December 01, 2009
The Ritual: After Death, Before Venison
By T. Edward Nickens
Thoughts on eating venison from author and F&S contributor Rick Bass.
It’s not my place at all to suggest a right way or a wrong way. My own view is that if a post-kill ritual comes naturally, fine. But if it doesn’t, it’s as disrespectful to fake as it is to not even consider one in the first place. I don’t much like hearing other hunters whoop and shout and high-five following the occasions when they are fortunate enough to find an animal—I don’t care for that at all. But I usually hunt far enough into the backcountry that that curious aversion of mine generally takes care of itself—self-selected against such intrusion by distance and terrain.
I should hasten to say that post-kill rituals can take quite a long time to develop—years, or decades—and it’s possible also that as we age and become more attuned to our own mortality, we gain a greater interest in such matters: an increased empathy, curiosity, awareness. The ritual is partly for the animal but also partly for ourselves.
The first part of my ritual is easy; it’s what our parents told us a long time ago, the please and thank you rule. I say thank you—very quietly, under my breath really—to the mountain I’m on and to the animal. Then I set about cleaning the animal. It’s often too far from a road or trail to drag, so I quarter it for packing out. I like to leave the meat on the bone for aging—hams and shoulders—but I make sure the carcass that remains—head, vertebrae, ribs—is positioned on its side, with each part as it was, back in the brief assembly of life. I place each foreleg and shin in its appropriate pairing, so that the animal is positioned as if in midflight, reminding me of the great Edward Hoagland line about a leopard poised to jump as if in “an extra-emphatic leap into the hereafter.”
Lastly, I place my brass bullet casing against the trunk of the tree where I was sitting and position a rock over it. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever be back to that tree—there’s too much new country to hunt and too few years. But I like to think that someday, maybe a century or more from now, a hunter might be sitting against that same tree in the fall and, should he or she dislodge that oddly tilted stone—which would be lichen-covered by then and gripped with a webbing of kinnikinnick—might notice the brass and understand that once upon a time there was another hunter like him or her.
Will hunters still be pursuing deer with .270-calibers, or will that traditional rifle seem by that point as quaint as stone arrowheads? I have no idea. But I like to imagine that such a hunter will stop to wonder and realize and remember that each of us is part of an ancient equation and relationship, one worthy of respect for our quarry, the landscape we hunt, and for ourselves—the manner in which we pursue our desire and our meals. Life is a privilege; the moments are almost always washing past.