I have never particularly wanted to go hunting, but when Charlie asked me to go with me I figured I was going.
Charlie is exclusively a bow-hunter (guns would frighten wildlife and tip off the neighbors), so he took me target shooting a couple of weeks ago to assess my skill. I couldn’t even draw the bow Charlie uses for deer, even though I’m taller and over forty-three years younger than he is, which was embarrassing, but he had expected as much (also embarrassing) and brought a second, weaker bow for me to use. Like his, it’s a compound bow, meaning it has these pulleys and extra strings on it, so that once you draw it you can hold it fully drawn for a long time without a lot of extra effort. I was pretty good at archery in camp as a kid, and I remembered more than I expected to—over half of my arrows ended up on the target and I got a couple of bulls-eyes, but Charlie said it wasn’t enough.
“You’re a good shot for what you are,” he told me, “but what you are isn’t a bow-hunter. You have to get all the arrows where you want them, so the animal doesn’t suffer. I could teach you to do that, but not this fall.” He stood thoughtfully for a few minutes, his knuckle at his mouth, as though he’d meant to chew his thumbnail but forgot partway. I thought he’d say we’d go hunting the next year, or not at all, that I was off the hook. I wasn’t.
“I’ll do the shooting,” he told me, at last. “I don’t need you to learn the skill, you need to have an
experience. I’ll shoot, you’ll tell
me when to shoot.”
I didn’t know for sure if the illusion would work, if it would really feel like I was responsible. I didn’t even know why the whole thing was important, but I never know why Charlie wants me to do things and it usually turns out alright. So I agreed.
Charlie showed me the tree stand we were going to use, and briefed me on how the hunt was going to go, what we would do, and how we would stay safe. For example, we’d bring two bows and two quivers of arrows. Charlie says a lot of bow hunters are injured by falling from the stand ladder and falling on their arrows, so he won’t wear his quiver on the latter. Instead, he uses a pulley. But Charlie has another safety rule against approaching a wounded animal too closely, so if the first arrow doesn’t kill the deer, he can’t use a knife to finish it off. So the second bow and quiver waits at the bottom so he can go after an injured deer as quickly as possible.
We went out before dawn on a Sunday, so we wouldn’t have to worry about missing zazen or breakfast. It was kind of cold, and I was a little under-dressed. I’m not used to it not being summer yet. There was no way to know when, or even if, we’d get a good shot. We might have to come back another day. I stamped and rubbed my arms in the dark while Charlie pulleyed up his bow and quiver. Then I climbed up and helped him tie leafy branches on to the platform so we’d be harder for deer to see. We waited for dawn to come.
Of course, the stand wasn't set up just anywhere--Charlie knows where deer like to travel, and another doe came by in only a few minutes. It may have even been the other one coming back. Charlie drew his bow again and I, determined not to make a fool of myself again, whispered "Go!"
Charlie loosed his arrow, but the deer had heard my whisper and she wheeled to run in the same moment that Charlie shot. The arrow, intended for her heart and a clean kill, pierced her side farther back, puncturing other vital organs but giving her time to run away. Charlie cursed, dropped his bow, and half-leaped down the latter. By the time I'd climbed down he'd already grabbed his second quiver and bow and run off. I followed.
The deer didn't get very far. We found her collapsed on her side in some brush. She held her head upright and seemed alert, but a soft, pink foam ran from her nose. We'd punctured a lung. Charlie stood as close as he dared--he'd warned me never to allow an injured animal the chance to touch me--an arrow knocked and drawn, but he waited. The deer watched him, calmly, waiting to see what he would do, but he did nothing. He was waiting on me to put the animal out of her misery.
"Do it!" I shouted, and the deer heard me, swiveled her big ears around to listen to me, and Charlie's arrow found her heart and she collapsed and kicked and died.
When she was dead, I approached her and touched her. The body was warm, the fur smooth and stiff. There wasn't a lot of blood, I guess the worst of the bleeding was either inside her or underneath. The illusion worked--it totally felt as though I had killed her.
Intellectually, I'd always believed hunting is ok, and though I'd never wanted to do it, I'd expected that when I did it I'd feel heroic and manly, or something. I'd read accounts of people who'd felt a lot queasier about killing than I had going hunting and having that kind of experience--feeling some kind of paleolithic glamour. But I felt only sick. I sat there for a while, petting the deer I'd killed, while Charlie sat nearby and waited, unobtrusively.
"Why isn't the campus vegetarian?" I asked, after a bit.
"Because some people on campus like to eat meat," Charlie told me, "Including you, last time I checked."
"But I bet there are people who don't want to eat locally," I replied, "and campus as a whole does local food. We could do the same with vegetarianism." Charlie sighed, and addressed my question seriously.
