Death in the Deer Woods

Posted on March 1, 2016



“This (killing) is a simple manifestation of ancient ego, almost as simple as the breeding instinct, simpler than the urge for shelter, because man the hunter lives basically in his belly.”
Robert Ruark

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Momentarily, I freeze in my tracks, listening intently to the scarcely audible noise. My eyes move meticulously over the white tapestry that serves to deaden my footfall and partially obscure what I believe to be my target standing beneath a snow laden fir. Stealing a glance down at my rifle gives me cause to blow out the residue snow that has collected in my sights. Step by agonizing step is now carefully and cautiously taken with the precision of a tightrope walker.

My senses, instincts honed from being in this very position countless times, indicate that my quarry is close at hand. As my eyes continue to pierce through the nearly impenetrable greens, I finally spy traces of brown silhouetted against the white backdrop.

Slowly, ever so slowly, I bring the gun to its well-rehearsed position on my shoulder. Carefully the safety is snapped off and I finger the trigger. Time seems to tick by excruciatingly slowly as I wait for clear identification of the animal.


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The white debris continues to fall in a deafening silence. As the flakes dance about on a whimsical breeze they hypnotically lull me into a virtual trance. That is until from amidst the thick tangle of bearded hemlocks the buck takes a couple of tentative steps; enough movement to now reveal his heavy antlers and part of his broad chest. Peering through my sight, I find enough of a hole in the brush to attempt a shot. My mouth is dry, my heart pounds, and sweat trickles a path down my neck as every muscle tenses. As I exhale the trigger is squeezed, and, in the elegance of words scratched out by the now famous John J. Audubon, “…the report follows, and he runs. There lies the buck, its tongue out, its eye dim, its breath exhausted; it is dead.”

Death marks the end, the antithesis of life, whether it be a carrot pulled from rich brown soil, a tree cut in the forest, a beef-critter at the slaughterhouse, or a white-tailed deer which has just been shot. Mortality. A morbid topic for sure, but one each of us will face in one form or another, including our own. As hunters, killing is woven into the very fabric of our existence and is essential to meeting the demand of our pursuit at the climax of a successful hunt. Individually, we set out to accomplish this by unleashing our chosen harbinger of destruction in the form of bullet or shaft; the latest in a long line of advanced instruments in which Ruark comments: “…deep in the guts of most men is buried the involuntary response to the hunter’s horn, a prickle of the nape hairs, an acceleration of the pulse, an atavistic memory of his fathers, who killed first with stone, and then with club, and then with spear, and then with bow, and then with gun, and finally with formula.”

Death is a topic that is usually avoided, even outside of polite company. Despite the fact we are all aware we will eventually die, we don’t really believe it. If we did, we would probably live differently. Thanks to our first parents, Adam & Eve, death became a reality, “And the Lord God commanded the man saying, “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” And we, along with every other life form, have been dying ever since.

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As I slowly approach the lifeless form lying in the snow, a life that just moments ago was a graceful, spirited, majestic creature unaware that death was crouching at the door, I view the object of my affection through a tear-filled obscurity. I have destroyed its flesh with one well-placed shot. He breathes his last as the red life-force oozes out of him to be swallowed up by the hallow ground on which he lays.

Emotions run high with juxtaposed feelings of both sadness and joy. I made the conscious choice to end his life. I became the executioner. I was his death-knell. There is no charm in death, just the stark reality that life has ended. And as the wisest man to ever live – Solomon – exclaimed:
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal…” With admiration I run my fingers over his coarse mahogany-colored antlers while inwardly smiling with personal satisfaction. Contentment born from knowing that I have run down one of the most elusive denizens of the forest wilds, on his turf, under fair chase conditions and succeeded.

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I’ve both witnessed death and been the administer of said demise on many hunting occasions; a scene and action that doesn’t become any more pleasant with its frequency. Hunting is indeed a blood-sport that in today’s modern economy serves as a recreation, a biological means of management and a way to provide an all-natural table fare. Famed hunter Peter Capstick opined,
“Today, man does not hunt for food in modern societies as he did in recent past. Today, he hunts for the vestigial, ancestral memory of the thrill of the hunt itself…You may not like it, but it is your heritage. We hunt for the same reason an English Pointer puppy points before it can wobble…(we) are an instinctive killer.”

In the end, death comes to all. “It is appointed unto man to die once,” states the writer of the book of Hebrews. W. H. Auden waxes poetically, “Fate succumbs many a species: one alone jeopardizes itself.”

Attaching my drag rope to his crown and cinching the handle firmly within my grasp, I begin the daunting task of dragging out an animal that outweighs me by an estimated 75 pounds. Although physically challenging, the removal of the vanquished beast from the only environment that he has ever known should not be looked upon begrudgingly; it is part of the entire process, the completion to the circle of life. The drag is essentially his funeral trip with the final resting place being within the hard work room where his head and horns will be displayed, preserving both him and my memory of the hunt that brought him to bag.

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Fittingly and experiential, James Swan writes, “Hunters come to know through a lifelong association how precious life is and what a great gift to man is the hunt. Hunting, in the final analysis, is a great teacher of love.”


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Posted in: Whitetail Deer