I am twenty-five feet off the ground in a slightly swaying tree. It may as well be a hundred feet, since the pre-dawn darkness obscures my view to the ground. This moment of stillness caps an hour in which I feel I have already lived half a day. My alarm clock had ended my dream preview of the deer now somewhere nearby, one of which is likely having its last night. Dream fragments still swirling around me, I grabbed my bow and drove to the edge of the woods, soaking up the last heat from the vehicle before stepping out into the cold. Unseen creatures followed my approach. I briefly became disoriented as I tried to find the way to my hidden ladder. Finally, after the dangerous climb, the snap of my safety vest’s clip signals the end of my intrusion. The disturbing wake of my entry melts away. I am now part of the tree, part of the forest’s quiet calm, part of the natural world.

I have left the chatter of my life and have joined an ancient peace, another world where I am only a student and definitely a foreigner. But even as an intruder, I am a member of an age-old society of hunters: men and women throughout the ages united in their mission to provide food for their families. They have, like me, left their homes and kin and crossed a border into nature, into a wild ruled by animals whose ways they have to learn. Sometimes when hunting from the ground I wonder if a Lenape hunter ever stood exactly where I am, seeing the same rocks and the ancestors of the same trees, hearing the same sounds I am hearing now.

Tim Maendel heads to the woods with his bow. Photograph by Andreas Compy. 

The forest soundtrack tests my discernment. Squirrels and chipmunks in the leaves briefly fool me, but there is nothing that makes my heart race like the irregular punching sound of the deer’s hooves now approaching. I lean forward slightly, and there it is, antlers weaving and bobbing as it seeks acorns. When I stir, it briefly stops to read my movement. I am now in plain sight, but if I hold still my image does not register as danger, so it goes back to food-seeking. A few more steps bring it into the alignment I need for a lethal shot. Minutes later I am standing over the stretched-out deer.

I have sometimes found myself in strange disbelief at this point. The deer looks so peaceful and unharmed that I wonder if I am really responsible for this, or if it is even my deer. I kneel and grab an antler. No human has ever been this close to this deer; nobody has ever touched what I’m touching. Neither has anyone helped it find food or provided it shelter in subzero snow storms, summer downpours, or scorching sun. It has seen the deep forest secrets. The meat under its skin comes from food it found itself. I murmur words of thanks and then start field-dressing it, the warmth of its moist innards the first gift to my frigid hands. I identify the organs as I remove them and, except for the liver and heart, leave them for the forest food chain.

Most states require you to take a hunter safety course before you can purchase a hunting license. Typically, these courses cover proper handling of firearms and personal safety (one of the most common hunting accidents is a fall from a tree stand), tips on approaching landowners for permission, and public relations. But more time is spent on principles of wildlife management, wildlife identification, hunting ethics, and the hunter’s responsibilities toward animals and the environment. Out of respect for the animals, and to improve public perception of hunters, these often include “fair chase” rules, which trace back to customs developed in the Middle Ages to increase the challenge and integrity of the sport. In 1967 naturalist Bill Wadsworth and some fellow bowhunters started work on an education program to train hunters and protect the sport they loved. “If bowhunting as we know and enjoy it is to survive, we must be hunters who appreciate and respect the environment in which we hunt, as well as maintain a strong desire to uphold the highest standards for our sport,” Wadsworth said. His curriculum is now used nationally.

Photograph by Bennie Blough. 

Bowhunting offers special satisfaction, as it gets hunters closer to the game and puts them in touch with centuries of people who crafted their own weapons long before firearms were invented. It requires skill and patience, which add to its allure. In my bow class we spent hours learning the ways of the deer, fair chase, and humane kill. We learned internal deer anatomy and were shown acceptable shot placement, along with a list of shots never to attempt due to their high chance of wounding and causing suffering instead of a clean kill. We were advised to wait thirty to sixty minutes before setting out to track a deer, since even a lethal bow shot will usually cause an animal to bed down as it tries to recover from the bleed. The sight of a hunter at this stage will stress the deer into using its last strength to move to a hiding place in an area of dense underbrush where it is likely to die alone, its meat wasted. We practiced tracking a blood trail the instructors had made with ketchup. As a final measure of our worthiness to be humane hunters, we had to prove our marksmanship.

