So much of the developed world operates on factory to table, not farm to table, on factory substance not foraged sustenance. In a mechanized and industrial process of producing food that consumes the first world, there exists a complete disjunction and disconnection between the life in front of us and the food on our plate. An air force of chickens’ wings is consumed in one sitting. Cavalries of cows are shipped across the world so that the consumer can have just the right bite of just the right beef. And believe me, I’m the first to raise a guilty fork at this. It disconnects us from the cycle of living and dying encompassing everything and everyone. By hunting and foraging for food, I seek to re-establish that connection with the cycle of life and death. An active role allows me to appreciate the food on my plate in a different way, a deeper way, a primal way. It demands respect and recognition.
I’m aware this is a conversation that is highly controversial, and incites and invites complaints and opinions ending in countless dietary digressions. But I hope a common ground can be found on a foundation of respect. Plants and animals, and the cycle of life that binds us all, at a bare minimum, deserve respect and recognition. We are not passive observers of this earthly cycle. Like it or not, we are bound to it – bound to both plants and animals alike, regardless of our dietary discretions. So, I choose to acknowledge my place in the cycle of life and death, and play an active role in it not without respect, but because of it. I feel a responsibility to act as reaper to both plants and animals alike, rather than stand as a passive consumer, divorced from the cycle. In a world where a cut of meat and a bag of produce can be delivered to your door with the click of a button, hunting has a way of recreating connection. It’s a reminder of how much work is required just to find pleasure in a piece of meat and a plate of food.
Summer’s transition to fall brings longer nights. The wind whispers with a winter tongue, and licks leaves from the trees. The buzz and hum of a million creatures quell as the earth prepares for a season of sleep. Yet to a growing subculture, this shift signals hunting season.
There are so many reasons hunting appeals to me. A long-time lover of the outdoors, I find comfort in the trees, clarity in the mountains, and I am numb with happiness in the water. Hunting offers the moments in mountains that I seek. Most mornings begin well before dawn, when the night sky boasts it’s best black. Alarms buzz and beep, and hunters stumble out of sleep. Long days are spent quietly searching for signs, tracking trails and glassing hillsides, straining to see deer bedded down on southern slopes, seeking the sun’s rays. Whether quietly waiting on the whims of the winds, or trudging up-hill with sweat sneaking through my skin, this is where my heart beats hardest.
Hours, weeks and months of planning go into hunting trips. Summer scouting builds mental maps, and forest service roads act as access elevators to rugged worlds. Terrains are studied, and the seasonal migration of game herds are considered when deciding when and where to hunt. Visits to the gun range ensure accuracy between scope, barrel and bullet. Game lotteries are determined and drawn for proper conservation and control of various animal populations. All with one hope in mind. A freezer full of hormone free, non-factory, unfarmed, wild meat.
The entire process is physically demanding and exhausting – and deeply humbling. From the early mornings, to the long days and cold nights, it’s no easy feat. And I haven’t even bagged a deer yet. I haven’t needed to field dress it, strap it to my back, or drag it to camp and break it down into freezer sized pieces. It’s been 3 seasons now, and no male mule deer has ever even entered my rifle sight. Yet, despite the difficulty and disappointment, I’m still drawn to the process. I’m pulled to it because it breeds connection, fostering a relationship with the lands and those living within it.
A relationship you say? I’m aware this is a volatile conversation and I understand the word relationship might strike you as strange. I seek these animals to claim their life to feed my own. To force their transition into food. I understand the tension here. Yet, it’s food that my own hands and heart had a part in producing. It’s a connection to the cycle of life and death binding the earth – a participation in the tide of her breathing. I want to recognize and honour the life required to feed my own life – both plant and animal. It’s something I think we should all be aware of. So, I want to tell you a story about my first kill.
I raised my head and the rabbit stood still in the middle of the road. My hand had been resting inside the lever of a lever action .22 caliber rifle. Almost instinctively, I pulled at it. The chamber door opened, ejecting the spent cartridge from the last round. Another round slipped up through the feeding path and lodged itself in the chamber, awaiting the strike of the firing pin. I raised the rifle, aligning my eye with the rabbit, front and then rear sight.
“Take the shot,” my hunting partner said.
I exhaled slowly, searching for stillness waiting at the bottom of my breath. My finger began to drag down on the trigger. It reached a critical threshold, and engaged the firing pin.
The pin smacked the rim of the cartridge, initiating countless micro explosions in milliseconds. Combustion caused pressure to propel the bullet out of the cartridge and down the length of the barrel and out into the cool mountain air. The small caliber rifle let out a modest crack, and gently kicked back into my shoulder.
Houston, we have lift off.
The bullet sped through the air and disappeared into the distance, as if never shot at all. The startled rabbit leapt off the road and into the bush. I missed.
Houston, we have a problem.
