My brother Matt and I were running, as fast as we could with our packs and rifles, across the side of a mountain to catch up with a small herd of elk on the last day of the season.
After four days of fruitless hunting, the hopes of our season had literally come down to the last hour of daylight. One Hail Mary to redeem the season from meatlessness.
By the time we’d located the elk, three bulls were staring us in the face some 200 yards distant. After a mile-long jog with gear, the pulse beat in my head so loud I thought it was coming from something outside of me. I tried to get my rifle on one of the bulls, but they darted off before I could. Suddenly, I heard a cow call behind me and, turning, realized it was Matt.
The bulls froze on the far hillside facing us. I crept around the corner of a row of oak brush, found the biggest of the bulls, set my crosshairs at the center of his chest and applied pressure to the trigger. The last thing I remember was seeing the bull crumple to the ground as the blast rang out into the countryside. (Read more about the meat-eating side of the journey)
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The best thing I can compare the season to is being by my wife’s side during child labor. Seriously. It was a rollercoaster ride of emotion, exponentially multiplied by sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion. When the bull dropped, I was overwhelmed with a flood of emotion.
I’d scouted for months, spent hours pouring over maps and talking to other hunters. I’d sighted in my rifle, worked up the dope on my scope with the load I’d selected. During the season, we’d risen at 4 or 5 a.m., hiked about 15 miles a day and done plenty of time in the truck and ATV. At points during the season I’d given up hope we’d be successful. In the end, it all came together for an elk season I won’t forget.
Hunting takes a lot of work, and work is best shared among friends. It really is a community project full of shared work and, as a result, shared joy. From setting up camp and hauling meat on a frame pack, to butchering and gathering around the table to enjoy a mouth-watering elk burger with homemade buns and potato wedges, it’s a transformative process, not only for the meat but also for us.
Real, hard, hand labor reminds us the oft-forgotten satisfaction we get from physical toil. That, combined with a community engaged in mutual sharing, is among the best portion of the reward. I was fortunate enough to share the experience with three generations of Conns: my Dad, brother and son.
An Agrarian Heritage
Hunting draws us back, as well, to the old agrarian heritage we’ve jettisoned for a life of technology and ease. It’s the agrarian ways that refresh and renew us amidst a life of never-ending emails, text messages and social media bombardments. It’s the old ways that refresh us, not in the absence of physical labor, but in the very practice of it.
It’s the old ways that refresh us, not in the absence of physical labor, but in the very practice of it.
A man does not find renewed life by going to the mall or returning to the confines of his carpet-walled, three-by-three cubicle; he finds it working the soil from which he came, and which he was made to cultivate. Much like animal husbandry, hunting touches on the soul of man in the place of his deepest identity. One of man’s first tasks was animal-related: He was to name and take dominion over the beasts. So too when we return to the field we find in ourselves the fulfillment of one essential purpose for which we were made.
Hunting As Sacrifice
Likewise, hunting carries with it the symbolism of sacrifice, the giving and taking of life in order that another may be nourished. We’ve been talking in Sunday school about Leviticus and the Old Testament sacrificial system, but nothing brings it to life like the priestly role of slaughtering, butchering, and grilling meat that ascends to God with a pleasing and fragrant aroma.
In your garage, where the meat hangs and is butchered, is the smell of death; in your kitchen, where the meat is grilled and prepared for table, there is the fragrance of life. Around our table we give thanks for the life taken and given for us, a narrative that becomes real only because we’ve participated so closely in the priest-like roles of sacrifice. Our lives are nourished by the flesh of another, a symbolic narrative not unlike the one told by the Lord’s Supper.
A Man of Sustenance
And finally, hunting forsakes the new industrial mindset of the specialized worker who, apart from money, can procure for himself almost nothing for the maintenance of his own existence. You can keep all your fanciful “knowledge work” and elitist notions that physical work—things like farming, carpentry, trade skills and fixing stuff around your place that’s broken—is obsolete. I’d argue that the scarcity of general skills for living actually makes the people who have them more valuable.
And I’d point out that most men, in seeking a reprieve from their God-forsaken cubicles and corporate slavery, generally run to the old manual skills—gardening, hunting, fishing, carpentry, auto mechanics, the outdoors—as a reprieve from that soul-destroying way of life.
Hunting, meanwhile, requires the mastery of a wide variety of skills, things most folks never learn because someone else is always doing it for them: woodsmanship; orienteering; biology; marksmanship; survival; first aid; butchering; cooking; physical fitness; and more. The more our society drifts away from the general skills of life, the more helplessly dependent we become on others, the more prone we are to be subjects of an authoritarian government, and the less economically free we actually are.
We need less people who mindlessly answer to the corporate/centralized government system and more people who, as Thomas Jefferson envisioned, were independent, free-thinking men of great intellect—agrarian intellectuals. It is upon such men that the health of our nation depends. Men of community, men with the skills needed to nurture and take life.
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It was my son’s first hunt, and though he didn’t wield a rifle, he was introduced to the great tradition of the meat-eater. He helped setup and tear down camp, he arose early with the rest of us, and he helped grandpa make dinner. After we got back, several people commented on how he’d matured, even those who knew nothing of the hunt.
I sat at the campfire one evening, sipping bourbon and trying not to collapse from exhaustion, and watched as he hovered around the stove, turning hamburger in the cast iron skillet with a spatula and sneaking Oreos when he thought no one was looking. Later, as we processed the meat in our garage, I watched as he quietly went about his trimming. In those moments, as I swelled with affection for my son, I began for a moment to feel the weight of the Father’s words to His Son: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).