I took many lives in the past few days, which brings a range of emotions. Many people have encouraged me to write about it, so I will try to share my experience as eloquently as I can.
To start, it is very important to state an irrefutable fact about meat: we need to eat less of it if we want to live within our (planet’s) means. Clearing land for feeding livestock is still the number one cause of deforestation, particularly in tropical regions. This must stop if we want to preserve the biodiversity that keeps us alive, and to maintain a somehow stable climate. Unfortunately, it seems that deforestation will not stop as long as meat demand keeps climbing and the economic incentive for raising livestock at a massive scale remains. For this reason alone, I have pursued a plant-based diet for the last 10+ years. The benefits of a plant-based diet go well beyond reducing your ecological footprint, of course. For example, in the book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, Michael Pollan advices us to “eat food; not too much; mostly plants” to have the healthiest, longest and most vibrant life possible. Most days, vegetables, legumes and grains comprise the bulk of our meals, and we love them.
But once in a while, our bodies ask for meat. Then the question becomes: “where to get it from?" Buying meat at a major grocery store would mean supporting factory farming, which exploits and degrades land, animals and people, so that is a no-go for us. As with vegetables, our priority is to raise our own animals, so we know what they ate, and how they lived. We have a flock of laying hens. They eventually don’t lay enough eggs to justify the cost of keeping them. At that point, they nurture us with their bodies. These are some of the lives I took this week. I feel very thankful for our animals and the many ways in which they support our nutrition and health, but harvest day is always the saddest day of the year. Life is sacred to me, so it is never pleasant to take lives. It is a very physically and emotionally draining endeavour. Why not let other people process our chickens for us, then? Because I feel like if we want to eat them, we should be able to harvest them ourselves. We have been connected to these animals since literally day one. It would not feel right to break our bond at the end. We owe them every bit of the work and the uncomfortable emotions.
But the meat we crave the most, perhaps because some of the nutrients it provides are hard to assimilate from plants, is red meat. We don’t have enough land, infrastructure or time to raise large animals. We have purchased meat from local farmers who raise their animals with respect and in a way that doesn’t damage the land, and we highly recommend meat eaters to choose this route. While this type of animal husbandry is way better than industrial, grain-fed, confined animal operations, its ecological footprint is not negligible. In our region, animals cannot graze year-round. A grass-fed operation would let animals graze between late spring and fall, while other fields are dedicated to grow hay for winter feed. Hay is often cut, raked, baled and stored using heavy machinery running on diesel. This means that, at the end of the day, producing meat here, even using the best possible practices, is energy and land intensive.
What then? Once again, we look at how Nature does it. The Ottawa valley is a mosaic of agricultural land, temperate forests and wetlands, with patches of meadows and grasslands. There is an abundant, large herbivore that thrives in this type of landscape: White-tailed Deer. These animals can grow with what Nature offers, without any work, fuel or feed provided by humans. They have been part of our local ecosystems for millennia, feeding other animals, including people. For all these reasons, they seem to us the most sustainable type of red meat available locally. So this year, I made the arrangements necessary to try to harvest a deer.
I started by taking my hunters education course and getting my license. Then, it was time to choose a weapon. I don’t like guns, so that was not an option for me. I have been doing archery for a few years, and I love it. However, I felt I could not reach a level of accuracy with my recurve bow that would allow me to harvest a deer without risking unnecessary suffering. So I bought a crossbow, which I like to describe as a rifle that shoots arrows. I practiced with and sighted my crossbow well in advance of the hunting season, to make sure I was able to make very accurate and precise shots at different distances. It was exciting and encouraging to see how accurate it can actually be. Then I bought a tree stand, which, in theory, would allow me to get very close to deer without them catching my scent. I also did a lot of research about shot placement, so that I could harvest the deer in the most humane way possible, which is awfully important to me. Once it got cold enough so that I didn’t need to worry about the meat spoiling, it was time to scout some deer trails in the forest, set up the tree stand, and wait.