Not every hunt goes as I would like it to. I am ashamed to think of times when a poorly placed shot, usually the result of over-eagerness fueled by a long wait or several unproductive hunts, did not end in a peaceful death. Once my first crossbow shot paralyzed a deer, leaving it alert but immobile. After a second shot I was surprised at its calm, so I walked up and stood close to it. At this point a clear mental image appeared, one that often comes when close to an animal or fish I have caught – the face of my dog, Sammy. Perhaps it’s because he represents the closest bond to the animal world I have in my normal life. I wished he was here. But the vision faded as I saw and heard the deer’s death throes. I thought of turning away but duty held me in place, and I found myself speaking aloud to the animal, apologizing for the way it turned out and thanking it for its life. I was surprised that my voice – so close and surely the first human voice that had ever spoken to it – didn’t startle it. I have no idea what emotional intelligence the deer has, but I like to think my soft voice was calming it, easing its transition.

Another similarity between hunters and their prey is the pull of desire that can cause humans and creatures alike to throw caution to the wind. Out in the woods, watching this force override animal behaviors needed for safety and survival, I recall legends of boat pilots lured to their death by lovely mermaids or sirens. Or King David, who threw away his hard-earned honor at the sight of another man’s wife. Similar stories of derailment can be found in almost any news feed. Here in the wild, the same force lures turkeys and deer out of firm safety at certain times of year. The most experienced and cautious buck will step out of concealing brush and dash across an open field at the sight of a doe or competing buck. Artificial scents put out by hunters or grunts imitating a male announcing his territory have the same effect.

Years ago, my sixteen-year-old son and I decided to try turkey hunting. We set up a cloth ground blind and within shooting distance a rubber jake (young male turkey) decoy standing proud and tall, sporting a short beard, paired with a rubber hen with head down as if feeding. YouTube had helped me learn the basic call of a cheeky young jake, which remarkably brought an immediate return call and then the appearance of an enormous tom turkey who needed to see what was going on. Weeks before, the same turkey would have sprinted for cover if it had seen me a thousand yards away, but in its current hormone-charged state the idea that a teenage jake had got a member of his harem was too much. It ran past our blind’s window close enough to touch, literally spitting in its anger, and started pecking the head of the rubber bird with a violence that threatened to destroy the decoy. We both burst out laughing, which is probably why my first shotgun blast missed. Apparently tuning out even that thunderous sound, the tom went right on pecking. “No,” said my son, “this is how you do it.” Taking the gun, he finished off the bird.

The stream of fawns and turkey chicks entering the world every year are a fountain of continuity, but unchecked population growth would soon deplete the available food supply. The predator plays the necessary role of healthy limitation. Each species does its part in balancing overgrowth. Shrubs would overgrow fields and woods if not for harvesters such as deer, but if the deer become overpopulated they kill off the same growth. Enter the wolf and coyote. Humans have certainly played a part in unbalancing this stability. But hunting, if practiced within limits, is one way of providing the necessary predator. It also strengthens our connection to nature and clarifies our place in the food chain.

Before modern hunting laws, humans hunted many animal species close to extinction. Deer were almost wiped out in the early 1900s, but through conservation the United States now has an estimated 36 million. Wild turkeys were taken from a national population nadir of 30,000 in the late 1930s to around 6 million today. But even this conservation success story carries lessons in over-meddling by humans. You might think that catching a few of the remaining birds and using them to breed and release more birds would have been the easiest solution. Instead, this had the opposite effect, as the bred birds were unable to survive on their own due to all the human help they had received. Instead, repeated netting of parts of flocks and moving them to less populated areas, as well as predator control, proved to be the solution. Today’s hunters, who are beneficiaries of these conservation efforts, have a responsibility to support them.

For me, it’s paradoxical that the hours spent in nature bring such great peace to my soul, since I come there as a predator. But in so doing, I am included in the natural cycle that is necessary for life. The animals I hunt are also hunted by animal predators, or killed by vehicles on the highway, or die of starvation if their numbers get too high. I get to experience firsthand where meat comes from and share this experience with others.

I spent the last light of the season this year standing in the same field as a young deer that I had stalked after deciding to let it grow even though it was in easy reach. I watched it feed and then raise its head to match my stare. We stood like that for several minutes until movement to my right distracted me to an even better reward – a hunting red fox, tail almost as long as its body, came silently floating within feet of me before it turned to disappear with the daylight.

Moments like this stay with me and I revisit them when I need an escape from the noise of life. I wish every person in the world could feel this rejuvenating connection to creation. For some, a hike topped by a mountain view or time spent at a mountain stream does it. For others, it’s hunting or fishing that provide this. It’s a privilege that we must steward with care and pass on to the next generation, along with the respect, humility, and gratitude that mark the spirit of a true hunter.