No body shots, it’ll spoil the meat

Since their separation from the heavens countless millennia ago, land and sea have been recognized as distinct by human eyes. There exist places, however, where the lines seem less obvious, though whether divine mistake, creativity or another complexity is to blame seems necessarily beyond the realm of mortal understanding. One of these places is the Queen Charlotte Islands, recently – and not without controversy –renamed Haida Gwaii by the Canadian government. Here, the juxtaposition of earth and ocean is softened by sparseness of sunlight and excess of humidity, most often taking a form between light fog and driving sleet. This melding of landscape allows a melding of life. The forest’s close proximity to the coast allows the sea and its inhabitants to maintain a presence within the trees.After high tides, salmon are found stranded in tree roots and crabs seen scuttling in the salal. Defying common understanding, it is not a stretch to describe adjectives like “magic” and “mythical” as inadequate. Sweeping landscapes dominated by species of some of the largest freestanding organisms on earth are speckled with an impressive population of fauna, creating one of the most geographically and biologically diverse regions anywhere on the planet. As one of the few areas untouched by the endless glaciers that covered the rest of the region millennia ago, it may be what Eden looked like on an off day — a bit gray and misty, but still God’s country.

And if God often seems out of reach,the remoteness and inaccessibility of his country may be partially to blame.White men had set foot on both Alaska and Australia before Haida Gwaii. To this day the islands are notoriously difficult to reach, a fortress cut off from the rest of the Americas by the mighty Pacific. My own journey took the better part of three days — seven hours drive to Port Hardy at the northern end of the island I call home, an initial twenty-five on a 380-foot ferry to the city of Prince Rupert up the mainland coast, and over thirty trying to cross an angry Hecate Straight to the islands that had the same ferry running for shelter behind the nearest island twice.The only other option for transport to the islands is by air, though due to wind and fog the planes are turned back more often than the boats. In the mysterious way I would become accustomed to, the tempest cleared at an oddly opportune time and the land welcomed us with a warm sunlight moving through blue skies. After leaving a comfortable home and spending over sixty hours cramped and cold, however, I was in no mood to acknowledge my fortune with any vigour.

I had come to Haida Gwaii with the same intention as my European ancestors: acquisition of the island’s natural resources. After receiving the appropriate government condonation, I set off to kill what lived there, although the “natural” part of the resource may be a bit misleading.  The mule deer we chased were introduced to the islands in the first half of the twentieth century to provide sport for those wealthy and interested enough and,with no natural predators, ran amok while upsetting the natural ecological balance of the area. Though we were both aliens with a history of inflicting pain upon the area, I was still the newcomer here — not to be trusted by the deer or the land.

If sinister intentions were suspected,the threat was made more valid by the colour of my skin. Since the arrival of white men, the history of the land and people of Haida Gwaii has not been a happy one. At the time of contact, around 1778, the population of the Haida people was in excess of ten thousand. During the 1800's, smallpox decimated the Nation and by the end of the century, approximately 350 Haida were left. Today the number is a little higher, but there are still less than two thousand Haida living on the islands. Due to the tragedies of residential schools, the reservation system, and hundreds of years of abuse, many feel disconnected from the thousands of years of knowledge and culture that helped sustain their ancestors.

Cut blocks and logging roads were my destinations. Mule deer prefer edge land, the space between the dark,ancient depths of the forest and the relentless growth of human expansion. Their appearance and personality mimic this. We can see them often in towns and settled areas, understand their movements and habits, and even develop akin-like relationship with individuals, but they will never fully inhabit our world either physically or psychologically.

Deer need the food provided by small shrubbery that cannot grow in the shade of huge timbers, but loathe any open expanse where they cannot find shelter or protection. Freshly logged areas suit their needs. There is plentiful, lush underbrush growing with direct access to sunlight coupled with a jagged landscape of snags, stumps and saplings for cover. These coastal deer have grown accustomed to logging operations — the movement of men and the rumbling of machines — so stealth is optional up until close quarters when hunting. There, the extra senses that so-called “lower” animals often seem to possess become readily apparent. A hint of animosity sets them on edge and any visual confirmation sends them hopping among an array of obstacles.

