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Deer tales

(post, Joan Menefee)

Let’s not forget that most of our ancestors once farmed land that belonged to someone else. Though these peasant ancestors knew better than any lord or lady what the land looked like, how it behaved, and what it needed, this knowledge was irrelevant to possession of that land. To be so connected to the land, on one hand, and so disconnected from it, on the other, must have been damn weird.  

Our ancestors, tenant farmers that they were, also saw animals differently than we do. Woodland animals belonged to the lords or, in some cases, were unique property of the king. Deer were reminders that the farmers themselves were a form of aristocratic property: They could not pick up and go wherever they pleased, nor could they hunt and eat anything they wanted. Fines for poaching in 18th-century England were steep; sometimes the offender was subject to ritual humiliation. It’s little wonder that Americans have such vexed ties to the land; there was, after all, a time when our ancestors were shackled to it. 

Deer form a group that differs little from my own, despite the fact that they have a four-chambered stomach (I wish!) and a very different cognitive toolbox. We, deer and human, were alike subject to the whims of lords and ladies in and before the 15th century; the nobility looked upon us chiefly as a means to an end: amassing riches, bolstering status, filling the cookpot. 

Today, in some important but often overlooked sense, we remain the same. But rather than seeing our groups as equally lowly and oppressed, I see them as equally full of feeling, and necessary to the ecological balance of a land we share. (OK, it’s actually pretty hard to keep a straight face when asserting that humans are necessary to ecological balance; if we were a little less rapacious, this might almost be true.)

[%image deer float=right width=400 caption="A trail camera in the woods captured this image."]

A radical idea of the 17th century was to regard oneself as one’s own property, rather than that of the landowner. An equally radical by-product of that paradigm shift was the notion of giving away one’s own labor or goods by choice. Self-definition, a concept most Americans take for granted, is an old form of rebellion. So is generosity. We name and give on our own behalf and on our own terms. To me, that is part of what defines a democratic culture, not the ability to consume whatever silly crap we wish.

Spending hours waiting for a herd to come flying by and holding my husband’s rifle for him while he ties his shoes give me ample time to think about hunting through the lenses of history, politics, and philosophy. Though many of my friends accept deer hunting in the name of broadmindedness, I am pretty sure that they find it distasteful and unnecessary. Even if they understand the ethical consistency of meat-eaters killing their own game, they would refuse to sit in the woods during deer season, or be upset if they witnessed the death of a deer (an event I have seen three times now). 

A growing number of bloggers offer good advice about preparing wild game, which indicates a sea change may be underway. One irony of the distaste some have for hunting is that, to thousands of European immigrants, America has long represented freedom because it is a place where a peasant can hunt. Putting aside the issue of Native American sovereignty and the troubling foundation upon which the United States has teetered for over two centuries now, I like the idea of a country guided by the notion that anyone should be able to take to the woods and kill a deer if he (or she) has the will, skill, and pluck to do so. With this right comes the right to roam (a concept not lost on such environmental heavyweights as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir) and the right to pursue self-sufficiency. Such ideas have brought tears to the eyes of peasants. And rightly so.

When I gave thanks during this year's turkey holiday, I tried to hold on to that idea of hunting as the expression of a democratic impulse — the right to wander, the right to make mistakes, the right to embrace or reject the beliefs of our ancestors, guided as much as possible by reason and a desire for justice. 

By no means have I stumbled upon a perfect and consistent life philosophy since last Thanksgiving; like a schmuck, I got lost in the woods this year trying to help my husband push deer to a stand he had chosen on public land, perhaps in part because I was engaged in all this highfalutin thinking. 

All the same, though, my thoughts about democracy, freedom, and history made the meat and berries of Thanksgiving taste richer. My desire to know and understand as much as possible before I die has been nourished for centuries by the dreams and daring of those who came before. To them, I owe much.

reference-image, l

deer, l