Life, Death and Deer

Prairie Fire - - NATALIE HERVIEUX -

FROM MY COZY SPOT on the couch, I looked up to see my fa­ther wip­ing his blood-smeared hands on his flu­o­res­cent or­ange cov­er­alls, light re­flect­ing off his bald head.

“Please, I need your help. I can’t do this alone,” he said, re­sort­ing to guilt when the “now means now” tech­nique had failed. I be­grudg­ingly fol­lowed him into the cold garage, my pa­ja­mas drag­ging as I walked.

I care­fully nav­i­gated my socked feet through the mess. Wall-mounted road bikes over­hang­ing a mo­tor­boat and ca­noe, mis­matched poles bal­anc­ing be­tween cross-coun­try skis, boxes of Winch­ester shot­gun shells stacked along the stairs, a scarcely used clay bird launcher sup­port­ing a shopping bas­ket that my dad had im­pa­tiently walked out of Totem with, fresh blood pool­ing on the grimy con­crete. In the mid­dle of it all, on a card­board cov­ered work­bench, was the moose.

My task was sim­ple but not easy: hold up the leg by the an­kle as he carved off the layer of fat and sil­ver skin to har­vest the meat. Moose are not small crea­tures, even once skinned and gut­ted. So my young arms went numb from ex­er­tion as my fin­gers went numb from the near-frozen meat.

In the morn­ing, I awoke to the sound of the meat grinder. Dad pushed hunks of flesh through the mouth of the grinder, cre­at­ing a stream of spaghet­ti­fied meat fall­ing out the other end. “Raw and wrig­gling,” he would say, over-pro­nounc­ing his Rs. The meat smelled fresh but not bad; per­haps I am just used to it. What smelled bad was when he boiled the skulls to pre­serve the antlers. The flakes of scalp would turn grey as they cooked, fill­ing the kitchen with the pu­trid odour of death.

This was rou­tine. It hap­pened ev­ery hunt­ing sea­son, but the ex­pe­ri­ence var­ied slightly with species. In the fall, he would pull me out onto the drive­way, next to the neigh­bour’s fence, to help pluck ducks or in­vert the skin of a rab­bit. Some­times, he would have me smell a ruffed grouse

crop—an organ that stores ex­tra food be­fore pass­ing it through di­ges­tion—filled with aro­matic clovers and snow­ber­ries. As my young mind in­ves­ti­gated death and anatomy, I would slowly open and close a duck’s bill, look­ing at its limp tongue and comb-like pectens. Clasp­ing a duck by the throat, my fa­ther would scold me, “Stop that, you’re be­ing ghoul­ish.” Around us, the snow be­came a stew of feath­ers and blood.

My sis­ter is a veg­e­tar­ian now. I’d still never pass up a steak. We lived in a small but ur­ban city. Our Grande Prairie home backed onto the for­est and golf course of Coun­try Club West—a neigh­bour­hood strain­ing to ap­pear luxe. Ig­nor­ing sub­ur­ban stan­dards, Dad had a habit of leav­ing rib cages and hooved legs in the veg­etable gar­den, un­til a coy­ote would in­evitably drag them away. Two doors down lived the de­vout Chris­tian fam­ily who mowed their lawn four times a week into per­fectly par­al­lel lines. They had a golden retriever but no fence, so you can imag­ine the gifts the dog brought them. Next door lived the older, child­less cou­ple and their pair of prized Dal­ma­tians. One year, we had a weasel liv­ing in the yard. We were thrilled, con­stantly gath­er­ing around the win­dow to watch, un­til we saw it steal scraps of meat and head into Dal­ma­tian-man’s camper. None of the neigh­bours have ever con­fronted Dad so I can’t be cer­tain of their judge­ments, but I do won­der who re­ported us to the city.

I knew we looked weird. I knew from my friends’ faces when I ma­noeu­vred past a dead deer to reach my scooter in the shed, or when they saw the pile of antlers locked to­gether on our never-used tread­mill. Even less sub­tle were the looks from Safeway shop­pers when my bloody camo-clad fa­ther needed to grab milk on the way home from hunt­ing. But from the in­side, it seemed nor­mal. It was how I grew up. Don’t all dads ad­just the scope of their ri­fle in front of the TV on Sun­day morn­ings or store an an­te­lope head in the freezer ready to pop out at you while you’re look­ing for a Fudgsi­cle?

When we stayed at my pa­ter­nal grand­mother’s house, af­ter lengthy bick­er­ing, the un­lucky sib­ling would get stuck with the pull-out couch in the base­ment di­rectly un­der­neath the taxi­der­mied bi­son head. In the creak­ing dark­ness of that old house, I would fall asleep feel­ing small, think­ing about its death and mine—as­sum­ing it would fall and crush me in my sleep. Next to the couch was a dark wood room con­tain­ing heads of un­gu­lates—some now il­le­gal to kill—equally spaced along its perime­ter. In the mid­dle were two bearskin rugs. There, we would play house, one of us tak­ing the griz­zly, the other tak­ing the black bear, rest­ing our heads on their heads as we pre­tended to sleep. Death was merely a prop to our child­hood.

