2020 was been a terrible year for most people, and hunters are no exception! After all the difficulties I personally endured afield, I finally mustered the mental fortitude to write a new post, and just in time for Thanksgiving.
Note: This will be my first hunting-related post since moving to Southern Utah last year. This move was prompted by several factors, primarily getting away from the hordes of the big city, taking control over my time, and being closer to Nature (see my previous post: Panguitch Manifesto).
After settling in to my new home, I looked forward to having more time afield–and thus more success–during the 2020 archery season. This was not the case. Instead, the Covid crowds bombarded the forests with hunters and non-hunters alike, thus driving the deer deeper and further away from my usual haunts. Long story short, I spent a record 42 days afield with nothing to show but a handful of missed opportunities.
For the first time in five years I was left with no story to write. Returning from failed trip after trip took it’s toll on my spirit as I sunk into a hunting funk like never before. Fearing a continual descent into despair, I took heed of one of my life-long mantras: Always turn reaction into action.
I started by reading all the following books:
The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale Blood in the Tracks, by Jim Collyer Creativity, by Osho
These books proved invaluable for creating a new mindset based on hope and positivity. Sure I stunk it up this year, but that doesn’t change who I am, nor does it discredit all the invaluable hunting skills I’ve accumulated over decades of hard hunting. Gradually I began to look forward rather than dwelling on the past.
But was the past really that bad? No way. Despite 2020, I can still walk downstairs and bask in the glow of past success; successes almost unimaginable, and for which I am eternally grateful!
Next, and in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I sat down and wrote a list of gratitude. This included items such as my health, home, freedom, and my supportive hunting-wife partner; what else does one need? Well, does of course! After all, I did harvest a beautiful Idaho doe to fill the freezer this year.
Success or failure isn’t as important as how we react to it. Simply put, failure forces change.
Already I’ve begun making plans for next year. There are still plenty of great deer in my unit, I just need to change how and where I hunt for them. This includes more effective scouting and strategies to avoid people…which is something I specialize in.
Guy Eastman once wrote that “a failed hunt just makes the successful ones that much more special.” This might be hard to stomach, but it’s true.
Over-achievement can actually inhibit our growth by making us complacent. Inflated egos cultivate an air of entitlement which goes against everything natural. Nature requires us to continually evolve. If we aren’t moving forward, then we’re moving backwards. Challenges are therefore something to embrace because it perpetuates growth.
This year I’m most grateful for continual opportunities to pursue the greatest passion of my life–bowhunting–even in this difficult time. I’m also grateful for my past successes, and even my failures from which I continually learn. I’m especially very grateful for an old doe harvested with my bow.
A few years ago I was fish-guiding a bright, twenty-something-year-old man named Cliff. He was eager to fish, but just as eager to converse about the wonders of nature. Throughout our impassioned conversation I laid out some personal Zen-like experiences I’d had in nature and how these experiences ultimately led to great success.
Cliff was fascinated with the concept of Zen hunting and asked me what the “pillars” of Zen hunting were exactly. I was a little dumbfounded by his question because, up until then, I’d never thought of Zen hunting in terms of ‘pillars.’ Long story short, I went home wrote down what I considered the pillars of Zen hunting to be.
Before we get all philosophical about hunting, let’s first examine the normal, non-Zen, hunting pillars, and then contrast them with Zen hunting pillars.
Note: The following isn’t an official list of hunting pillars, but rather a compilation of both personal experience and knowledge gleaned from experts in the hunting field.
Traditional Hunting Pillars of Success
The right equipment
Good physical conditioning
Zen Hunting Pillars of Success
(There you go Cliff! The pillars are finally written in stone.)
Hunting Pillars Compared
When we compare the pillars of Zen hunting with the pillars of conventional hunting, you can see they are very different; actually I don’t see any similarities at all. That’s because each list is a completely different approach to hunting. The items in the first list are mostly tangible and readily available, while the Zen items are more of a mindset approach to hunting. As we analyze the Zen pillars, you’ll see that each is really a step—one leading to the next—and completed in consecutive order. In other words it’s a path.
Obviously you can’t practice Zen hunting without including some normal hunting pillars, like stalking and shooting. On the other hand, you can practice regular hunting without using any Zen pillars at all—heck, most hunters already do. Either they don’t know what Zen hunting is, or they’re already applying some Zen to their hunting style and just don’t know it.
