By Matt Stansberry, Illustrations by David Wilson
Off in the far northwestern corner of Ohio near the town of Hicksville, I sat on an aluminum ladder lashed to a tree in the predawn gloom freezing my ass off. Fifteen feet up in the air, the wind cut right through the layers of camouflage and blaze orange clothing I wore just one day each year.
The tree-stand looked out over a dairy farm owned by a family friend.
As I sat there, I gave thanks to that farmer for keeping me out of the war zone — southern Ohio’s public hunting lands.
I remembered decades ago sitting in the woods at Clendenning Lake with my younger brother (we might have been 13 and 10), watching him draw up to take a shot at a nearby passing doe, and seeing a bullet explode in the tree trunk behind him as some unseen hunter took a shot at the same animal passing between us.
I remembered the time I watched a deer run across an open field in the Egypt Valley Wildlife Area and counted over forty shots fired from surrounding woods. None of those bullets hit the deer; it kept running.
I thought of the deer drivers, whole families moving across the landscape in organized groups, banging on pots and yodeling crazily into the quaking woods, trying to push the deer into a frenzied run, to corral them into a firing line. In parts of southern Ohio, you might hear these roving bands in the woods on opening day. The chorus was beautiful in an eerie way. It was the sound of a tent revival preacher marching the patients of an insane asylum through the forest.
I thought of the time the landowners adjacent to public hunting land had taken shots at my dad and his two boys as we hiked a ridge scouting the day before the season started. The bullets — likely .22 caliber rifle — whizzed through the trees above our heads as we lay flat on the ground and waited for them to stop shooting.
I remembered thinking these damn deer weren’t worth dying over.My odds of dodging a bullet had improved significantly by hunting on private land, but I had a new problem — I was falling asleep.
According to a 2008 Consumer Product Safety Commission report, 41 hunters were killed and around 19,000 were injured in tree-stand-related accidents between 2005 and 2007.
Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham determined about 10 percent of hunters who use tree stands were injured while using the platforms.
I sat in the tiny seat, back against the tree trunk, in a mixed state of anticipation and weariness. I worried I would pitch forward to my death or a broken neck. I hallucinated — clumps of scrub on the horizon seemed to move like furtive animals. By some miracle of better judgement, I unloaded my shotgun and climbed down to the ground before I joined the ranks of killed or injured deer hunters.
* * *
I am a lifelong ambivalent gun owner.
Deep in a file cabinet in my basement, I could dig out an old worn card from 1984 that stated I had passed the Ohio Hunter’s Safety Course, conducted at the wood paneled clubhouse of the Goodyear Hunting and Fishing Club in Akron, Ohio. I was six years old.
I’ve held onto that card for more than thirty years and I can still feel the imprint of a single lesson — keep the muzzle of a gun away from anyone, even unloaded weapons. Don’t point it at anybody and stay the hell away from the barrel of other people’s guns. On the rare occasions when I’m around people with weapons, I get very nervous when I see people nonchalantly handling firearms.
[blocktext align=”right”]On the rare occasions when I’m around people with weapons, I get very nervous when I see people nonchalantly handling firearms.[/blocktext]I do not like guns. I do not fetishize them. I hate going to the range and sitting elbow-to-elbow with poor young guys shooting hundreds of dollars of ammunition in seconds through modified automatic assault rifles. I hate watching the pretend paramilitary guy and his wife practicing for the inevitable apocalypse they’re hoping comes sooner than later, spraying bursts of bullets into human-shaped targets.
These modified assault rifles are the same guns the San Bernardino shooters used. I do not trust the mental stability of anyone who owns these weapons for mass killing. These are not people who make good decisions.
The gun range I frequent is always full, and I am almost always the only person shooting a weapon made for hunting.
I own a handful of well-made rifles and shotguns and do not keep them in my home. They are locked in my father’s gun safe. They are tools for specific functions — designed to kill animals I respect and will eat. I would love to be able to hunt with a bow, but don’t have the dedication or the time to develop and maintain that skill.
So I grit my teeth and carefully carry my gun a few days each year.
* * *
As daylight crept into the woods, I walked through shagbark hickory trees and watched the yellow cornfields filling up with light. The blue jays and gray squirrels had woken up and were gathering their breakfasts.
I noticed two ancient trees in this stand of woods — giant oaks that look as if they’d been growing here since the last ice age. It would have taken three or four people locking hands to get our arms around those gnarled trunks.