Those rugs be­longed to my late grand­fa­ther, who in­tro­duced Dad to hunt­ing as a child. In a time when women raised the kids, hunt­ing was how my dad con­nected with his dad. Ev­ery fall, they would do duck hunts at the lake with the men from neigh­bour­ing cab­ins. This is where Dad’s life­long connection to na­ture be­gan. He has since earned de­grees

in zo­ol­ogy and works as a Fish and Wildlife con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­o­gist, try­ing to help the species he grew up watch­ing. Now, he shares this in­ter­est with his own kids, tak­ing us hunt­ing in the same place his dad took him, connecting us to his past and to our Cana­dian her­itage.

He’s never been the drive-your-pickup-truck-around-un­til-some­thing-jumps-out-and-you-shoot-it type of hunter. He cares about the process of hunt­ing. As a kid, he would grab his .410 Bore shot­gun and English set­ter and head out into the woods stalk­ing grouse, pre­tend­ing to be Davy Crock­ett. Now he scouts out the per­fect lo­ca­tion, sit­ting ev­ery night among aspen trees, rose bushes and wil­lows, watch­ing the deer that he’s not go­ing to shoot, ob­serv­ing the preda­tors in the woods, lis­ten­ing to the birds in the hushed win­ter air. He even likes deal­ing with the an­i­mals af­ter, know­ing where the meat came from, know­ing that it was butchered to his stan­dards. Each set of antlers in that pile on the tread­mill re­minds him of a story—an ex­pe­ri­ence from a year. It’s this life­time of ex­pe­ri­ence that has in­grained hunt­ing into part of who he is. And let’s be hon­est, he also likes all the guns.

My par­ents are happy liv­ing in Grande Prairie be­cause, un­like in Ed­mon­ton where they grew up, lots of peo­ple hunt, the deer come into our back­yard, and we’re closer to the land and the wildlife. Mom doesn’t hunt her­self, but she joins him some­times. While Dad was out with his gun as a child, Mom was sit­ting silently in the reeds at her own fam­ily’s cabin look­ing at in­sects. As far as I can tell, she knows the name of ev­ery crit­ter in Al­berta. When I was young, she would take us on na­ture walks, iden­ti­fy­ing birds by their calls and teach­ing us how to catch but­ter­flies. Dad’s hunt­ing doesn’t con­flict with her pas­sion for nat­u­ral his­tory be­cause she knows that we’re eat­ing ev­ery­thing he shoots. Plus see­ing how a deer is put to­gether is as in­ter­est­ing as see­ing it in­ter­act with its ecosys­tem.

The years of ecol­ogy lessons dis­guised as na­ture walks in­stilled within me a deep re­spect for liv­ing things. The hunt­ing, though, forced me to ac­knowl­edge their deaths. I only once killed an an­i­mal my­self: a duck. I re­mem­ber stand­ing in the pond among the reeds in my waders, ducks laugh­ing over­head, as I tried to stay bal­anced when the gun kicked. I didn’t feel sad when I killed it. I didn’t feel proud, ei­ther. Dad was ex­cited, but I was more amused to have hit the de­coy. It’s still in the garage. It sounds like a maraca filled with steel pel­lets. We didn’t ac­tu­ally talk about dy­ing, though. It was just a fix­ture in life. When the pet her­mit crabs died, we threw them in the gar­den. When Grandma died, af­ter a short si­lence, in a tone of sober ac­cep­tance, Mom said, “Well, we knew it would hap­pen,” and that was it. It was a part of life that we had to ac­cept. We moved for­ward.

De­spite our seem­ing ap­a­thy, I think know­ing the gory re­al­ity of death made us ap­pre­ci­ate the life of an­i­mals more. There is no Styrofoam pack­ag­ing to dis­tance you from the fact that it was alive and now, be­cause of you, it is not. When you take a life, you have the re­spon­si­bil­ity

to do it right. Once at the lake, I stood on the neigh­bour’s dock with my cousin, who had pre­vi­ously hunted with my dad and been in­flu­enced by his views. He held a sling­shot and a rock. Drunken adults yelled for him to hit the gull not ten me­tres away. In­ner tur­bu­lence shook him as he looked at the bird. You could see the rules laid out by my fa­ther flash­ing through his eyes: do not point weapons—even toy guns—at any­thing you do not in­tend to kill and do not kill any­thing you do not in­tend to eat. He in­ten­tion­ally missed. The bird lived another day and the adults poured another mar­garita.

