I killed a chickadee for no good reason. I don’t remember how old I was. Just a little kid, too young to know any better, I guess. Decades later, three or four, I’m no less horrified, no less regretful, no less torn up inside when I think back. Killing for subsistence or self-defense doesn’t offend me; everything kills to survive. But wanton destruction of the innocent splits my heart like the swollen bloom of raw flesh under a dull blade, ripped apart, never to heal quite right.
We were “up north” as suburban Detroiters referred to what was then the relatively pristine wilderness of Michigan’s northern lower peninsula, the men-folk bonding in the back country, me proudly toting my first rifle, a trophy of earned responsibility, trust and respect from my dad. I took off on my own, exploring, pretending at soldier, partisan, slayer of monsters, great white hunter when I spotted her in a meadow, flittering about a solitary white pine. Sneaking out from under the canopy of pine, oak, elm and maple in my Kmart workman boots, I shouldered my rifle… focused… concentrated… and missed the little bird by the proverbial mile.
She clung to the safety of her elevated perch, naively confident of the distance between us, skittering from limb to limb as I tried and failed and tried again. Half a box of ammo later she’d fallen. Dead in the duff. Torn apart by forty grains of hot lead screaming through her torso at 1250 feet per second. An almost unrecognizable tangle of bloody flesh and feathers lay at my feet, like a limp, sodden tissue tossed thoughtlessly into the gutter. In the fine tradition of the barbaric empire in which he was raised, the Great White Hunter had wielded his mighty technological power to transmute the beauty of life into a waste of death. Just because he could.
Her marble of a head rolled limply across my palm as though detached from her body, no life force, no animate energy to prop it up upon her neck. No recognition in the still-glistening black dots of her eyes, just the reflection of my own, glowering back in shame and regret. I can still feel her downy warmth draining into my palm, the undefiled softness of innocence that only the pure possess, her flesh untouched by evil… until the moment she paid the highest price for my whims.
I cried all night and prayed for her place in heaven because I still believed in this one fairy tale: that some wise old god created in and by our own image will make it all right later, if we but gladly suffer any and all indignity for The Man while here on earth. Death didn’t upset me. I’d spent the better part of my childhood in nature and I’d felt the wails of ashen-faced women ricochet through my soul like hot shrapnel while heart-burdened men shoveled dirt over what was once my friend, now merely the shell of my godmother’s son. I knew by then that death was inextricably weaved through the fabric of life. It’s the senselessness of it that broke me. That an innocent should die for no reason other than ignorance. No purpose. No justification. Just pointless waste.
Condemnation of that which was not mine to condemn confounded my little-boy brain; I had yet to learn the adult strategy of burying heinous conduct beneath self-serving rationalizations and cultural obfuscations. A politician I was not. There was no making it right, no relief to be had. All that remained was to forgive and to learn this one thing: kill only to survive. You kill it – you eat it. No exceptions other than self-defense. It’s not a game and it’s not a sport.
Decades later I took my first deer. For food. You are what you eat, they say. Consuming the flesh of domesticated abominations of nature & human engineering does little to nourish my burgeoning feral nature. I prefer to do my own dirty work rather than pay someone to keep reality conveniently outside my awareness. And every wild animal who feeds me escapes slow, painful death by starvation, injury or disease – or being eaten alive by fanged predators, all inevitable realities of life in the wilds. They go fast and easy, by surprise, full and free lives cut short without their even knowing it. Sure beats enslavement and torture by corporate death merchants who mercilessly force sentient creatures into tiny pens where they’re denied all hope but for death.
