Deer camp is too quiet. The solitude is one of my favorite things about hunting, but not today. Today is different—it isn’t the typical quiet of being in the woods, surrounded by nothing and everything at the same time. Today is the quiet of loss. My grandpa, who introduced me to hunting and bought our deer camp when I was young, died shortly after last deer season, at age 97. Three months ago, my cousin Joe was killed in a tragic accident at work, leaving a wife and three little kids. He was 36. They’ve always been here at camp with me, but not this year, and not ever again.
In Ohio, the Monday after Thanksgiving is another holiday to deer hunters: opening day. It’s a time for us to get away from our busy lives, spend time with family and friends, and experience the primal joy of being immersed in nature. Many of us are lucky enough to have this experience in a place of our own, our deer camp. As our lives have become increasingly urbanized, deer camp gives us a chance to recharge mentally and spiritually.
I participated in deer camp before I was even old enough to hunt, watching and learning so that I could join my grandpa, dad, uncle, and cousins in the woods. I was also going for the leftover pumpkin pie my mom packed for us. I wasn’t going for Internet or television, because we didn’t even have those things— camp was meant to explore and appreciate the outdoors. Things changed, as they always do. I took a job with extensive travel. Matt got married and had a daughter. Then Joe did. Then they both had more kids. Sometimes, we couldn’t even stay for the hunting, only the weekend leading up to it. We finally got a TV, too. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the feeling of awe and wonder every time I’m there.
This is why we go to camp, which is located in Piedmont, in eastern Ohio. Hunting requires killing, but that’s not all it is. Hunting is also my grandpa’s bean soup, watered down as if he were still one of 12 kids in Appalachia during the Great Depression, or cooking for hundreds of soldiers in World War II. Somehow, it’s still the best soup ever. Hunting is leftover Halloween candy, because we purposely buy too much in October. Hunting is listening to the radio, even though it gets only two stations, and then only if the lights are turned off. Hunting is rereading stacks of years-old magazines that we’ve taken to camp. Hunting is laying down on the mismatched couches because camp is a graveyard for unwanted furniture. Sometimes, hunting is hiking miles through the woods without seeing a single deer. Hunting is family and tradition. Hunting is love.
It’s getting harder to hunt though. Between 1982 and 2012, around 68,750 square miles of land were developed on what was previously forests, farms, and rangelands among the 48 states, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. To put this in perspective, the state of Ohio is 44,825 square miles. There’s no exact date for the start of suburban sprawl, but it accelerated with the post-World War II housing boom and creation of the interstate highway system. This means the land converted since 1982 is just a fraction of the total land that has been developed. Losing this rich hunting land means that those of us who still hunt have to travel farther and spend more money to do it.
As a result, fewer people are hunting: 692,539 Ohioans purchased a hunting license in 1958. That number decreased 43%, to 394,598 by 2017, despite a population increase of 2 million. A loss of access to hunting land isn’t the only reason for the decline, but it has made hunting more time-consuming and expensive, which makes other leisure opportunities more appealing.
The loss of hunters and hunting land, however, is straining conservation efforts. After market hunting drove several species near, or to, extinction in the 1800s and early 1900s, the public demanded change. The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation was the result, and its success has led to its worldwide adoption. The basis of the model is scientific management of game species depending on habitat needs and reproduction rates. State wildlife agencies use this science to place limits on when and where a person can hunt, as well as how on many animals can be taken, in order to maintain healthy populations. Because wildlife managers can adjust yearly limits or close hunting seasons altogether, no species should ever go extinct due to hunting.
The model doesn’t work without hunters though. In 1937, the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act became law. It places a tax on guns, ammunition, and archery equipment. This money is used for habitat restoration and acquisition, research, and education. The law has generated more than $20 billion over the last 80 years. State hunting license fees generate millions more per year. As the number of hunters decreases, so does this money that plays a critical role in protecting nature not just for species hunters enjoy, but for all wildlife.
It’s unseasonably warm for the end of November, and I sit beneath an oak tree listening to the birds chirp and squirrels scurry through fallen leaves. My thoughts are wandering, daydreaming about my grandpa and cousin, but a flicker in the distance snaps me back to the present. It’s the unmistakable flash of hair that gives the whitetail deer its name. Next, I see the antlers that tell me it’s a buck, and I guess he’s just over 100 yards from me. My grandpa always said that the day you don’t get excited is the day you may as well stop hunting. I’m excited.
Through the thick trees and brush, it’s impossible for me to make the clean shot that’s the mark of an ethical hunter. I estimate his path, search for a clear line of sight, and wait. And wait. After what seems like an hour, but is probably 30 seconds, he steps into the opening. I steady my breath and pull the trigger.
Harvest. That’s the word I’m supposed to use to talk about killing an animal, as if I’m picking beans in my garden. Cutting an animal open to remove its organs is field dressing. These are ways to sanitize the process for a non-hunting audience. But I’m not harvesting. I’m killing. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan writes that “to eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction.” For those of us who hunt, the eating, and the satisfaction, start even before the bullet leaves the barrel. It started for me by hiking countless miles through the woods with my grandpa and dad, learning to recognize the signs of deer, understanding their habits and habitat. Because I’ve dedicated so much effort to be able to hunt, I don’t sanitize the process. I own it.
We’re a long way from having to kill wild animals for survival, though. Most of us are also a long way from slaughtering domestic animals. Because we’ve outsourced killing, we’ve hidden the true cost of our industrial food system. Climate change. Antibiotic resistance. Toxic algae. Soil loss. Dead zones. Overflowing waste lagoons. Gestation crates.
Hunting lets us opt out of this harmful and painful system. I’m still killing an animal, but it’s living happy, healthy, and free right up to the moment I inflict a quick and ethical death. Except when I don’t.
The first time I shot a deer with a bow and arrow, I missed her heart, so she didn’t die instantly. She was still alive when I found her in a thick patch of briars. I drew my bow and shot again. Although I was less than 15 feet from her, I couldn’t hit her—the brush was so thick it caught my arrow. Wanting to end her suffering but, being unable to, took my breath away. I forced myself to look in her eyes as she died. She deserved this, the same way we all deserve for our lives to have meaning and for our deaths to be mourned. The unsettling intimacy of it could have made me give up hunting forever. Instead, it made me practice harder to become a better shot. Wouldn’t it be easier to be a vegetarian?
Not for me. If I’ve learned one thing in all my years at camp, it’s that we’re not apart from nature. We’re a part of it. Hunting plays a crucial role in preserving the ecosystem, ensuring healthy habitat for the hunted species, and for all other animals. Habitat loss is the biggest cause of animal death, and we’re all responsible. Every farm kills animals by growing crops where forests once stood. Hunting is simply a more direct way of killing, and one that is far less devastating than a concentrated animal feeding operation. We’re predators. Our life causes death, but in this modern age it is out of sight, out of mind. Hunting brings it in sight and in mind. Seeing death makes me appreciate life even more, makes me a tireless advocate for protecting the planet and everything on it. I don’t hunt to kill. I hunt to live.