By: Lindsey Elliott
I didn’t know it at the time, but I started preparing for my first hunt nine years ago. I was working as a guide for a field studies program, and we’d hired a woman to come teach us how to make fire from bow drills. This was no ordinary woman. She specializes in what she calls Paleotechnics and has more grit and know-how than anyone I’ve ever met. Her name is Tamara Wilder. We’d found a fox on the side of the road months earlier. Knowing we could make use of it somehow, we picked it up, and during her lesson, she taught us how to case-skin. We ran short on time and only got a third of the way through. I had to get my students out on their 24-hour solo. As the room was emptying, Tamara looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to finish this.’ What followed was an internal dialogue of confusion, doubt, and intrigue, as I questioned, ‘me?’
Everyone went their own way except for me, the fox, and a piece of obsidian. So I took a deep breath, sat down, and decided to get familiar. At first, I looked. I began to marvel at the detail – the whiskers, the soft, silent paws, and the mélange of color and pattern. I had a newfound intimacy with a wild thing, and I was fascinated. What privilege. Unable to hide from the task in front of me, I picked up the shard of stone and started to work. The doubt in my mind was unmatched in my fingers, and to my eternal surprise, I watched, as my hands seemed to know what to do. This was the moment – the unbound-by-time realization that no matter who I think I am, or what I feel I’m capable of, these skills are evolutionarily built into every cell and muscle of my primal being. It didn’t matter what I thought I could or couldn’t do; this was in me. I felt alive, and I became fixated.
I worked in environmental education for years after that, got a permit for collection, and picked up every road-kill I safely could to explore this intimacy with wildness. Birds, raccoons, deer; I’d process and preserve what I could to use as educational tools with my students. I learned how tan hides and furs and even started farming the same beetles they use in museums to clean and preserve bones and skeletons. It worked. They understood adaptations for silent flight when they could hold the wings in their own hands. They felt carnivorousness in the sharpness of a coyotes’ canines. We’d set the unusable remains in wildlife corridors with trail cams overnight. In the morning, we’d check the cameras, and study the unseen progression of scavengers that had descended. I became the person everyone called when they had a dead animal. It was great.
What paralleled this chapter was land stewardship and animal husbandry. After a sustained factory-farmed meat rebellion, I addressed my protein needs by raising goats, pigs, chickens, rabbits and ducks. I confronted the anguish of what feeding myself actually means. I gardened and tended orchards, and managed the land for indigenous flora and fauna. Every year my urge to cut loose and go backpacking conflicted with apple season. The animals required a consistency my wanderlust couldn’t fulfill, and I’d look out into the tiny ecosystems I’d created for them and wonder about the efficiency of these small, artificial environments. Deer would walk by, munch my hedgerows, and move on. What I hadn’t realized is that by managing the wild huckleberries, hazels, tending the grasslands, and reclaiming the meadows from Doug Fir encroachment, I was actually raising deer too.
Fast forward a few years later. I’m an urban dweller in denial in Salt Lake City, completely strapped by launching a new business. My days of tending the wild are replaced with the harsh realities of entrepreneurship and e-commerce. I make friends with Jon Chatelain: a tattoo artist – hunter who’s been honing his skills for over 25 years. He’s the closest thing to an 1870’s fir trapper I’ve met in modern day. He knows this place, knows these mountains, and would give any reluctant city-dweller hope that there’s life on the inside. Over whiskeys, we explore the histories of the skulls on his walls. Each one, a story, rich with dedication, anguish, suffering and love. The mule deer spikes grow into large elk mounts as he one by one recounts his experiences. I finally ask enough questions for him to say, ‘do you just want to come with me this fall?’
I hear the phrase, ‘I grew up hunting,’ from most of the hunters I know. As a 29-year-old female with only primal, evolutionary ties, this is far from my reality. The year I moved to Utah, the Division of Wildlife started a trial hunting program. The number of licensed hunters has been in slow decline due to urbanization, diminishing access to public and huntable land, and the loss of opportunities for young people to learn hunting. Those educated in wildlife management understand the problems this presents, as hunters are a critical aspect of many management plans. This program structurally encourages mentorship and removes some of the typical entry barriers. I could go out under Jon’s wing with a short test and an inexpensive license and learn through experience.