My apprenticeship in the art of the hunt had been ongoing since my youth, though had only become serious in recent months. Growing up in a small town on the west coast of Vancouver Island gave me plenty of opportunities for catching fish, crab and other marine dwellers.Though my terrestrial hunting experience was much more limited, I do remember my first time shooting a warm-blooded mammal. Like many firsts, it was not glorious.

Close family friends kept chickens,and it was slaughter day. Their parents, being a bit younger than the average and with liberal sensibilities, gave in to the kid’s requests to have a few shots at the birds before they faced the hatchet. There were two .22's between four of us, and we huddled behind a dirt mound twenty yards from the coop. The harmless chickens, formerly friends and now sworn enemies, were unaware of our presence. Our directions had been straightforward: “No body shots, it’ll spoil the meat", and didn't hesitate long before opening fire after that. The resilience of the chickens was unexpected. After a few shots we imagined to be instant death, we were frustrated to find our feathered friends remaining unaware,still scratching at the dirt and bobbing their heads in a quick, irregular motion like the jabs from a well-trained southpaw boxer. Their tenacity was in vain. Dismay gave way to a yell, the guns abandoned, the axe seized. Perhaps a bit barbaric — maybe even enough to make William Golding do a double take — but efficient nonetheless.

I don’t recall much of it after that,but my Mom is keen to remind me that I came home white as a sheet later that day. Even at that tender age, I’d heard about the thrill of the kill, that ancient swelling that accompanies the triumph over another life. I don’t think I felt it much. We stayed true to what had been expected – the meat was free from lead – but there was something else that didn’t sit right. The wielding of power over another, despite being a different species, in such an unrestrained fashion felt childish - even as a child. Maybe it wasn’t just a body shot that could ruin the meat, but the intention behind it.

Since then I had graduated to a higher caliber and bigger game, though the confidence I had maintained as a child was somewhat diminished. Perhaps as a sort of hangover from the slaughter day, I held morals for a short while and swore off meat. Five years on the veggies softened any killer instinct I may have had, though my eagerness to prove myself as a young man was still sharp. This time, on Haida Gwaii, I was with two friends who took pride in their outdoor prowess and were comfortable letting anyone know. Having never shot anything other than a chicken, I was the one lacking stories that provided anything but comic relief – which they were also comfortable letting me know. If that kind of juvenile peer pressure wasn’t enough to force me to pull the trigger, then the sheer cost and trouble of the trip would. I was determined not to go home empty handed.

* * * * * * * * *

The tenuous balance of existence is evident everywhere in Haida Gwaii. The distance between life and death can be imperceptible: lush, temperate rainforest disappears into clear-cut, intricate traditions disappear into obscurity, the peace, war, love, hate, history and culture that developed over thousands of years are destroyed in one hundred. The woods are enough to make you feel the power of place, logging camps and reservations the pain. It is foolish for me, as an outsider, to presume an intimate understanding of the land, but it is a history told many times across the globe. It felt as if I had stepped into some archetypal story, an unending chain linking me across psychosocial time and space to Adam and Eve. I sidestepped any existential guilt for a short while by assuring myself that I was doing the land a favour, that the invasive deer had been hard on the ecosystem and I was doing a small part to help out. If I could muster the wit to find one, the courage to kill one,and the wisdom to do it well, then the universe simply couldn’t be angry with that.

And my opportunity came as many come — completely unexpected. I had been patrolling the border of a large open field, taking care to stay downwind and treading lightly. When you are hunting as we were, without the use of stands or off-road vehicles, hours can feel like minutes but will still drain you for the day. Every sense is alert, no movement automatic. After three hours of straining my eyes and ears with no results, I was getting tired. The sun had been up for a couple hours, prime hunting time had passed, and I started to bumble along with my head in the clouds, walking out from the brush, exposing myself to any eyes that might also be watching.

