By Erin White

Safety off. The scope is trained. The crosshairs bisect a patch behind his shoulder blade. Exhale, then squeeze. The report is as crisp and honest as a temple bell.

As easy as breathing out, a life is taken.

The buck struggles back to his feet for a step, then two, then falls. Back to his feet to discover his shoulder is broken and lung punctured. Down again, up, then down again for keeps.

I am grateful for my true aim and hot bullet, because my hands are shaking too hard to do anything but needless damage with a second shot. His life dissolves rapidly into the Big Sky, mingling with pine trees and birdsong and the fresh November air.

By the time we reach him, his soft, glassy eyes stare without seeing. I hand off the rifle and drop to my knees, one hand on the strong, still-hot swoop of his neck. I look him in the eye and give him my thanks.

I am utterly at a loss as to what comes next.

***

When Marcia asked if I wanted to learn to hunt, my answer was a natural yes. As a Montana native, it felt like a fluid extension of the life I’ve crafted and the community I inhabit. Hunting marries power and humility, conservationism and environmentalism, and a contrasting need for both guidance and self-reliance.

I spent four full days in the woods with friends before I ever flicked the safety off. Four long, quiet, invigorating days of hiking, tracking, sitting, whispering, guessing, and second-guessing before I had anything resembling a good look at the broadside of a buck. There was no guarantee that I would come out of the woods with meat for our freezer.

I don’t eat a lot of meat, but my two boys are enthusiastic carnivores. I try to choose animals that have been raised and killed ethically, so it’s become a balance between feeding them what they need and being able to afford good quality meat.

A thoughtful, humane hunt following the principles of sustainability is probably the most ethical way to harvest animals as food. For me, it’s become a realistic solution to the dilemma. And those two boys are proud that their mama killed, field dressed, and butchered a deer.

I know for certain that the deer I killed lived a good life in the land of his ancestors, grazing native grasses, drinking water from the Blackfoot River, and roaming the Montana wilds. I also know that his death was quick, and a damn sight better than being mauled by a bear, hit by a car, or slowly starving to death in an overpopulated valley during the course of a deep winter.

Turns out that shooting is the easy part. After the life ebbs, there’s a body to deal with, and that shit’s messy. Blood, fur, fat, organs, fascia, bone, guts and guts and guts – these are all part of the prize. As I cut into the deer’s soft, warm fur and peeled back layers of fat and skin, I realized that opening the body of a very newly deceased beast will call a person’s bluff. You’ve got the stomach for it or you don’t.

It seems to me that much of that intestinal fortitude is based in a willingness to acknowledge how fragile and fundamentally body-based life is. If the idea of killing and gutting an animal turns your stomach, consider why. If the idea of killing and gutting an animal gives you a thrill, consider why.

In that balance between being squeamish and trigger-happy resides the vulnerable acknowledgement that, no matter who you are or what you eat, something must die so that you may live. There’s no escaping this rule.

In time, we’ll each have our chance to cede way to the next generation. So far, only birthing babies and hunting an animal have brought me so unblinkingly nose-to-nose with the reality of my precious and fleeting mortality.

So be tender with death. Thank the creatures that nourish you. Brim with life until the last breath fades and you cross to the next adventure.

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