Humane Harvests—Part One
We all have memories of the past that we use as a gauge for determining good times and bad times. Naturally, we miss for more of the good times and do everything in our power to limit future occurrence of the bad. I’m fortunate to be part of a special friendship that has delivered many good times and also has served as a voice of reason during some dark times. Now, as a father of two bright-eyed, carefree boys who are emphatic about fishing, I can’t help but catch myself reminiscing about that friendship and simpler times during our outings.
Fishing and hunting have always been at the heart of the 30-year friendship between me and my buddy Garrett. His parents’ rural Nebraska farm became a sanctuary for me beginning at the age of 4, and it continues to bring relief from the stresses of responsibility that we bear as adults today. On days when school was cancelled on account of snow, we would seize the opportunity to stalk members of the bountiful cottontail population that resided in the long cedar rows that safeguard most eastern Nebraska farmsteads from northerly winter winds. During the long, hot, humid summer days, we would occupy our trusty fishing hole, which always yielded a good morning catch comprised of bluegill and bass. When the fishing slowed in the afternoon, the pond doubled as a swimming hole. In the fall, we would scout creek beds that harbored the hardwoods fortunate enough to evade cultivation. There, we would sit with our backs erect against a tree waiting for an unsuspecting squirrel to fall prey as we honed our shooting, skinning, and butchery skills. Nothing ever went to waste. It was never about “killing” to us. In fact, it was the opposite.
There is a sacred bond formed between nature and a young, uncalloused mind. Before the inevitable complications of status quo, girls, sports, and school created the noise in our minds that would later be defined as “life,” we would together learn a profound respect for death.
The first time I ever harvested a cottontail, I was with Garrett. I was maybe 12. It was the first time I had killed anything. I remember the two of us approaching the dead jack that lay in a white snowbank. A puddle of red was growing around the carcass. Although we knew he was dead, we spoke softly to each other and crept slow, as if a primal spell had been cast upon us. “Good shot.” “Killed him instantly,” Garrett whispered. We sat silent for a few moments, absorbing the magnitude of what it meant to possess the power to take another living being’s life. I stared into the rabbit’s glassy eyes. The spirit and wildness that I had observed moments prior to pulling the trigger was now gone. I remember admiring the beauty of the animal, its immaculate coat with impeccable camouflage encompassing an athletic body engineered by thousands of years of evolution. I suddenly had the feeling I had stolen something. The primal spell had begun to wear off. Resentment and regret washed over me. My bottom eyelids became puddles. What my friend did next would be pivotal in defining the men we both would eventually become.
I had forgotten he was there until I heard the sudden crunching of footsteps in the snow. Garrett shoved the butt of his rifle into a snowbank and cautiously leaned the barrel up against a barbed wire fence. “It’s beautiful,” he said as he picked up the jack and stroked its coat. He spoke without whispering now. I could feel his eyes upon me, trying to gauge my emotional state. I remained fixated on the puddle of red clashing with the pure white snow. He put one arm around my neck and rested it there for a minute. I could feel he knew where my mind was. He knew what I needed to hear. “We eat what we shoot. My mom has a great way of cooking cottontails.” I sat there a moment processing the idea of eating a wild rodent. I decided I didn’t care how it would taste because consuming every ounce of it was the only thing that was going to ease the guilt. I used my coat sleeve to clear the puddles that had crept down my cheeks and hung suspended from my chin. He must have noticed me beginning to collect myself because when I finally had the courage to look at him, his attention was focused on something off in the distance. I scanned the horizon to locate whatever it was. I found nothing. I assumed it was his way of letting me maintain my dignity. Eventually, I regained control of my emotions. I gathered my harvest and Garrett collected his rifle. “Well, I suppose we ought to start our way back home and get this skinned before your mom starts dinner,” I said with a smile.
During our hike back through the snow, I could sense something different between the two of us. We now shared a new relationship with nature. Either one of us could have evaded the awkwardness of a first-time kill with sarcasm or banter. Instead, we accepted the emotional tax due and embraced a newfound comradery that would forever motivate both of us to live lives dedicated to making wilderness wilder.