With the Utah archery deer hunt only a week away, I’ve been thinking a lot about mule deer, particularly their behavior and ecology. In reflecting on past hunts, I’ve come to realize that the biggest factor contributing to hunting success is having an intimate knowledge of your prey, whatever animal it happens to be. By learning your prey, you can more accurately dissect the mountain and predict their locations and movements.
I really love mule deer. Not only are they exciting to hunt, but these brilliant survivors are endlessly fascinating to observe in the wild. I’ve read just about every book and article written on mule deer and have kept careful notes along the way. Today I’d like to share some of the most surprising facts I’ve learned about mule deer:
1. In 1900 there were only 10,000 deer living in Utah; today there are more than 350,000! The main factors contributing to herd growth is better resource management, relatively mild weather in recent times, and an increase in predator control efforts. Considering that only 30% of today’s hunters are successful in bagging a buck each year, it’s surprising how many deer there really are out there.
2. Before 1950 half the bucks harvested in Utah were mature (3.5 years and older). Today only 10% of bucks harvested are mature. This is obviously the result of “quantity over quality” management, coupled with high demand for tags and the resource manager’s desire to maximize permit sales. For the trophy hunter you’ll have to sift through lots of deer to find a true trophy. In Utah only about 1 in 56,000 bucks harvested will make Boone & Crockett.
3. Using their sensitive snouts, deer can detect water up to two feet below ground and then use their hooves to dig it up. During hunting season water isn’t a concern unless it’s really hot and dry, in which case the deer must drink once a day. Because it’s so dangerous to travel to water, the deer will often sniff it out. The deer’s nose is estimated to be 1000 times more sensitive than humans. They also use their incredible sense of smell to find best food sources, find mates, and of course to sniff out predators like ourselves.
4. Deer have a 310-degree field of view, as compared to humans who see less than a 180 degrees. Not only can the deer see 86% of it’s surroundings, but he has amazing night vision and motion detection. For all of these strengths, however, it sacrifices the ability to see colors in the red spectrum and fine details.
5. Most big bucks are “hiders,” as opposed to “runners,” when encountered in high-pressured areas. If you typically hunt in dense cover, chances are you’ve been seen by far more deer than you think. The bucks that run are either small or know they’ve been spotted.
6. Mule deer antler growth exceeds two inches per week during spring and summer, and then greatly declines the first week of August. Final antler size is largely determined by three factors: age, genetics, and available forage. A wet spring and/or early monsoon season is your best chance to harvest a trophy buck.
7. The unusual form of bounding (called stotting) where all four legs leave the ground simultaneously, is unique to mule deer and was adapted to escape cougars in mountainous terrain. No other big game species in North America uses this unusual mode of locomotion. Not only is stotting useful for navigating heavy cover, but is done quickly, covering 22 to 29 feet with each bound on level ground.
8. The average home range for a deer is only .6 square miles. Since deer don’t like to wander outside their home range, it might seem easy for us hunters to locate a buck. The problem is that deer are highly adaptable to human pressure and will quickly evacuate the mountain to predetermined safe zone, sometimes miles away from it’s home range.
9. Elk compete directly with mule deer, especially on winter ranges. Although elk are 3.5 times bigger than a deer, biologists estimate that one elk is the equivalent of 5-8 deer in terms of winter range degradation. In areas where both elk and deer populations are high, elk will gradually replace the mule deer. The greatest long-term threat to mule deer, however, is the natural reintroduction of the whitetail deer which will likely force the mule deer into extinction! Enjoy the great muley while you can.
Fascinating creatures, aren’t they?! I hope you enjoyed these facts.
Can you feel it? The changing season, a shift in the sun’s angle? Nostalgic aromas of ripening vegetation? We’re almost there, almost in the woods.
If you’re like me, you’re already out there, in your mind. Wits sharpening, watching the ground for clues, listening.
