Just two weeks before Thanksgiving, the scent of braising meat, like bread and old leaves, filled the kitchen. My squirrel was breaking down, slipping off its bones. One of my housemates walked in, where I leaned over the stovetop watching our dinner simmer.
“Smells great,” Travis said. I nodded and sniffed again. Squirrel, I thought, smells like both rabbit and quail, but also nutty and a little gamey. Rodent might not be prime protein, but a hunter obeys her principles. If you kill it, you eat it.
The inversion of that principle brought me to hunting. If you eat it, you kill it—or at least comprehend what it means to kill for food. The combination of that conviction with a commitment to local, organic food forms the foundation of an ethos of eating that is increasing in popularity. The locavore, or local eater, reduces carbon footprint, removes her support from landscape-destroying factory farms, and instead contributes to her regional economy (generally within one hundred miles). More and more local eaters—mostly young, white, and educated—are making the lunge from the neighborhood farmer’s market to the forest kill. This fall, I joined them.
I have been trying to eat local as much as possible for almost five years. I’ve also worked, both for pay and not, for brief stints on organic farms. Eating local, organic food ties the diner to the land, celebrating the methods of agriculture just as much as the products. Locavorism is beautiful.
Like most urban locavores, what I’ve done to support local, organic agriculture has mostly been limited to conscientious consumption. However, for those who eat meat, the inevitable conclusion of the locavore philosophy is killing, not purchasing, your dinner. Eating wild game uses fewer natural resources and causes less ecological damage than eating domesticated animals. Six years ago, Michael Pollan suggested in his seminal book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that if most of the food Americans consume travels across half a continent to the dinner plate, then hunting in your backyard is the omnivore’s solution.
Some urban foragers have quietly taken to parks to seek rabbits and pigeons for their stockpots. Others swipe fresh roadkill. They’re beginning to gain public recognition. Last summer Hank Shaw published his cookbook Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. Sam Sifton, restaurant critic for The New York Times, gave the book a strong, positive review. A month earlier, Mark Zuckerberg publicly declared his abstinence from any meat that he has not shot himself. Jackson Landers, who offers a home-butchery and deer biology course called “Hunting for Locavores” in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, published a book called The Beginner’s Guide to Deer Hunting for Food in September.
What the book doesn’t mention is that hunting brings the locavore into contact with more than an animal. Hunting placed me at a meeting-point between hunters living their family tradition and young urbanites who’ve never tasted wild game.
I decided to try hunting myself, first for small game and then for deer. I hoped to end the season with a freezer chest of butchered venison. If you, reader, are like me, then you will want to know how the uninitiated can become blaze-orange-wearing huntsmen.
First, you’ve got to get legal.
LICENSED TO KILL
The Ulster Heights Rod and Gun Club sits at the feet of the Catskills, some ninety miles upriver from Manhattan, twenty miles west of the Hudson River. Cell phones don’t work there and, on a Saturday morning in October, fog lay over the few fields visible from the road like a second crop. I am nearly one hundred miles west of New Haven, but only a few dozen from my mother’s family home.
It was terribly cold inside the cement brick building, but it was crowded. Most of the forty odd hunter’s safety education certification candidates were white males, ranging in age from the twelve-year-old three rows back to the whiskered grey-hairs who know their guns. Nearly all of us wore variations on old jeans and work flannel. It was a worn-looking crowd.
Most of these men were preparing to enter a hunting community sustained by tradition. Families pass on that tradition, fathers, like the man who embraced his son, a soft-cheeked teenager, when the boy walked out with his safety certificate. These families have been eating sustainably for generations. The wood-colored fellow next to me, who called me “honey” when I passed him a rifle, told me he liked bear meat best of all game.
New York, like most states, requires attending a hunter safety course like the one hosted by the Rod and Gun Club. The International Hunter Education Association provides the curriculum, which covers different types of firearms, ammunition, the mechanical sequence of a bullet leaving a gun, and basic safety rules and tips. Our two instructors speak most adamantly, and eloquently, about the ethics and tradition of hunting.
“You do not drive through town with a buck on the hood of your car. Those days are over,” Carl, a former police officer, told us. He doesn’t want hunters vilified. The combination of a cute, dead animal and triumphant gunman paints a tired picture of redneck bloodlust. It is the clichéd image of a community whose sport has become increasingly regulated and politicized over the last three decades—a sport on the defense.
Carl told us that hunters have a duty to conservation, to protecting land and resources for sustained use. A hunter kills only as many creatures as a healthy ecosystem can afford.
