Six years ago, my first fall back in the Northwoods after a 23-year hiatus, I was out for a walk on the quiet gravel roads of our off-season when a slow-driving truck of orange-clad elders slowed beside me. They were all smiles and we spoke of nothing significant, but before driving away they cautioned me to wear hunter’s orange next time I was out and about on foot. “Even on the road?” I asked in disbelief. “Even on the road,” they said.
Just last week, I was bundling up to go out for a walk and my guy hustles after me, handing me an orange vest and stocking hat.
Six years I’ve lived here now, and it still wasn’t second-nature that I should wear orange when going for a walk during hunting season. I’ve been an observer on deer drives, walking slowly behind everyone, picking mushrooms and collecting fallen birch bark. I’ve sat gun-less in a tree stand for hours, listening, breathing, loving the stillness, the graceful sinking into the depths of the simplicity and perfection of nature. I’ve seen the birth-stained ground where two fawns came into the world, both instinctively afraid of me though surely less than an hour old. I’ve said prayers over the harvested deer as the light faded from its eyes. I’ve watched with too many emotions as my chosen hunter cupped his bare hands together to scoop blood from the pelvic cavity. I’ve also been the typical hunting widow, exasperated by the time apart and the solo-parenting. I’ve cut and canned and wrapped a fair share of venison, and I’ve learned about the hunt, the rut, scrapes and rubs, behavior, tracks and trails, and on and on.
Yet, I still don’t see meat when I watch the graceful doe with her fawns walk warily into our yard to finish off the last of our jack-o-lanterns. I don’t see conquest when I spot the antlers, which my eyes discern quite quickly now even while we fly by grazing deer at highway speeds.
I don’t see lumber when I look at a tall, healthy tree nor firewood when one leans precariously towards something humanmade. I can’t yet see a rutted, washboard road, frozen as such all winter long, when I watch the fall rains cleanse the trees of the last of their dead leaves.
I wonder how long it will take for this place to creep all the way in?
I wonder if I will become all that I see.
Will the beauty still be evident to my changed eyes when I’ve been here 12 years? 18 years? How many more fears will I hold as truths because someone else seemingly trustworthy and already indoctrinated told me to be afraid?
I will catch fish after fish and gladly hand them over to be killed and cleaned by someone else. And at the same time, I quietly abhor that we let a child take the life of a deer without their having even partial responsibility for the aftereffects – no part in the gutting, dragging, hanging, skinning, deboning, cutting, etc.
I tell myself now that if my daughter chooses to hunt when she’s of-age, if she chooses to extinguish the light of another living creature then I will mandate that she see that death through to the extent of her capabilities. And I will too someday down the road if it’s ever necessary that I do the killing.
But will all that change when I watch her, orange-clad and excited, following her dad out into the cold? Surely, I will celebrate with her when she makes a clean kill, and I will weep with her if the animal suffers. Will I fear the rare but entirely possible hunting accident? Will I still loath the video-game mindset? Pull the trigger, take the pictures, get the accolades but with no real respect for all that’s happened and no involvement in all that happens next.
Am I so attached to my current version of righteousness that I look with disdain at the moral vicissitudes I may evolve to in the future?
19th century French author Jules Renard wrote something to the effect of, “If you are afraid of being lonely, don’t try to be right.” How true that rings in this time of information overload and 24/7 connectivity when everyone has an opinion and a means to broadcast it loudly, even destructively. How true that rings in my own pathetic life, as I’ve made myself “right” and written about it uninterrupted. How true that rings in each of our lonely parts of the world as we breathe our beliefs: our way is the best, the only, the one right way.
Yes, it’s a good idea, a good precaution to wear orange this time of year when walking here. But, if an inexperienced or over-excited hunter happens to shoot towards the road, orange certainly isn’t going to stop a bullet. The function it serves is simply to offer a reminder to take caution of human life, a small ping in the back of someone’s brain to watch for that color, to shoot only in a safe direction, to take responsibility for both the pre- and post-effects of pulling the trigger.
And I hope that’s truly what it means for all the inexperienced ones out there toting hunting rifles. I hope the adults have learned and thus are teaching the sacredness of life, all life, and the responsibility involved in taking it, from bullet to freezer tape and everything in between. I hope I someday see the reverence in the buck fever, the thanksgiving in the deer camp after-party, the awe and appreciation inherent in the cold and quiet wait of the hunt.
I hope I don’t mind being lonely, because as some would say, I certainly live in the wrong part of the country to voice opinions like this.
All-in-all, I’m only 42 years into life and six years into life here; what do I know? I can’t even remember to wear orange.
(Published in the Nov 14th issue of the Warroad Pioneer)