I heard the sound of the shotguns firing in the distance. On the horizon, out of range, I watched a pair of does running through the field with their white tails flashing warning. Their feet never seemed to touch the ground.
Deer were on the move.
Whitetails follow a somewhat predictable cycle of activities throughout the day, and skilled hunters will target the pattern of a specific animal, find a strategic place to hide, and if they’re lucky shoot the big buck they have spent weeks, or even months studying.
[blocktext align=”left”]On the horizon, out of range, I watched a pair of does running through the field with their white tails flashing warning. Their feet never seemed to touch the ground.[/blocktext]As someone hunting only on opening day of gun season, I could throw all of that quaint shit out the window.
On this day each year, the woods fill up with armed lunatics and the deer react accordingly. I can’t imagine what must be going through their minds. After months of tolerating the deer living off of our gardens, waving to them as they lounge in our lawns, we seemingly harmless dolts turn on them en masse.
Even in this sparsely populated corner of the state and on private land, I hear the popping sound of shotguns all day long. Every deer in the state is likely running for its life, pinballing from one group of hunters to the next.
Somewhere in the woods, I heard the sound of deer hooves on dry leaves. Too late to react, I stumbled into a small buck sporting antlers with two tines per side. Both of us were caught surprised, breathless within arm’s reach. We circled each other slowly and looked into each other’s faces. In an odd moment I imagined us as enemy soldiers in a war zone, caught in some kind of spontaneous, unspoken truce. The deer bolted away and I didn’t have a shot.
I heard other hunters open fire in the direction he had fled, and I hoped he’d made it past them.
* * *
I found my father in the corner of the woods, thinking his unknowable thoughts. He wore a red plaid wool hunting coat and blaze orange hat. I walked up to him while he watched a small group of deer running through a field a few hundred yards away through his binoculars.
There are aspects of our lives that we hold as indicative of our true selves. Hunting is my father’s defining characteristic. He reads all of the hunting magazines, attends banquets and auctions to benefit hunting organizations. His friends are all hunters. My boyhood home looked like a shrine to the fauna of North America, stuffed deer and elk staring down from the walls, flushed ducks and geese taking flight in my mother’s living room.
We have hunted together my whole life.
I didn’t love it, and I wasn’t very good at it. But I knew it was my father’s most sacred activity.
I was a moody little asshole in my teens, and thought somehow hunting with my dad might atone for that. So on cold fall mornings I would crawl out of bed, put on my wool pants and boots in the dark, and head out to the truck with bullets and knives in my pockets.
After hiking the steep forest for miles, getting tangled in briars and tripping over deadfalls, we would stop at a bare patch of dirt in the corner of the woods and my dad would say, See that scrape, that’s fresh! As if the hoof marks in the mud made some kind of sense, as if it were actionable information. I would nod as if I understood.
Most days we wouldn’t see anything, I wouldn’t even shoot the gun. The days we did shoot a deer were almost worse.
One year, some unknown allergen on a deer carcass caused my little brother to break out in hives while he learned how to gut his kill.
[blocktext align=”right”]Most days we wouldn’t see anything, I wouldn’t even shoot the gun. The days
we did shoot a deer were almost worse.[/blocktext]Another year, I took a Hail Mary shot at a deer across a ravine, killed it instantly with some incredible luck, and had to drag it up a steep slope as the sun set at 4:30 in the afternoon.
Cold and starving in the dark, I prepared to negotiate the dreaded act of field dressing a deer – fraught with the perils of removing the anus, the possibility of puncturing scent glands, nicking a bladder. Even now, pushing forty, my father would have to talk me through it as if I were ten years old.
My family also traveled to distant wildernesses to chase and kill animals.
We were just boys when my brother and I piled into the back of a van with a flatulent Labrador retriever and rode forty hours to a farm town near Regina Saskatchewan to hunt waterfowl. Flocks of ducks flew overhead and we shot blindly into the air. We picked up what fell out of the sky. On that trip drank our first beers and ate charred mallards burnt up on an old rusty Weber grill.
The year before my brother’s high school graduation we flew to Nunavut Territory in the Arctic to hunt caribou. I had never been to a more remote place. It was an unguided trip – we were provided a walled tent and meals, no local expertise. The caribou herds could be anywhere and we walked miles each day across the tundra. The ground was spongy and uneven. We didn’t see any caribou until the last day. We shot three animals a few miles from camp, just hours before the bush plane was scheduled to pick us up.