“Conservation is not environmentalism,” he announced, his enunciation forceful from years in law enforcement. Carl was assuring my fellow students that he did not want to force a partisan agenda on them. I imagine that, to Carl, “environmentalism” means something too extreme, irrelevant, and yuppie—a little like me, staring at him from the aisle two rows back.
But from where I sit, conservation is environmentalism. In an America where food is produced on fear-inducing scales and where we throw away our meals as easily as we consume them, the idea of being conservative in what you kill and eat is countercultural.
I wondered what else I might agree on with these men. I saw in the instructors and my fellow students signs of an unspoken, deep respect for the natural landscape. A new hunter needs the knowledge that these men possess. After a license, you need a guide.
AMONG THE TREES
It took me half an hour to bag my first squirrel. She went down with a shoulder shot, which shattered her right leg and struck through her left ribs, exactly what Joe had told me you want with small game. It was the first weekend in November and the first time I had ever looked through the scope of a rifle to see an eye gazing back.
Joe LaGatutta, my new mentor, had driven over for my gun shakedown that afternoon. We were shooting on my mother’s late aunt’s property on the Hudson River. Eight years ago, when Joe had started helping my mother tear asbestos insulation out of one of the buildings, he had already been working for many of the families in the small village of West Park (seven miles north of Poughkeepsie on the western bank of the Hudson) as a contractor. Joe had agreed to take on my mother on the condition that she let him track game across the property. With his extensive client list, Joe has accumulated a massive system of private hunting grounds this way. He shares the tree stands he has set up all throughout the creased woods of the Catskill foothills with a group of hunting buddies, and he teaches many of the neighborhood kids how to hunt, including me.
Joe grew up in the Bronx, spending his summers in the village five miles south of West Park. As a young teenager he would walk into the woods at the town’s end and, when he re-emerged, it was with pockets heavy with squirrel, he told me. He wanted me to start the same way.
With little preface, Joe had slapped a cardboard box with target stickers in front of a brush pile and watched me load his Remington .22 caliber with four bullets. I had settled myself around the gun, nuzzling its stock into my shoulder and curving down so that my cheek bulged on top of its butt, pulling the gun hard against my collarbone, pressing my hand into the side of a tree for stability. This settling isn’t a quick motion, not for a beginner, because the coordination of muscles is unique to shooting.
More important, however, is breathing. All gunmen know and preach the same breathing sequence: you breathe naturally until you’ve got your sights aligned, take a breath, release it halfway, and gently squeeze the trigger. I first learned this technique at summer camp, where I loved the rifle range and shot nearly every day, though, when I had considered it then, I was repelled by the thought of killing animals. Joe had me practice standing shots and then sitting ones, my back against the tree, arms braced against my knees, taking advantage of the natural environment. I shot well and he was pleased. Of the few that weren’t bulls’ eyes, Joe said, “That’s still a dead squirrel.” I was ready enough. Any beginner with steady hands and a week at a practice range could be as good.
Joe taught me only a little less carefully than he had helped sight his elderly brother-in-law who, due to damage from cataract surgery, has had to learn to shoot lefty. Another day I watched, disconcerted, as the older man’s bullets went wide of the deer-sized target’s entire body. But Joe watched him keenly, offering pointers to bring his shot into the killing circle.
Joe left me the rifle and a box of bullets. I walked down the wooded river bluff with an intent to kill. I settled myself in the tree stand that Joe had installed above a deer bedding area in a low spot that runs parallel to the river. From fifteen feet up I could see the Hudson, the neighboring monastery, and an entire swath of forest that I had never seen before. From this vantage I could read the terrain. I saw the worn tracks of animals in parted grasses and deadfall.
I sat there twitching. Hunting really shouldn’t be an active verb, I thought. From all that I had heard from Joe and the guys at the Rod and Gun club, the activity largely consists of hours spent waiting and watching. Hunters will come away from the deer season often with only one to four kills, but many cold days of stillness.
I didn’t shoot the first squirrel I could. You don’t shoot the first one, Joe had explained to me, because more will follow, and you don’t want to scare them off. When you do shoot one, you do not retrieve it immediately. “Fifteen minutes later they’ll come back to play,” he told me.
The second squirrel came skittering into the western edge of the deer’s clearing, spiraling around a log as it chased a third. My sensations heightened by adrenaline, I nearly laughed at their play. The squirrel stopped on the log, though her friend continued on into a thicket. She sat up on her hind legs in perfect profile and looked at me, coquettish and bold, and as accommodating as Joe had said she would be. I lined up my muzzle, my shoulders, my cheek, and breathed in, half out, and gently pulled the trigger. She flew off the log, bounced three, maybe four, squirrel jumps and then dribbled under another downed tree about six feet from the first, where she immediately ceased moving.