The annual ritual of prehunt mediation is upon us. We look like we’re working a job–we go through the motions–but we’re really out there, in the woods, sharpening our Craft–woodscraft, stalkcraft, bowcraft, huntcraft.
As my spirit stretches into the wild landscape, I’m reminded of so many experiences unwritten and nearly forgotten. But the hunter spirit stirs the sediment of the mind into a swirling patchwork of sights, sounds, and smells.
In my next few articles I’m going to reach into murk and materialize some of these experiences. I hope they’ll inspire you to do the same.
Opening morning and it’s on! But not really, because the deer are effectively off. With increased human presence this year, the deer have sensed danger and left the area. It takes 20 days of futile hunting before I really understand what has happened: All the mature bucks flipped the ON/OFF switch to OFF, and have become unhuntable!
That’s pretty much the story in Northern Utah last year. After several years of mild winters, deer numbers steadily rose to the point that the DWR issued more tags. It’s a traditionally difficult unit to begin with, but with the slightest increase in human traffic the deer simply left the area and/or became completely nocturnal. I’ve never seen anything like it!
So I hunted from the top to the bottom, bottom to the top, and north to south. In some real nasty country I found tracks and beds, affirming there were still in fact deer around. But as the sun came up each day, they were nowhere to be seen. It felt like the Twilight Zone. In 2015 I counted 8 different 4×4-or-bigger bucks, including one 200” typical. In 2016 I counted ZERO!
I spent one frustrating day hiking farther and farther into a really remote canyon—almost too remote for even elk. Just as I was questioning my sanity for bothering, two mediocre 3-points blasted out below me. Being completely stealthy on approach, I couldn’t figure out how they’d sensed me…unless they were completely neurotic…and that’s when it hit me: Bucks have the ability to decide whether to be huntable or unhuntable. It’s as simple as flipping a switch. Here’s how:
Mature mule deer bucks are bigger, stronger, and faster than us. They also see just fine at night, maybe even better than they do during the day (according to biologists)! Deer are always nocturnal, so being totally nocturnal simply means they don’t get up and feed during the day. They also don’t drink water each day which helps them reduce daytime movement. And no matter what any “seasoned” hunter tells you, deer are smart (well…comparatively). They are highly adaptable and need to be in order to survive extreme climates, terrain, and predators that they encounter every day. When spooked by a hunter, a buck easily blasts through tangled brush, taking special care to keep trees between him and you, all while following a carefully planned escape route. The hunter hasn’t the slightest ability to chase after, or even to relocate the wizened old buck which is capable of covering vertical miles with ease and disappearing for days.
For a deer, flipping the switch to OFF is probably not a conscious decision, but an instinct, and such a simple whim that it just happens without the necessity of thought. The buck spends a few days feeding and sleeping in some impenetrable patch of choke cherries on some ungodly-steep slope while waiting out the hunting season. I know because I found one of these very spots (I spent every day peeking behind every tree, after all). Sure there was deer sign in there, but it was so thick that I was literally climbing through with both hands. Visibility was only inches and the unavoidable cacophony of my approach would spook any deer long before I ever saw it. All I could think was, “This is exactly where I would be if I were a deer.”
So, what’s the solution? How do you beat the unhuntable buck? You can’t. It’s game over. In my case I left the mountain and hunted out of state. Everyone knows that increased pressured makes hunting harder, but there’s a tipping point where the buck decides to go farther and deeper than humanly possible. After years in the woods, he’s learned where these places are and when to use them.
One question remains: If a deer can become unhuntable, why doesn’t he just remain in that state all the time? Well, he’s an animal; naturally lazy, hungry, lonely, and curious. He doesn’t enjoy holing up on a hill if he doesn’t have to. He also knows that hunts are short and hunters eventually leave the mountain.
In the end, it comes down to hunting pressure. If an area has little hunting pressure, the buck might not even know the season is on and just goes about his summer routine. Becoming unhuntable is simply a tool he uses in order to survive during dangerous times, the same way he occasionally uses his antlers for fighting, and then forgets about them.
