Beep beep beep.
I silence the alarm and roll over, considering the consequences of going back to sleep. It’s November 26, the first Monday in the blink of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas for most Americans. But not to a large chunk of the population in Pennsylvania. No, to many Pennsylvanians the day marks a pseudo-holiday on the calendar. A school holiday in the area where I grew up, lest attendance for that day be shamefully low. A day that marks the beginning of its own sort of religious month for its followers.
Every year, the first Monday after Thanksgiving marks the first day of rifle season in Pennsylvania, and on this particular Monday I find myself counted among the congregants of Sullivan County.
For as long as I can remember, my father and his brother have made the pilgrimage to our cabin each year on this weekend. My brother and I would wait anxiously for their return, hoping it would be a triumphant one. Of course, it was always triumphant. Not that they always came home successful. But the return was always met as if war heroes were returning from tour. My brother and I would grill my father, wanting to know every detail of their time in the woods, hanging to each recollection of this weekend as a paragon of masculinity in our eyes.
At the age of 12 I was baptized. (Look, this metaphor can only go so far, so no, I do not have anything for what original sin of which this was absolving me. Sorry.) Always this weekend, a fixed point on the calendar that contained no doubt as to how those days would be spent.
This is not to say that we adhered only on the high holy days, attending only to clog the pews on Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday. No, in our house hunting was observed year-round. It involved trips in the buggy months of June and July to do upkeep around the cabin and scout around for sign. It involved my dad piling up sick days specifically for hunting season. (Though, in fairness, my father is that type of dad that simply doesn’t get sick.) It involved my brother and I pretending to be our father and his brother, waking up at the crack of dawn to stalk the woods of our neighborhood with our BB guns. To grasp what hunting was in the consciousness of our childhood you need only look at the fact that one of my brother’s most prized possessions was an action figure by the name of Hunter Dan.
Beep beep beep.
I grew up in the northeast woodlands of Pennsylvania, blessed to have a patch of woods situated between two suburban neighborhoods just outside our front door. I was active in the Boy Scouts, frequently camping and eventually progressing into backcountry backpacking. My relationship to the woods and nature was always an intimate one, with hunting being both my first taste and its core.
And then college. Four years at a university four hours away from home and any prospect of hunting. Four years surrounded by friends from suburbs of major metropolitan areas. Friends who described the area where our school was located, an area slightly more populous than where I had grown up, as “the sticks.” Friends with almost no exposure to hunting prior to meeting me.
As tends to happen to individuals transplanted from one context to another, I took on the characteristics of this new setting. I went full semesters without spending time in the woods, not even the quaint local hike for the sake of a social media post. I would try to get out over breaks, but these were always motivated in some way by a feeling of obligation. Soon it was almost three years since I had been in the woods in any hunting capacity. I graduated college and took a job outside of Boston, continuing my slide away from a childhood passion.
Through this, however, it wasn’t just my actual time spent hunting that was affected by my new life conditions. As it goes, when you’re in a setting like Amherst, Massachusetts, a typical left-leaning New England town that’s home to two universities and surrounded by three others, hunting begins to be coded in terms with which you don’t necessarily want to be identified. Hunting begins to fall under the umbrella that encapsulates Trump country signifiers.
This isn’t an entirely unfair generalization, either. The demographic of the population that hunts is skewing further and further up the age spectrum, and has always been decidedly monochromatic. Over 90 percent of hunters are white, with over 70 percent being men, and the number of total hunters has been declining since the 80s, with a 2.2 million person drop from 2011 to 2016. Trends that are also on display in the conservative electorate.
And this is to say nothing of the state of the gun debate in America and the near perfect circle created by the Venn diagram of hunters and those that support the National Rifle Association as the loudest mouthpiece of American gun manufacturers.
Taken in sum, you might forgive a liberal millennial living in blue New England for not being the most full-throated hunting advocate.
Beep beep beep.
Then came the change in scenery. A semester of grad school. A canceling of that plan. A four month stretch of traveling internationally to defer any substantive reckoning with what I was doing with my life. And then back to living at home, in the same bedroom I lived in as a senior in high school.