"Daniel, you've got to remember that we don't just eat organisms. We eat the products of ecosystems. And which ecosystem we eat determines how we manage the land. We could eat just vegetables, but then more land would have to be dedicated to vegetable fields. Those are very poor, very simple ecosystems. Hardly anybody eats them except us. We don't let them. Eating meat means we have to use more land, acre by acre, but by this deer, we can eat the forest. By the sheep and goats we can eat the fields. Meat allows us to share."
I thought about this for a minute until Charlie spoke again.
"Daniel, you don't have to go hunting again. You don't have to eat meat again, if you don't want to. But you do have to deal with death. We eat by killing, even if only vegetables, and we survive by denying others the chance to kill us and live. Someday, you're going to die, and so will I. And when those days come, nothing is going to happen to us that you did not do today to this deer--I don't mean method, I mean death itself. Your understanding of life has to include death somehow, or you're living in a fantasy world. We are both apprenticed to the same master the great masters were apprenticed to--reality."
I thought about this for a minute more and scrambled to my feet. I took one of the arrows from Charlie's quiver that was lying on the ground and I cut my arm with it, just a nick, on the top where I was pretty sure there were no major blood vessels. I caught the slow bead of blood on the knife-edge of the arrowhead, let it form a small, red, shiny puddle, and then I flicked the arrow towards the deer, scattering the drops of my blood across her body and the ground where her blood was. I don't know why I did it. I just stood there, afterwards. And suddenly Charlie was beside and behind me, I didn't hear him approach, he was just there. He could have put his hand on my shoulder, but he didn't.
"The words you want," he began, quietly, "Are 'Noble beast of field and forest/give me your meat and
"You have good instincts," he told me, and not for the first time, "but we've got to clean and dress that wound. That arrow isn't too clean." And so he went back to the tree stand to fetch his pack and then sat me down and treated my cut with quick, careful efficiency. His treatment was an odd mix of standard first aid and...something else. He pulled on a pair of purple nitrile gloves before touching me and he washed the cut with water from his bottle, but he also mixed some orange powder into a tin shot of water and told me to drink it.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Cayenne powder. It'll help stop the bleeding," he told me. "knock it back, it won't burn." I followed his instructions, and he was wrong about it not burning, but it wasn't too bad, and the bleeding did stop really fast, under direct pressure and a gauze pad. Then he opened a fresh gauze pad and covered it with some liquid from a little bottle. The stuff smelled familiar--and good--but I couldn't place it. "Lavender oil," he explained succinctly. "It'll help prevent infection."
"Not antibiotic ointment?" I asked.
"You can use that stuff if you want to, but I wouldn't. This works better. You ok for me to put it on your arm? I'm not a doctor, I just know a thing or two. This is what I'd do if it were me." I told him it was ok and he taped the pad over my cut. It felt relaxing, somehow. "You tell me if that gets infected, ok? Or tell somebody. You know what infection looks like?" I told him I did, but I'm not sure if he believed me.
We didn't field-dress the carcass there, because Charlie said he didn't want to attract coyotes or frighten hikers. Instead, we tied the deer to a pair of poles and carried her to the shed and the fenced yard where I've heard they do the goats and such, and there we skinned and butchered her. Charlie asked me if I wanted the hide and I said I did not. I still felt kind of sick. The cleaned carcass went in one wheelbarrow and all the innards went in another (the kitchen uses natural casings for sausages) and the skin, head, and lower legs went in a mouse-proof box for Charlie to deal with later. We wheeled the wheelbarrows over to the kitchen and left them, though Charlie did insist I eat a bite of the liver. Raw. I hadn't eaten anything all day.
A few days later, Charlie gave me a knife.He'd never given me anything before, and though he hadn't it over to me with very little fan-fare, I'd hung around Kit long enough to understand the significance of such a gift from a teacher. It was a little utility knife, with a thick, sturdy steel blade about four inches long, with a notch in the top so it could double as a skinning knife. The full tang was sandwiched between cut sections of bone to make a smooth handle, oval in cross-section, and the exact size for my hand. I suppose the bone must have been glued, but it was also wrapped around a few times at the front and back with thin, rawhide strips. The tang poked out the back in a loop of metal and Charlie had tied a loop of leather thong to it, closing the loop with a few wooden and bone beads and an owl feather. A sheath went with it with its own loop of beaded leather and a little bone hook so I could attach the knife to the sheath if I wanted to. But the sheath was made of deerhide, with the hair still on it, lapping out and covering the rough sinew seam. The whole thing, except the steel blade and tang, was obviously but expertly handmade, made of deerhide and bone.
"Charlie, is this--?" I began.
"Yes," he told me.
[Note; when Charlie spoke of being apprenticed to reality he was quoting the writer, Gary Snyder, from memory and a little imperfectly. He did not intend the phrase to be mistaken for his.]
[Next Post: September 16th: Interlude]