If you think about it, being invisible to man isn’t that uncommon in the animal kingdom. Deer share the mountain with much more elusive animals like cougars, bears, bobcats, badgers, foxes, etc. Many of these animals are nocturnal, but more notably they’re born with the natural inclination to hide from people. Comparatively, hooved animals like elk and deer are certainly shy of people, but not overly wary. For whatever reason they must learn to associate people with danger. It’s likely because we’re the only predators capable of killing them at long ranges…which is new and unnatural.
On the topic of long-range weapons, I’ve also observed the deer in my unit are holding tighter to the dark timber than they did in the past, even very early and very late in the day. It’s my belief that the popularization of long-range rifle hunting just within in the last decade is causing bucks to hold tighter to the deep timber where long-range rifles are rendered pretty much useless. Think about it: A group of bachelor bucks are standing in the open, and one suddenly falls over dead long before the report of the rifle is heard. The far-off shot is difficult to pin-point, and therefore difficult to avoid. The remaining buck’s only option is to dive into the timber and not come out. How many times will this happen before the old bucks stop coming out all together, and then teach their apprentices to do the same?
What is the future of deer hunting? Are deer getting smarter? Are they adapting to human predators as fast as we’re developing more efficient ways to kill them? If deer are bigger/faster/stronger than us, will there come a time that they are no longer huntable? All of these valid questions, and definitely up for debate. During a recent hunting seminar, someone asked the speaker if he thought deer were getting smarter. He replied, “No, I think deer are the same as they’ve been for thousands of years.” I quietly but wholeheartedly disagreed, and then wondered how much time this guy really spends observing deer in the nature.
All I know for sure is that I’ve watched deer become unhuntable, and since unhuntable deer quickly spoils my season, I’ve opted to hunt elsewhere, which is really the only option. Sure, I know the caliber of bucks in my old unit, but I won’t waste my time there. No matter where you hunt, there will always be another area with less pressure and huntable bucks. Remember, bucks hate people pressure more than anything, so you must avoid people with as much fervor as you hunt for deer.
The following is my 2016 Idaho deer story as published in Eastmans Bowhunting Journal, Issue 101, May/June 2017:
During the 2015 Utah bowhunt I came across a tremendous 200”+ typical mule deer buck which I called Monsterbuck. At our first meeting, he caught me by surprise. Shaking like a newbie-hunter with buck fever, I promptly sailed an arrow over his back at 50 yards. Later in the season I filmed him at 200 yards on an open hillside. He was in an unstalkable location and surrounded by three other deer, so I let him walk, hoping to get a better opportunity the next day. But he had other plans. Like many big bucks, he immediately changed routine and kept me one step behind him until the season ended.
I promised myself not to obsess over this buck; it’s just too much pressure to bring into the woods. Apparently obsession is not a decision because that amazing buck crept into my mind every day for an entire year! I carried a picture of Monsterbuck around in my planner and reviewed the 2015 video footage often. Needless to say, I went into this year’s bowhunt with high hopes.
About a month before the season opener, I scouted for the Monsterbuck but couldn’t turn him up. No sweat, I thought, he’s a smart buck and will take a little more time to locate. Opening day was hot and dry, but I was brimming with hope and buzzing with energy. I picked up exactly where I left off last year. Right away I spotted a few forked-horns, but no Monsterbuck. I spent the rest of the day ghosting through thick timber and side-hilling steep slopes without rest. I never covered so much vertical ground in one day. I scoured the ground everywhere I went, but couldn’t find a single heavy-footed track. The evening hunt had me staring dejectedly at the same hillsides where the Monsterbuck had lived, but now completely devoid of deer.
And so went the next day, and the next. Eventually I moved camp low and worked upwards. Then north to south, and south to north, but still no Monsterbuck. For two weeks I clambered all over the beautiful and deerless mountains of Northern Utah. Morning, noon, and night I pondered where the Monsterbuck could be hiding, but turned up nothing.
