The Hunt

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Matt Geiger

I was reminded Wednesday of how fragile and thin the veneer of civilization is. 

This was not one of my quiet, plodding, vaguely philosophical realizations. It did not come with a slow nod or a breathy “aha.” No, this came with the crack of a gunshot slicing through daggers of sleet. This came with the thud of a dead body hitting the muddy earth. And just like that, I was up to my arms in viscera, having literally the most visceral experience of my life. 

Author Steve Rinella points out in one of his books that hunting stories are the oldest stories. They are the first stories, out of which all our subsequent narratives grew. The oldest cave drawings, painted by the undulating light of fires that crackled, like the infant predecessors of last week’s gunshot, told of giant deer that people hunted, and giant bears and lions that hunted people. It’s even been suggested, according to Rinella, that the human kiss, which exists across so many cultures and times, grew out of the habit, which wolves still have, of smelling one another’s mouths to discover what they have been hunting.

I turned 40 this year, and with the realization that my life is likely more than half over, I decided to do a couple things now, rather than putting them off until later. I’d rather not have my obituary contain phrases like: “He always wanted to…” or “He hoped to one day...” 

As most of you know, I am a fairly progressive person whose social circle consists largely of people who are also somewhat left of center. As such, I don’t see much camouflage at dinner parties, and I don’t hear many hunting stories over dinner. My tribe is more likely to talk about Ken Burns than the proper caliber for bringing down a buck in rut. It’s odd, really, because my tribe also talks (endlessly) about the importance of sustainable eating, and there is no more sustainable, ethical way to eat meat than to harvest it directly out of the wilderness. There is no better way to feel good about the animals who feed you than to know they died without ever seeing the inside of a slaughterhouse, and they didn’t expire a long, slow death in the cold, while coyotes yipped and tugged on their withered haunches. 

I grew up on a farm, and my dad gave me a .22 rifle when I was a boy. So, firearms were not totally alien to me. Yet in my tribe, guns have come to be seen as something inherently evil, and they are associated more with human vice and pointless war than the respectful, somewhat spiritual harvesting of wild game. 

I’ve grown tired of my personal echo chamber, though, and I wanted to see, hear, and experience something else. I wanted something new, and also very old. I wanted to experience a different culture, and I wanted to tap into those ancient stories that gave rise to language. It’s funny that the words used by us today as we argue about war and peace, about faith and science, about burgers and kale, only exist because we invented them to tell each other hunting stories, late at night, around those prehistoric fires. 


Getting Ready

This summer, I embarked on the process of completing a hunter safety course, in which I learned that accidentally shooting your hunting partners is frowned upon, and plummeting to your death out of a 30-foot tree stand is, and this is a direct quote from the class, “not recommended.” I researched firearms for so long that the Internet algorithm that governs my life got very confused and was unsure whether to send me links for t-shirts with Che Guevara on them, or Donald Trump. (It decided to err on the side of caution and try to sell me both.) 

I read a book and watched dozens of hours of instructional videos on YouTube, learning about scent and wind, birth and death, mating and eating, and so much more in the world of deer. My favorite video was called: “What deer see.” I suddenly realized that to hunt an animal is to know it more intimately than ever before. To stalk something is to be connected to it, by the eons that have passed between us, that we have both survived, predator and prey, mystified by one another. Magical and powerful to one another. 

I bought my hunting rifle from a business that regularly places Republican political signs on their front lawn. As I walked in, perhaps addled by too much time on the Internet, I assumed an ogre behind the counter would assault me and call me a “snowflake,” or worse. I expected people who breathed fire and bigotry. But what I encountered was soft-spoken kindness, generosity, and a free lesson and word of advice. At every turn, as I bought my gear and prepared to head into the woods, I asked for advice, and at every turn, strangers gave it to me. 

At the Yellowstone rifle range, an elderly man from Middleton saw that I didn’t know how to properly prepare the scope, and he proceeded to spend an hour using his various tools and ample knowledge to show me how to do it. Everyone I met, from the gun shop to the butcher to the DNR warden, was kind and enthusiastic. People went so far beyond the conventional boundaries of politeness, that I found it slightly euphoric. 

