Tonight I fed my family wild pork. A meat so incredible in flavor and texture that words can’t describe it – that is, I lack the poetry. I could go on and on about it, but this story isn’t about wild pork (I’m sure I’ll be doing plenty of telling around that subject). I’m not going to write about the small hunger that is satisfied by a meal, even one as exquisite as wild swine, but I will endeavor to tell you a little bit about a bigger hunger, a feeling that only direct participation in the circle of life can satiate…
I wasn’t always a hunter. In fact, there was a time in my past when I was a vegetarian. I even spent time as a vegan. My reasoning for choosing that lifestyle was based on some assumptions I held sacred and beliefs I defended as adamantly as I would the people I care about. Amongst those beliefs was that the least impacting or harmful lifestyle a human could endeavor to have would include farming for one’s food and ‘doing no harm’ in terms of not killing animals for food. I studied permaculture and French intensive gardening. I collected seeds and would sweat in backyard garden plots – succeeding as most do in growing tomatoes, greens, beans, corn, etc.
Of course, living in the breadbasket of the world where the soil is sweet and the sun is warm makes growing vegetables relatively easy, but to say that I ever grew enough food to feed myself let alone anyone else would be a bit of a stretch. I was, after all, in standard lots in standard subdivisions. My gardens were modest, worked by hand, and reflected the absolute maximum effort I could extort without breaking my body. Lacking land, a plow, an ox, a tractor or the industry required to make or maintain any of them, I found myself struggling against an ideal. I had to come to terms with the fact that I was failing in terms of reaching my dreams of self-reliance and a simpler lifestyle. Even plotting ways to make it work while juggling duties as a firefighter and pursuing other interests was making that reality a further and further likelihood.
I moved to a small house in the Santa Cruz mountains of California with my new wife. A place called Loma Prieta. We lived at the top of a ridge on a 5 acre plot with an old apple orchard surrounded on three sides by vineyards and more fruit trees. On the fourth side was a vast and very steep expanse of thick, brushy woodland that extended downhill a mile or so to the bottom of a narrow uninhabitable canyon. It was the kind of land we have a lot of in California, land which no one in thier right mind would farm. Being on a nice, sunny 5 acre flat (and previously cleared) spot I thought I could maybe make it happen: grow enough food to feed my family and have enough left over to share the bounty!
My bubble, unfortunately, was soon burst. Unlike the biodiversity-lacking suburbs, the mountain dwelling was damned near invaded. The first order of business was ridding the house’s sub-floor of wood rats then mending the fence in an attempt to keep the deer out. It employed all of this poor man’s ingenuity and all the neighborly help I could muster. Even if I temporarily succeeded in keeping the deer who were hell bent on getting to my neighbor’s grapes away from my garden, I still had turkeys, quail, slugs, snails, weeds, lizards, foxes, doves and all kinds of creatures that wanted use of my garden’s soil or its fruits.
My attempts at keeping this onslaught at bay were all lame and failed. I was demanding that this piece of land yield only what I wanted and that its biodiversity be determined by my needs alone. The only comfort I had left was knowing that my rich neighbor’s nine foot high and ridiculously expensive deer fence wasn’t working either and the rats were getting into his McMansion just as easily as they were getting into my McShack. But anyway…
One day while toiling in my garden at the edge of the wooded abyss I had an epiphany. I realized that those deer weren’t getting big and fat off of my garden. No one was. They weren’t getting fat off of the neighbor’s fruit either. The apples were only on the ground for a short while. I wondered what was sustaining them and my curiosity led me down a “rabbit hole” that I haven’t emerged from since. I started to actually observe the creatures I had once only admired at a distance. Though I had been in many beautiful places I was up until this point a pretty typical stay-on-the-trail kind of guy. Nature was to be preserved and up until this point I observed creatures at a distance, physically and emotionally (though I professed to love them). I gave environmental groups lip-service but seldom had two pennies to rub together let alone spare for groups like Greenpeace ( though I’d manage to find enough money to buy bumper stickers to offset my guilt for driving a car.) What being that up close and personal to nature did to me was open my eyes to a simple fact: I had it all wrong.
The vegetarian lifestyle wasn’t the ideal life at all! It not only took tremendous work to feed myself off the land, it also entailed my deciding what would live and die, my interpretation of what the land was good for, my will and pleasure over all of the other creatures that called that plot of earth home! Not only that, I had to make the land do what it wasn’t necessarily inclined to do! When I decided I had enough of the pick axe, the sweat, the less-than-satisfying granola, when I couldn’t stand the pit in my stomach that never felt full enough, I decided it was time to kill something and eat it. I jumped on the internet and got a quick lesson in field dressing and game meat, picked up a hunter safety course and a license, borrowed my brother’s rifle and took the deer who made it a habit of sitting under my cherry tree every evening.
That meal of venison was the best meal I have ever had. I was covered in blood, stung to hell and back by yellow jackets, scratching a new poison oak rash and grinning from ear to ear. The deer was taken with all the prayerful intent I could muster. The deer had in an instant transformed from competitor to sustenance. I fed myself and my family heartily from him and he became a part of me forever.
Since then I haven’t looked back. The last deer I shot fed 72 people. That’s right, 72! and regardless of whether someone ate a whole steak or just a chunk in a stew, that deer is now a part of us all. Participating in this simple alchemy of prey to sustenance, this cycle of life, death and renewal, has given me a greater sense of being and reverence than I have ever known.I now understand without trepidation that life is sustained by death. I offer my quarry as painless a death as possible -precise, practiced, quick and clean. I pray forgiveness for any fear I may have caused it and gratitude for the gift of its flesh. I honor the kill through careful field dressing, butchering, curing and storage. I put love and consciousness in the meals I cook, and I give thanks to God for the bounty on my table. On top of all this, I now tread off the beaten path on narrow game trails and into country previously undiscovered, know more about the animals that I hunt – habitat, food preferences, life cycles, etc. – than I ever have, and I put my money where my mouth is by paying for real conservation through license and tag fees. I can only dream that when I die the worms give me half as much consideration!
We might gain something by being just as mindful when we pull a carrot out of the ground or harvest a head of lettuce because it is possible that even plants feel pain. Be conscious of where your food comes from. Participate in this cycle of life. Remember to share the bounty.