My whole body quivered, thrilled with horror. I nearly cried. I wondered at how senselessly I had ended her game. I stared through the canopy, the trees all breathing and swaying. The birds had gone silent with the gunshot. Would this be the moment, I asked myself, that I would remember in the future as my conversion to vegetarianism? I could see the furry hind of the dead squirrel but the thought of touching it made me feel ill. The Hudson River glittered calmly behind the trees.
I couldn’t tell if my shaking was from endorphins, shock, or the cold. I was stuck in the metal stand, waiting because Joe had told me to, but also because I wanted to make sure that the squirrel wouldn’t still be alive when I descended, and I had nothing to do but sit in the sky and think over what I had done.
Killing this creature only felt tragic because I had witnessed its death. I don’t see the meat that lives as poorly as it dies. This squirrel lived wild and now it would be eaten—and that was good.
The following hour was quiet, as the sun passed over the hill and the woods seemed to age, turning grey and amber. My shadow lay across the groundcover, enflamed by the falling sun. I listened for more squirrels. There are hours when the squirrels are loud and hours when they are quiet. When they feel bold, the animals can make as much noise as a child crashing through deadfall. Other times only the uncanny twitch of a leaf reveals their progress across a branch. Over the next hour, a quiet one, I pinned three more squirrels in my crosshairs, hesitated, and lost them. A deer leapt down the western banks, moving south with the wind. It was growing far colder and my hands on the rifle were white, blue, and green. It was time to dress my kill.
A squirrel is adorable in death. Its fur is soft, features delicate, and eyes cracked as if it were just sinking into a doze. Only a bubble of blood at the nostrils and the red exit and entry wounds show its trauma. Outside my great aunt’s house, I set up my squirrel on a board and swigged from a bottle of Hudson River Valley whiskey. I started by clipping off the feet. When you press in the tendons by a squirrel’s feet, the toes curl in, just as they do in limp human wrists, and I dropped the thing with a cry when its claws unexpectedly scraped my latex-gloved hand. With scissors I then snipped through the skin across the abdomen and up its belly, gripped the fur and started to peel back. Joe had told me that it would feel like I was undressing the squirrel, but it didn’t. It took strong pulling, and I had to push my fingers between her warm abdomen and her hide, though I did slide her leg stumps out from her furred sleeves as if they were the ends of a winter parka. This was almost a bloodless process, since the body is encased in muscle. She was nearly meat.
The body peeled, I chopped off the squirrel’s tail and head and discarded them with the feet. I sliced a line below and then up between her ribs, cutting away the diaphragm and then the tissue connecting the heart and lungs to the chest cavity. I set those organs aside. I then pulled out her gastro-intestinal tract, whole, because puncturing the guts would release bacteria. Cutting through the joints, I divided the carcass into six cuts: four legs and an upper and lower torso. These I put inside, into the freezer, where any germs would die in a few hours.
The next morning, before dawn, I returned to my post. As the sun rose, above grasses and leaves lined with frost, I listened for the wakening forest. A turkey clucked. Hawk-sized Pileated Woodpeckers watched the forest floor from the highest limbs of a dead oak with far keener eyes than mine. The sun rose over the Hudson, shining in one amber track across its waters, slipping gold trails between the maples. The squirrels began to chatter.
I took one out in the first twenty minutes with a perfect shot. I waited for my third squirrel.
I watched with my ears, because the story of the woods is in every sound. The chickadees tentatively warming their throats, the tiny tablespoon songbirds sparrowing through the thorny brush, the hisses of squirrels speaking to one another. These noises, ebbing and flowing with the wind, ceased when a hawk flew overhead and after a six-point buck strode boldly through the valley.
I missed the third squirrel’s shoulder, hitting the middle of his torso. He ran behind a tree and bled there for half an hour. I climbed down out of the stand and flushed him further into the woods where he ran onto a log at the crest of a small hillock and lay there watching me. I walked up, carefully took a sitting position fifteen feet away, speaking gently aloud to the squirrel, and then shot. Without the elevated view of the tree stand, I couldn’t see where he landed, and, despite a systematic search, couldn’t recover his body.
I couldn’t use the second squirrel either. I had waited too long, several hours, to field-dress, and after too much time cooling, the meat was no good. I felt terrible, irresponsible and reckless. Still, I would eat what I had butchered the night before
A stew is only as good as its foundations. I seared my squirrel, deglazed the pan, and then braised the meat in chicken stock. After nearly three hours I put in caramelized carrots and squash, and potatoes, celery and barley. I pulled out the bones and removed the lid to cook down the base, adding pinches of rosemary and thyme. The kitchen smelled of grease, woody herbs, and fermented fruit. I served my housemates and each of us went back for more.
