Monday, October 18, 2010

Hunters are locavores, too: Part 1

In my neck of the woods the mere mention of hunting is met with looks of disgust and disbelief. How could anyone kill an innocent animal for food?

I grew up in Manitoba, a hunter's daughter with a big heart. I felt sorry for everything that died by my father's hands and held private funerals for them when he wasn't looking. Silly, I know, but I was a sensitive kid.

As I grew up I got used to the sight of dead animals and blood, and although I would eat wild meat, I never joined the family hunts. My brothers have made a living off of hunting. They own their own outfitting companies and when they're not running their businesses, they're guiding for someone else's. My dad has designed and manufactured a muzzleloader bullet that “kills on contact.” He was so disturbed by the suffering of animals that he vowed not to hunt until he could produce a more accurate bullet.

When I tell my friends here in Ontario about my family in Manitoba it's like telling them that I'm related to Charles Manson. Immediately following the looks of disbelief, come the questions and speeches and unsolicited opinions. People often assume that hunters are gun-toting hillbillies who kill merely out of sport and do not respect nature. This couldn't be further from the truth.

This spring I decided to join my brother for the Manitoba spring bear hunt. I'd heard all the stories but had never joined him in the bush. I didn't go to actually kill anything since I am untrained in firearms safety, have barely shot a gun and do not possess a hunting license. I went merely to observe. Bear hunting required full camo - face, hands, everything – Scent Lok clothing and a pair of hip-waders. The bush behind my brother's house in rural Manitoba looks like rainforest in some spots and the area we hunted was like nothing I had ever seen before. I walked a 1/2 mile through swamp and moss up to my knees. Mosquito swarms were as thick as Hamilton smog on a hot day and they were hungry. Moss clung to trees like dirty laundry thrown haphazardly in the wind. The sun shone down hard. Sweat ran down my back in streams. Or, were those wood ticks? I couldn’t tell anymore. When we arrived at the clearing, my brother pointed to a tall, almost-dead conifer tree. It had a zillion branches coming out every which way and he instructed me to climb it. I looked at him incredulously. Climb? In hip-waders? Most hunters would have used screw-in metal steps, but my brother wasn’t most anything. The old sibling rival in me accepted the challenge knowing that if I made a fuss I’d never be invited out again. As ridiculous as it sounds, being invited was a huge honour and I didn’t want to screw it up. Impressively, I quickly and quietly climbed some 20 feet up the tree.

My brother had advised me not to speak, lest I scare the bears away. So, I sat in the tree stand above my brother's and silently swatted at the 'skitters' that tried to settle on my face. I barely breathed as I stared into the clearing below. The first hour dragged. I must admit, I’m not very good at keeping quiet. When we used to play ‘Who can be the quietest for the longest?’ I always lost. I was dying for a book, Twitter updates, Facebook, a crossword - anything to occupy my brain. All I could think about were the zillions of things I could have been doing if only I weren't sitting up there in that stupid tree. How city kid of me.

After a while the noise in my brain started to settle. I stopped worrying and started taking in my surroundings. Soon, all thoughts disappeared and, as corny as it sounds, I became one with my surroundings. It's honestly the closest I've ever come to meditation.

Our camouflage outfits had been washed to remove all trace of human scent. Under the surface layer of camo, we were wearing a layer of Scent-Lok clothing to lock in any body odour. The layers seriously contributed to the sweat that I could feel trickling unfemininely down my back.

Nature continued its course, unaware of our presence. Birds flew in and landed on branches just feet away from my face. Squirrels made strange noises, chattering noisily in argument for hours. By the time the bears lumbered into the clearing in search of food, hungry after a winter of fasting, I had almost forgotten why we were there. They routed around, scratched their bony bums on trees, and snacked on scraps of food left on the ground and lucky me, I got to watch it all from the comfort of my tree stand.

My brother and I sat in that tree for over 5 hours without saying a word. He never raised his bow once, although the opportunity had been there. As a nature lover, it was, perhaps, the most beautiful five hours of my life. I felt extremely privileged for having been there.

When we got back to the house, my brother’s wife asked how the hunt had gone. I laughed. “I guess I can’t really count this as a hunting trip since we didn’t kill anything,” I responded. “Of course you can,” my brother insisted. “What do you think hunting is all about?” What did I think hunting was all about?

My brother offered me a beer and we sat around a bonfire talking about all we’d seen that day. We laughed at the chattering squirrels and looked up the birds we'd observed. I commented on the condition of the tree we’d sat in, the swamp we’d hiked through, and my frustration with the mosquitoes and wood ticks. At one time there had been five bears circling underneath our tree. We had been particularly entertained by the bear that had spent at least twenty minutes scratching his bum on a tree stump. We dubbed him “B-squared, or bald bum.” Weeks later my brother would text me to tell me that B-squared had been under his tree again.

Since I vowed never to eat factory farmed meat again, I have re-evaluated my stand on hunting. Hunting is natural and has been a part of life for as long as we have. What isn't natural is factory farming. My vow to eat local, organic meat from animals that have lived a long and happy life hasn't been easy to honour, given the options. But, how much more local, organic and fairly treated can you get than animals that have eaten only what Nature has provided and have wandered free all their lives? Hunters have a deep understanding and profound respect for nature - more so than many of the city people I know. The way I see it, hunters are locavores too.
Stay tuned for more in the Hunters are locavores, too series.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mel,
    I'm a reporter with The Globe and Mail, and I came across your blog in my search for locavores for an article I'm writing. I was wondering if you'd be willing to discuss how you became interested in eating locally, and how you make your sustainable food choices.
    If it's possible to arrange a phone interview, would you kindly contact me at
    Thanks very much. I look forward to your reply.
    Wency Leung