Walt Whitman wrote: “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains.”
I feel the truth of this almost every day, but especially with the turn of the seasons, and especially the turn from fall to winter and winter to spring. I filled our five birdfeeders for the first time before leaving for Thanksgiving—I couldn’t believe how expensive two 40-pound bags of sunflower seeds are now!—and within minutes the sparrows and chickadees were on it, not to mention juncos and woodpeckers. The squirrels will find them, too.
The fallen leaves are all gone, swept away by a 2-man crew Jimena recommended to me who worked very hard for the money. The outdoors table, chairs, and mats are in the shed at the mercy of mice that will keep them company all winter. And as soon as I returned home from the holiday, up from the basement came bright green and orange hunting vests which the dogs and I will put on in all walks till the end of the year. Not to hunt, but to keep from getting hunted.
This is the first week of shooting season. When Lori and I walked the dogs yesterday, there were so many gunshots that if I hadn’t put Aussie on leash, she’d have run back to the car (this despite the fact that, in theory, there isn’t supposed to be any hunting on Sundays in our state, or the Commonwealth, as it’s known by its more grandiose appellation).
Today I took the dogs to the Plains, a long north-south stretch of woods known for its old pine-scrub oaks. No shooting at all on Monday, but as we walked to the car 6 hunters in camo shirts and pants, wearing bright orange hats and vests, emerged one by one, big guns in their hands and a look of disappointment on their faces.
“Any luck?” I ask one, heavy-set with moustache and beard the color of his hunting vest.
“None,” he says.
“Aussie clearly sniffed a deer and rocketed after it, but I don’t think she found anything because she didn’t give her Me-Aussie-Big-Game-Hunter bark,” I told him.
I like talking to local hunters. They usually hunt for the meat, which is needed by many families around here.
On the weekend before I left for the holiday, I was invited to a community gathering around the butchering of two deer. Before I’d arrived, I was told, they had stretched the two deer carcasses on the grass, covering them with fall vegetation, and hunters and their families, including children and dogs, stood around them to thank them. The hunters spoke of what it is to hunt deer and their appreciation for this great gift. They hung the bodies and skinned them, then began to cut swabs of meat.
The children were completely into it. Teenagers learned how to comb layers of fat from the skins in order to prepare the skins for tanning. One young girl—couldn’t have been older than 10—was bending over the head of a deer on her lap.
“What are you doing?” I asked her.
“I’m cleaning out the fat behind the ears,” she told me matter-of-factly, so focused on her work she hardly bothered to look up.
Older kids were given sharp knives to cut the slabs of red meat into smaller portions, to be wrapped up and shared among a number of families. My mind went to the meat department of a supermarket, with its clean-cut fillets in white packaging, not a hint of the work that goes into those supermarket cuts.
The dogs and I didn’t stay long, but I was immensely grateful to the deer, the hunters, and their families. The deer hadn’t made a gift of their bodies, their lives had been taken from them without request or permission. But they were recognized and acknowledged, and their butchering became a ceremony and prayer of thanks.
Thoreau wrote: “The price of anything is the amount of life you pay for it.” The deer had paid the biggest price, their lives. The families around them were paying with cheerful labor, skinning, defatting, cutting, and cleaning. There was respect there: This is what it takes to have meat on our table.
The rest of us pick up packaged meats from the refrigerator or freezer sections of supermarkets and toss down our credit cards with the same alacrity as taking a hamburger out of its packaging and tossing it into a frying pan. But we, too, have used up a piece of our life in that transaction, only with far less awareness than the families who gathered around and thanked the two deer carcasses.
And that’s why I love living in nature so much. The arrival of winter makes the dance of life and death sharper and more visible. The hooting owls looking for prey, deer coming closer to habitations in March out of hunger, mice in our basement seeking warmth, the bare trees creaking in the merciless winds. So much going on undetected, underground; always, always the hard work to live, to survive. We may not be living on that edge ourselves, but we pay for everything we consume with pieces of our life, whether by growing and hunting for our own food or by filling a shopping cart in Trader Joe’s, Stop & Shop, Whole Foods or the local co-ops.
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