In the sum­mer af­ter eleventh grade, I worked as a re­search as­sis­tant for a univer­sity ecol­o­gist. One af­ter­noon, with a kid­die pool full of Pekin ducks, an ex­pert came in to show the grad stu­dents how to take a blood sam­ple. Grab­bing one of the duck­lings, she took its blood and it died. It cheeped un­til it went limp. Prob­a­bly from stress. She claimed it had never hap­pened be­fore. My co-worker—the other eleventh grader and a girl of­ten afraid to get her sneak­ers dirty—was un­der­stand­ably distressed, but I was okay. Then, as bi­ol­o­gists do, they dis­sected it. As they did, the other girl was able to iden­tify all of the or­gans that she had mem­o­rized in school, un­til the ex­pert fi­nally stumped her. “Ah, that’s the giz­zard,” I cut in. Dad used to threaten to rip out my giz­zard—an organ filled with stones used to crush a bird’s food—any­time my gum smack­ing got ob­nox­ious. It was a threat we both knew was empty. Af­ter the dis­sec­tion, my boss asked if I was all right, and I said I was used to it. She ex­plained how it’s still im­por­tant to feel sad. Too of­ten she had seen bi­ol­o­gists who had be­come numb. You should re­al­ize that it’s na­ture and it’s life, but you should still al­ways care.

I know not ev­ery hunter cares. When my dad went to a sport­ing clay work­shop in Texas, he met a dif­fer­ent kind of hunter. A dimly lit but ex­trav­a­gant wooden lodge con­tained a full-sized taxi­der­mied ele­phant and gi­raffe. The air was sat­u­rated with the smell of bar­beque. At these fair-chase, high-fence hunt­ing ranches, peo­ple pay thou­sands of dol­lars to shoot ex­otic mam­mals on mesquite-thorn-cov­ered ter­rain in a one-hun­dred-square-kilo­me­tre en­clo­sure. This type of hunt­ing is not about connecting with na­ture. There is noth­ing nat­u­ral about hunt­ing a grain-fed and hu­man-bred African an­te­lope in a fenced-off field in Texas, leav­ing it for a butcher to deal with, and head­ing back to the heated pool. These hunters are driven by the thrill of the hunt and the pride of bring­ing home a tro­phy. But for Dad, hunt­ing is not about testos­terone or blood­thirsti­ness or en­ter­tain­ment. He hunts to pro­vide food for his fam­ily. Re­gard­less of the ap­peal of antlers or hide, he sim­ply does not shoot what he isn’t go­ing to eat, be it cougars, bears or those swampy-tast­ing shov­eler ducks at the lake.

Dad has taught me the ben­e­fits of hunt­ing: how it helps to con­trol wildlife pop­u­la­tions, es­pe­cially in farm­land where we’ve re­moved the preda­tors that would nat­u­rally pre­vent over­pop­u­la­tion; how it sub­se­quently re­duces the spread of dis­ease and pro­tects both na­tive plant

pop­u­la­tions and agri­cul­tural crops; how, when prop­erly man­aged, it pro­vides healthy, low-fat and sus­tain­able food with few neg­a­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts. But when some­one sits in their La-Z-Boy in their sub­ur­ban home, rais­ing an eye­brow at their weird neigh­bours who bring home din­ner still cov­ered in blood and fur, it’s hard for them to ap­pre­ci­ate those ben­e­fits. And that is why hunt­ing is so im­por­tant. Peo­ple need the ex­cite­ment of hunt­ing to draw them out­side. They need to spend days blend­ing into the for­est, ac­ci­den­tally crunch­ing the snow be­neath them and watch­ing the ears of each deer in the herd twitch si­mul­ta­ne­ously, slowly rais­ing their ri­fle and, with a thought­ful hand, fir­ing. When they ap­proach the deer and see it take its last breath, they will be thank­ful, re­spect­ing na­ture’s sac­ri­fice. Then they want to go back, but to go back they need those species to be pro­tected and their habi­tats main­tained. Now the hunter cares.

I don’t think we should be con­sid­ered the weird fam­ily. Un­der­stand­ing your place in na­ture shouldn’t de­ter­mine your place in so­ci­ety. When a wolf chases down a mule deer and sinks its sharp teeth into the deer’s flesh, it doesn’t think about ethics or the re­al­ity of death; it is an an­i­mal ful­fill­ing its role in the food chain—just like Dad when he hunts. He drives for half an hour out of town to a pre-ap­proved, care­fully se­lected farmer’s field, he trudges through the knee-deep snow in his over­sized Sorel boots and sits down in the bush. And he sits, for hours, un­til dusk, night af­ter night, in the si­lence, in the fresh air, in the for­est. It is about re­spect­ing na­ture. It is about re-join­ing na­ture. It is about ac­cept­ing death as part of na­ture. As my mother put it, “Hu­mans are part of na­ture and we con­tin­u­ally for­get that. We think that we are sep­a­rate and above it and that we can change it and con­trol it. And then a hur­ri­cane comes along.”

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