It’s only been in recent years that I’ve come to realize I was pretty much raised as a localvore long before anyone had ever heard of the word. And it wasn’t due to any sort of middle-class shift in culinary consciousness. This was the early 1960s, and we were a large working-class family with a very rural home on three open acres in Westminster. We planted large vegetable gardens, had a big potato patch, and raised chickens, ducks, and on occasion, grass-fed beef. We also hunted, and venison was a year-round staple. More on that a little later, but all of this was really just a reflection of how my parents’ families had dealt with the Great Depression.
I look back on it now with more interest than I had as a kid. At the time, it was not romantic, it just seemed like a lot of work. Chores included weeding the gardens throughout the summer, which was not fun. My older sister and I also had the dusty task of regularly shoveling out the chicken house, and in the fall there was a big chicken slaughtering day that included a chopping block, an axe, and headless chickens running around. We’d raise 20 to 100 every year, and killing and processing that many chickens and getting them into our huge chest freezer was unpleasant.
At our rural home, the mostly abandoned pastures surrounding our house in the 1960s would have 15, 20, or more deer grazing there every evening, and we had no issue with shooting does. As isolated as we were (there was only one other year-round resident within a mile of our house), deer provided a year-round supply of meat. It wasn’t at all unusual to find my stepfather and uncles processing a good-sized, skinned-out carcass on our big, metal-topped kitchen table a few evenings during the summer.
I’m not exactly sure who my uncles thought they were kidding when they told us kids that they were butchering a “goat.” I also don’t think it was at all unusual for many poor, rural Vermont families of the time to use venison as a major food source. And while the local game wardens were constantly on the trail of anyone suspected of shooting deer out of season at night, it was also common knowledge that they’d look the other way for a man just trying to put food on the table for his family. I have to say that as a kid, opening the lid on the freezer and seeing it filled to the brim with food for the winter was a very good feeling.
I don’t remember how young I was when I first began following my stepfather into the woods, but I‘m sure it was when I was more of a noisy, often-tripping liability than any sort of help. I got a single-shot .22 when I was 11 or so, and a junior model single-shot .410 shotgun shortly after that. Squirrel and partridge hunting throughout the fall became a favorite after-school pastime, but it was always alone or with an adult. Hunting or shooting with just another kid was forbidden, as it was too dangerous.
Guns, and gun safety, were just a part of the culture. We knew that guns and chainsaws and knives and circular saws were inherently dangerous, but they were also necessary tools that we used all the time, safely and with respect. My stepfather’s brother had been shot to death in a hunting accident in Rockingham as a teenager; the safe handling of firearms was drilled into us so that it became second nature.
I learned to hunt by literally walking in my stepfather’s footsteps. Once I was okayed to hunt small game on my own, each trip into the woods ranged a little farther afield, until I was quite familiar with the thousands of acres of forest that constituted my backyard. When I was 13, I was allowed to go deer hunting on my own, and on the second day of the season got my first deer, using a Springfield .30-06 equipped with peep sights, and within dragging distance of my house.
In subsequent years my interest in hunting waned somewhat, especially in my 20s as I focused on raising three kids and making a living; I also lacked close friends who were hunters. But in the 1980s, as my sons grew older, they developed an interest in it. I remembered how many good times when I was growing up were associated with being at our hunting camp or in the woods hunting. I wanted my kids to have that same experience. Since then, hunting has been an experience shared with my children, and now grandchildren, each year.
But why hunt? Hunting is often portrayed as barbaric and cruel, and hunters are presented as ignorant yahoos with a blood lust. Most people today have not been exposed to hunting, and we’ve become culturally biased against it. Some of the televised hunting shows do little to help that image, with their canned hunts on fenced-in game ranches where hunters are driven to a stand and then pick and shoot one of dozens of trophy bucks that are drawn in to special feeding stations. I don’t know that kind of hunting, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find it in this part of the country.
I’ll tell you why I hunt. Wild game is the ultimate localvore meat. The animal has the best life—talk about free-range—and the best diet. Wild meat is also what we evolved to eat; it is the healthiest form of protein for us. Then there is the tradition of it. I hunted with the generations that preceded me, and now I hunt with my son and grandchildren. My son is an exceptional hunter, and my oldest granddaughter took her first deer two years ago when she was 12. We are many generations of hunters, and the tradition carries on.