As context is wont to do, it changed me. Not so much in the mindset and ideological changes that had leaned me away from hunting in the first place. While I was still reflexively averse to the conservative politics of the area, hunting, its practice, and its place in what I wanted my life to look like had hardened in my time away from home. Living amongst nonbelievers will do a helluva number on your beliefs, one way or another.
Such is the case in my relationship to hunting. I think hunting ethically is one of the best ways in which humans can relate to the natural world around them. As I write this I can picture several close friends cringe and probably stop taking the rest of this seriously with that statement, if they ever were to begin with.
But I truly believe that. We live in an age when the impact of humans on the planet and the natural world is nothing short of catastrophic. We are the cause of what is the sixth, and largest mass extinction in the history of earth as a planet. And while many would point to hunting and say that feels like a pretty clear and obvious intrusion into the natural order of things, I would argue the intrusion is being made all the time and in just about all places, whether we like it or not.
Humans living in their most ecologically friendly state as nomadic hunter gatherer tribes were likely the cause of the extinction of the megafauna. If humans living solely off the land with stone structures as their most permanent imprints on the land could cause mass extinctions, I think we’re well past the point of worrying about whether a hunter going into a patch of woods amongst a sea of suburban monotony is having an outsized impact on that habitat.
I also wonder about what the impact would be if people still had to immediately confront where their food comes from. This is especially true of the meat in our diets. For starters, consider the environmental costs of meat production. It’s estimated that it requires almost 1,800 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. And then there’s the litany of moral issues raised by factory farming and its treatment of animals, issues that few Americans want to face so we ship these facilities to parts of the country that few people care about and in which fewer people live, lest we have to look the inconveniences of the cruelty behind our cheeseburger diets square in their sentient eyes.
Beep beep beep.
Further consideration of the effects of going back to sleep. I tell myself I’m entitled to not having to drag myself out of bed this early, slapping on what amounts to a camouflaged version of Ralphie’s snowsuit, and sitting in the rain to more than likely see nothing of any intrigue. You filled your tag already, you shouldn’t feel obligated to hunt hard this week, I think.
And this was true. I had been successful earlier that year, during archery season. The type of hunting that had always been my father’s true passion, the variety that required far more homework and preparation and provided less opportunity for the erratic strokes of luck that come with the peak of the rut.
There is a death in this story, and, full disclosure, it’s coming pretty soon.
It came in a small patch of woods situated between a couple developments and a swamp, a honey-hole close to our house that I initially hesitated in asking my dad if I could hunt it with him, lest the well be run dry. It’s the type of spot with which I imagine a number of suburban hunters are familiar. A family friend with a house adjacent to the patch of woods where you can park, nebulous property lines, and the constant droning of the nearby lawnmowers and leaf-blowers in the background should you forget you aren’t in the backwoods.
We both hunted it that season, though my dad split more of his time with another of his local spots. It seemed I was in the better location within the patch, seeing action fairly regularly, though never within range of serious consideration. The season wore on that way, until the final day.
It was a still day in November, one of those late fall days where the sky seems to be paralyzed and everything from the temperature to your mood matches its grey hue. These types of days don’t lend themselves to sitting motionless in a tree, 15 feet off the ground, which in turn doesn’t lend itself to possessing sensation in your extremities.
Truth be told I was ready to leave. I had work at 11am that day and I was freezing. I debated with myself for the better part of the morning about when I should pack it up, and the relative inaction as compared to previous days in that spot did nothing to buttress the case for toughing it out.
Because that’s what this was. Sitting in a tree despite being frozen to your bones with limited dexterity because of it was a tough thing to do. A manly thing to do. Right?
As I sat with the internal debate running its course, I could picture my dad shaking his head that night as I gave him the rundown of the morning, saying I got cold and cut it short. That half smirking head shake that isn’t outright disappointment but, boy, are you given to interpreting it as such. One I imagine most sons are familiar with in their interactions with a traditional blue-collar father.
Or maybe they aren’t.
Regardless, the internal conditioning to show toughness won out. Or at least long enough to matter. Around INSERT TIME, I noticed movement over my right shoulder. It was a mature 8-point coming out of the swamp, the place my dad made a point to situate himself near in this location. As any kid is inclined to do, I like to imagine my parents aren’t nearly as correct as they like you to think, but fuck me if my dad isn’t right ninety percent of the time in general and roughly ninety-eight percent of the time in the matters of hunting and the woods.