The concept of Zen hunting (or Zen-anything) is mostly foreign to Westerners because we tend to be results-oriented and gear-minded. We look at nature as a commodity—something to be tamed or dominated. Moreover, today’s society has a decreasing attention span, the byproduct of this hyper-information age and its constant distractions. We get bored easily and lose our focus. All of this leads to an impatient or aggressive approach to hunting, and more often than not, to failure.
The way we combat this is through Zen hunting. Zen hunting is all about using down time afield to focus the mind and reconnect with our natural hunting instincts. This is best done alone since another person often serves as a distraction.
The Zen Process
The first step is to free the mind of distractions and expectations through the natural mediation that comes from just sitting or walking in the woods. This takes time, so be patient. Letting go of expectations is the hardest part because human nature expects instant results. As hunters we expect to kill something. We have a goal in mind and are dead set on reaching it. In Zen hunting, our eyes are open to the bigger picture.
The simple pleasure of communing with nature is satisfaction enough. Our newfound appreciation for the woods softens our kill drive, and when this happens we connect with the energy of nature and the life force of the planet (hopefully you believe in such things). This is what it means to be “one” with nature, or to achieve “oneness.”
Nature lives and breathes at a slow, rhythmic pace. You can see that rhythm in the way things move: clouds, trees, and animals, and hear it in the wind and bird songs. Zen hunting helps tune us in to that rhythm. No longer do we push our ego-driven “kill energy” ahead of us, but instead, we move with nature. In effect Zen hunting acts as a natural camouflage.
Zen hunting also gives us a heightened sense of awareness. We become more attentive to the infinite supply of subtle clues which will eventually guides us towards our quarry. Simply put, we become better hunters by using Zen afield.
That’s the whole process; easier said than done, but attainable all the same.
The goal of Zen hunting is to become a part of nature rather than apart from it. Since humans are nature in the first place, it only makes sense to reconnect with Nature to meet our needs. That is the goal of Zen hunting, and also the mission of this website: To reconnect modern-day hunters with the timeless rhythms of nature and to guide them towards a more successful and fulfilling hunting experience through Zen hunting principles.
Over the past several years I’ve had the privilege of teaching hundreds of people basic archery. Due to the nature of the organization I work for, the majority of my students are left-wing oriented people in their early twenties. Most have never hunted before, and some are even ardent anti-hunters! As you can guess I’ve had quite a few passionate conversations over the years.
As it turns out, the majority of the anti-hunters are regular meat-eaters. This obviously adds a lot of weight to my arguments, the most effective being, “If you eat meat then you’re directly responsible for the killing of hundreds of animals; you just hire someone else doing the dirty work for you. Hunters, on the other hand, are directly responsible for their meat.” This point usually brings the offended into the realm of reality.
The Anti-Hunting Archer
Learning archery doesn’t necessarily mean a student wants to kill anything. To them it’s just a fun activity. But I often wonder what drove a flaming anti-hunter to walk over and pick up a bow-and-arrow in the first place. There seems to be an instinctual allure to archery for almost everybody.
Historical data reveals that every civilization around the world has—at one time or another—used the bow-and-arrow for survival. I believe the reason so many modern-day non-hunters are attracted to archery is a hidden connection ingrained in their DNA. (Well, that and popular television shows.)
About 1-in-10 of my students are naturals; they shoot masterfully within minutes of picking up the weapon for the first time. The bow seems to awaken something deep inside, and they beam with excitement. For this reason, teaching archery to this new generation has been the most rewarding job I ever had. It’s my calling.
Many first-time students view bows-and-arrows as recreational toys. If I don’t insist on teaching safety first, some will just grab a random bow and start flinging arrows errantly and dangerously. I’ve even seen stragglers pick up a bow and proceed to pull the bow backwards (toward themselves)!
Before going over safety rules, one of the very first questions I ask is, “Can anyone tell me what the bow-and-arrow was originally designed for?” There’s always a short pause, and then someone sheepishly responds, “Killing???”
There’s always a few despondent faces, but they won’t be deterred.
The Truth about Hunting
City folk often have a skewed vision of hunting. They think that hunting is as easy as pulling off the side of the road and shooting some helpless creature to death. This misconception is reinforced by hunting shows that portray every hunt as a short jaunt through the woods, followed by chip shot from a blind on private property. I’ve even had people say, “How hard could it be? Heck, I saw a bunch of deer on the side of the road this morning!”