And then, suddenly and for reasons I don’t totally understand, everything opened up. Moms and dads waiting in line to pick up their kids outside my daughter’s kindergarten started talking to me about their own hunting adventures. Several offered to let me hunt with them, on both private and public land. I found out my daughter’s kindergarten teacher is an avid deer hunter, as is our local librarian. Many of the hunters who showed me kindness were Republicans, and they were normal human beings full of kindness, but several Democrats suddenly talked to me about their hunting experiences as well. 

One good friend let me butcher his deer with him, so I could learn. It was bloody but exhilarating to learn something so immediate and so ancient. I read articles about all the hunters who came before me, fascinated by the way African Americans who lived in poverty during Jim Crow kept their families alive by hunting and fishing, and how many of their poor white counterparts do the same today. 


The Hunt

I spent roughly 30 hours over the course of a week, sitting in various tree stands and blinds, watching the sun rise and watching it set. For the first several days, I only watched wildlife, failing to see any deer. I did see a coyote, a bald eagle, many turkeys, and countless squirrels who came near me when I shut my mouth and waited. I got to know the weather, oh, the Wisconsin weather. My toes and fingers turned numb and blue. I learned how to dress, how to really dress, for the cold, the snow, the rain and the wind. I now understand exactly what meteorologists mean when they refer to a “wintery mix.”

One afternoon, just before the end of the day, a large buck appeared silently in a valley a couple hundred yards away. I kept my cool, by which I mean I completely freaked out, shot before I was ready, and missed. I did manage to strike a nearby tree, but the hunting community tends to frown on hitting living things you aren’t aiming at, so I try not to brag about it.  

The buck ran away, and I was left in awe of the hundred thousand years of history contained in that moment. I was sure, and remain sure, that the buck I looked at through my scope was the most beautiful animal I had ever seen. Not objectively, of course, but because of the proximity of death that cast its pale, shimmering light over his tawny body. I was mad at myself for missing, but happy for the deer. I felt not unlike I do when I watch nature shows, rooting for both the lion and the zebra, and feeling something bittersweet whichever one or the other prevails


The End

On my last day hunting, I began before sunup, waiting patiently for what is known as “legal light.” It was the longest day yet, and the winds blew so hard that a massive tree crashed down not too far from my tree stand. Up in my tree, I felt like I was tied to the mast of a ship caught in a typhoon. About an hour before the end of legal light, I gave up. I unloaded my rifle, climbed down, stomped my feet and rubbed my fingers to coax blood back into them, then walked back toward my car. But my friend was still out in the woods, and he had the keys, so I sat down on the edge of a cornfield and decided to relax for a few minutes. My hunting experiment had the distinct taste of failure, so I grabbed a pouch of pipe tobacco (I don’t smoke, but I figured it would be a fun habit for the week I was hunting). I lit the pipe, and the smell of rum-barrel cavendish filled the air. And then, as I settled down and felt my body relax, three deer walked out into the field in front of me, appearing as if by magic. They seemed very much like an offering from some ancient god. 

I couldn’t believe it. I picked up my rifle, loaded it, took aim, lowered it to collect myself, then raised it again and fired. The buck died long before he hit the ground. I honestly hope my own death comes with a similar lack of anxiety and forethought, many years from now. Bang and gone. 

It was an emotional moment, and as with the nature show, I was filled with joy for the predator and sympathy for the prey. With an enormous amount of help from various friends, I gutted it, skinned it, butchered it, and filled our family’s freezer with meat. I hope we eat very little that comes from animals who died in slaughterhouses, this winter, instead staying full and warm with this animal whose life I took. There is an honesty to it, at least. 

I know it sounds grandiose, but it really is a life that was taken, but not for nothing. And it is not entirely gone, I realize. Because we are still here, you and I, telling and listening to a story about it. The kind of story that is at the very root of our humanity, told on the walls of ice age caves, told around fires long before the dawn of civilization. And told here. 

I wonder, really, if when I’m gone, people will tell stories about me. I can only hope to be so lucky.


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