This is the story of my first white-tailed deer hunt.
“Take the shot,” he whispered. “Take it!”
I shook, blood rushing through every vein in my body.
Through the scope I spied a deer in a clearing about 75 yards from where my dad and I sat in a treestand.
I put my finger on the trigger. Questions flooded my mind. Would I make a good shot? …Did I even want to shoot a deer? …Why did I even climb up here to do this?
In that instant, I swiftly moved through the lifelong steps that brought me to this moment—this moment where for the first time I aimed to take the life of an animal. I saw myself as a child sitting by the wood stove in my grandpa’s kitchen on mornings when he and my dad would head out before light to hunt in the Virginia woods. I always stayed back with my grandma, playing in the yard alongside her guineas, chickens and pigs.
I saw my younger self, who noticed that my mom would rather stay in a hotel over a tent any day, and eat salmon over venison any meal. I played with Barbie and American girl dolls, and soon shifted focus to makeup and boys. Being a sportsman was clearly a guy thing.
I saw myself as a college student studying journalism and English, with a growing curiosity for what hunting was all about. At home during fall school breaks, I’d follow my dad into the woods wearing my younger brother’s old camouflage. No gun, just ears and eyes alert to any movement in the trees. I’d carefully place one foot in front of the other, avoiding dry leaves and sticks that could call attention to my presence. We followed deer trails to a treestand that could fit two. We’d climb up, sit side by side, and blend into the woods, the songbirds and owls in the trees and the wood ducks in the swamp soon returning to their normal business.
There’s something about being a part of the woods, moving so little that you become like a branch of that oak tree swaying with the breeze. Coyotes and red foxes cross underneath, and turkeys peck at the ground across from you. Large fox squirrels of black and silver chase one another from bound of pinestraw to bound of pinestraw.
I saw a young professional whose recent camouflaged adventures infatuated me with the idea of being an outdoors woman, of living a little closer to the land. I graduated from college in North Carolina and moved to Massachusetts, enrolling in a hunters’ education course where I would find myself one of few women in the room. I soaked up the history of hunting in North America and learned more about being a safe and ethical hunter. A rifle revealed itself in a pile of Christmas gifts that year. Trips to the shooting range helped me feel certain of the shots I might take one day.
But pulling the trigger to take an animal’s life… It didn’t quite sit right. I’m the kind of person who lets the spiders live in the corners of my home.
I saw a novice gardener who’d decided to live closer to the land with baby steps. My first garden brought me plenty of sunburns; my tomatoes got the blight and my peas dried up. I learned a lot—and I was hooked. Our gardens in years since have flourished and produced food that we eat year-round, and our chickens fill our egg cartons daily.
How did I get from gardening to being in that treestand that day? Encouragement from the hunters in my life—from my dad, my partner and brother. But that alone wasn’t going to do it. I wanted to prove that I, a woman, could not only grow my own veggies but could also help provide my own meat, or at least appreciate the reality of what it means to eat meat.
I saw myself in that treestand—saw the deer through my scope.
I held that gun tight, took a deep breath and exhaled.
I pulled the trigger.
A loud crack filled the woods. The deer swiftly disappeared into the trees.
I’d shot at an animal.
We climbed down to check. Questions again swirled through my mind. Did I do the right thing? Was it worth it?
Blood marked the spot and led out of the clearing. Just a few trees in, the deer lay in the brush.
As I walked toward it, I felt my heart torn between gratitude for what the deer would provide and still shame for taking its life myself.
I knelt beside it and held that conflict close as I whispered to the deer: thank you.