Strangely enough, not only was the Monsterbuck missing, but so were seven other 4×4-or-bigger bucks I’d seen last year. At this point I was ready to take any mature buck, but all I could find were little ones. The best opportunity I had was a little 3-point buck that bounced into an opening at 20 yards and stared at me. I shooed him away and continued my fruitless search for something better.
By the third week I concluded that Monsterbuck had either, a) been killed by a hunter, lion, or poacher or b) had moved to another part of the unit, likely due to increased human pressure in the area. All I knew for sure was that the DWR had issued a bunch more tags for my unit, as evidenced by a notable increase in human traffic in the area. And if there’s one thing big bucks hate more than anything, it’s people pressure.
With less than two weeks left in the season, I was beyond dejected; I was mortified! I love bowhunting than anything, and to see it turn south so quickly was unfathomable. Each night I dreamed I was on the trail of the Monsterbuck, but he always stayed just out of sight. By day, I sat in the woods wondering if I was stuck in a nightmare; that any second I might wake to a more believable reality. Or maybe I was just a lousy hunter. Perhaps I’d just been lucky all these years and had been deluding myself until now. As more days passed, my hunting journal became a dark place in which to vent my frustrations. Something had to change…
Midday, halfway through the third week, while trudging across the empty landscape, it hit me: I had a valid Idaho hunting license left over from my spring bear hunt. I stormed back to camp, threw everything in the truck, and headed to Idaho. Having never actually hunted deer in Idaho, I went home first and collected some maps and some notes I’d gotten from an Idaho Fish & Game officer at the hunting expo.
My first morning in Central Idaho was memorable, not because I saw deer, but because I woke up to a terrible head cold. For the next three days I stumbled around strange mountainsides, sore and coughing while my nose drained continuously onto the dry forest floor. The first unit I visited was a bust—too open and too few deer. The next unit was heavily forested, but full of other hunters and very little game. The third unit was a little more promising, but just as I began to scare up some deer, my truck broke down and I barely made it off the mountain.
The Utah deer hunt soon came to an end, and with only four days left in the Idaho season I headed out for one last attempt. In reviewing my first Idaho adventure, I concluded that the biggest threat to success was people! Going in, I had the common misconception that Idaho was a vast wilderness full of game and opportunity. Not the case. It’s just like Utah: People everywhere, hunting, hiking, camping, and driving ATVs up and down every dirt road. As long as there’s an open road you won’t find a buck anywhere near it. This is why my Utah hunt failed. In order to avoid getting “peopled” again, I broke out my map of the unit and found the one point farthest away from any city, road, or trail. My hunt wouldn’t begin until I covered two miles of steep mountains early the next morning.
It was a rough night. Instead of drifting into peaceful slumber, I lay awake staring at the tent ceiling and thinking about the colossal disappointment the season had become. My unhealthy obsession with the absentee Monsterbuck had transformed a normally magical hunt into a desperate flail across a dreary landscape. I fell asleep counting the innumerable disappointments of the last several weeks.
On September 27th I woke long before the sun and headed up the steep and wooded ridge that separated me from solitude. I trudged like a man possessed, as if fleeing an oppressive regime and longing for new lands. As I approached the ridge top, deer began popping up on the horizon, first some does, then a small band of bucks. I continued on.
The sun finally broke the horizon, splashing light across a blanket of fresh snow splotched with golden aspen leaves. Pines glistened with melting frost as steam rose lazily from dark logs. Birds flitted about. An elk fired up in the canyon below. Deer tracks crisscrossed the forest floor, increasing in number as I went. The woods pulled me forward, upward, effortlessly. I felt like I was coming home after a long hiatus.
Nearer to the top, a group of large buck tracks appeared in the snow. They were fresh and meandering, so I sat on a log and listened. I was ready to take a buck—any old buck. I just wanted to hunt for myself, and for food, with no pressure to succeed, no worries about inches and scores.
