“So, at that moment when you’re about to pull the trigger and kill this animal, how does that feel?” This animal is the cow elk whose hind leg I am whittling into flawless roasts; the hunter I’m quizzing is Dan. Poor Dan. When he tells his hunting story, I’m the only one who inquires about his feelings. Perhaps it is because I always feel sad, even after ten years of hearing about these wild creatures, one moment munching mountain grasses amongst the herd, the next crumpled on the ground, nerves twitching as life seeps from this massive body.
“When I’m taking the shot I’m pretty detached from my feelings,” Dan explains as he peels sinew off a backstrap. Oh. Perhaps that’s why the vast majority of hunters are men; detaching from my feelings seems as likely as chopping my own finger off – it just kind of goes with my hand.
Dan mentions the remorse that settles as he performs the somber work of field dressing the still-warm body: tugging hide from flesh, loosening thick legs from pelvic bones, sawing ribs free from the vertebrae stacked like a white tower of legos. But tangled in that remorse is gratitude like a chorus of angels singing about meat that is local, sustainable, free of factory chemicals and delicious.
“We all kill to live in some way or another” Dan muses, “I’m glad I can be so intimately involved in procuring the meat we eat.”
So, Dan got an elk and a deer. And then went right back to working 10 hour days. If the following week was a movie preview, you’d first see me tenderly washing the children’s bottoms in the bath. Then cut to me at the kitchen table hacking away at a deer leg while Dan reads books to the kids. Next I’m investigating a new freckle on Col’s face, which, whoops! turns out to be a speck of raw meat. Then cut to Dan hefting a 100-pound elk hind leg flecked with spruce needles and elk hair into the house at midnight.
I love this sort of work—the kind that is physical, predictable and has a beginning, middle and end—probably because much of my life is like trudging through this dark, circular tunnel. I keep rounding the bend to arrive back at this place: version #23 of the argument regarding why we wear jackets when it’s 40 degrees outside. I should just lie on the crumb-strewn floor while blasting the pre-recorded tape of my voice cheerleading the kids as they struggle with their jackets. Almost there Col… now your other arm Rose…no, don’t give up now…push through, push through!
Butchering is so straightforward. When you get down to the smooth, white expanse of a scapula, you’ve finished a shoulder. Slice off anything that isn’t pure, glistening ruby meat and return it to the woods. Backstraps become steaks, hind legs are roasts and the piece-work of sinewy shoulders goes to the pile that we’ll grind into burger and sausage. When you shut the freezer door on a deep well of swimming white packages, you are done. Crack a beer!
Saturday was the big push. If Salvador Dali painted our picture you’d see all these slow-moving bodies grabbing knives and beers and elk steaks, sometimes mixing up the three and trying to slice a hind leg with a beer or take a swig on a knife. Everyone would be smiling, their hands busy. Our friend Chris, who grills meat like a 50-year old man who’s been holed up with his rifle in a survival shack on the bayou, put out perfectly cooked plates of elk burgers, deer ribs and smoked deer steaks.
Our former neighbor Cody, who was in his twenties when we met and will always seem impossibly young, came with Logan, both of whom helped Dan pack out the elk. You know how I can tell these guys are still in their twenties? They’re so unencumbered, so light you can almost see through them as they glide around, never having spent a minute frowning over a growth chart or trying to insert a bulb syringe into a screaming, snot-packed newborn. Last summer Cody returned from a long roadtrip and told Dan “It was awesome – just two bachelors and a dog touring the West in a van; we woke up every morning and said, where should we go now?” You just shouldn’t be allowed to say that to a parent.
But the best thing is these guys approach our children like they’re these delightful little creatures, a million times better than a figment of their last mushroom trip. When Rose deadpans every three minutes “more dat rib meat,” charmed Logan hands her a deer rib so fatty, taking a bite feels like you just applied a month’s worth of lip balm. When Col insists on writing his “address” on every package of meat, Cody convinces him a simple “C” will suffice.
The kids mob Logan on the meat grinder and he never alters his expression of cheery calmness, like he could be swaying to a live reggae band instead of pushing meat into whirring blades while children’s arms fly around like sparrows kicked up by a cat. But the kids really do help, not in a way of speeding up the process, but in a most unusual way of not slowing it down. They form balls of ground meat to be wrapped, shuttle packages to the freezer and are happy to be included in the giddy, buzzing hive of productivity.
Each year the butchering is slightly different. We’ve had young cows pass through the butchering table, as tender as cooked butter beans. We’ve had burly bulls, startlingly huge in a prehistoric, “brontosaurus burger” sort of way. Before kids, we’ve worked from dawn to dusk, sometimes with a symphony of friends slicing, grinding, wrapping. Other times, it’s just me and Dan, enjoying a date of sorts. One year our friend Stacie, a physical therapist, joined us and the packages got marked “illiocostalis dorsi” or “quad extensor.” When Col was a baby, and calcium deficient like many preemies, we pulled slippery white marrow from elk bones to swirl into his applesauce. Skimming through my butchering memory is like seeing a yearbook of all our friends’ faces.
Col asks “where is that elk now Daddy?” “It’s in our bodies Col, and we are grateful.”
May it go on and on.