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Good Letters

20120427-teaching-my-son-to-hunt-part-2-by-todd-davisContinued from yesterday.

Some folks like to use the word “harvest” instead of the word “kill.” But we harvest broccoli and tomatoes and cabbage from our garden. When I take the life of a whitetail that will be butchered and stored in my freezer to feed the family through the winter, I think the only honest way to put it is to say that the animal has been hunted and killed.

When you place a rifle in a boy’s hands—show him where on an animal’s body he should aim, how he should exhale, explaining that he needs to keep his head down while squeezing the trigger— plain and simple: you’re teaching him the most basic lesson nature provides. We kill so we can eat. We eat so we may survive. And someday our own bodies will enter the mouth of the earth to feed it so others may live after us.

But to get to this point, to bring a child I’ve nurtured, who I’ve taught to value life and to abhor violence in its many faces, I must ask myself what it means to send a bullet through the lungs of another living thing, the heart even better?

Killing, of course, is about forethought and persistence, about accepting the responsibility of using the life you’ve taken so the toll of death will not have been wasted, flippantly discarded. And I want Noah to know that to take a life is to live with that life until your own death.

As I said before, we’re a family that hunts for meat, not trophies. We’re unpretentious and uncomplicated omnivores. Meat, fruit, vegetables, nuts, dairy. We eat for health. We eat for flavor. We eat—I pray—with a degree of reverence that the world deserves because it is the world that sustains us, not we that sustain the world.

I like to picture our existence, our perishing, mortal bodies, carried on the backs of animals and trees and plants. And to have such a vision often brings me both joy and sorrow, the two inextricably linked to my thankfulness for such worldly grace.

I’ve talked to Noah about the fact that he may not wish to take an animal’s life in this way. I’ve assured him there’s no shame in it. In fact, the greater shame is in taking an animal’s life with no sense of sorrow or grief.

And so in the quiet of morning, once the three doe have made their way into our shooting lanes, I wait until the biggest turns broadside—chest appearing in my scope between the V of a witch hazel. At such moments, I can’t help but utter a prayer—asking for forgiveness, giving thanks for the animal that has offered itself up.

Sometimes, especially when I’ve been in the woods for many days without seeing a deer, when one appears and walks into the very place where I can take a shot, it seems like something other than my hunterly instincts have made this moment possible, have made it happen in what feels like the right and acceptable way.

Whether you want to call the force behind all living things God, or the Great Creator Spirit, or the Physical Law of the Universe, there’s no denying the power of that animal as it steps into the clearing: in some way accepting its role as sacrifice, as the means to feed others, as a way to thin the herd so other deer won’t starve, wither to bone, life ending with a collapse in the deep cold of February.

And whether any of this is true, it’s clear that some kind of synchronicity has brought the deer forward, and now I must take a deep breath, exhale, see nothing but the shoulder of that animal as I squeeze the trigger, knowing I can never call the bullet back to the barrel, knowing a piece of metal is traveling with speed and danger to do my bidding, to explode the heart and lungs, to take that life as swiftly, as mercifully, as my skill will allow.

I don’t know what Noah’s face looked like as I took the shot. Even after the rifle’s report, my eyes held to that deer.

The terrible beauty, the terrible grace of the animal crashing through the underbrush toward us, as if it were chasing after its life, as if the bullet I had fired into its chest somehow was being drawn back, pulling the animal with it.

That’s what I saw. That’s what I had to bear witness to, knowing to turn away would be to dishonor what the animal had to endure because of my will, my desire, my hunger.

Beauty and grace are terrible, of course. Why wouldn’t they be? Haven’t we been taught this by our own living? Haven’t storytellers since the beginning of time shown us how the rough edge of existence scrapes and bruises the soft skin of the cheek, bloodies our hands.

We forget, at our own peril, that the original meaning of “awesome” denotes both beauty and terror.

And so Noah and I climb down from the tree stand and make our way to the deer’s side, a trail of heart’s blood on brown leaves. The doe, whose eyes have drawn dull, waits for the dressing knife to split her in half, to cut away the thin tissues that hold her insides. As I work at emptying her, I talk to Noah about how we use the word “grace” in our family; what it really feels like when you experience it in a place like this.

He brushes back a tear and puts his hand on her, stroking the soft fur of her backside. I can see already in the posture of his body, in the set of his face, that he understands we’ll be carrying a portion of this deer into our own lives in the coming months. That in the way we choose to live, there’s a chance to honor what she’s given, as well as what we’ve taken.

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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