The following was written by my daughter and first guest blogger, Becky Clough.
In early November, while at home in Maine, I shot my first deer. It was a gorgeous, golden fall morning a mere three days into the season, when a brawny buck with an early rut on the mind strode into the light of his final feed. With great weightiness I can say he did not know I was 50 yards away sitting so still, rifle raised, poised for a swift, ethical shot that I took without hesitation. He dropped in his tracks.
I approached the large beautiful animal, sobbing with disbelief. Taking my gloves off, I knelt with a hand on his head, put an acorn I’d been carrying in his mouth, then gave him a drink of my water. In offering his spirit a last bit of food and drink, I attempted to establish a grounding place—a foundation of respect for experiencing the long, arduous and emotionally complex process of actually harvesting my own meat instead of just thinking about it. This moment was three hunting seasons in the making, backed by unyielding support and education on the matter from my Dad. Although I’d spent countless hours sitting still, walking slowly, scanning the snow-filled forests of northern Idaho and western Maine, seeing deer tracks as I lay in bed at night every November, it never seemed like actually being in the right place at the right time, with the right wind, facing the right direction could ever manifest into a real deer. Until it did, quite suddenly.
After a congratulatory 6:20 AM sip of my Dad’s whiskey, and being engulfed in a long, proud hug wherein I wept into my Dad’s chest (and he told me whatever I felt was completely acceptable) it was time to snap a few photos and do the real work. (More thoughts on taking photos later.) Riding waves of emotion—disbelief, gratitude, heartache, sadness, relief—I committed to field dressing the animal while getting the feel of a buck knife in my hand as the third generation of Clough to carry it. I attempted to be careful and composed doing, frankly, the most grisly of tasks, which I’d only observed once before. I knew, though, that burying how I felt was not the point of hunting, and had never been one of my goals. In those visceral moments, bloodied and profoundly human, I was connected to my best self. Diving into something I did not fully understand, I was focused while also feeling. I was vulnerable, inexperienced and alright with it, telling myself it was okay to feel pleased and broken-hearted at the same time. Fifteen minutes later, as I removed the still-warm heart of that animal to bring home to a dinner plate, I felt a conflicted sort of contentment I’d been living too far away from for too long.
And yes, in regard to the tradition of posing in camo holding up the head of a beautiful, wild animal you’ve just shot, it is weird. And tiring. But I did smile. I also understood why, to folks who do not approve of hunting, such photos (and hunting in general) appear, at face value, to be grimly sporty and soul-less. How could I smile in a moment of such melancholy? Minutes before in my adrenaline-fueled cry, wasn’t I just lamenting how it felt so suddenly wrong because I respect wild animals perhaps more than I do most people? Well, I did not set out on this journey with expectations about the size or weight of a deer, or about counting antler tines as a way to determine my camouflaged prowess. I never thought in the many years that lay ahead of me I’d see a buck quite that mature while hunting, never mind have the right conditions to shoot it. Even now, weeks later, I still feel odd when my Dad, who is not known for his pride, urges me to show so-and-so the picture of my “big buck.”
I became a hunter in adulthood with a handful of simple goals: I wanted to keep putting effort into pursuits that lend to my increased self-sufficiency by way of filling my own freezer. I wanted to eat food that connects me physically and emotionally to a place and that place’s ecosystem. I wanted to remember that when I am eating meat I am eating an animal; an animal that lived wild and well and died quickly. I wanted to carve out a place in my own heritage from which I had become disconnected.
I am smiling in the photos. I’m smiling because I’m accomplishing my goals, because I know that few other hunters would feel the same deep sense of reverence I felt next to that animal, it being my first. I’m smiling because, for the next year I’ll have a freezer full of the best, leanest, 100% truly organic meat I can eat and share with my friends and family. I’m smiling because my Dad is taking a picture of his daughter, a successful hunter.
The following few days were filled with more opportunities to learn and feel my way through harvesting my own meat. With my nose to the grindstone alongside my experienced hunting buddies, I had space and time to verbally process my way through skinning, quartering, cleaning and butchering every morsel of venison off that deer, for which I am truly grateful. Under caring tutelage, I was shown the basics of the entire process, learning by doing things I don’t believe I could have tackled alone. It really wasn’t until that last step—butchering—that the whole experience started to feel less macabre and barbaric and more acceptable and satisfying. In fact, I found great joy in butchering, a task that was surprisingly intuitive and mindful. Finally getting to decide how thick I wanted my chops, what recipes I wanted to use with my rounds, whether or not I wanted more stew or burger throughout my winter, brought deer hunting back into a realm that felt well-balanced and wholly worth it.
It feels prudent as well to recognize that, although hunting is the original task, being able to and choosing to do it in modern times is a privilege not to be overlooked. Like many other sporting activities, hunting has become more expensive and commercialized than it needs to be. Even if done “on the cheap”, using thrift store camo that doesn’t fit, and a hand-me-down rifle, venison does not pay for itself. The monetary cost of hunter education, licenses, tags, firearms, ammunition and gas money can’t compare to the further luxuries of being mentored, of having the free time to scout, spend time at the range, and sit quietly in the woods for hours on end. I am grateful to afford and have access to such privileges.
But by far the best part of my hunt has come in the weeks to follow. Telling stories, and preparing meals with my loved ones. Sharing the bounty. There isn’t a more labor intense and pleasingly authentic meal I could eat, or pay for anywhere in the world, than the meals I’ve been eating with this venison. The first bite I took of tenderloin, seared in a well-seasoned hot cast iron and deglazed with the bourbon we had on hand, actually brought tears to my eyes. For a big, older 4×5 deer, the meat is tender and mouth watering. Besides the taste, and the umami unique to well prepared wild game, eating food that I brought from the forest to the table is an experience unparalleled yet in my life.