“Well, it’s spring…” (Sometimes it’s an uphill battle).
Actually, I won’t push hunting on anyone; I won’t even bring it up unless someone asks…
…but someone always asks.
Without getting too crazy, I explain how bowhunting is my greatest passion, and it provides the majority of the meat for my family. I tell them that hunting is a completely different skill than shooting. Hunting–especially bow hunting–is very difficult and takes a lifetime to master.
I go on to explain that, in the end, I really don’t want to kill anything; that there’s little glory in shooting a creature to death in cold blood. But I don’t want to starve to death either! Moreover, I really don’t want to wander down the meat aisle at the supermarket and sift through carefully packaged, hormone-infused, mass-produced, inorganic, salmonella-oozing farm garbage. My body is my temple, and the only meat I allow in is purely organic, free-range lean meat that once walked the earth freely as God intended.
For the most part my arguments are met with great respect, probably because I’m so passionate about it. I get comments ranging from, “Wow, I never looked at it that way…” or “I could never shoot an animal, but I really respect the way you do it.” Even the most ardent anti-hunting vegan will politely “agree to disagree,” and then go back to flinging arrows.
I believe these conversations with non-hunters have been mutually beneficial. On one side, I’m constantly reminded to take a closer look at the ethics and morals of my sport. On the other, I’m grateful for the opportunity to shed some good light on the delicate subject of killing.
Hopefully this article has been beneficial to both hunters and non-hunters alike. The best way we hunters can preserve our precious sport for future generations is by hunting ethically and arguing our side in a thoughtful and respectful way.
2017–the future of hunting. Having hunted deer in Utah from top to bottom for almost 30 years, I still haven’t taken more than one trophy buck out of any one unit. Instead I’ve watched area after area dry up, forcing me to move on. As a kid, 4×4 bucks lined the trees along dirt roads at night. Now it’s just trees. Fortunately my passion for chasing mule deer has kept me agile. The best advice I offer to a newbie-hunter is to keep moving. Don’t get hung up on any one area, because eventually you’ll lose it. Deer and deer habitats are cyclical and dynamic. Big bucks are constantly adapting to us predators, so we must adapt to them.
In my endless quest for the next honey-hole, I think I’ve found one, hundreds of miles from home. In this new and unsuspecting forest I’ve come across numerous huntable bucks—not tons—but enough to put a stalk on a mature buck almost every day. The fawn crop is abundant and the herd is healthy. Best of all, there is very light hunter pressure which makes all the difference between huntable and unhuntable deer. These bucks can be patterned, even bumped around a little. Still, you won’t find a big buck near any road, so an ATV can’t help you, which is great because I don’t own one.
The Wall Buck
A few days into the hunt I spotted a giant sway-belly buck across a canyon, his sprawling antlers extending well outside his ears, then skyward. I literally ran down the mountain and up the other side, but before I could close the distance a doe snorted him out of the area. The next evening I caught up with him feeding at 60 yards. He was a real giant, an old warrior, a great wall of fur twice the size of his three- and four-point sentinels. But when he broke the tree line I paused, counting only three antler tines on one side. Not the perfect 4×4 I imagined, so I hesitated. As he turned and fed away, I panicked. The “Wall” (as I came to call him) was surely the biggest deer on the mountain; what was I thinking?! His scrawny sentinels followed faithfully behind. I began crawling towards them but was immediately picked off by a sentinel buck who quickly pushed the wall buck into the trees. That was the last I saw of him.
Before I even got back at camp I was kicking myself. Surely I’d lost my mind! Somehow I’d convinced myself that antlers were the great measure of a deer, the end-all-be-all of trophy bucks. Foolishly I’d built up a wall between me and any buck that wasn’t perfect. As I lay in my tent that night I wondered how I could be so stupid, then cursed and squirmed myself to sleep. I vowed never to make that mistake again. Deer hunting is about the experience and the challenge. Above all, it’s the sacred meat harvested in the sacred realm of Nature, where ultimately man is measured, not the deer.
After seven days afield I drove home, dropped off the wife, resupplied, and moved back to the mountain alone. I made haste to the Wall’s domain that evening, but he was still gone.