When we put away our dishes, there remained the lava-pink heart and lungs, still tied to each other. I prepared a frying pan and slapped the tight bundle on top of sizzling butter, coating each side with brown sugar as it cooked. A cut through the muscle and lung split the organs into two equal parts. Travis took one half on the end of a fork, and I took the other. It tasted like a cross between French toast and kidneys.
The next time I prepared meat for dinner, a few weeks later, it was venison that Joe had shot that season. Uncooked deer, unlike squirrel (or any other meat I’ve ever seen), carries a dark purple color and has the taste of root vegetables. I marinated the venison cutlets in whiskey and mustard and grilled them outside in the cold December night. No steak or chop has ever tasted so good and hearty to me as that deer, flavorful, tender, and lean.
As I smeared the venison with marinade, I thought of Jackson Landers, the Virginian author of The Beginner’s Guide to Deer Hunting for Food, who, before he started hunting, would not touch raw meat. Landers, 33, was raised a vegetarian but began eating meat as an adult. He would manipulate his raw meat from a distance with utensils. “I decided,” Landers explained, “that if I couldn’t handle the reality of this meat, I should confront where the meat was coming from.” So he decided to hunt, kill, butcher, and eat a deer.
Landers spent years educating himself from college studies and textbooks about the natural history of deer and firearms. He spent hours watching the animals and shot hundreds of rounds a week in practice. He now hunts all his meat. With his bare hands, Landers has butchered armadillo, an animal that carries leprosy.
As soon as he asked, in July 2009 on his blog “The Locavore Hunter,” if readers were interested in attending a workshop class on locavore hunting, Landers became the Northeast’s de-facto spokesperson for environmental and food-focused hunting. Since then Landers has taught New Yorkers how to cook Canada geese culled from Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and has written a second book, Eating Aliens, which advocates fighting invasive species by consuming them.
When I spoke with him over the phone late one night, he had just ended a long day stalking boar in Texas hill country. Landers told me that, other than a school in Texas (that he was currently visiting) whose curriculum was modeled after his own, he knew of no other hunter’s science and butchery courses besides his own. The Virginian estimated that he has taught 150 to 300 people the basics of locavore hunting over the last three years—and his book is now reaching thousands more.
Landers wrote Deer Hunting for Food for the same kind of people who enrolled in his courses, educated people largely between the ages of 25 and 45, most coming from the metropolitan areas around New York City and Washington, DC. Landers taught several former vegetarians and even a practicing vegan who makes exceptions for wild game, he told me.
Nelson Lafon, Deer Project Coordinator with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, welcomes the new hunters. Virginia and the Northeast need them, he told me, because the region has become severely overpopulated with whitetail deer. The deer population, which has been increasing for seventy years, surpassed a healthy size in the 1990s, just as numbers of hunters began decreasing nationwide, Lafon explained. This season the state issued twenty percent fewer hunting licenses than it had fifteen years ago. The deer are starving, competing for food in populated areas and, no longer car-shy, causing fatal accidents.
Lafon would like to see hunters take to the wooded pockets of semi-urban communities. Archery presents less danger in close quarters, and Lafon thinks urbanites could use bows in their own backyards. I asked him what the least amount of land is on which a person can hunt deer. “I hate to say there is a minimum, especially if the hunter works with neighbors,” he told me. Lafon also told me that he does not fear over-hunting because the state ultimately controls both the number of licenses distributed and the number of deer permitted per license each season. In the last two decades both Virginians and New Yorkers have been taking between 200,000 and 250,000 deer per state per season—and, if Lafon is right, they could be taking perhaps thousands more. Two good-sized deer could yield more than 150 pounds of venison combined, enough to last a single locavore hunter a year.
When I took to the woods again, this time for deer, I felt good knowing that it served an ecological purpose—and that I might come away with enough meat for months.
The second Sunday in December was the coldest in weeks, staying resolutely below freezing for most of the day.