I’ll never forget carrying those bloody legs and tenderloins, tied up in pairs in cheesecloth and draped over my shoulders and hurrying with them back to the camp. My dad had decided to skin all of the caribou and tan the hides. My brother slept in those skins for the first two years of college and smelled like rotten taxidermy.
These stories make up who I am. Telling and retelling these stories, my family built our identities.
* * *The “white-tailed deer” or whitetails are the most widely distributed large animal in North America, ranging from Canada to Peru.
An average adult whitetail might weigh between 100 and 150 pounds, with males growing larger than females. Massive whitetail bucks have been recorded weighing over 350 pounds. In photos I’ve seen online with giants strung up next to a dumfounded human for scale, it appears as if the hunter has accidentally killed some kind of forest god.
Deer have two coats — winter and summer. During summer, the upper parts of the body are reddish brown, and in winter they are grayish brown. Summer hairs are short and thin while winter hairs are long, thick, hollow, and crinkled.
They are incredibly athletic animals and can run at 40 miles per hour and jump over obstacles up to nine feet high. With a leap, a whitetail can clear a 25-foot-wide gap.
The whitetail’s eyes are located on the sides of its head allowing it to scan nearly 180 degrees, giving excellent peripheral vision. Their eyes are about nine times more sensitive to light than ours and have great low-light vision and motion detection.
They are colorblind and have a hard time identifying humans if we hold perfectly still. But our stink can give us away.
A large portion of a whitetail’s brain is devoted to odor reception and interpretation and they use this sense to avoid predators. They also have excellent hearing with large cupped ears that they can rotate in different directions to pinpoint sound sources.
Whitetails are ruminants, like cows, sheep, giraffes, and goats. The word “ruminant” comes from the Latin ruminare, which means “to chew over again.” Deer gulp food without chewing allowing them to fill up in a short period of time while avoiding the danger of predators. Once bedded in cover, the whitetail then regurgitates the food, chews it, and swallows it allowing it to pass through the other chambers of its stomach for further digestion.
The social organization of the whitetail is largely matriarchal. Females tend to stick together for several generations. The most common social group is an adult doe, her fawns and her yearling female offspring. Bucks become territorial loners during the breeding season which is called the rut and takes place in the fall. Bucks hang out in small, loosely connected groups of two to four animals in the summer and winter months.
Only the male deer have antlers, which are the huge, branching bone structures growing out of their skulls.
They shed their antlers each year around January and then grow them back through the spring and summer. As they grow, antlers are covered with skin and soft hair called velvet, which carries blood vessels and nerves. In the fall the antlers harden and the deer rub the velvet off on tree branches. The deer use the antlers to assert dominance, provide defense, and attract mates.
In evolutionary terms, big antlers indicate that a male has access to high quality food and is smart enough to survive long enough to grow them. It allows a female to select a quality mating partner which will better support the biological fitness of her offspring.
* * *I heard them approaching from behind me: three does, two large and one smaller deer. The animals walked within fifty yards of where I sat and paused.
I drew my sights on the biggest one, a tricky shot threading a gap between two tree trunks. But I was confident in my shotgun, a Savage Arms 220 bolt-action 20 gage designed for accuracy, making the first shot count. I held my breath and fired.
The bullet hit the deer in the upper shoulder, broke the spine and likely killed her before she hit the ground. The two other deer had not spooked. I watched with a sick feeling as they stared back at their dead companion on the ground, seemed to call and encourage her to get up, to come with them. Then they bounded off, whistling a distress call, tails flying on high alert.
They ran past my father, who had started walking toward the sound of the gunfire. He passed up a shot at the two remaining deer, holding out for a larger buck.
My old man hugged me and took the gun, as we prepared to start the long process of turning this animal into food. We were converting the landscape – the oak and hickory, corn and grass — into meat which would build my body and the bodies of my sons.
I kneeled down and ran my hands over the animal, touching the hide and feeling its warmth.
If you don’t feel some kind of sadness after killing a sentient creature, you are a moron. There is an imperfect beauty in the process of shooting an animal and eating it, an acknowledgement of our place in the food web and deliberate participation in the world.
[blocktext align=”right”]If you don’t feel some kind of sadness after killing a sentient creature, you are a moron.[/blocktext]I don’t agree with critics who might argue that because each individual deer is as alive and aware as we are, it is a moral sin to take those lives.