A short time later there was a clacking of antlers and scuffle in the forest. I crept closer. Two bucks pushed and shoved each other with occasional flashes of fur and legs visible in the trees. I pulled an arrow and moved closer. Morning thermals began to swirl. Just as I was closing in, a breeze hit me in the back. I froze. Moments later the bucks bounded away, up and over the mountain. Oh well, I was going that direction anyway. It was still a wonderful opportunity.
The sun had been up for some time when I finally crested the ridge and dropped into the thick pines on the shadow side of the mountain. I had officially arrived at the farthest point from the human pile and was brimming with hope. There was really only one good corridor through the tangled briar and pines, and judging by the abundance of game tracks in the area, the deer used this route too.
After traveling a ways, my stomach grumbled. I sat down on a huge deadfall log and snacked on trail mix while pondering these new woods. Eventually I fished out my hunting journal and scribbled a short note about hope and opportunity, the only positive words the book had seen in some time. My contentment was short-lived, however, when a swishing sound erupted in the trees ahead. I whipped around to see antler tips poking slowly through the tangle. In one motion, I snatched up my bow and slid off the backside of the log onto my knees. Smoothly and mechanically I knocked an arrow and clamped my release to the string. I crouched low and stared fixedly ahead like a lion.
Ten yards and closing, the buck’s big, blocky, horse-like head appeared with tall, heavy antlers extending upwards into the canopy. Lazily, he angled down towards the game trail I had just been on. When his head disappeared behind a clump of trees, I drew my bow. He stopped. My heart pounded wildly, my eyes protruded from my skull, glaring through the bowstring. Time slowed down.
The buck remained motionless, hidden behind the trees just a few steps away. Did he hear me draw, I wondered? A minute passes. My muscles start to fatigue and my arms begin to shake. Another minute passes. He knows something isn’t right. I beg my arms to hold, but the bow finally collapses, yanking my trembling arm forward.
Looking to completely ruin my day, the buck immediately starts walking again. With all my might, I crank the bow back again. His head appears just five yards away, then his shoulder. My eyes, strained and blurry, fight to settle the pin as it dances all over the place. My release triggers and the arrow flies; it flies clean over the buck’s back and my heart sinks into my stomach.
The buck bounds into the next opening just seven yards away and looks back. Crouching lower I pull another arrow and load it as quickly and smoothly as I can. He’s still there, muscles taut, ready to blast out of my life forever. I can’t watch. My eyes squeeze shut as I draw the bow once more. When the string touches my nose, my eyes flash open. He’s still there and my second arrow is on the way.
Success has taken on a new meaning for me now. Many nights of delicious venison backstraps have passed while trying to figure out how to tell the story of my tall-antlered Idaho buck. Is it a story of a failed Monsterbuck hunt, or is the miraculous success of an incredibly short hunt in new lands? Perhaps neither. I think it’s really a story of self-examination, of finding my true passion again.
As a hunter I’ve come full circle. Long ago I just wanted a deer—any deer—with my bow. It seemed like such an impossible task back then, and sometimes still does. These days are spent tirelessly chasing 200-inch monsters around the hills. But this “trophy hunting” has lost some of its magic. In trying to prove myself, I’ve gradually reduced my greatest passion down to inches and strategy. My once insatiable love for the woods feels more like work now. Perhaps it’s time to hunt for the love of hunting again… We’ll see. All I know for sure is that I keep relearning the same lessons I’ve been learning all along: That success is so much more than just killing a deer. Success really lies in the journey. Success comes from pushing yourself to your physical and spiritual limits, and then letting nature take over from there.
This story, then, is a simple one to tell: One man, one mountain, one morning, and a second chance.
I didn’t shoot the photo above, I borrowed it from the Utah DWR. HOWEVER, it’s the perfect image to capture what goes on in my mind 25 hours a day, 8 days a week, 366 days a year.
The Utah archery hunt (bowhunt) opens this Saturday! After that, I have 4 weeks to accomplish the one thing I dream about continually. In this informal article I’d like to talk goals and priorities and how they relate to life and hunting.