From my perch thirty feet up in a hardwood I could see nearly two hundred yards through bare tree trunks. The land is crumpled there, run through with ridges that parallel the Hudson. A long swamp lies about a mile and a half west of the river. Joe calls the land that cups it “the bowl,” and he has peppered its rim with tree stands. He maintains the grounds for the Catholic convent that owns the swath of land, which is two miles south of my family’s place. In the dark forest of 6 a.m., when moonlight touched branches and frosted grasses, I climbed a tall oak, settling onto a wooden platform nailed across an elbow in the tree. A hoot owl cooed the same meter over and over, and after about an hour the sun rose out over the mountain, sending fingerprints of warmth through the full body camouflage suit Joe had leant me. I cradled one of his rifles—the smallest caliber that you can use to hunt deer—and tried not to fall asleep and off my perch. I watched for deer to cross from the swamp to the high ground covered in pines and leafless oaks that lay behind me.
Bagging a whitetail takes thorough knowledge of the animal. Joe places his tree stands by bedding areas or above well-used tracks. He learns the routines and habits of specific animals. On this Sunday in November, the deer, he told me, should have spent the night hunkered down seeking warmth in the valleys and by the inland bodies of water, moving upland with dawn for browse. We had to be in position before the deer entered the woods about us.
Joe, one of his nephews, and I ripped through the forest on ATVs, over logs and steep hillsides, and then tramped through the unevenly frozen swamp to our posts. By sunrise the three of us were high in the branches, each about two hundred yards away from the other two.
I ran through Joe’s words of advice in my head. Even the best book, I realized, can’t replace the field presence of a man standing by your side who knows his gun, the beast, and the terrain. New hunters need to find experienced guides.
Lafon, who learned to hunt from his father, had told me that he has seen the demand for mentors from aspiring hunters. “It’s almost like you need a match system, and we’ve actually thought about that,” he said. Lafon would like to attach urbanized locavores to traditional hunters, education flowing both ways, locavorism exchanged for hunting skills. He has begun talking with Landers about launching a state-sponsored version of Landers’ locavore hunting course, which was offered for the last time this fall. Lafon thinks Landers would make a good ambassador for both locavores and hunters. It is in Landers’s favor, Lafon said, that Landers is a Virginian. The co-education Lafon hopes for is tied, just as locavorism is, to place identity. After all, I think as I wait in the predawn, Joe wouldn’t have taken me under his wing if I hadn’t been a part of West Park.
My tree grew at the edge of the hardwoods. Beyond this margin, which runs from east to west for a several miles, softwood saplings spring up from thick frozen grasses where loggers had sliced off the forest a few years earlier. Deer like these margin areas. I was perfectly placed.
As the morning progressed, I heard a few songbirds and squirrels, and some sporadic gunshots from across the bowl, but none of the soft, crisp rustles that characterize a deer’s delicate browsing pace. After six hours spent watching the sun follow the moon across the sky, I had not seen a single deer and had not spent a single bullet (other than the one I dropped from the tree stand in the dark, along with my hat). None of us had.
Two days later, I was sitting by Union Square in Manhattan with John Durant, one of Lander’s former students, a 28-year-old former management consultant who is writing a manual for living like a modern hunter-gatherer. Durant had shot his first deer three weeks earlier. It was a yearling, yielding about thirty-five pounds of venison. It had been a clean shot and the beast was dead within ten seconds. Durant had been delicate at first in slicing it open—but soon realized his hands needed to get dirty to get the job done. The beast was warm and the air cold, Durant said. It had been the same with my squirrel. Warm organs do not feel like meat. Durant said that he expected the venison would last him a few months into the new year.
Over coffee, Durant and I traded stories. We laughed at how the experienced hunters had teased him for being so green, and for his small deer. He leaned forward to talk about holistic solutions to the physical and ethical problems of modern life. I told him all that I had learned through my own education and research. Hunting is a tradition and knowledge should be shared.
Young people who looked like New York University students sat at the tables around us. I don’t know how we sounded to them, or if they were planning to try venison themselves anytime soon. Suddenly, it felt important for me to know how serious I was about what I had done—and would do.
I had committed myself to hunting in the moment when I worked through my first squirrel’s death. I had seen, riding behind Joe on his ATV as he yelled about loggers clearing the forest, that his care for the land was as genuine as any naturalist’s. Between two people who care so much, there is an opportunity for a conversation that crosses political and cultural boundaries.
Whatever Durant, I, and others like us become will likely remain a small subculture. Durant will reach into the freezer chest in his Manhattan apartment, I’ll return to West Park for more squirrels this spring, and friends will eat our meals. Locavore hunters could have, as Landers said, an impact far larger than our numbers might suggest.
Joe had told me that I could think of hunting as going out to the garden to pull carrots. But the two are not the same. In hunting, you put yourself behind another’s eyes—and it seems to me that we could use this more complete, and more complicated, perspective.
If you take to hunting, give me a call. We’ll invite everyone we know to dinner.