Honoring What We Eat

In spite of my fondness for the Jason Bourne movies, I am a gentle person, averse to violence and like most people, ill at ease when faced with suffering. I don’t want to see an animal die. Yet I’m an omnivore. I eat animals almost every day.

There are many reasons to avoid eating meat, too many to list here. However, I feel healthier on a diet including animal protein. So I’ve decided to eat meat, and I’ve decided to not excuse myself from the hard part. If I can get closer to the process, I’ll have to pay the true cost.

Getting closer means killing. In my case, since I no longer live on a farm, it means hunting. I picked up hunting three years ago after watching Food Inc. and after a discussion with my wife.

“You want to do what? Hunt? Why?” Megan asked.

Scouting in the La Sal Mountains, Utah.

“Where else can you guarantee an animal has lived a good life? How else can you spare an animal the experience of a slaughterhouse? In what other way can you harvest food knowing it wasn’t fed second rate, pesticide-contaminated, antibiotic-laden fodder?”

“You don’t even have a gun,” she correctly pointed out.

Wherever we go, human beings unbalance local ecosystems. Due to reduction in predator numbers here in Utah, Elk have few natural population controls. Without manmade controls, the number of elk would outstrip the carrying capacity of their respective habitats. Just one of the resulting problems, overbrowsing, would lead to high mortality rates through the winter.

Somebody needs to harvest the animals, or elk would die miserably from starvation in the dead of winter.

My father, pleased as punch, gave me the .30-06 Remington rifle that he once used to hunt deer in New England. “It’s heavy, high quality steel,” he assured me. “Not the cheap stuff they make today.”

Heavy indeed. Lug that thing through dark timbre for a day, and your biceps will ache in the morning.

Sunset meadow from a blind.

My friend Trish invited me to tag along while she bow hunted. She tested the wind with a puffer that sends up a little cloud of chalk. She told me elk have a keen sense of smell. The book she gave me, Elk Essentials by Bob Robb, highlighted the point: “Most important is the wind. Do whatever it takes – run as fast as you can, sounding like a Sherman tank if you must – to keep the wind in your favor. One whiff of your body odor, and it’s all over; that elk is gone.”

Trish modeled another elk hunting tactic: staying mobile until you see fresh sign. “It’s not like deer hunting. I like to cover a lot of ground.” Through a break in some trees, we spotted a cow elk grazing in a meadow a hundred and fifty yards away. “That’s a rifle shot,” she whispered. “I’ll want to be within thirty yards before I use my bow.” We couldn’t get closer without bumping the cow, so we moved on. We hiked across a hillside peppered with meadow and forest and soon ran straight into a herd led by its matriarch. One of the cows spooked, and they streamed away through the forest like phantoms, trailed by the huge herd bull.

In Elk Essentials, Robb writes, “The cows are actually in control of the day-to-day activities of the elk herd.”

My first season hunting was the most dazzling. Megan and I hiked up rocky trails to 10,000 feet at dawn or at dusk to find elk. I came to know them as beautiful, almost magical creatures. An elk can vanish into the forest without a sound. They play and cavort with one another through meadows. Bulls bugle during the rut, a haunting sound that carries through the mountains on chilly winds. Cows buzz and call to each other as the herd moves ever onward in search of browse. And the bulls grow mighty antlers that sprout one to seven dangerous points each. It demands as much energy and nutrients to grow a complete set of antlers as it takes a cow to grow a calf.

One evening we snuck out to sit in a meadow at sunset while two bulls sparred with each other. Their antlers clacked together, and they pushed one another around, pausing from time to time to catch their breath and glance about. They didn’t see us in spite of the fact that we were sitting in the open just fifty feet away. Elk have poor eyesight. If you hold perfectly still, sometimes they’ll study you for five minutes before deciding you’re a rock or a stump.

As we watched those two bulls, the sun sank below the horizon, setting fire to the sky. Megan and I witnessed an ancient ritual, and we glanced at each other in awe. This is the good life of a wild animal. This is the antithesis of what many of our supermarket animals experience in a feedlot. This is freedom, and it’s beauty.

I couldn’t get a clean shot at a spike bull elk that first year hunting, and perhaps that’s why I went home so enchanted. It was a wonderful season of failure.

The vantage from which I shot my first elk.

My next season was more successful, and therefore more heartbreaking. After seven straight days of hunting in October 2010, I found a herd in a meadow at eighty yards. As always, they were on the move. And then a spike bull, a one-and-a-half-year-old male, stepped out of the trees. This was the animal I could legally take. He stopped, standing broadside to me, a perfect position. I dropped to my knees, took aim, and tried in vain to control a volcano of emotions. My hands shook. My breath was fast and shallow. I studied that wonderful creature through my scope, and I turned off my brain. As if stepping off a high cliff jump to water, I pulled the trigger.

The spike bull ran off with the rest of the herd. Maybe I missed it, I hope I missed. Oh god oh god oh god.

But then he came back and fell to the ground. He lifted his head listlessly. When he tried to rise, I shot him again. I walked to him on the verge of crying. I knelt beside him, apologies on my lips, fingers trembling. I was upset and shaking as I cut into him. I promptly sliced into my finger.

Sitting back on the ground, taking a calming breath, I reset my mind. I could do this. This was the true cost.

The next ten hours involved hiking two hundred pounds of meat from a meadow at 10,700 feet to a trailhead miles below. That day turned an animal into food, and it turned me into a hunter.

A single spike bull will feed us for an entire year.

I’m not out in the mountains trophy hunting. I’m trying to lawfully fill my tag the state biologists issue to control elk herds. I’m trying to eat for a year. Never have I so appreciated the meat on my plate. Inserting myself into the food chain, body and soul, made me honor that which feeds me.

If you can, get closer to the food you eat. Start a garden. Raise animals humanely. Buy organic, and buy local. Hunt responsibly. Watch Food Inc.. And if you haven’t seen the Bourne Trilogy, I recommend that too.

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