A stagnant heat wave settled across the land that week and conditions grew increasingly hot and cruel with each passing day. The dry ground was endlessly loud, threatening success everywhere I went. Even barren ground inexplicably crunched. A whole network of micro-sticks and pine needles lay hidden in the crust like miniature mine field. A twenty yard creep into a likely deer haunt turned into a ten minute, cacophonous spectacle—a full-grown, camo-clad man twisting his legs while swinging his bow around for balance like a drunken fool. I wasn’t fooling anyone.
As August gave way to September, the squirrels grew louder and more cantankerous. The high elevation wind swirled and does snorted at the most inopportune times. Worst of all, the wise bucks seemed to vaporize two hours after first light and didn’t reappear until two hours before dark, turning entire days into hot and tired dreariness. While they lay hidden in shadows—chewing their cud and staring into space—I clambered around the mountain, sweating and searching to no avail. My mind churned and theorized, planning strategies that never panned out.
Helplessness crept in early, reminding me that I could always quit and go home, maybe be productive, curate the lonely wife… Reflexively I fought back. The challenge is the reward!, I pleaded. You don’t just hunt deer; you hunt experiences. I decided to rest the area and spent the next several days exploring new places in hopes of finding another buck like the Wall. But I didn’t. Instead I found a strange transformation occurring within. With each passing day I cared less about deer and more about the process. I paid greater attention to the mountain and other wildlife. I sat longer, took more photos, and wrote often in my field journal. One morning I even left my bow back at camp–on purpose–just to experience the woods differently. I ran into a real toad-of-a-3×3 buck that morning, and was thankful he wasn’t bigger! Gradually, nagging desperation yielded to quiet contemplation.
A Different Approach
Labor Day is upon us: ATVs roar below, people yell, kids scream and dogs bark. But the masses want nothing to do with this mountain; I’m confused, but grateful. Two weeks into the hunt and I still haven’t encountered another human afield. These are truly my woods. My whole being is awash in a cornucopia of gifts: space, time, beauty, etc. A continual river of fresh air envelopes me and overwhelms the senses. It carries a constant tune of birds, squirrels, and quaking leaves all singing in harmony. A variety of bright red berries—juicy and delicious—grow in abundance across the landscape. They augment my water supply, often saving me from dehydration. In two weeks I’ve seen more gorgeous sunrises than the rest of the year combined. Time stands still. Nothing has changed since the beginning of time.
Clarity is probably the wood’s greatest gift. All these wild things coexist in a perfect balance, all working within the generous confines of carry capacity. No single plant creates more fruit than is necessary; no animal expends more energy than is needed. So oblivious is modern man to Nature’s ways, as lost as the white rocks scattered dumbly around me. Day after day ticks by without speaking to anyone. Like a stern parent, the mountain cuts off my cell signal and any communication with the modern world. Aloneness spurs strange mind chatter, spewing forth observational phrases like “Impenetrable bows of pine keeps me safe from the storm,” or “A living, breathing forest saves me from loneliness.”
The glint of an ancient arrowhead–serrated and fashioned from pale blue flint–protrudes from the dirt. It stirs the hunter spirit, reminding me that I’m hunting the same ground for the same animals as they did. Here in the future I carry on the tradition of the bow and arrow, preying for nature’s sacred meat, just as man always has. It’s likely, too, that I struggle in many of the same ways: cursing the crunchy ground, the squirrels, and the swirling winds. I feel tied to the land, relearning what it means to be self-sufficient.
I am convinced that harvesting a trophy buck with a bow is the hardest thing a person can do. Each year I set the same goal: Harvest a 200-inch muley with my bow. Rarely do I meet my goal, but I still believe there’s a 200-inch buck living in each of Utah’s deer units. Finding him is the great challenge, and arrowing him is even greater. When I was younger I thought that hunting success was 50% skill and 50% luck. But halfway through this season I realize it’s actually 33% skill, 33% time, 33% luck, and 1% destiny. In other words, given enough time afield a skillful hunter will eventually come face to face with a trophy, God willing.
Statistically, 80% of bowhunters in Utah fail each year. Most fail because they either don’t allow themselves enough time, or they don’t understand their prey. But even the veteran hunter with plenty of time on his hands runs into yet another wall: There are simply too many variables outside his control; things like doe snorts, wind changes, inadvertent movement, squirrel barks, grouse busting out of the brush, or any combination of all these. Mature deer simply won’t tolerate human intruders, so getting within bow range means everything must be perfect. And since everything is rarely perfect, you better have luck on your side. Even with the entire 28-day season scheduled off work, the best I can do is to put myself between the buck and feed or feed and bed, and then hope for the best. Persistence is the name of the game.
