During working years we often do things under pressure—to provide for our families, to advance our careers or maybe to set an example for our children. But in retirement many of these obligations fade into the background. So the choices we make seem to beg for reasons.
Retired men often turn to activities that occupied their youth but were postponed during their middle years. I retired in 2002 and took up hunting again in 2007. A friend, Tom, owns 45 acres in the country, and his land is sometimes overrun by deer. As the herd gets larger, individual deer get scrawnier. He decided to start hunting on his property, and he invited me along.
I use one of Tom’s rifles and hunt only on his property. If he decided to stop, I would stop. Hunting is casual for me. Although I enjoy it more than I thought I would, I’m not a dedicated, determined hunter. Absent Tom’s invitation I would not be hunting.
We started hunting to help manage the deer population, but as the years pass, I’m thinking that friendship is a bigger reason. Men have hunted together in bands for perhaps 200,000 years, and our evolutionary predecessors hunted together for millions of years before that.
Tom and I hunt near the end of the season, from mid-December until the season closes in early January. He takes vacation then, and it’s easier to plan hunting times. We aim to kill two or three deer each year. Neither of us has the freezer capacity for a large number of deer. Last year we bagged only one deer. The year before we killed three.
We wait in blinds, usually small camouflage tents with openings to watch for deer. Early morning and late afternoon are the best hunting times. Deer emerge from resting and enter fields to graze. That’s when we are able to get clean shots.
It seems to me that when we reach back to activities from our early life, we are running an experiment about identity. We want to see if we are still competent to enter adulthood under the traditions of our youth. Are we still the men we once were, despite all those taming and restraining experiences of middle life? If “yes,” then we are unified in one person, embracing the man from beginning to present. All the sins and weaknesses we showed in the intervening years are reconciled, and our identity is intact. Maybe we think we’re getting a fresh start.
When I learned to hunt from my father and brothers, we hunted deer, pheasant, squirrels, and rabbits. It was a fall ritual. My parents liked to recount the story that I was born on the first day of pheasant season, which prevented my father from going hunting that day. Now I hunt only deer.
Part of the identity issue involves skill. Hunting requires a certain prowess in the fields and woods—selecting a location for a deer blind, sitting quietly without obvious movement, waiting, anticipating deer behavior, and shooting smoothly, accurately and carefully. An old man likes to know his skills are still useful.
I remember the first deer I killed in retirement, which was about 45 years beyond my last previous hunting. She was a large doe in the prime of her breeding years, and the first shot wounded her in the shoulder. She was crippled, but she ran for maybe 50 yards. There was no obvious blood trail, and I was keen to find her before dark. After a few minutes of looking in the woods, I found her lying near the edge of a pond.
I could see her breath in the cool evening air. I raised my rifle and shot her one more time in the chest, and I watched her exhale for the last time. She was looking at me, I thought, and I was watching her. I walked to her, reached down and put my hand on her chest to feel her strength and warmth. I paused there, in contact with her, wondering about her spirit.
I knew nature would wander along continuously, hardly missing her, as it will when I die, hardly missing me.
Tom and I loaded up the deer into my truck and I took it to a local deer processor. The workers cleaned, skinned, butchered and froze the deer. The skin was used by a local tradeswoman who makes various deerskin products. We picked up the frozen meat a couple of weeks later and took it home for ourselves, our friends and our families.
I take pride in hunting. It is direct participation in the cycle of life and death, and it enlarges me, as does other poignant, dramatic experience. Retired, without pay from work, I still provide meat for the table. And hunting forces me to understand more fully my choice to eat meat.
I also know that killing a deer brings me face to face with a dark corner, a place in men where uncontrolled violence lurks. In acknowledging that violence and managing it to provide food, a man transforms death into life and links himself to all the instances of similar resurrections that preceded him.
Killing for food is common among animals. It may be done dispassionately as with most predators, or it may be done self-consciously as is man’s wont.
So, as the weather begins to cool now in September, I’m thinking about hunting once again.