We crept forward with a keen eye on the edge of the bush where the rabbit fled. As we approached, he stood outside of any cover, curiously looking back. Again, I raised the rifle. A voice inside my head called to the creature. Run rabbit, run! Don’t you know you’re in danger!?! He stared, not daring to move a muscle, testing my commitment. I hesitated. He remained motionless. I took the shot. Before any of us were aware, the bullet had passed through the back of his neck and exited through the left forequarter. As quick as the crack of the rifle, the rabbit had left this world.
I walked over to the spot of the shot. It was a clean and quick kill. He didn't have the chance to run wounded for cover, death overcame him in an instant. When I approached, he twitched - his synapses making one last defiant plea to death – one last plea for life. Oh shit. Did I really just do that? A sadness overcame me. I stroked his soft fur, his body still radiated warmth. I sat hunched over him for a few more moments. His blood slowly stilled. My blood quickened, carrying mixed emotions speeding on the arterial highways between my heart and my head. His quick death smacked me right in the face. It made me consider all of the life I’ve consumed throughout my own life, death out of sight and out of mind. I thanked the rabbit and acknowledged that food in any form, requires life. I paid my respects.
We made it back to camp just as the sun set. It washed a distant snow-capped peak in an unmistakable combination of pink and orange. Day bled into dusk, foreshadowing its fall, while night crept closer, consuming what was left of day. Drops of blood dripped from the rabbit’s fur and onto the table, reminding me of the damage I’d done. A cocktail of anxiety, adrenaline and excitement moved me, while the white water waged its white noise fury over our riverside campsite. I opened the book to the page addressing the dressing and butchering of rabbits and squirrels, and unsheathed my knife.
“Cut off the legs of the animal at the elbows.”
I palpated and found the joints - weak points existing between the bone, where enduring and strong, yet brittle calcium deposits give way to soft sinew and flexible flesh. A compromise designed for dexterity and mobility. My knife crunched through with ease, and two lucky rabbit’s feet appeared. I felt fault for taking what was left of the little critter’s luck. I set them aside.
“Twist the head to break the spine, then cut off the head.”
Cut off the head? I grabbed his warm rib cage with my left hand, and lifted him off the table. My right hand grabbed him by the base of the skull, unsure of what I was searching for. I twisted his neck until I felt a crackling. I shivered. I shuddered. I placed him down and grabbed my knife. I wondered whether his neck or spine was actually broken. I stretched him out and placed my knife where skull and spine share a fluid border, where life passes seamlessly, exchanging stories and experiences, informing about the surrounding world. My knife severed this connection and parted his body with ease. A chill sprinted up my spine and through my own neck. Suddenly, he was much less rabbit, much more food.
“Make a waist line cut, just through the skin, all the way around the animal.”
Dismembered and disfigured, the time had come to pull the pillow soft fur from his body. I carefully cut through the skin and opened his innards to the world. I ran my index and middle finger of each hand underneath the fur along the spine, further loosening his connection with the material world. It’s called the sweater and pants technique. Once loosened, I pulled at the fur from the middle of the body in opposite directions, and it slid off his body, without confrontation. The warm, red, naked corpse of a rabbit lay in front of me.
“Hold the animal upright, grasp the entrails in the rib-cage area, and gently pull down.”
A transparent sac held his organs intact. I walked to the cliff at the edge of the gorge. Proper disposal of the pieces was imperative. Grizzlies roamed this country. I punctured the sac, placed my hands underneath the ribs and gripped the internal organs of the animal. I decided not to wear gloves. I wanted blood on my hands. I wanted to feel every texture of this life I took and feel every texture of this life I was about to consume. I pulled at his internal parts and they slid out and into my fingers. A kidney clung to the cavity. I launched his innards over the cliff aiming for the river, trying to wash away everything I’d done.
Darkness consumed the camp, and the night’s impending frost began to reveal itself in the cracks and crevices. I cleaned my knife, then my hands, in icy water, my fingers burning from its touch. As it always does, the fire brought life to the night, and the heat caressed my cold fingers. I decided to butterfly the rabbit and laid it flat on a grill over top of the fire. I’ve spent many nights grilling meat over an open fire. However, this was the first time an animal transitioned from life, to flesh, to food by my own hands. I felt deeply humbled at being a part of the process, beginning to end. Slowly, the warmth from the fire turned the macabre spectacle of raw flesh into meat – hormone free, naturally raised, wild meat. We sat with two rabbit legs on our plate and a small back strap. They tasted of the wildness. They tasted of wilderness. They made me wonder how we’ve become so separated from this process, wishing I’d been part of it my whole life.
This project is on-going. I want to continue to create images that remind us that we are not removed from the cycle of life and death that binds us all. With each bite, plant or animal, we are complicit in death and rooted in this inevitable cycle – and accompanied by awareness, respect, recognition, that’s ok. Any life requires death, and any death requires life. They need each other, as much as we need them – lovers bound in a dance stomping blues wounds and singing soul tunes in our hearts. My intention is to honour this cycle and show the process of attaining a freezer full of wild meat from start to finish to demonstrate both the difficulty and beauty. To be continued…