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Thoughts from the stand

Why I hunt, and other musings on the deer season

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 11/8/17

For me, deer season these days is a chance to catch my breath, to unplug, and to tune out the constant mental noise that occupies so many hours of the day in this modern age. The titillation of the …

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Thoughts from the stand

Why I hunt, and other musings on the deer season


For me, deer season these days is a chance to catch my breath, to unplug, and to tune out the constant mental noise that occupies so many hours of the day in this modern age. The titillation of the 24-hour news cycle, the distractions of social media, and the constant demands of our ever more hyperactive society, make it almost impossible to carry a thought for more than a fleeting moment or two most of the time.

It seems at times as if the world is conspiring to drive us all mad.

For me, the deer stand is different. I know those hunters who are unwilling to let it all go. They bring their smart phones and spend their time texting, perusing Facebook, or even watching videos if their signal allows it.

I admit to the temptation. We’re so conditioned today to a life of constant stimulation, that it can be a challenge to simply tune it all out. To lower the volume and take time to really think— about our lives, our hopes, or maybe even to contemplate the meaning of life. Who knows, maybe this isn’t just a lonely comedy of the absurd.

It takes longer than it used to, I’ve noticed. It’s as if our brains actively resist the possibility of a few hours without all the crazy. Our egos cry out, as if worried we’ll be lost if we make the effort to settle ourselves, tap into our deeper brain, and lose connection with our ego’s relentless focus on the march of time.

When we manage to tamp it all down, we can experience the world as our animal neighbors do, and as our own kind used to before modernity took away our chance to think quiet thoughts.

I know that for many, deer hunting is a much different experience. It’s a family occasion, full of uncles and cousins and grandpas. It used to be that way for me as well. My father, now 93, flirted with coming up this season, but ultimately decided he needed to act his age (something I promise to resist right to the end). My son Max is off on his own and hasn’t been back to hunt deer in a few years. Deer hunting is now a solitary pursuit for me, and that’s perfectly okay.

I recognize that there are other ways I could unplug from the world, short of sitting in a cold deer stand on the edge of the Lost Lake Swamp. But this has become the tradition for me, since the first time I sat on a deer stand at the age of 14. I’ve only missed a handful of deer seasons since, and those were back in my college days, a long time ago.

Over the years, I’ve asked myself more than once why I continue to hunt deer each November. I don’t like shooting deer and I can no longer bear to watch them die. I stay in my stand after I shoot, often for several minutes, so I don’t have to witness their struggles as the life fades from their eyes.

I know many other hunters feel the same. For many, the hunt is about the ritual of deer camp, time spent with family and friends away from the confines imposed by the outside world. It’s like stepping back in time to a more innocent age. Many such hunters may carry a gun into the woods, but it’s rarely, if ever lifted to a shoulder. I know hunters who haven’t put a shell in the chamber in years.

I still remember the hunter who came into the office a couple years ago with the story and photo of a massive buck he had shot while hunting in Embarrass. He had pursued this deer with a passion that seemed almost obsessive, but when he finally came upon the giant deer, mortally wounded, he broke down and sobbed at the loss of such a beautiful creature. He said he was hanging up his gun after that experience.

I suspect that humans have always been ambivalent about the hunt, even when the kill was a matter of survival. A good hunter respects the animal he or she harvests, and doesn’t waste any meat. It was said that Plains Indians used every part of the bison, almost as a sacrament.

When I’m in the deer stand, I have time to think about our connections to earlier hunters and I imagine how differently they must have viewed their surroundings and the animals that they depended on. I imagine how much deeper was their connection with the natural world, and I think how much we have lost in the mad rush of the modern age.

Ultimately, I hunt because, like those hunters before me, I’m not a vegetarian. While my survival doesn’t depend on hunting, when we choose to eat meat, the survival of something else does. And I’m not willing to lose sight of that fact by allowing others to do the deed in some industrial slaughterhouse where animals are just a commodity. Better for the animal to meet its end in its natural environment, where it lived its life as nature intended. Hunting our own meat keeps us grounded in the reality, and inevitability, of life and death, and in the consequences of our actions. It’s worth taking a little time each November to think about that anew.


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