“Mom, can we bring the pup?” asks Kai, gazing up with expectant hazel eyes, the freckle under his left eye illuminated in early afternoon sun. I glance at our dog, Coco: a small whitish mass of downy fluff and energy, her tail alert and wagging.
“Sure,” I say. “She’s part of the family, too, right?”
My children, Kai and Rory, exclaim “Yay!” in unison. Kai takes Coco’s leash from its hook in the laundry room, attaches the leash to Coco’s black collar, and stands and salutes, saying, “Ready for takeoff, ma’am!” Rory follows suit, also saluting. She giggles. Her freckled cheeks giggle with her. The dog sneezes.
We open the door to a gentle easterly fall breeze, and pile into the car for a hike in nearby hills.
Our valley had its first snow a few days earlier, ironically, on the calendar’s first day of autumn: snow sheathed the higher rocky crags, and icy confetti dotted our driveway. I mused on Mother Nature’s harsh whims, knowing better but nevertheless pressing a grey smudge of bitterness on my heart. The weather gave us a short reprieve, and I seized the chance to venture out – with the kids, the dog, and the camera – in search of changing leaves.
We drove to Power Plant Road, and started up a trail that leads to a peak overlooking the valley. Kai offered to walk Coco so that Rory and I could take pictures. We passed two hunters dressed in dark camouflage suits, a common sight during the annual hunting season. They knelt in the dirt with their backs to us, rinsing their hands in a stream of snow run-off, and talking in low, deep voices. We continued up the trail with Kai and Coco in the lead. Kai stopped abruptly.
“Mom?” he asked. “Mom, what’s that?” He pointed.
“What’s what?” I said, unzipping the camera bag and wrestling out the camera. My eyes followed Kai’s finger and saw a bright red leg, deftly removed of skin, with muscle, bone, and hoof in tact. A precise cube of venison steak lay in the dirt by my feet; stringy maroon entrails scattered along the path in the short distance between us.
“Is that blood, mom?” asked Kai, who is squeamish about everything related to internal anatomy. He presses his hands to his eyes during portions of movies or television shows that involve the handling or manipulation of flesh. “Sorry,” he says, genuinely apologetic. “It’s just that it makes me feel yucky inside.” He gags at the sight of blood and prefers to eat things that grow from the earth.
Around us, autumn’s leaves succumbed to winter; they changed colors, but the colors were muted and pale. The deer leg offered the brightest hue for miles. I looked at Kai, who stared at the neatly severed leg with uncharacteristic calm. His arms strained to hold Coco, the only hunter among us, pawing at the dirt and sniffing furiously. The sun shone warmly on my skin, but I felt chilled. Distant gunshots pierced the air.
“Come on back down, you guys,” I said, as coolly as I could, though even I felt yucky inside. “Don’t let the dog get that meat,” I added.
The hunters had left; clouds of dust swirled in the wake of their four-wheelers. I have never hunted, but I was puzzled. Why would anyone leave such a huge portion of meat behind after going to the trouble of killing the deer? Would the hunter return to claim what remained? We did not linger to find out.
When I was a child visiting my grandfather in Idaho, we said grace before meals. Grandpa spent most of his career working in Africa as a physician and missionary for the Lutheran church. He dreamt in vivid detail and often recounted his dreams at the breakfast table: wild tales of hunting and harrowing near-death experiences, the tableau of his memories translated into the larger-than-life adventures of his subconscious mind. Grandpa hunted and fished for sustenance as well as survival. Saying grace was his way of honoring the providence of his Lord. The naked affront of flesh on the trail brought his voice back to me.
We thank you, Lord, for this meal we are about to receive and for the blessings you give to us each day…
Heavenly Father, we thank you for the sustenance you provide to our bodies and to our souls…
Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. Let these gifts to us be blessed…
Winter brings deer down from the mountains into our high desert valley. Their trails scissor the deep, impacted snow. They nibble at bare hedges and bound fences easily. The deer congregate in clusters, trotting past the house, lingering underneath the trampoline with luminous black eyes, watchful but emboldened.
Coco invariably barks at them. I’ve seen Coco confront a doe, who held eye contact with the dog, lifting and lowering her head repeatedly as if to say, Don’t cross me, runt. I suspect the doe’s powerful hooves would trump Coco’s teeth in a fight. Exiles of the snow, the deer seek what sustenance they can find, wherever and however they can find it.
There was a time when I, the reformed Yankee, frowned upon hunting. But time and knowledge changed me. If deer in our valley proliferated unchecked, they would render our gardens bare without so much as a guilty exhale, clearing trees and shrubs of foliage, chewing lettuces flat to the ground. My friend – a true Renaissance man who bakes his own bread, bottles wine from grapes and fruits he’s grown, and gardens by principle – lost acres and months of gardening effort to a single family of deer last year despite preventative barriers. The deer ravaged his extensive garden overnight. Deer graze everything, and they reproduce rapidly. They multiply, despite their high rate of roadside casualties. Do I see myself hunting? No, but I understand the practicality of hunting in my area.
As a meat eater, albeit an occasional one, I acknowledge my complicity in the demise of animals who, while not hunted, are born and raised to give their lives for my supper. I may not wield the gun, but I purchase and consume the spoils. The plastic-wrapped parcels I buy are a different version of the same primal hunger. Meat is flesh; organs are organs. The bare leg on the trail confronted me with this humbling reminder.
My grandfather died years ago, and my practice of saying grace at the table died with him. His spirit has not left me, however, so instead I practice gratitude, sprinkling my thanks on plates of crunchy fried chicken and seasoning my meals with care.
The deer distressed me. Is it common for hunters to leave unwanted meat? Are deer legs undesirable cuts, and if so, why go to the trouble of skinning an entire leg only to leave it, carelessly strewn in the woods? Why make the effort of killing the animal, only to waste such a considerable part of it? It struck me as an appalling lack of regard: towards other humans and, more importantly, the deer itself. I think I heard my grandfather’s voice that day to tether me, to remind me of what it means to be grateful. His voice rustled through the pale leaves, whispering condolences for a loss wholly lacking grace.
© Julia Moris-Hartley, 2013