Three weeks into the hunt and big bucks are on the defensive, becoming more secretive, increasingly nocturnal, and less predictable. We underestimate the mighty muley buck. He’s smart and keenly adaptable. Physically speaking, he’s superior to us in every way: bigger, faster, stronger. His senses are greater too: hearing, smell and vision. He lives in the woods 365 days a year and is permanently tuned into his environment. But he’s still an animal driven by hunger, and left alone even the most admirable buck will return to best feed, sometimes even during daylight hours. Outwitting him means identifying these feeding zones and setting up ambush there. But he knows we do this and thusly alters his routine, feeding in different locations each day. Worse yet, as hunter pressure increases—even slightly so—his priority changes from food to survival. He moves by night and wiles away his days on steep slopes in hidden places we’ll never know about.
Eighteen days afield now; long, hot, and alone. Days run together. Home life is a distant memory–the mountain is my home. Summer changes to fall right in front of me; aspen leaves yellow as velvet drops from the buck’s antlers. So far I’ve had 13 close encounters with mature bucks, but none were good enough…except for the long-lost Wall buck. Failure becomes the norm, even strangely acceptable. I compare my own failure to other predators. How many stalks does a cougar get before he succeeds? Five, ten, maybe more? Why should I be any different? Each day I climb the mountain, do my best, and then trudge back to camp. My once paradise tent camp is beginning to feel like a prison, but there’s nowhere I’d rather be. Put in the time, be patient, and persevere.
A New Hope
I had a decision to make this evening: hunt uphill or down. Four does appeared and made the decision for me. When the wind swirled they snorted and bounced uphill, so I hunted down. A while later two small bucks—suddenly alerted to my swirling scent—jumped out of the trees and bounded away. A third and much larger deer stayed put, mostly obscured by patchy trees. Was it the Wall buck? A deafening quiet stretched over the land as I tiptoed closer. I slowly raised my binos, desperately trying to identify him. To my surprise, the two smaller bucks came sneaking back in to join him. Perhaps the big buck had grown weary of fleeing his favorite feed, and the small bucks, once separated from their master, felt purposeless. Nonetheless, the air swirled and the three bucks just stared in my direction. I stood like a statue, pinned down with only thirty minutes of light left.
Puffy clouds painted pink and yellow suddenly cast the world in a brilliant amber glow. I lifted my face and basked in the beauty of the moment. Enjoy it, I demanded, this is why you’re here. Just another night; just another failed stalk. The stare-down continued, minutes passed, and darkness loomed.
I was jolted from the tranquil scene by a scuffling sound growing louder behind me. A couple does coming to wreck my night, I figured. I slowly rotated my head to see four bucks filtering out of the deep woods and onto a flat twenty yards away. My heart jumped. The first two were small, but the rear ones were real bruisers with heavy racks. Heads bobbed and shifted side to side. In extreme slow motion I simultaneously lowered my binos, raised my bow, and rotated my body 180-degrees all while crouching to a kneeling position. These new bucks spied the other bucks across the way and paused, staring right through me. I pressed my trembling bow tightly against my leg.
Sensing danger, the bucks began shifting nervously to the left. The first three passed behind a clump of trees, and when the fourth lowered his head I loaded an arrow. He was a huge buck with tall, symmetric 5×5 antlers. I hadn’t seen him before; somehow he’d been living out a secret life right under my nose. When he passed behind the trees I drew my bow. It sounded like a train wreck—the scrape of the arrow, the rustle of my clothes. All four bucks froze and whipped their heads in my direction. A fortuitous tangle of trees at my rear broke up my outline, but the tip of my arrow danced crazily ahead of my taut bow. I squinted to hide my watering eyes. They’re too close. How can they not see me? I begged myself to calm down. A minute passed. The first buck started walking again, then the second and third followed. The biggest buck held tight momentarily before following after the others.
