Just meat

Failing at hunting provides more than a freezer of venison

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Here we are in hunting season again, which means it’s time for my annual plunge into the cleansing, frozen waters at the confluence of catharsis, sustenance and hard-won flavor.

It brings me to an ancient place, far from Washington D.C., where a new round of USDA dietary guidelines are currently being crafted to include moderate amounts of lean red meat. But meat hunters can be forgiven for being immoderate in their consumption. Virtually none of the studies questioning the health impacts of red meat have included wild game. Along with being organic, free-range, natural, ethical, etc., wild game has also been shown to contain more omega-3 fatty acids and DHA, (docosahexaenoic acid), than farm-raised meat. Also found in fish oil and algae, DHA appears to be integral to brain development and performance. And there is more to wild game than the nutrients it contains. The quest for meat may damn near kill you, but if it doesn’t you will probably emerge a better person, regardless of whether you end up with something to eat.

Blisters turn into calluses. Sore muscles turn stronger. Hunger becomes motivation. And frustration over what got away turns, by the end of a long, cold day, into appreciation of what you still have. The problems back in civilization fade into triviality as you descend into a primal mindset. If you succeed, the hard-won meat you get is lean, clean and free of the karmic baggage of farm-raised meat. There is no environmental footprint to worry about with wild game, nor any added hormones or antibiotics. Just flesh and gristle with which to convert a spent hunter into something stronger, yet more humble than before.

Hunting drags me outside early and often, into an invigorating and medicinal space. For hunters more skilled and efficient than myself, their quicklyfilled freezers can translate into less time hunting, and I almost feel bad for them. Almost.

I, by contrast, am seldom a victim of early success. I’m not usually the one who sits at home wondering how another hunting season came and went so quickly. More often I’m the beneficiary of my failures, my reward being an extended annual workout as I slog through a grueling season that stretches into the wee hours of autumn. While I’m blessed with the repeated soul-carving, character-building lessons that only failed hunting can provide, each hunter takes his or her own personal journey through the season. The Loser School of Hunting in which I frequently matriculate is my story, and mine alone.

But as a hunter, I’m nonetheless lumped together with everyone else who shoots at animals. Though I’m in it to fill my freezer, I’m stalking the dark timber alongside the interior decorators looking to arrange their walls with glassy-eyed monuments to their accomplishments, and with the varmint hunters who gleefully mow down coyotes or vaporize prairie dogs at long range. I don’t enjoy killing, and luckily, killing is a small part of hunting, yet I share the woods with those who derive pleasure from doling out death. While I have never grown to love the sound and shock of an explosion mere inches from my head, I’m affiliated with those for whom hunting is a natural extension of their love of guns. I shop at the same stores and buy the same bullets as those who pledge allegiance to the NRA, even though I find their fetishism and paranoia to be revolting and dangerous.

Though I don’t feel an unconditional love of guns, I do love my Ruger .270. Our shared travels have given me wonderful moments, along with freezers full of venison. Hunting partners come and go, but as long as I take good care of my rifle, it will be there for me.

And while I don’t live in fear that the federal government is going to take it away, I have my own demons to face. They are projected upon the primal mandate, programmed deep in my genes — that my family is depending on me to bring home meat. The hunting gods, meanwhile, seem to delight in making me suffer first.

But the silver lining to failure is the opportunity for more practice, which you obviously need. Like a meditation practice, good hunting practice means clearing your mind of distracting thoughts that would take you out of the moment. It helps build the mental strength you need to learn from your mistakes but not dwell on them, as you go back out there again, and you practice.

If you bagged your beast early, then I guess you didn’t need the extra practice. Otherwise, consider yourself enrolled in the Loser School of Hunting.

I often find myself still in class, late into the season, while more successful hunters have already oiled their boots and washed their long underwear. They sit by the fire drinking their cocoa and rubbing their hands with lotion while I press through the frozen drifts in search of animals that only get more skittish as the season progresses. As the practice winds on, successful partners quit hunting and must be replenished from the dwindling pool of those who’ve yet to score. Your buddies may leave you behind during the season, but if you end up empty-handed they will be there with frozen packages of meat to help get you through the winter.

Adversity, it is said, introduces a man to himself, and hunting does the same. In addition to meeting yourself, you meet your community of hunters, and the ecosystem that both sustains and challenges you in a zig-zagged journey that makes the prize all the more rewarding.

As a wild meat eater, the moderation-oriented dietary guidelines don’t speak for me. Nor do warnings about the environmental impact of meat. And as a hunter, the fear-mongers at the NRA don’t speak for me either, despite the organization’s dubious claim of being the largest hunting organization in the world. But I’m hardly alone among meat eaters and hunters. I’ve got my fellow grads from the Loser School of Hunting to fall back on. And any hunter who tells you he or she has never attended that school is either a liar, or talented enough to deserve our sympathies for having missed out on some of life’s great opportunities for growth. Because there are no bad days hunting, only hard lessons learned. And the right to eat meat, from your animal or another, is truly earned.