Though I believe that if people eat meat, they should be morally obligated to kill that which they eat at least once in their lifetime, I have not hunted seriously since 1995. That year, I hunted in the south of New Brunswick above the granite rocks of the Fundy coast and I hunted until later in November. It was cold weather that autumn, with snow mixed with rain along the coast during the day, and deer would make their way along the trails and down to the rocky beach for salt, and I hunted among those intersecting deer trails. Here in spruce and birch cover, the brooks flowed to the bay, and old logging roads, forgotten for half a century or more, allowed for deer to travel unseen and unmolested to the shore at ebb tide and back up to the hills in the evening time, to lie in the long grass unseen in a wood thicket.
There was an apple orchard too where I hunted, and on the first day I made it to the orchard at dawn and then moved along a deer trail that ran diagonally from that old logging road to the quiet brook that swept under windfalls, and there I stayed for most of the morning. I had the ability then to find a place where deer moved during the rut, where the buck would paw the ground and mark its territory, and where it would circle around to see if a doe had entered the area. I hunted alone from the time I was 23 years of age, and I would sit as quietly as possible for hours on end.
There were many deer in the south of the province that year, though they were generally not as large as those in the north of the province, and I was sitting in a forgotten part of the world too, near three or four moss-ravaged tombstones, the resting place of a mother and her five children who had died in 1851. The village they once belonged to had nothing to mark it except those forlorn graves.
Now and again, along those old trails, I would catch sight of a coyote slinking on its belly, or watch an osprey in the low, darkening clouds. And it was cold that first day too, and threatened snow. So I knew snow would come either that day or the next, and the cold would make the deer move.
I had with me a knapsack, with a Thermos of tea, a lunch, a small skinning knife and some chewing tobacco. And I had a chew of tobacco and a cup of tea about 10 that morning, and listened to the soundlessness of the woods and the shrill lowly caw of a crow as it flew from nowhere into nowhere, and I thought of that woman and her children, and how they left Ireland long, long ago, with such hope, and how their very resting place was part of a community that no longer even existed, known only to a coy dog or hunter or a lonely passerby.
I used a British .303 rifle with a Tasco scope set at the lowest range, for I was in close quarters, and I was using 180-grain bullets – that is, bullets with medium hitting power for deer. But I have used this bullet for moose as well, to good effect. I had a clip with five bullets, with one in the chamber, six bullets in all, and I never had any more bullets on me, and never felt I needed more. For a long time, when I was younger – that is younger than I was in 1995 – I never used a scope either. But over time I had long shots at both moose and deer and felt a scope necessary.
After a while, as the day stilled and it got later, I took a walk out across the logging road to the apple orchard and stayed there. Then as the daylight reflecting in my scope dimmed almost to nothing, I took my clip out of the rifle and headed back to my truck in the dark.
The next morning, I got to the apple orchard at dawn, and took a walk down the logging road to the beach. On the road, about 500 metres from the deer trail where I had been sitting the previous day, a large buck had pawed the gravel over, and a little farther down there were the crisscrossed claw marks of a bear paw, from a male bear that had not yet gone to den and had meandered up the road the night before and into the orchard. Knowing this, a person should be careful when coming into or leaving an orchard, for though a spring bear is particularly cranky, an autumn bear can be as well, and not too many people I know want to shoot one. I know I don't. But bears range far and wide here, and do number in the thousands. So rural people in closer proximity worry about them, especially if they have small children.
The deer population is healthy here too, and that day it was turning bitter and I knew that soon it would snow. I made my way back into the spruce and birch cover, along the deer trail that ran above a fertile stream down to the hidden brook, and waited. There was ice forming along the trail and in the stream itself, and the wind had picked up, as it often did after midmorning, and by 1 in the afternoon the snow began to fall. Oh, at first lightly enough, but soon it began to fall so hard it was difficult to see. So I continually checked my scope cover for two reasons: one, to see if it was actually protecting the scope itself, to keep the lens from fogging, and two, to see if it would flip off easily if I did get a chance to take a shot at a deer.
Here, I had time to think, and listen to the rumbling of the tractor-trailers off to the north, carrying tons of wood away to be processed, either for wrapping paper, newsprint or toilet paper, the great roads they were on hidden in our wilderness and running throughout the province. And I realized that the great devastation done to our land is almost never done for the benefit of rural people, but done to fulfill an urban need. It is a subtle understanding that comes when one witnesses the hundreds and thousands of acres thrashed up and torn away, so we can read books and newspapers telling us to be conscientious about the environment. That is, we can pay much lip service to much we do not understand.
As the snow fell, it began to cover up those old tombstones for the 144th time, and by 2 in the afternoon, my feet and my hands were freezing and my tea was cold. But here is what I believe – and I am asking no one else to agree – that hunting has as much to do with determination and resolve as anything else. And one should not be allowed to be comfortable while they kill. That is, I was resolved then to hunt, and now I am not.
I have known men who do not hunt whom I respect a good deal, and I know a man who hunted once and did not again, and another who had the rifle aimed, but could not fire at the little partridge he had in his sights. I knew people who lived on a farm down the road from us. Each fall, when they killed a pig, the boy would go for a walk and not return until after dark, while the girls would go to their bedroom and lie on the bed with pillows over their ears. And who can blame them? For it might be a lesson to us who eat meat, that the killing of a pig is at times more gruesome and cruel than the killing of a white-tail deer or a moose. It is something we should know or at least have some understanding about.
And the amount of meat you get is about the same.
I watched as the day grew dark and then stilled. Then, everything stopped, as if the heart rate of the world lowered. Most people who spend time in the woods understand this and realize this is when the deer begin to move along their rut marks. From an hour before dark until it is too late to see is perhaps the best time for hunting. Still, the snowfall was great and had covered up the blond deadened grasses, and wisped off the branches of the gnarled spruce in front of me. I was thinking that the male bear whose tracks I saw had by now gone to den, and realized that it was about 4:20, and that I had a long walk back in the snow, along a faded logging road. And then a long drive home that evening.
I was kneeling on one knee thinking of picking up my knapsack, when I heard a slight noise. I couldn't see anything, but I did know there was a deer there. I took the safety off my rifle, took a deep breath, waiting 10 seconds. I heard another twig move. Then a loud snap.
I released my scope cover, but when I did, the elastic string vibrated. There was utter silence for a long moment.
I knew the deer had stopped, and was listening. So I knew, too, I had no time to wait. I stood and fired. The deer turned too late, a patch of snow jolting off its back. I ejected the shell, put another in the chamber and fired again. The buck stumbled, tried valiantly to stand, fell sideways, sitting up in the snow when it died. It was an eight-point buck, probably the one that had pawed the gravel the day before. One of its tines had been broken in a rut fight. It died in the only world it had ever known or understood.
It was the last year I ever hunted. I moved to Toronto, where I lived for 13 years.
There, at times, in posh restaurants, elk or caribou or venison would be on the menu for $29.95. On occasion, I would see a coyote skirting the traffic, I would read newspapers printed on paper harvested from home. And at times I would think of the young buck with the broken tine and realize I would probably never hunt again.
Once an urban boy asked, “What is it like to kill things?”
Well son, something a lot like that.
David Adams Richards's latest book, Facing the Hunter, will be in bookstores next week.