Each bowhunt I go through the same process: A grand, ritualistic prehunt meditation consumes my whole being. My mind has been reformatted. Time has expanded to include the present, past and future simultaneously. I am already in the woods. For the last couple weeks, in every facet of my life, I have become useless. My soul is set upon a nearly impossible goal that consumes every minute of my day. My phone rings, people talk, I talk, I walk around, but it is all background noise. I cannot focus on anything but the glorious task before me. This is my birthright.
As the hunt nears, I also become overly hopeful. Last year my goal was to shoot my third 200+ inch deer in five years. I hunted harder and for more days than ever before, and I never did see a 200″ deer. The best I saw was a 180″. Half-way through the season I started to realize that ANY big four-point was the best a bowhunter could hope for these days, particularly because there just aren’t many big bucks left. Thanks to greater and greater human expansion into Utah’s winter range, not to mention a whole new onslaught of statewide poaching and highway casualties, fewer and fewer bucks live to maturity. So the odds of success are always declining. Does this mean I set the bar lower? The answer is maybe. When that deer steps out, I’ll decide. This has been on my mind since last season ended.
Professionally, as a photographer, archery instructor, taxidermist, and writer, this was the busiest year of my life. I worked every single day in July, mostly out in the hot sun, some days 10 hours without a break. As busy-ness began to wind down, I was discussing work with an associate of mine. He reminded me that, hey, at least the money is good, right? I said: “You know, the only reason I work so hard is so I can take off and go bowhunting. Bowhunting is all I care about. Every single thing I do, the reason I even get up in the morning, is so I can go bowhunting. Everything else is secondary. When my wife asked me to marry her, I tried to warn her. And she married me anyway. (ha-ha). I know what my priority in life is.”
There’s a saying: People like what they are good at (and people despise what they are bad at.) A couple years ago I had an epiphany: I’m good at lots of things (archery, photography, music, taxidermy, etc.). BUT, I am great at only one thing: Bowhunting. I didn’t choose it; it chose me.
Many years ago I stunk at hunting, so I would only commit three or four days to it. Nowadays I commit several weeks, mostly because I realize that quality bucks take a lot of time, skill, and yes, even luck. And the best way to be successful and lucky is to be in the field, not at home, not at work, not golfing, etc. I know my top priority and I’m sticking with it.
I also know a whole lot of very unsuccessful hunters, many whom are close family and friends. Most of them say that I’m lucky and they’re not. Maybe they’re right, but I’ll tell you right now: while I’m alone in the woods from Tuesday through Friday, or trudging five miles up some frozen canyon in three feet of snow, those people are sitting at work or in front of the television, waiting for me to get lucky. And then I stumble into some unsuspecting giant…
Long story short, trophy hunting isn’t for everyone. Most people would be happy with any deer, or at least some sort of annual consistency, some two-point for the pot, or whatever. But they can’t even accomplish that because they put other priorities ahead of hunting. They have loftier goals that have nothing to do with deer and sleeping in the woods. And that’s fine. Family first, faith first, work first, T.V., golf, meetings, music, photos, friends, fun, guns… I understand! I think that’s great. I believe everyone get’s ONE THING. One big thing that they’re GREAT at. That’s what life is about: finding that one thing! That is your big purpose for living! But don’t expect a deer too, because in the deer woods it’s all or nothing. You either commit to the task 100%, loooooong before the season opener, or fail. Hit or miss. The season blows in and out, haphazardly.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then maybe this blog can’t help you. Because this blog is about one thing: Successful trophy bowhunting. I truly believe that success in hunting is a decision. That anyone can set a lofty hunting goal and accomplish it year after year. You just have to put in the time, but most importantly, be open to new information. When I was just starting out as a photographer, I made a conscious effort to learn only from the greatest photographers and study only their methods. Yes, there were tons of ‘good’ photographers offering advice, but great photography can only be learned from the greats!