The Man had granted me a doe license that fall, permission to feed myself. After genuflecting before the Almighty State in humble reverence to its gracious allowance of an eight-day lease on my stolen birthright, I set out into the forest with a .357 magnum lever gun. A pistol caliber I know, but sufficient to assure a quick, humane kill at bowhunting distance when my bow skills were still unreliable. (A vehement proponent of fair chase, I don’t use scopes and am sufficiently secure with my penis size that I don’t need a giant gun for reassurance. I don’t require the firepower that distance demands; If I can’t get within thirty yards of my quarry I haven’t earned the right. Shooting a wild animal from beyond the effective range of its inherent defenses is neither fair chase nor hunting. It’s murder.*)
Getting close wasn’t easy. Early snows piled up on the north-facing slopes where deer tended to congregate and the cycle of sunny days and cold nights capped the ground with a hard, brittle crust. Every step sounded like stomping on Styrofoam. My half-heartedness didn’t help; I like the hunt but I dread the kill. Yet as Jose’ Ortega y Gasset said, “…one does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.” There is no hunt without intent to kill. In its absence the primal instincts, the latent skills and animal senses that dwell within are not engaged and one has merely strolled through the woods. Given my ambivalence, going home empty-handed would have suited me just fine but I figured if the gods put a deer in my path I’d not begrudge them their benevolence.
The final morning of the season I inched out from the forest as a handful of does fed on shrubs in a clearing. Half-assedness be damned; I’d made up my mind to engage the predator within. Or perhaps he had engaged me. I was no stranger to small-game hunting but this would be my first large animal and from that commitment something oddly familiar yet something I’d never felt before arose. Time stopped, my mind blanked, and the entire universe collapsed into only this small gathering of deer and a stalking cloud of pure, manifest intention; the “I” had left the mountain.
She stepped out in front of the others as though presenting herself to me. Native Americans believed that when a hunter is worthy his prey will offer itself willingly, as he will one day offer his flesh to the earth. I’d no reason to doubt those who honored their kinship with all creatures. The universe shrank further, now condensed into one small patch of hair at the end of a dark tunnel. She bolted ten yards, reared up on hind legs as though imploring the sun and then collapsed, a perfect shot quieting her heart in an instant. I ran to her, having vowed to bear full responsibility and full witness to my action, and gazed deep into her eyes while stroking the coarse neck hair. I wanted her to know, in whatever way she might know, that it was I who’d done this and that her death was not in vain, but that we had both fulfilled an ancient contract between predator and prey, that her death would sustain me as I’d help sustain her kin. Whispering a prayer of gratitude I watched life drift beyond her eyes… her final breath a long, tranquil sigh and then nothing as the Eternal Now marched relentlessly on, through the all-encompassing silence of everything as it always had been and everything as it should always be.
There’d be no Slob-Hunter Outdoor Idiot Channel hoopin’ and hollerin’ over my awesome prowess as technological slayer of the innocent… only somber, respectful reflection upon the sanctity of life and death. I gutted her, cleaned her, and took her raw flesh into mine, the metallic tang of her still-warm heart infused with the flavor of our common origin and shared fate, its beat now silent but its rhythm never-ending. She’d live on in me and in the earth in which I’ll one day lay, both of us fleeting waves in one brief surge atop an endless sea.
For days I carried on in somber reverie, my heart heavy but free of remorse. I had cast aside the denial of a sanitized culture and engaged with Life’s perpetual cycle, fulfilling upon the role for which Nature herself had designed me. A solemn peace washed through my veins; I had come full circle, from dishonorable wasting of life to the killing that serves and sustains. I would neither cry nor pray but simply accept that what was done was done as it had always been done and would always be done to keep the world turning within the perfection and genius of Life itself. Two sides of the same eternal coin; without death there is no life – paradoxical only in our denial of the big picture. In wielding one I’d found profound respect for both… and an innocent bird had not died for naught.
*I’m not suggesting that thirty yards is the maximum range of a deer’s natural defenses. (It’s not.) That’s my personal standard; your mileage may vary. Needless to say, at that distance I go home empty-handed more often than not. But that’s my problem to resolve; Nature doesn’t owe me a deer nor anything else, for that matter. It’s up to me to develop my skill rather than seek a lazy and grossly unfair technological advantage at Cabela’s or Bass Pro.