By Mark Kenyon
On a day like today, with Thanksgiving on the horizon, it’s natural that many of us will be taking a few moments to think about what we’re thankful for in this life. For me, my thoughts turn immediately to my wife, family, friends and the like. But if I look a bit further down the line, looking at what has shaped my life, there is almost nothing that has been more impactful than hunting. Hunting, in one way or another, has molded me into who I am today, shaped how I see the world and steered where I want to go in the future. And so at this time of Thanksgiving, I must give thanks for the hunt.
I must give thanks for the memories of past adventures that well up inside of me when I happen upon an old photo, I must give thanks for the rich and tender sustenance of the meals that hunting has provided my family with, and I must give thanks for the struggles and challenges along the way that broke me down and then built me back up, becoming the man I am now today. And finally, I must give thanks for the right to do these things myself. In the four brief motifs below, I’ve explored each of these areas for which I give thanks, for which I owe my gratitude to the hunt, and to the hunted, and to this way of life.
Memories: I can still remember it as if it happened yesterday. The leaves were vivid green, humidity hung over us like a blanket, and the mosquitos kept me from getting too comfortable. My grandpa and I were tucked back in the ground blind, silent observers of the world ahead of us, with nothing to shoot except for a video. And then they arrived. First just a nose, then a slender neck, chest and then four stiletto legs, as a small doe emerged from the brush. And then another, and another. I was probably only three or four years old, give or take, and I’d never had a close encounter with deer in the woods until this day. And what an encounter it was. I remember being overwhelmed with pure fascination and excitement. Here I was, just a few yards away from a living breathing deer, just me, the deer, and my grandpa. I’d never forget it.
Fast forward nearly two decades, again I found myself just a few hundred yards away from where those first encounters with deer occurred. Again it was me, a deer, and my grandpa. I’d just killed my first buck at our Northern Michigan deer camp, and my grandpa was the first person I’d met up with after the shot. The story burst from my lips, as I explained how it all happened, and my grandpa simply nodded with a big smile on his face. Then he gripped me on the shoulder, and said “Alright Mark, great job. You did it the right way. Way to go.” I’d made my grandpa proud, the man I looked up to for so many years, the man who first introduced me to these wild creatures, to these wild lands, to this wild way of life. And I was as happy as a guy could be.
He’s gone now, my grandpa. But this memory, and all the many other memories and moments we shared together in the woods, they live on forever in me, in that place, in the hunt. And for that, I am thankful.
Sustenance: I took a bite. And then, almost immediately, I was back on the sage brush covered hill. My back ached, my shoulders screamed, my calves burned seemingly straight through to the bone. Sweat stung in my eyes, my own blood dripped down my legs and another’s covered my hands. Every ounce of my being wanted to give up, to lay down, to sprawl on my back under the scorching sun and just breath. But I did not, instead I took one step, and then another and another. Just about a week later now, I took that bite and then another and another. The elk tasted both rich and mild, strong and yet subtle, dead meat yet still, in some way, alive. Each mouthful was electric; pain, success, struggle, exhilaration, failure, discovery, growth, and sustenance. To think that a simple, small piece of flesh could carry this weight seems almost unbelievable, but it does and it did.
As I chewed through my first taste of this first elk I’d ever killed, I was overwhelmed, as I’ve been many times before, by the gravity of providing for my family in this way. The meals I provide, this protein, this meat I bring home is much more than simply something to grace the table. It graces us. Every steak, roast or burger from an animal I’ve killed not only sustains us, but also strengthens us, both physically and spiritually. And for that, I am thankful.
Crucible: “You chose this challenge because it is just that, a challenge.” As she almost always is, my wife was absolutely right.
I recall those first years, after deciding to turn my focus only to hunting mature deer, and the many unfilled tags. Hours, days, weeks, months spent on stand, crossing creeks, climbing ridges, exploring but never quite finding the destination I was looking for. And the discouragement, it was thick enough that at times I felt I could hardly push through, but I did. And still after the damn broke, I hit roadblocks. A botched encounter. A failed stalk. A miss. A wounded deer.
By participating in the hunt, whether we know it or not, we’re accepting that failure will become familiar. As any experienced hunter knows, we’ll return home empty handed many more times than not. Hunting is an unbelievable challenge, in fact, it might be the greatest challenge our people have ever known. From the earliest years of humanity, it was the hunt that posed the greatest obstacles to survival, but also the most important rewards. And it was these struggles, these challenges that formed humans into what we are now. Problem solving, tool using, sustenance acquiring human beings … but sometimes we forget those beginnings. The hunt reconnects us with that history and with those struggles.
A crucible is defined as “a place or occasion of severe test or trial, OR, a place or situation in which different elements interact to produce something new.” These trials and tribulations we meet out in the wild as hunters, just as it did for our ancestors, break us down and then build us back up into what we are now. The challenges, the struggles, the failures, the crucible of the hunt … they mold us into something stronger, something solid, something new. And for that, I am thankful.
To Do Some Of These Things Myself: To quote from M.R James’ Dealing With Death, “Despite our ever-changing, ever-indignant world with its growing ignorance of and indifference to the ways of the wild, I remain a predator, pitying those who revel in artificiality and synthetic success while regarding me and my kind as relics of a time and place no longer valued or understood. I stalk a real world of dark wood and tall grass stirred by a restless wind blowing across sunlit water and beneath star-strewn sky. And on those occasions when I choose to kill, to claim some small part of nature’s bounty for my own, I do so by choice, quickly, with the learned efficiency of a skilled hunter. Further, in my heart and mind, I know the truth and make no apology for my actions or my place in time.
Others around me may opt to eat only plants, nuts and fruits. Still others may employ faceless strangers to procure their meats, their leathers, their feathers, and all those niceties and necessities of life. Such is their right, of course, and I wish them well. All I ask in return is that no one begrudge me – and all those who may answer the primordial stirrings within our hunter’s souls – my right to do some of these things myself.”
And for that chance to do some of these things myself, I am thankful.
At this time of Thanksgiving, I hope you’ll take a moment to reflect back on all that this way of life has brought forth in you and that you’ll give thanks for the hunt.