Rounding a corner, I caught sight of a small spike and doe about forty yards away, a strange sight before the rut and at this hour. I didn’t stop for contemplation. I simply knew I had to hide. Falling stiffly to one side, I managed to scramble behind a small bush. The deer had heard me, but could not smell me, and, if I kept still, could not see me. They remained fixated on the spot from which I had only just disappeared. After five minutes of my heart beating a relentless tattoo and the deer frozen in place, prepared for flight, their heads dropped and they continued browsing. I chambered a bullet and shouldered the thirty ought six, which suddenly felt strangely light. Leaning against a branch for support, I waited for a clear shot, exhaled, and squeezed the trigger. I barely remember the shot, but I do remember seeing the doe leap once, stagger, and collapse on the edge of the forest. Her companion had frozen, unsure of what had just happened and unclear of his next move. He looked out at the world as if in a dream. Flush with adrenaline and greed, I loaded again. My hands shook uncontrollably as I breathed out and squeezed the trigger, the young male in my crosshairs. The gun sounded, a cloud of smoke appeared, and the deer was gone. I heard a thrashing in the bushes as the animal struggled in confusion, trying to connect the events of the last few minutes to the pain in its side. A bad shot means a slow painful death, and in my haste I had neglected to let myself calm down from the previous shot, my shaking hands betraying my eyes, my shot hitting away from it's intended target. It will never bring me pleasure to think about that mule deer’s last seconds.

I sank to my knees and felt blood running down my face. My frayed nerves had not only hurt the deer, but had hurt me. The recoil from the gun had been too much for my body, and I had allowed the scope to hit my face just above the right eye. I dropped the gun and didn’t move for a couple minutes. As I stared at the clouds in the sky and the trees around me, the place that I had spent many hours of the past few days felt foreign and uncomfortable. The leaking slice in my face slowed, and I could hear no more thrashing in the bushes. I lay there, cuddled against the salal, the one living where there once was three.

I was relieved to see my two friend jogging around the corner soon after. They stopped short when they saw my face, and doubled over with laughter. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling but arranged my face into a sheepish grin as they ascribed me the classic characteristics of a rookie, evidence of being a novice hunter now etched on my body. We split up to find the deer that had run, and after a short while and much yelling the spike was found. It was worse than I knew. I had hit the deer in square the gut, ripping its midsection wide open. Intestines and splintered ribs protruded from the body, eyes wide frozen in fear. There isn’t much beyond feeling to describe those moments, and I felt sick to my stomach watching the blood pool and drip onto the green forest floor until all I could see was the dark scarlet fading into the moss, the colour etching itself in my memory. Death may ride a pale horse, but I’ll bet even it still bleeds red.

We salvaged what we could of the spike and field dressed the doe. Walking back to the truck took some time, and we did what we could to lighten the mood. Still, I was bitter with anger towards myself. Wounds aside, I felt that I hadn't won anything. The first shot was taken well, with a clear mind. The second shot was not the same. There would be no thrill, at least as I had come to understand the meaning of the word. Nothing felt like it had been accomplished, no battle of man and nature brought to a glorious end. That didn't seem like any way to be seeing the situation.

* * * * * * * * *

The lines that connect the land and sea, humans and nature, and the past, present and future are all defined by the struggle to survive — to persist. Though not always obvious, certain points in space, time and consciousness sharpen these lines until they are impossible to ignore. The fundamental relationship is that between predator and prey, and I’d be lying to say that I again renounced meat. If anything, I’d learned an appreciation for nuance, of complexity inherent in both our physical and psychological reality. I don’t know how many lifetimes it might take to understand these sorts of things, but every now and then I find myself displaying some semblance of civility towards the natural world by picking up a bit of trash on the beach, whistling along with a bird, bending with the tree branches in the wind, or helping out in some other small way. These things feel like triumphs.

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