I don’t know if you will believe me, but I love deer. I love our Sitka black-tailed deer. Not in the abstract, but in the daily presence of the four deer, two does and their fawns, who lived on our island all summer, bedding down each night just outside my writing studio, grazing serenely as we walked past, just feet away. They share our paths. I spoke to them every day this summer. They are not afraid of us.
And then it is fall, and I do not speak to them. I come with a gun.
But not for them. We did not hunt them, those mothers and babies. Just the lone bucks off on other beaches. I know, you wonder—how can I be so cold? How can I kill such beauty? It is not easy. But, too, don’t we often kill what we love?
Duncan and I are simple hunters. We hunt out of a boat, the same boat we pick fish from. And we prowl not woods or hills or corn fields----we scan the beaches. When the snow hits, the deer move from the hills and mountains down to the beaches, to feed on kelp. And often to launch out into the frigid ocean to another island, another beach where more food might lie. They are swimming deer, these Kodiak deer.
This late December day, it was clear and cold, the wind at home, not stirring the sea, as usual. But a storm was coming, so Duncan and I knew this was the day to find our deer.
We traveled miles of winter beaches, huddled in our coats, thankful for the sun. We saw deer on every beach. There are too many this year. The winterkill would be high.
This is not sport for us. Nor entertainment. Nor a hobby. Nor interior decorating---we don’t mount heads, horns or hides on our walls. This is about food. It’s about working for our own food. It’s about thinning the massive herds of deer, to lessen the winterkill. It's about spending ourselves to feed ourselves. It’s about living in place, from what the land and sea and God provide.
And He did. By nightfall, at 4:30, we had the deer we needed. Now the real work began, the work of transforming a body into food.
It was cold in our warehouse at fishcamp. Just 18 degrees the first day. While we cut and diced and packaged, hour after hour, winter played its cold hand. We couldn't keep warm.
As we cut, what did I see inside the harp of those ribs, the cave of those bones? What do I see other times when I am bloodied with salmon, with cattle, when I am filleting the reddened body of a halibut? I see the marvel of muscles, ligaments, the purity of the meat. I see friends sitting around our long crowded fishcamp table passing platters of food. I see the eagles and gulls feeding on what we can't eat. I see people being fed and filled and warmed.
But my own hands and body cannot forget: Death is hideous and bloody.
We hold both truths on our plates, on our forks every time we lift food to our mouths: something has died to feed us.
This is the way this living world works. Some of you choose otherwise. You are vegetarians and vegans. I applaud you for practicing heaven now and here. And I too wish for the Garden again, when lions lusted after cantaloupe instead of antelope, when wolves chewed straw instead of chasing lambs, when not a single beast snapped at a mouse or gnat . . . I too am hungry for no-more-dying.
But death is not wasted. My friend Ann Voskamp, in her essay in The Spirit of Food connects the moments around two tables when we remember and celebrate the bloodiest of all times, the Eucharist. “The agricultural act of eating food, like eating Christ, is no different: we eat, entering into death, and come back rejoicing. The daily eating of food is but a way of remembering death, a way of experiencing resurrection. The living dead, we eat of the dead, and the miracle happens again: we revive.”
We are not cheap. We cost a lot, don't we?
On Sunday, in church, we will have communion.
Tonight, we are eating deer.
We are fed this miracle again.
We are revived.
Again. And again.
(And always . . )