among witch hazel and mountain laurel, shrubs and bushes humped over like grazing sheep.

These woods aren’t very old. Most of the trees—white, red, and chestnut oak, striped and sugar maple, some green ash, tulip poplar, and cherry—are sixty to seventy years in age. Plenty of sunlight still makes its way through the canopy, and the understory dictates our shooting lanes.

Fifty yards to our left a good-sized doe walks slowly up the ridge’s contoured vein followed by an eight-point buck. I motion to Noah with my eyes, and he tracks them in the scope of his rifle but can’t find a clean shot.

He’s a good boy. He won’t fire his rifle unless he’s sure. I’ve known men who would bang away with buck fever if just such an opportunity presented itself. Despite the way the heart leaps forward and the lungs rise sharply, Noah measures the situation and shakes his head “no.”

I’m proud of him, and I hope my mantra that we hunt to feed ourselves—not for trophy antlers—helped him to make this decision. As a father I reach after any small success to ease my anxiety that I’m doing the right thing.

By now the buck has vanished over the ridgeline. I’d say like a ghost, but I’ve never seen one. The world I live in tends to be material, fleshly and sensual, as real as the hunger that spikes my belly.

I often wonder how different we are from the hawk whose nearly every motion is expended to find its next meal. To feed the belly’s furnace is the first business of living; yet I have faith there is something more, something that layers the fleshly and sensual world, that makes our daily obligations irreducible to the bare bones of biology or physics.

And I extend this idea to the very lives of the animals we live among. It’s the reason Saint Francis of Assisi’s admonitions speak to me, why I often return to James Dickey’s poem “The Heaven of Animals.”

If we go without food or water for even twelve hours—as much of a fast as most can endure—how much energy and thought do we have left for the cultivation of more civilized pursuits like literature or music or art? How does the animal of our being bring together the instinctive need to fulfill its earthly obligations with our desire for union with God and the world we say grace has given us?

In my left ear Noah whispers his disappointment and his fear that no other deer will come. I try to assure him that he’ll get his shot before the season is over.

Earlier this morning he saw me take a life for the first time. Just past 10:30 three doe trailed down the northeastern side of the ridge. In early winter, everything is some shade of gray, except for the laurel and rhododendron’s glossy green leaves. The only difference between the deeply grooved bark of a chestnut oak and the flattened patterns of a red oak is the swish of a tail or the rise of a haunch.

These deer took their time descending—stopping to browse, to smell, to listen for the very thing that might be hunting them. This is what so much of hunting is: the long wait and the patience such waiting asks the hunter to submit to.

This past year I’ve been trying to teach Noah how to hunt, or, more precisely—and there’s no easy way to say it—how to “kill.”

Tomorrow: Part 2

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Todd Davis

Todd Davis teaches creative writing and environmental studies at Penn State University’s Altoona College. He is the author of four books of poems, most recently The Least of These and Household of Water, Moon, and Snow: The Thoreau Poems.

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