Instead, I would argue it is far more ethical to feel the respect and sorrow associated with taking that life, rather than distancing ourselves from the cruelty of consuming other lives to feed ourselves.
Only about six percent of our country’s adult population hunts, according to survey data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And yet, over 96 percent of the adult population eats meat.
If you eat hamburgers and are opposed to hunting, you do not have a leg to stand on. Even vegetarians unwillingly contribute to the devastation of wild animal lives wrought by industrial agriculture: farm machinery running over nests and fleeing animals, pesticides, and habitat destruction.
Our carbon-based existence is fueled by cycles of organisms being eaten, nutrients recombining and transforming.
“Every day we foreclose one life over another, a never-ending triage, a constant choice of who will suffer so that we may live,” writes Ted Kerasote in Bloodties: Nature, Culture and the Hunt. “Hunting attaches me to this place and the animals I love, asking me to own what each of us ought to own in some personal way — the pain that runs the world.”
I barely register that I’m consuming animals at all when I’m blithely inhaling cheeseburgers and chicken wings. And yet, when it feeds my family this deer will remind me of my father, those huge oak trees, and the winter sky.
* * *
I hadn’t shot an animal in over decade. I’ve had three babies to care for, deep misgivings about killing, and uncooperative deer.
But I remembered the process of butchering a big animal as a disgusting slog.
Yet, this time felt different. I carefully removed and saved the heart, carved the lean muscle from the legs and torso, and vacuum sealed the cuts and ground meat with my father.
My mother walked down into her basement where she glimpsed us wrestling the last chunks of meat off of bloody ribcage and spine, and swore she would have nightmares for weeks afterward. But I felt great — inspired even — as we piled the packages of venison into my parents’ chest freezer.
Part of that satisfaction came from the fact that all three of my boys will eat this deer, saving money this winter and avoiding factory-raised protein stuffed with antibiotics. But the main reason I felt so good about the kill was because I’d done something objectively good for the environment.
White-tailed deer were nearly extirpated in Ohio 100 years ago, but with the systemic killing of predators and new hunting regulations the deer have bounced back. Today there are thirty million deer in the American forests and suburbs, 100 times more animals than a century ago.
Whitetails thrive in what’s called “edge habitat” — a patchwork of young regenerating forests and open grass. Our flight to suburbia turned the landscape into a deer paradise. Today, we’re dealing with the devastating effects of deer overpopulation.
“White-tailed deer likely impact every landscape east of the Mississippi River. The damage has been insidious — both slow moving and cumulative. Unfortunately, the harm is often overlooked, or worse, accepted as somehow natural,” wrote The Nature Conservancy. “In our opinion, no other threat to forested habitats is greater at this point in time — not lack of fire, not habitat conversion, not climate change. Only invasive exotic insects and disease have been comparable in magnitude.”
The deer are responsible for widespread declines in songbirds, moths, wildflowers, and uncounted other species. I’ve seen the damage firsthand, in springtime forests where diverse native plants grow only in isolated pens, fenced off from the ravenous herd.
In many ways these animals seem to be a product of us, not wild, but rather some kind of bovine-dog.
In a world where so many animals are facing diminishing resources, killing whitetail deer isn’t just acceptable, but preferable.
I wouldn’t feel good about hunting a grouse or a black bear. Yet culling one of these deer from the herd feels right, as if I might protect the landscape, not diminish it.
With a modern shotgun, a historically huge abundance of animals, and the madness of the opening day of deer season, the act itself doesn’t seem like some noble endeavor. Maybe I will one day have a more perfect hunting experience, some quiet connection to the landscape and its creatures.
But for now, I can feel good about living within Aldo Leopold’s advice. “A thing is right,” he wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “when it preserves the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
There are three times as many deer in the woods as there are hunters in the United States. Somebody has to do it.
Matt Stansberry was born in Akron, Ohio. He is a dad, nature writer, and fly fisherman. Find him on Twitter @LakeErieFlyFish. More of David Wilson’s illustration work can be found at dwillustration.com.
Matt and David’s monthly column, “North Coast Biodiversity,” is collected here. Order copies of the first edition of Redhorse — a print collection of the first six “North Coast Biodiversity” columns — here, and signed prints of David Wilson’s original art for the column here.
Find out more about Matt & David’s publications/additional projects on the newly launched Redhorse site: http://redhorsemag.com.
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