But there are also deeper reasons. A hunter taps into the very core of what we are as a species. We’re the product of 2 million years of evolution as a genus, a branch off the australopithicenes, and about 400,000 years as the distinct species homo sapiens. We evolved as hunters, and have become the most effective, most adaptable and successful predators on the planet. Learning to hunt by reading signs and tracks is in large part responsible for the development of our remarkable brains. Our lack of thick body hair and our ability to sweat gives humans the capability to run any other animal to exhaustion, and that is still a hunting technique used by indigenous people. Pick a spot anywhere on the planet, and as hunters and gatherers we’ve thrived there, from the Arctic to tropical jungles.
I understand that it might be sacrilege to say in a magazine devoted to local agriculture that what has changed our culture and separated us from our natural environment as hunters is farming, but there is some interesting scholarship that supports that contention. Dr. Paul Shepard, in The Tender Carnivore & the Sacred Game, says the change began about 10,000 years ago when we transformed from hunter/gatherers into an agriculture-based society. Planting crops and keeping livestock on a large scale created huge changes for humankind—physically, socially, culturally, and mentally. Permanent population centers were established and city-states and state religions were created that still dominate society today.
Farming on a large scale also led to class systems, with the rich owning the land and the poor (or slaves) supplying the labor needed for the often mindless work of protecting and caring for sheep or goats, or planting, cultivating, and harvesting acres of grain. Hunting a deer or antelope or harvesting wild berries or nuts is only a few hours of intensive work for several days’ worth of food, while raising, feeding, watering, and protecting a herd of sheep or goats, or planting, cultivating, and harvesting a field of grain, is unending labor. While the tribal system of hunter/gatherers led to equality and leisure time, agriculture brought in slavery, religion, caste and class systems, and the plight of poor peasants and field workers that continues today around the world.
Hunting brings us back into contact with the core of what we are as humans, what Shepard calls the “cynegetic” life, the authentic life that ties us most closely into the earth and the other animals on it. Some of the best writing on what being a hunter means can be found in Shephard’s book, and also in the works of Jim Harrison, Rick Bass, Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, and UVM’s legendary biologist Bernd Heinrich.
In Why We Run, Heinrich has some of the best writing on the appeal of running and of hunting to modern humans. He expresses my own experience exactly:
“I grew up in Maine hunting deer, and that seemed to me the most absorbing activity humanly possible. I still participate in the Maine deer hunt in the fall. Getting my meat from an animal that is wild and has a chance to escape, rather than one confined in a factory pen and raised for slaughter only, is just part of the reason… I hunt because of the allure. I wander the woods for days, searching for clues, hoping to see signs, and getting excited by every track. But I’m rarely successful. Every fall, I hope I’ll get that big buck, but it eludes me… The allure is in being out in the woods, in having all senses on edge, and in the chase.”
If hunting and guns have not been a part of your background, it can seem a daunting task to try to explore this experience. Perhaps taking a tracking class is one way to start. Personally, when I want to explore something new like that, I find someone who does it and is good at it, and I ask if they’ll teach me. Despite the stereotypes, most of the hunters I know are bright, decent, caring people with a great love for the outdoors.
A couple of hours of target practice with a .22 is a fun and inexpensive way to learn to handle a firearm safely and to deal with the fear of the unknown that many people who have never been around guns might have. Going into the woods with an experienced hunter for even a few hours can go a long way toward teaching you how to move quietly and slowly, and what to do with an animal once you have shot it. Finding places to hunt can be a challenge, as so much land is posted. But there are plenty of state-owned lands with excellent hunting, and I’ve hunted for decades on posted land simply by asking permission from the owners.
The important thing is to approach the art and practice of hunting, as well as the animal hunted, with respect and dignity. Hunting is an ancient dance as old as life itself, written into the very core of what we are as humans.
Robert F. Smith is a writer, photographer, and musician living in Westminster. He is the editor of The Message for the Week and is a contributing editor to Vermont Business Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.