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Health Hunger And Hunting

When Jim Minick learned of the human and environmental costs of eating meat, he became a vegetarian. But he had a tough choice to make when he saw what was becoming of his blueberries

The supermarket is an agent
of our forgetfulness
.”
—Richard Nelson, Heart and Blood

Once I was a vegetarian. My poor mother had fits trying to fix tofu-broccoli bonanza for me and chicken for the rest of the family. We eyed each other's plates suspiciously because for the first time food divided us instead of joined us. I just ate my silken tofu in moral solitude. 

photo by Sarah Minick

I didn't eat meat for many reasons, but mainly because of health—mine and the world's. I knew the dangers of too much meat, but was more bothered by the worldwide unequal distribution of food. If we ate the grain, instead of the grain-fed animal, more people could have more food, more water, and a healthier environment. I read about the cattle yards in the Midwest filled with thousands of bovines standing knee deep in their own manure. In North Carolina, the state with more pigs than people, I saw pig factories, their manure lagoons bursting, killing the rivers with their brown stench. I watched documentaries about the working conditions in slaughter houses, heard the stories of women who processed --90 chickens an hour, often losing fingers, often losing jobs when their hands couldn't handle the cold water and repetition anymore. Though I loved meat, I couldn't support this type of food system. So I stopped eating flesh and learned to love tofu.

About the same time I became a vegetarian, I stopped hunting. It seemed the next logical step. I grew up hunting, even enjoyed target practice, but I always feared the power of a gun. Every fall, my dad, uncles and I fanned across the farm, kicking up rabbits and shooting pheasants. I enjoyed the camaraderie, the walk-abouts, the jokes and teasing, but never the weight of the limp bird, never the blood and naked body of a skinned rabbit.

In the cold of November, we hunted deer, and I never could stop shivering enough to shoot one. That and I'd fall asleep. Once a doe's swishing steps woke me after she ran within two feet of where I dozed. She stopped when she caught my scent, turned around to look, then flounced her tail and snorted away. I headed to the truck to warm my numb fingers.

I helped butcher several, but never killed a deer, never had a good shot. That all changed recently, after not handling a rifle for 20 years.

Two years ago, deer grazed our garden greens and nibbled on our acre of blueberries, our cash crop, our income. The game warden walked our field and knew we had no other effective and cheap control for such a large area. He issued a special permit allowing us to kill ten deer out of season. He saw the deer's overpopulation and said to let him know if we needed another permit.

I was not ready to hunt yet, not confident in my marksmanship, or clear on my thinking about eating meat or killing, but I knew if I wanted to farm, I could not do nothing.

I called Paul, my brother-in-law, and surprised him by asking him to hunt on our farm. He readily agreed and drove the three hours from Charlotte the next weekend. Over the course of that winter, Paul killed two does and a yearling that still had its spots. My wife Sarah and I sat in our house, waiting for the gun blasts, and still we jumped when they echoed through the hollow.

After the first shot, when his headlights signaled that he had killed a deer, I drove to the field to help him dress the doe. By headlight, we hoisted her from a tree, and carefully cut open her beautiful, gray-brown fur. Mostly Paul cut, and I held the flashlight. The insides slowly piled on the ground, and then when all was loose, the stomach, lungs and intestines spilled out. We cut and pulled the hide off, fisting it from the fat and muscle. Our hands grew slick with her fat and blood. Steam from her body mixed with our own breath.

The next summer, two people opened a space in my thinking. At a conference Gary Paul Nabhan explained his eating dilemma. He realized that not our paper usage, not even our cars, but our agriculture causes the most environmental damage. To change this on a personal level, he sought to eat 80 percent of his diet from within 250 miles of his home. Additionally, to preserve local diversity, he wanted 90 percent of this food to be native and local in origin. Nabhan's demands eliminate the massive marketing, packaging, refrigeration, transportation, and genetic engineering systems that bring us food.

At the same conference, I met Richard Nelson, and later read his book Heart and Blood: Living With Deer in North America. An anthropologist who lived for several years with natives in Alaska, Nelson traced his own transformation in relation to hunting, from an urbanite, anti-hunter, to a hunter who respects his prey. Nelson also showed that my vegetarian ways still involved killing deer. According to Nelson, “Everyone in North America who lives on agricultural food belongs to an ecological network that necessarily involves deer hunting.” The deer population has exploded so much that in much of the United States today, “hunting is no less important to farmers than is the plow.”

Both Nabhan and Nelson forced me to analyze my own “personal ecology.” Would I do more damage to this Earth by eating an organic carrot from California or a wild deer from my own backyard? The heart-shaped print in our garden showed me the answer.

At 5:30 am on opening day, Paul and I head to opposite hills. I carry my dad's 30.06 rifle. In the darkness of pre-dawn, I startle a creature that crashes away. I cut across the blueberry field to the spring hollow to a spot I picked out earlier. By a sassafras tree, I clear away leaves and try to check my views, both down the wooded slope toward our spring, and behind to the top of the hill. Even though I can't see through the darkness, I know several deer paths cross nearby, so I wait.

A half-hour later, the light just opening the woods, I hear a crashing of branches from uphill. I slowly turn, click off the safety, and remember to breathe. The footsteps stop, and there, between pines a silhouette appears. In my scope I see the dainty legs, the head bending down trying to catch my scent, aware of danger. I pull the trigger and a flash fills the space between us. My ear rings, and I run to where her footsteps stop. Twenty feet from where the bullet pierced her heart, 50 feet from where I stood, I find the large doe dead under a pine. Kneeling beside her, I make sure she is dead, and catch my breath. And then I pray, thankful for a safe hunt, for a clean shot, and most of all, for this body, this death that will give me life.

That deer filled our freezer, and, as I slowly gave up my vegetarian ways, each bite tied me closer to this place we call home. Each meal forced me to remember the dashing brown bodies, white tails wagging through the woods whenever we startled each other, or the doe that entered our yard in the summer, a chestnut-colored beauty whose big eyes warily looked our way as we stood at the window.

Each mealtime bite binds me to the heart-shaped hoof prints on the muddy bank of the pond, or in the snow, the heart prints criss-crossing our land, arteries to the wildness of our woods, revealing paths I had never seen.


Jim Minick teaches composition and literature at Radford University and homesteads in Wythe County, VA. His essays and poems have appeared in periodicals including Wind, The Sun, The Roanoke Times, Appalachian Journal, andNow and Then.

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