The Death Knell

Posted on January 29, 2019

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Any sportsman who can kill his deer without the tingling spine, the quick clutch at his heart, the delicious trembling of nerve fibers when the game is finally down, has no place in the deer woods. – Shots at Whitetails/ Larry Kollor

 

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.

In the amber afterglow of a November setting sun I gaze upon a magnificent whitetail buck, huge in all aspects. There, in the foot-deep snow he had teetered, mortally wounded from my volley of shots, a good distance from whence this chase began. And now, the buck lay melting into the white snow. Approaching the downed beast, he blinked once, gasped a final breath and then laid motionless in his final resting spot.

 

 

The paradoxical emotions of both jubilation and sadness flooded me as I admired my prize. Sitting on a windfall next to the buck of my dreams, wet, tired and mentally spent, a wave of reflective thoughts came rushing in. The countless miles that I’d traveled on the trail of this magnificent creature, up and over three ridges and through two swamps made the accomplishment quite special. The tenacity of the buck and his sheer will to escape capture made him a formidable foe. The fact that I was able to succeed at what we all know is not so easy to do was satisfying. Many years later, gazing upon his fine head mounted on the wall I continue to reflect back on that hunt. I vividly recall the six-mile hike out that evening in the dark, and the three days following that it ultimately took to drag the vanquished monarch out to a drivable road.

34 years following that special hunt, as I sit viewing the latest round of deer kill images and posts from social media it all seems so different, so brutish, a blending into one big caldron of male bravado. The gloating, chest beating, braggadocious ‘got it done’, as if deer hunting was a task to be completed. Is this what deer hunting has really been reduced to? Have we sunk to the place where a deer kill is much like living vicariously through Sunday afternoon gridiron battles?

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               (Photo courtesy of Collin Morris)

Thankfully I am quickly proven wrong, at least with a 20-year old hunter named Collin Morris who opined about the toughest deer he’d ever encountered. From where he shot first thing in the morning, his wounded buck trekked for more than 3 miles. Each time Collin closed the distance the buck made yet another escape. Six hours later, with a whitetail about out of energy, Collin was able to fire a finishing bullet into him. Feeling horrible about not making a clean shot initially, along with a whole host of emotions born from such a taxing experience, Collin sat down next to this vanquished warrior to witness life leave its eyes. To stroke its soft dun hair. To admire a beautiful buck that will forever be etched in his memory and ultimately, hang proudly on his wall.

 

 

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 our own chosen instruments of destruction in the form of bullet or shaft; the latest in a long line of advanced instruments in which Robert Ruark (American author, syndicated columnist, and big game hunter) 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 and 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.

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 drains from 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, King 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.

 

 

I’ve witnessed death and been the administer of it 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 that,

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, 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 upon the hard work room wall where his head and horns will be displayed, preserving him and my memory of the hunt that brought him to bag.

 

 

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.”

 

All images and text on this site are copyright protected and the property of R.G. Bernier
© 2019 R.G. Bernier Nature Photography – All rights reserved.

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