I hadn’t planned on actually hunting that year; I wanted to spend the season observing a safe distance away from the trigger and suss out how I felt. That changed when I found out I drew a Mule Deer tag. An immediate sense of responsibility and focus set in when given a real opportunity. I began reading essays about hunting, buying maps of my game management unit and putting them on my wall where I’d see them every day, and most importantly, learning how to shoot a high powered rifle, which I’d never done before. It was all foreign. Jon took me out to Stansbury Island where we’d have some space, set up a target at 100 yards, and put his 308 in my hands – the rifle he shot his first deer with. Luckily I showed some natural talent and got a group out of my first five shots. Jon’s a good teacher. I left feeling like I actually had a chance at this.
I obsessed over the details, hoping it would lead to some cumulative effect of actually feeling prepared. I trained physically, visualizing I was packing out a heavy load of meat, listened to podcasts, started following hunters on Instagram, read about animal behavior, got tours of other hunter’s kits and essentials, and talked to anyone that would listen about my process in starting out. Aspects of this were certainly alienating, and I struggled to find female mentors. I got a hunting specific backpack from MYSTERY RANCH – the Metcalf – and a set of men’s technical camo from Sitka. I spent hours loading and unloading the pack and testing different layering options to make sure I understood my gear’s functionality. I’d wake up early before work to walk my dog, load the pack with weight and hike hills around my house. Really, though, the summer flew by, and Jon and I were both way too busy. I felt like I didn’t have time to perfect what I wanted to. I wanted to walk the land around Kamas for months to somehow earn taking an animal. At the range, I’d be sighted in at 100 yards, and then would have stray at 200. It was difficult to tell whether it was my inexperience and inconsistency, or the load in the homemade rounds. Either way, I was in the kill zone, which everyone tried to remind me to take my mind off of it. In hindsight, I don’t think there’s any way to make turning into a predator feel normal, but obsessing made me feel better.
“…the very word, ‘animal’ means endowed with mind and spirit.” (Gregory Bateson)
Journal Entry – Friday, October 21st:
I’m hunting in two days. I’m desperate to feel alive again; to feel my deep connection and kinship to the earth, the land, and the animals. I want a lived experience of my humanness; of equilibrium and reciprocity. I’m drawn to the intimacy this demands of me to relate to my own wildness. I want to feel my heart torn open by my reverence for the natural world. I want to feed my soul with this deep relationship – for the rest of the year, and share that significance with my community.
Journal Entry – Sunday, October 23rd:
Gearing up to go out on my first rifle deer hunt. My hand is mostly steady. Breathing to calm. Smudged with sage. Definitely worked up a bit, anticipating, wondering…but not at all questioning. Praying that I get this opportunity for deep intimacy with the wild.
Walk lightly, walk slowly,
Look straight ahead
with the corners of your eyes open.
Stay alert, be swift.
in the manner of deer.
-(Terry Tempest Williams)
Journal Entry – Deer camp day 1:
Traversed a slope with a rifle, in foreign feeling clothes. Sat for hours. Glassing, listening. The sound of leaves under possible hoof has never been so thrilling. Deer are hard to spot. They know. Does, fawns, grouse, Clark’s nutcrackers, and mountain goats – the most regal of them all, posted on rocky precipices. Heard shots not far off; thrilling. Could be me. Though, this does seem hard. Hiked out in the dark, rode the ranger down, saw a 4-point being gutted on the roadside; I remain intrigued. Seeing this lifestyle in action, being a part of the energy on these slopes…I like it. Looking forward to being clad in orange tomorrow for another go.
Journal Entry – Deer camp day 2:
We woke up early and spent the morning on Pinedale Mountain. So dark, so cold. Storm blowing in; after 2 hours of dark, first light brought with it wind and rain. We sat it out anyway, freezing and not seeing a thing. Heard an owl, and spotted a bald eagle as we decided to leave. We went across the ridge to still hunt the timbers all the way back on the other side. Fresh tracks and sign everywhere. It was misty too; felt like any second antlers were going to stand up around us and take off. Seriously doubting my ability to get the crosshairs of my scope in the right place fast enough. Tough hiking; cumbersome with a full-size pack and rifle; steep wet slope; all while trying to be as silent. Constant swings from so cold to so hot and sweaty. Made it all the way back to the ranger not seeing anything. We were all surprised.