As he came into view I belched out a me’ya sound. He ignored it. As he quartered away I split his shoulder with my 20 and 30 yard pins and hit the release. My shaky arrow was off, streaking through grey light. With the crack of the arrow all four bucks exploded into the woods, shattering the silence with crashing timber and pounding hooves. Several minutes later, in the cloak of darkness, I crept forward. The ground was torn up where he’d stood, and a few yards away was my broken arrow covered with blood. I followed the blood trail for about twenty yards, and then it vanished. I tried following the dug-in tracks, but they intermingled with all the others, heading into the thick brush and up a steep slope. No more blood; my heart sank. A bad hit? I wondered. Over and over I returned to the blood trail and walked in circles.
An hour later I was on my hands and knees with my flashlight, carefully crawling from track to track. What I hadn’t noticed earlier was a set of tracks suddenly veering away from the rest. Gradually these tracks were accompanied by pin-head-size blood specks. Several yards later the blood increased and I stood up. I rounded a tree and there he was, big and beautiful, lying peacefully on a bed of pine needles; a perfect hit and a short run. I touched his tall rack, then dropped to my knees and sobbed.
It never gets easier—this process–the mind, body and spirit, all focused, all invested in this primal chess match with God’s majestic creature. The game plays out in a familiar way: The buck magically materializes amidst certain failure, the cold steel of my arrow cuts the distance between us, and then cuts his life short. There are rules, too: I only win if he dies; honor him or lose your humanity.
The mountain was shrouded in cool clouds as I hiked in the next morning to retrieve my trophy, a complete reversal of the last eighteen sweltering days. My body glided effortlessly up the quiet trail, falling forward into a surreal familiarity, soft and inviting, like the embrace of a long lost friend.
Heading home on three hours of sleep, my truck feels unnaturally fast, blasting down the freeway, cutting through a putrid wall of brown smog. Signs and billboards stacked infinitely on my periphery beg for attention. I’m boxed in by cars and trucks cutting in and out of the six-lane road like a swarm of bees, frantic and dangerous. But I hardly notice. I’m still on the mountain and will remain there long after returning home. So much raw beauty cannot be shaken so easily. I’m at peace and completely untouchable.
This is our sacred tradition. This is true freedom and the ticket to perpetual youth. The mountain is alive and breathing, buzzing with energy. It calls to us all year long, just as it has throughout the ages. We return each season with renewed hope and vigor, only to find the woods holding back its secrets. The buck busts out and beats us relentlessly with cunning and agility. In despair we lash out and curse, then trudge on. It’s a necessary purification process that separates the weak from the strong. The human experience is broken down to its basic elements and the trash is removed so that we might see ourselves clearly. We see that failure and success are two parts of the same whole, neither good nor bad, and all part of a greater experience. And finally, in the end–if we can endure that long–we see that we’re not really hunting deer so much as we’re hunting for ourselves.
Try again tomorrow—pound the trail and fight ahead. With enough time, skill, and luck, the human spirit perseveres and the wall crumbles.
It was the fifth morning of my 2015 archery deer hunt, and I was walking the same dusty trail back to camp. I left the cruel woods early that morning, chased out by the looming heat and impending failure. My head was hung low as I mindlessly kicked up dirt along the path. Suddenly I was awakened by a fresh set of bobcat tracks crossing the path.
I remembered last night when I was startled awake by a high speed chase around my tent and the screeching of a squirrel. Probably a bobcat, I thought.
Now, intrigued by these delicate tracks, I pulled out my camera and knelt down to take a picture. I was suddenly gripped with clarity and crushing emotion. It was the first time in a long time that I wasn’t thinking about deer, and was just enjoying nature. In this moment I was filled with love for every aspect of the woods. Just like the bobcat, I had a place there too, and knew I was accepted by a greater whole. Success or failure meant nothing in that moment.
Until then I was desperately pushing a dangerous energy ahead of me, filling the tranquil forest with thoughts of killing. This, I believe, is why we often fail in our hunting pursuits. There is a connection to life that only humans don’t understand. Our gift of consciousness blinds us to higher levels of understanding.
We must conquer ourselves before we can conquer nature. This is the natural order of things, and a lesson I’ve been blessed to learn over and over. These little surprises–like those bobcat tracks–add up to a much larger experience, and that experience is what I’m really hunting for. This is why I’m really there.
Like any old marriage, the woods and I have our moments, both good and bad. Sometimes we ignore each other. But once in a while I remember why we’re still together, and why I love her so deeply. In the end, I’m to blame. It’s me that fights, not her.
