From the time I was 5 years old, cold autumn days meant heading up to the hills with my father, his friends and their children. We cut firewood, sat around a campfire, talked -- and hunted. When I was 12, I killed my first deer. The experience was both exhilarating and depressing. Over the years, the exhilaration of the hunt began to be outweighed by the guilt I felt for inflicting pain upon another living creature.
When I was 20 years old, I temporarily quit hunting. I did not give my hunting partners a reason. That would have meant acknowledging something unmanly about myself; I felt bad killing deer. So I simply stayed away from the hills. When I wanted meat, I ate beef that someone else had killed.
While my slow pivot back to hunting took years of moral grappling, my decision to stop was abrupt, reached on a single morning in 2001. I had crested a hill, and saw a buck below in a poison oak patch, about 200 yards away. As the morning sun rose, I crawled on my stomach through the tall grass. My heart pounded and I began to sweat. I used a boulder to steady my .308 Winchester. Examining the buck through the scope, I saw that he was a three-pointer -- young but with a good, heavy body. The old timers say these bucks are the best eating. At the last second, the buck tilted his head back and sniffed the air. He scented me and instantly broke out of the poison oak patch, bounding down the hill. I laid the cross-airs right behind his front shoulder, took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger.
I always want to kill my prey with one shot. That minimizes the animal's suffering and damages as little meat as possible. But this morning, I missed badly. I hit a good 24 inches off of my target and shot the buck in his rear leg. I watched the consequences of my poor aim as the young buck tried to run with a hind leg uselessly swiveling behind the rest of his body. After running downhill about 50 yards, he slowed and collapsed. As I approached, I could hear guttural noises from the deep grass where he had fallen. The buck began to struggle to rise to his feet. I aimed behind his head and shot what I hoped would be the final shot.
When I reached him, he managed to turn his head and stare up at me. I stared down at this beautiful and helpless animal, and I wished he would die. With a trembling hand, I struggled to open my pocketknife. I grabbed one of his antlers with my left hand as I bent his head back and exposed his neck. I felt his short damp breath on the inside of my arm. Quickly, I sliced through his jugular.
For the next four years, I ate beef. I watched documentaries that vividly described the horrors associated with the large-scale meat industry: the animal suffering, the environmental consequences, and the hazardous working conditions. I squirmed at my own hypocrisy. I was unwilling to stop eating meat, and yet I did not want to kill and process an animal.
Finally, in 2005, when autumn began in the hills, it seemed ridiculous not to face it: I would always be a carnivore. And I was tired of people who were unwilling to connect meat with the death that precedes it. Death is not pretty or romantic. All living things struggle to exist. We need to be mindful of this and embrace it when we consume meat. And for those of us with adventurous spirits and the will to kill, we can take advantage of where we live.
In much of California, deer are plentiful, and the state gives out deer tags to keep hunting at a level that won't deplete the population. The amount of tags varies by zone, and in the zone that includes the North Coast, 35,000 tags were allocated for deer hunting this year. Each hunter is limited to two bucks; females cannot be killed. New hunters must pass a state-approved hunter education course, which reviews firearm safety and hunting regulations. After completing the course, prospective hunters must buy a $44 hunting license and tags for whichever animals they hope to kill in season, at prices that range from about $21 for a wild pig tag to $42 for a bear tag. A single deer tag costs just under $30 and the second costs $36. Substantial discounts are given to junior hunters, and the state Fish and Game Department even organizes special hunts for young hunters. These hunts allow adults to accompany young hunters and teach proper safety protocol. Deer season closed on Oct. 23, but other hunting goes on. Duck and goose season opened on Oct. 22 and runs through Jan. 29. General bear season is open until Dec. 25 and pig season is open year round.
Venison is my favorite meat, and the two bucks I am allowed to kill each fall provide me -- the sole carnivore in my family -- with enough meat for the year. I use it in stews, steaks and ground as hamburger. I find the "gamey" flavor of venison tastier (and chewier) than beef. Deer are much lower in fat than cows, and have no artificial hormones added in. They are a healthy, lean source of protein.
The more time I spend on the ranch with my father and his friends, the more I appreciate it. We cut firewood to get us through winter, try to stack freezers full of venison, and simply enjoy nature with old friends. It is a ritual I look forward to each fall. I hope someday to bring my own children up to the hills, and to teach my sons or daughters about hunting and nature alongside their grandfather.
When I hunt, I drag the carcass out of ravines and poison oak patches, up hills and through groves of trees. Once back in camp, with the help of my hunting partners, I field-dress the animal, rinse the carcass with water and vinegar and enjoy a cold beer. We hang the buck somewhere cool to let the meat "crisp" up before butchering and packaging. A connection between our food and ourselves is established. It is not mystical; rather, it is extremely practical. We were involved in every stage of processing this animal: the physically taxing work, the preparation and the camaraderie. With my father and fellow hunters, I am connected to where my food has come from.
Now, when I make a bad shot, I know that this, too, is part of being a carnivore. I chase the suffering animal, and kill it as quickly as I can. I stand over him and say my peace to his spirit. I accept that this is the reality of hunting and of death.
Jeffrey Bird, a teacher whose wife is a vegetarian, dedicates this column to all the youngsters who have told him that killing deer is gross. If you'd like to write for "Get Out!" please pitch your column idea to Carrie Peyton Dahlberg, at email@example.com.