I unloaded my rifle and pulled out a sandwich; blood sugar crashing. I was so done. Within four minutes, Jon spots a buck off the road. Ryan’s rifle was still loaded, so he stepped out and put it in his sights. Jon and I were both bracing ourselves for the shot, but Ry lowered his rifle, decided to pass, and the buck bounded into the forest. They both turned to me and said, ‘do you want him?’ I said, ‘YES!’ Spike or 4 point, this was about feeding myself and learning. So I put my sandwich down and stepped out to load my rifle. We moved forward and found the buck again. He stood – I kneeled. I looked through the scope. With all the rain that morning it was like looking through a wet, foggy, shower window. I could only see the white on his rear and his eyes and immediately doubted the situation. I lowered my rifle to wipe off my scope; no change. A friend of mine told me that you’ll know when it’s the right shot; that the animal will offer itself to you. With him still perfectly standing there, that was all I could think – he is giving me this chance. So I took a deep breath and squeezed. I thought I’d be shaking; that I’d barely be able to hold the rifle, but everything zeroed in. Heart pounding, but hands steady. ‘Breathe. Both eyes open.” Hit. I see him lurch. Jon tells me I hit him, but he’s moving. He walks 20 yards deeper into the trees, still standing. Bolt cycled. I hit him again. He takes a few steps, then sways a little, then crumples to the ground.
“…I had work to do now, and death would forever be different to me. I would not fear it so much, as something strange and repugnant, as it is so often to people who reside from birth to death in the steel and concrete canyons of the city.” (John A. Murray)
I wanted to go straight to him and put my hand on his chest while he coughed blood – but I had to stay back so I wouldn’t jump him. This was the hardest part. Watching him die. Once movement stopped, I had to go touch his eye – that’s how you determine if life is truly gone. It was. In the thick of all of this, the young buck snapped an antler off. We never found it.
The three of us picked him up and moved to a perfectly flat spot on the forest floor. I learned how to properly field dress and quarter a deer: skin half, work on that side, use the hide as the protection from the ground, roll it over, and repeat. You have to leave genitals on one rear quarter to prove it’s a buck. It was clean. Warm. So much more workable than my roadkill experiences. The shots hadn’t done that much damage. The quarters were easy, so was the skinning. Organs were more personal. Both of my arms disappeared into the chest cavity to remove the heart just by feel; it was all coming home.
“… the way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world. Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds.” (Michael Pollan)
Three days after the hunt, we spent an entire day butchering the buck. After hanging, the quarters had formed a rind that we carefully filleted off, revealing beautiful, rich muscle underneath. We separated the major muscles, turning them into steaks and roasts, and everything else was cubed and ground. It was a beautiful process and filled my entire freezer with a neatly vacuum packed and delicious future. I had a small scrap of backstrap from butchering that day that I seared in my grandma’s cast iron and ate standing over my butcher block. No plate, no chair…just me. A setting both honest and accurate. A new part of me came alive in that moment. A few days later, out of what I felt to be my duty, I ate the heart. I had expected it to be tough and unenjoyable, but it was, in fact, the opposite. It was an intimate, primal experience both nourishing and spiritual, and one I will never forget.
When I prepare and eat this meat, I’m ushered into a visceral world of intimacy that no stress of a day can touch, which as a new entrepreneur, is fully sacred. I am once again feeling my relationship to land, to food, and my own wildness be challenged and redefined by an intimate experience. This time by something so controversial, so polarizing, and yet — so ancient, and deeply human. The joy I once experienced at the local butcher shop, or the Whole Foods meat counter is steadily turning into a wild game bias as I dissect the complexities of habitat fragmentation, factory farming, land management, the industrial food system, and my own potential. I’ve discovered an intersection of function and spirituality in hunting that resonates with a deep sense of purpose in me, and I now fully intend on continuing to explore it with whole-hearted dedication.
This entire experience has been a touchstone; a process so proving of the soul’s patient tenacity, and the rich and unrelenting possibilities of exploring my primal relationship to the wild. The mysteries, the tendrils of passion, the seemingly disconnected experiences; they’re becoming a woven fabric and are the cairn’s on the trail to more fully understanding how I’m meant to be human.
To my mentors:
At every point in this process, you saw something in me, offered guidance, resources, and inspiration, and helped to clear the path I was on. I was welcomed, trained, initiated, and supported. To Jon Chatelain, Tamara Wilder, Willow Abel, Sequoia Etchevery, David Berman, Jessica Holloway, Morgan Mason, Jainee Dial, Jay Beyer, Sara Jensen, Erik Gnewikow, Tyler Pearce, the ‘Mystery Ranch’ Crew, the ‘Branch’ Crew and the Field Scout crew:
Thank you for your guidance and support, your freezers, your tolerance of my ‘dead things’ collections, and your love.
Header image by Jon Chatelain.