The Majestic Muley Buck: Insights and Observations
In September, 2012 I hunted the Wasatch Extended Range with a friend. The bucks in this area are just as wily as anywhere in Northern Utah, if not more. We eventually split up to more thoroughly cover one particular steep and wooded slope; I took the upper section and he took the lower.
Not far into the route, a big, mature 4×4 buck came flying up the mountain, probably spooked by my hunting partner. The buck didn’t notice me as he blew by and then paused briefly on the hillside just outside of bow range while scanning for danger below.
I was instantly enraptured by the buck’s majesty. He held his neck high, donning a beautiful, square rack with heavy tines standing like swords above his noble face. His muscular body pulsed with deep breaths. He jerked his head left and right, simultaneously scanning for danger and planning his escape route. I just stood there, mouth agape, bow a-dangle. What a creature!
Seconds later he picked a line of trees and bounded away, his hooves barely poking the earth between great strides, seemingly floating over the treacherous terrain with awesome speed and agility.
Nothing to do now; no point in following after. The buck would be valleys away by the time I caught up with him. I was gripped with a sense of helplessness. The sheer magnitude of this creature made me feel inept in my abilities. How could one ever outwit such a powerful and wary animal? It was humbling, and exactly what I needed.
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.
In the past two years I’ve had the unique opportunity to teach hundreds of people basic archery. Because of the nature of the organization which I’m affiliated with, many of my first time students are left-wing oriented, if not out-right liberals and even anti-hunters. Although this hasn’t been a problem, I’ve had quite a few impassioned conversations concerning the morality of hunting.
As it turns out, many anti-hunters are regular meat-eaters. In conversations about the ethic of hunting, the very first point I make is: “If you eat meat then you are directly responsible for the killing of hundreds of animals. You just have someone else just does the killing. I prefer to take that responsibility into my own hands.” This almost always brings the “offended” into the realm of reality and diffuses any potential negative redneck argument.
Learning the art of archery doesn’t mean you’re suddenly expected to go hunting. It’s just a fun skill to have. But I have to wonder, what drives a flaming anti-hunter to pick up a bow-and-arrow in the first place? In my studies I have learned that almost every culture around the world has used the bow and weapon as their primary source of food and protections for thousands of years. The reason—I think—that so many people from so many diverse backgrounds are inclined to pick up a bow-and-arrow is because it’s already deeply ingrained in their bodies, minds, and instincts. In fact, one in ten of my students becomes masterful at archery within five minutes of shooting, as if they’ve been shooting their entire life, but having never picked up a bow before.
Many first-time archers view bows and arrows as recreational toys. Often times, if I didn’t insist on teaching safety first, people would just grab a bow and start flinging arrows. Consequently, at the beginning of every session I stress the importance of safety. One of the very first sentences out of my mouth is, “The bow-and-arrow was designed for one thing and one thing only—killing!” At this proclamation you can see the slight discomfort in a few faces, but it never deters a person from shooting.
At the same time, I never push hunting on anyone; I won’t even bring it up unless someone asks—but someone always asks. Without getting too much into it, I explain how bowhunting has always been my greatest passion, how it provides the majority of meat that my family and I eat, and that shooting a bow-and-arrow proficiently has nothing to do with hunting well.
Many people from the big city have a skewed view of hunting. They are conditioned to believe that killing an animal is as easy as pulling off the side of the road and shooting some helpless creature to death. And so I go on to explain that hunting is a completely separate skill from shooting, and the hunting aspect requires a lifetime to master.
In the end, I don’t want to kill anything; I don’t glory in shooting some poor creature to death in cold blood. But I don’t want to starve to death either. Nor do I want to wander down the meat aisle at the supermarket and sift through a pile of carefully packaged, hormone-infused, mass-produced, inorganic farm-garbage-salmonella-burgers. What I prefer to eat is purely organic, super-lean, free-range, healthy meat that walks the earth freely as God intended. NOW, I digress.
Overall my arguments for hunting have been met with surprising respect, even from those who “agree to disagree.” Even more, the relationships I’ve developed with many anti-hunters have been mutually beneficial. I’ve been forced to honestly and deeply consider the ethical and spiritual nature of the sport I love so much, and at the same time I’ve witnessed a change in the hearts and minds of those who were previously misinformed about the evils of hunting.