I don’t know that I am a great hunter. But I do believe in the method I stumbled upon, that I followed, and that has led to unimaginable success. I also believe that the greatest teacher is the woods itself. I know there is a natural law and how to follow it. I know how a mountain lion hunts and how it must survive by successfully taking a deer every nine days of the year. I watch predators hunt and learn from them. They are the ‘greats’ of the hunting world! And finally, I believe that the roadmap to success is fully integrated into the text of this blog. I’ve left nothing out. I don’t know how much more I can offer, but I will keep trying.
In this final section, I’d like to examine one last quote by Emerson:
Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy.
What Emerson seems to suggest is that the answers to our seemingly infinite questions about life and purpose are accessible through the simple examination of nature. Unlike the previous quotes we’ve examined, this one is an affirmation of what I’ve already learned from nature.
Especially in recent years, I’ve observed a definite clarity achieved only through aloneness and meditation in the woods. Early in the hunt the incessant chattering and inner workings of the mind comes to a crescendo while sitting out the long hours of day. Whether out of boredom or lack of entertainment, the mind delves deeper and deeper into the psyche as it searches for meaning and purpose to all things. After a couple days it begins to quiet down. As the fragmented puzzle congeals and the bigger picture begins taking form. It seems infinitely big, blurring at the edges as you pull back further and further to see it. It surprises you because you so rarely see so much at once. Eventually there are no more questions. All of life makes sense.
All this transpires while staring blankly at stick or a rock or a leaf or stream. But the answer isn’t written under a rock or in the bark of a tree, but rather inside you already. You have the capacity to comprehend the universe because you are part of it. You are a microcosm of the universe, for to comprehend yourself is to comprehend everything. Nature is only the catalyst. The meditation necessary to achieve clarity and enlightenment is facilitated by nature.
Now that we’ve tackled the nature of man, good versus evil, and the entire Universe, I’d like to explore another quote by Emerson:
The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. Nature never wears a mean appearance.
When I read that nature never wears a mean appearance, I wondered what it meant exactly. Certainly I’ve seen some ugliness in nature. I’ve seen one animal killing another, and I’ve seen many-a-decaying carcasses. Surely these are ugly things, right? But, if my perceptions of these ‘ugly’ experiences are set upon the rule of nature—the rule that states that nature is neutral and therefore neither good nor bad—then perhaps I simply failed to see the beauty in death–death being a integral part of life–and instead projected my own negative emotions or misunderstanding of death upon nature. Then I remembered a photograph I made in 2010. It is the rotting carcass of a dead pelican washed up on the shore of the Salt Lake and encrusted with salt.
When I encountered and photographed this bird, I remember feeling rather neutral about it; it wasn’t sad nor ugly, but not beautiful either. Later on I found myself admiring the beauty and composition of the naturally arranged bones and feathers. Indeed, it was quite beautiful; as beautiful in death as in life perhaps. In a neutral and open mindset, there really isn’t any meanness or ugliness in nature.
Another example is my annual ritual of butchering a deer carcass on my kitchen countertop. Some people may cringe at the thought of cutting up an entire animal in ones house, as I probably cringed long ago. But amidst the blood and guts and bones and sinew, there’s a certain admirable order of things inside that deer. Even Mother Nature, as cunning as she is, surely could not create the miraculous complexity of this animal’s internal structure on her own. From snout to tail, the intricacy of this deer’s inner workings is brilliant beyond comprehension. It continually attests to a higher intelligence.
Each hour that I dissect the sacred meat and package it for future use, I feel closer to my maker. I come away from the butcher block glowing with insight and appreciation for the food I harvest. My role as a hunter and predator becomes clearer; it is a necessary and beautiful symbiosis with the planet. It inspires me to be a better conservationist of nature and preserver of our hunting heritage. Without fail, I am inspired to be a better person. In the thoughtful killing and butchering and ingesting this deer, there is never any meanness.
