Monday, November 28, 2011

Putting Meat on the Table

I have the privilege to live in a beautiful part of Wisconsin, a state where—as one of my friends quips—opening day of deer season is virtually a holy day of obligation. This year I got permission to hunt on some land very near my house, so I set my tree stand out several weeks ahead and waited anxiously for that first day (a shoulder injury kept me out of the woods for bow season.)

People who don't hunt don't know just how great it is to be out before dawn, watching quietly as the forest wakes up. That morning I got into my tree stand about 5:45 am and let things quiet down again. About 15 minutes later, I heard the "crunch crunch crunch" of footsteps coming up the hill toward me.  My heart started to beat faster. "Oh great, here's my deer," I thought, "and it's too dark to shoot." But as I strained to see what was coming, a hen turkey sped up the hill on some sort of important mission and passed directly under my stand. About ten minutes later came "crunch crunch crunch" behind me and she shot back down the hill from whence she had come.

Some time later the squirrels came out in force. They're fun to watch, but maddening in that every playful squirrel running through the leaves has you thinking that he's a deer cruising your way. Keeps me on edge.

As I watched the squirrels play there was a sudden flurry of action to my right. Not thirty feet from me a hawk came pouncing down from above, latched onto one of the young tree rodents, gave a few quick pecks and took off with breakfast secured in its talons. I happened to be looking that way, so I got to see the whole thing. It was a regular National Geographic moment.

I sat there thinking that even if I didn't see any deer I would feel very satisfied by what I had seen. But about half an hour later a buck came running across my part of the forest and I was able to line up a shot as he cleared a small clump of trees. My preference is to take a doe, since they are better eating. But this was the deer that presented itself and so that's the deer I took.

I radioed to the house and my two younger daughters came down with warm water and a welcome bit of breakfast, by which time I had the buck field dressed and ready to bring up to the house. An hour or so later he was skinned out and left to cool in the big barn. Now we are processing the deer into sausage and stew meat, a welcome addition to our freezer since we did not butcher a steer this year.

I enjoy the work of butchering quite a bit. The actual killing of the animals I do not enjoy, but I take it in stride as necessary. If you're going to eat meat then there's no use pretending that it can be any other way—an animal has to die—and if it happens at my own hands, then so be it. You can see from the photo above that the harvesting of animals does not trouble my children. They have grown up with butchering and hunting, so it is a normal part of life for them. They know what it takes to put meat on the table.

Some of the meat went into a venison stew for Thanksgiving Day. Everything in the stew—venison, leeks, garlic, onions, potatoes, rutabagas, carrots, and fennel—was grown or harvested by us. When you eat that kind of food, from the sweat of your own brow and the bounty of the land, it is easy to be truly thankful.