At this point in the season the rut had started to creep in, meaning most bucks’ priorities were lust, lust, and more lust. This buck was no different as it approached on a straight-line without an ounce of hesitation, despite the suburban surroundings.
And sure enough, he walked right into my line of sight at roughly 20 yards distance. I drew as he balked at my decoy, and released.
I could hear the arrow land, fairly certain it landed true to my mark. Of course, the whole ordeal from first sight to the release of the arrow lasted roughly ninety seconds, so the second guessing came pretty quickly and naturally.
As archery hunters know, the next step was the waiting. Waiting to give the deer a minute to make his final dash. Waiting to see how long you could watch. Marking the last point of sight, and the point of the shot, and the general path between those two points.
Also waiting for the animal to die, assuming you made a good shot.
This last point is fairly gruesome. It’s where you get the anti-hunting argument. It’s cruel to kill a living being. Yes, it is. It’s cruel to think you, as a human and non-natural part of the natural food chain, have the right to take a life of another creature. Yes, this is also fairly true.
But then, what part of humanity’s existence on earth hasn’t contained cruelty? And how many aspects of modern life contain less cruelty than allowing an animal to live a free and natural existence and then take that life in an ethical manner to then harvest its meat? There are anti-hunting arguments to be had, sure, but you better be ready to fully examine the ways in which your existence and beliefs contribute to other cruelties before you take up that mantle.
Because really, death has always been a necessary input to get the output of life on this planet. A cruelty free existence is impossible on this planet. Nature is both beautiful and cruel in equal measures. And while we as humans like to view ourselves as existing outside the auspices of the natural world, that simply isn’t the case. And it’s that thinking that has played a leading role in our setting the whole fucking world on fire.
The shot was true, my first deer after a handful of years away from hunting and the first I was truly proud of.
Beep beep beep.
I’ve played a lot with the question of why we like the things we like. Are there inherent qualities within these things, or do we build associations around them in our youth that carry into adulthood? How large of a role do societal factors play? What about familial? Can you ever really parse out all of these things or are you always doomed to accept that it’s caused by a number of different factors.
I’ve done this thought experiment with hunting frequently in the years since first moving away from home. The thinking generally oscillates between either feeling like there are certain aspects of hunting that, while I cannot really put words to them, I truly love deep down, or between feeling like hunting was something that I thought loved out of a need to be like my dad and make him proud. The single best predictor of which option I was landing on at a given moment was my physical proximity to hunting at that moment.
This thought experiment is frequently prompted by peers asking what it is about hunting that I like. To this day that question makes me flounder. I’ll have written nearly 3000 words on this subject by the end of this piece and I still don’t think I could put it into two sentences or less.
The answer is a combination of things. I love hunting because of the place it has in my childhood. I love hunting for the role it plays my relationship with my father. I love hunting because being in the woods in that way trains your ear to pick up the conductor-less symphony happening at any given moment in a patch of woods. I love hunting because for those moments it pulls me out of the breakneck pace of the modern world and closer to the natural cycles and rhythms of the earth. I love hunting because for those fleeting blinks I am part of the negotiation, no, the dance, that is constantly happening in any given ecosystem as the participants play their parts.
And I recognize a lot of that doesn’t really compute to most people.
Which is fine.
I’ve always been skeptical of evangelism, anyway.
Beep beep beep.
I turn the alarm off, finally. Getting out of bed, I pull on my long johns, prepping for what will more than likely be a beautifully mundane day of hunting.
 This is not a consensus, but Elizabeth Kolbert makes a compelling case in her book, The Sixth Extinction.
 Again, Kolbert’s book.
 The rut is the term used for the mating season. Buck during the rut are generally focused on one thing and one thing only — patterns and much of their sensibilities go out the window, as is the case in most species when in the throes of lust.
 This last point alone could be the subject of another 5,000 words, and at the end of the day I’m not sure it would ever convince those who were not already open to the idea. Again, like religion.
 This is always the answer to any big, complex question. Always.
 This is bad armchair psychoanalyzing, but that’s not really why you’re here, is it.
 I told you.