The following three blog posts are part of series on finding God in nature:
And so it starts again. Each year around this time, just before springtime, I find myself chomping at the bit, ready to reconnect with nature and the woods. Throughout the spring and summer I will rebuild my mental and physical strength, and come autumn I will be once again focused and ready for the great hunt. But the cycle always begins around this time. Some call it “spring fever,” but for me it’s just a long-awaited reunion. Outside or inside, I’m at home. But too much time inside leaves me quite homesick for what I consider my real home.
The recent cold snap has kept me indoors lately, but like a good student of nature I’m preparing myself by reading some of the great literary masters like Alan Watts and Emerson. I’ve always admired and revered the writings of Thoreau as well. But it is Thoreau’s predecessor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, with whom I feel a kindred spirit. Here’s Emerson’s back story:
Emerson was born in 1803. He was a brilliant man who studied at Harvard College at the age of fourteen. He was also a pious man who attended Harvard Divinity School in 1825 and became a religious pastor in 1830, a year after marrying the seventeen-year-old Ellen Louisa Tucker. In 1831 his young wife died, leaving Emerson and his faith in shambles. Unable to reconcile his conventional faith, he headed off to Europe where he met up with some other naturalists and started the movement known as transcendentalism. Following his newfound enlightenment, he spent the rest of his life writing about individualism and the art of living in harmony with nature. His most famous work is simply entitled Nature.
The basis of transcendentalism is the melding together of nature and God and common sense. It is not a strict “religion” per se, but similar to Eastern Zen in that it is a way to balance yourself. Think of it as a religious parachute. If for whatever reason your religion leaves you feeling a little unfulfilled, don’t despair, you can always find God lurking in nature; nature being the entire universe from the dirt to the trees to the ocean to the clouds to sun to the stars.
Humans are strangely compelled to search for God and meaning all throughout life. Some humans are compelled to enter into a direct relationship with a human-like being who is God, while others only need to find a little objective truth oozing out of their existence. Either way, the path toward God and goodness is a path towards nature, and away from evil and materialism.
In today’s Sunday-school lesson…uh…I mean thoughts on nature, I’d like to end with a quote by Emerson that has stuck with me for some time:
…let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and vulgar things.
This quote sticks with me because of my own personal observance that my annual assimilation into nature rejuvenates my spirit, answers my deepest questions, and makes me a better person. I always come out of the woods with more patience, love, and understanding than when I went in.
As a general rule, evil doesn’t exist in nature. Nature is always neutral. It has no soul or mind; it’s simply an environment and set of physical laws. Evil is a man-made concoction created when we act upon selfish impulses. Now, humans aren’t inherently evil. After all, we are nature ourselves and therefore can’t be inherently evil. But unlike nature, we have a consciousness, and a consciousness allows us to make good or bad decisions. Therefore, we are not neutral. To do good or evil is always a decision that we are responsible for.
Now, the premise of this article isn’t to suggest that people in nature won’t make bad decisions, but only that that a person in harmony with nature will make better decisions. He makes better decisions because nature inspires goodness.
The danger that modern society faces is that he is drifting further away from nature with each generation. And the further mankind gets away from nature–through selfishness, busy-ness, technology, or other distractions–the further he gets from goodness.
While hunting last December, I found this tree eating a No Trespassing sign.
This photo suggests a more accurate perspective of time. On a short scale, life is long and we are in control. On a longer scale, we exist in an insignificant, tiny sliver of time. In a hundred years you and everyone you know will be gone.
Mostly, this photo reminds me of who is really in charge. If mankind were to disappear, there would be no trace of his existence within a thousand years, or maybe less! Nature will take it all back in a relatively short period of time.
I’m not depressed about all this. On the contrary, it gives me a more positive outlook: It’s this fragility and shortness of life that gives life such great value! When we forget this seemingly obscure truth, then we focus our life’s energies on things that aren’t important…like television and political correctness.
Fortunately, we are nature ourselves! It is my opinion–and hope–that as long Nature exists, so will we, in one form or another. The gift of consciousness is infinite.