When I started By Land, I told myself I would be open and honest with my audience about who I am and how I feel about all topics I'd cover. I didn't want to be just another blogger or gear reviewer that just said what his or her audience wanted to hear. It was important for me from the beginning that I be real and someone who speaks the truth about whatever it is I'm writing about, be it the gear I use or some other topic. It's time I pony up and write about the inner turmoil I've had over hunting throughout the past couple of years.
To get right to the point, after I killed my last deer, I had a moment where I wondered if what I was doing out there in the backcountry was really that necessary after all. This wonderment began to grow and grow to the point where though I would obsess about the prospects of the coming hunting seasons, I'd continue to ask myself more and more often if hunting was really something I wanted to continue to pursue since I didn't need to hunt for my food. Why did I wake up at an unreasonable time in the morning to go search the woods for that buck of a lifetime only to take his life? Whether you like it or not, the pinnacle moment in hunting is the killing of an animal so you can harvest the most wild and organic meat known to man. But, couldn't I just purchase my meat in the store and forego killing a beautiful animal? I could find these creatures and not kill them, right? My heart was becoming split between my desire to hunt and my sorry attempts to rationalize why I was hunting. Considering my background, I never thought in a million years I would ever begin to question the hunt.
I grew up in a conservative household and spent the majority of my life on a horse ranch run by my father. I learned at a young age where meat comes from when I witnessed the county chaplain butcher a couple of pigs from start to finish like it was second nature. I'd seen this guy preach in church on many occasions and knew his heart couldn't have been any more appreciative of life, yet when I saw him pull out that .22 rifle and start walking towards those hogs, I knew I was about to learn a big lesson. I'll never forget that day for as long as I live and will always look at it as a time when the realities of life began to take hold.
Hunting began to peak my interest in my teenage years and I eventually shot my first deer on my grandfather's land back in Oklahoma around the age of 15. It was a great experience and another one of those I'll never forget. I look at those horns on the wall every day and remember precisely the moment it happened and nearly all the events leading up to and after it. After serving in the Marine Corps for a handful of years, I moved back home to Washington State to begin a new career and pick up where I left off with my love of hunting. I never once questioned the ethics of hunting until I killed my last buck on a cold November morning during my first successful solo hunt.
I've written about this hunt in a previous post so I'll forego the details, but just know that it was an amazing hunt full of emotions. I remember sitting there in the snow soaking in the entire scene. The wind was howling and making my breath freeze to my beard, the sun was just coming up over the mountains, and there I was, all alone sitting next to my harvest enjoying every moment. Somewhere between the time I shot my buck and when I had him in the back of the truck, I began to feel this odd sadness build up over the act I just performed. I'd shake it off, but it would continue coming back to me and it began to make me slightly uncomfortable. Why in the world would I start feeling sad after hunting an animal? Was I growing soft? Hunters aren't supposed to feel bad about this stuff! All the way down the mountain and throughout the rest of that year, I'd continue to wrestle with this turmoil until I finally figured that maybe this was a sign that my hunting days were coming to a close. If I was going to feel sad about killing something then I wanted nothing to do with it. The problem, however, was that I kept dreaming of those future hunts and what adventures might still be out there for me and though I contemplated hanging it up, I decided to continue planning hunts until my decision was final, whenever that might be.
It wasn't until the end of the 2015 hunting season that I had a renewed outlook on my inner turmoil that came in the form of none other than Joe Rogan and Donnie Vincent. I came across a video of Cameron Hanes interviewing Joe Rogan after he had just shot a deer in Colorado. Joe shares his thoughts about hunting and to sum it up, he points out that when a person hunts for his or her own meat in the backcountry, it's probably the most ethical and healthy thing you could do. If you do it right, the animal suffers very little or not at all and the meat you take home is some of the best you can get you hands on. He also points out that if you think purchasing meat at the store removes you from your role in the killing, you're wrong. In fact, maybe buying your meat at the store could be considered less ethical because you have no idea where that meat came from and how the animal was cared for prior to its death. Hunters have the benefit of knowing their meat was 100% organic, free range, wild its entire life, and that they prevented it from either dying from disease, environmental conditions, or four legged predators. Joe admits that killing any forest creature can be sad, but at least hunters have a connection to the animal. As the video ended, I thought to myself that maybe Joe Rogan was on to something.
If Joe was the opening act, then Donnie Vincent was the closer. I came across the first podcast episode of The Journal of Mountain Hunting where they interviewed Donnie Vincent about who he is and his thoughts on why he does what he does. As I listened to the interview, I couldn't help but find myself identifying with literally everything Donnie said and came away with much more clarity on why I crave the hunt. Donnie explains that it's not the killing he's after, but rather the entire experience. It's the planning, the preparation, the adventure, the wildness, the cold, the heat, the rain, the stress, and the stories he can tell and re-tell the rest of his life. It's about knowing where his meat comes from and the idea that one single animal can call so many amazing experiences into being. There's a moment that every hunter experiences where they get to decide if an animal lives or dies, and that decision bears a heavy weight. It's up to that individual to ensure they do everything in their power to make a clean and ethical shot so the animal suffers as little as possible and to ensure the meat does not go to waste. Donnie goes on to admit that he too experiences a moment of sadness with each animal he kills, but the sadness is born out of the amount of respect he has for it and the environment it called home. It turns out that even the most savvy of hunters feel the heavy emotional weight that I was experiencing when they kill and animal, and it was comforting to know I wasn't alone in this.
Together, Joe and Donnie made me realize something that I don't think I would have been able to identify had I not found their content. I realized the sadness I once identified as me growing soft was actually an indication of personal growth and maturity. I was finally becoming connected with my hunts in a way that I had never previously done. Pulling that trigger now carried more weight than ever and the life that was taken on the receiving end was sacred and something I now held in the highest regard. That's where these feelings of sadness stemmed from and it finally made sense to me.
The overall picture of what hunting is and isn't it is much clearer to me now and I have to say that it's pretty incredible. Donnie is right, the experiences one single animal can create in a person’s life is remarkable. An animal doesn't just exist between the moment you see it and when you take the shot, it exists long before that and will exist long afterward. Be it antlers on a wall, stories around a campfire, pictures in an album, or meat in the freezer, that animal is forever connected to the person who took the shot and likely connected to many others along the way.
I know the heaviness I feel after killing an animal will never go away, but the turmoil over whether hunting is ethical or not, is no longer an issue for me. If anything, I feel an increased desire to hunt the backcountry and wish everyone could experience it just once in his or her lifetime. For those of you who know what it's like to hunt, I challenge you to reflect on why it is you do it and to define for yourself what it means before you once again pull that trigger or let loose an arrow. Find a way to connect with the hunt in a way you never have before. Walk slower, listen harder, look deeper, and enjoy the little things that hunting offers, because it's so much more than one moment.
Hunt hard, obey the wind, and stay safe out there.
You can find the videos and podcast referenced above at the following links:
Donnie Vincent - Who We Are
Journal of Mountain Hunting w/ Donnie Vincent