Over 10 days in November, I spent about 43 hours sitting on the tree stand, many of them quite cold. I switched locations twice, based on acquired knowledge during the process. After the first couple of days, I felt myself growing bitter, feeling restless in the cold. Thanks to Joanna and a couple of experienced, ethical hunters, I was able to change my mindset, and approach hunting in a different way. As a person with an insatiable appetite to learn from Nature, the experience went beyond getting food, and became much more profound than I anticipated. I kept going back to my stand just for the sake of being out on the land, as part of it, not just as a visitor. I saw things that I would have never hoped to see, including my first Fisher and Evening Grosbeaks, which we don’t get to see often. I had the rare chance of seeing a Golden-crowned Kinglet from above (they usually forage high in the tree canopy), hunting little white moths. And let me tell you, that golden crown was flashy! Watching woodpeckers closely made me realize that they had probably inspired the very design of my tree stand. First, they hop and grab the tree trunk with their claws, and then immediately anchor themselves with their tail held at a very particular angle, which is exactly the same principle behind a climbing tree stand.
I saw deer 8 out of the 10 days, testimony to their local abundance (I would not be hunting them otherwise). Most of them were does, some young, some mature. Many were within range. Some walked right below me. One even laid down for a little nap 30 feet away from me, which was a treat to see. But I did not have a tag to hunt a doe. Nonetheless, I appreciated every sighting, and got to learn a bit about how they move, the sounds they make, what startles them, and how they interact with one another. I also saw two bucks twice, one very young, with barely any antlers, the other more experienced, with about 6 points in his antlers. These two bucks were wary and cautious, and stayed always in the safety of large bushes. Therefore, I never had a clear shot on either of them. I would never risk shooting through brush for the fear that the arrow would get deflected by a branch and hit the deer in the wrong spot, making him suffer. That would be a horrifying experience; I would never have the guts to hunt again should that happen; I would never forgive myself. So I waited.
On the tenth day, when I was having thoughts of coming down and doing some pressing work at the farm, a majestic, 10-point buck showed up. It all happened very quickly. He came in towards me decisively. Even when I moved to aim at him, which made a soft but audible sound, he didn’t mind it. He stopped at about 9 yards from my stand, offering his broadside. Honouring his offer, and knowing that I would not have a better chance, I took the shot. The arrow went through both lungs, a by-the-book shot. The buck took off and, in about 6 seconds, dropped dead about 40 yards away, still visible from my stand. It is hard to describe my emotions at the time, but the best way I can explain it is a mix of exhilaration, gratitude and sadness. After many cold hours, I had finally harvested a deer. We were going to have meat for many, many months. But this was a large, dominant buck. I was taking a valuable member (and his genes) out of the population. The biologist in me was filled with guilt. I wouldn’t have minded a smaller buck.
I immediately called Joanna. She understood and shared my feelings. Then I came down and looked for the deer. It did not take me more than 3 or 4 minutes to find him, but they were agonizing. I couldn’t stop thinking "what if after killing this gorgeous animal I cannot find him and his life is wasted? What if the shot was not as good as I thought it was? When I saw him dropping, was that an illusion?” When I finally found him, I dropped to my knees, touched him gently, and thank him with all my heart, shedding tears. I offered tobacco we had grown from seedlings gifted to us by an Elder, and heartfelt words of gratitude to the animal, and the land, the water and the air that had raised him.
Compared to others I had seen earlier, the way this buck walked up to me was different, somehow intentional. As I have heard many Indigenous friends say, sometimes animals genuinely offer themselves to feed us. I like to think that was the case. As my friend Dave put it, we are taking the best possible care of the land we can, and this is yet another way the land reciprocates and takes care of us. While I believe this is true, the conflicting feelings I described earlier will never leave me. We will make sure that not a gram of meat is wasted, that what is not edible returns to the land, and that we continue to eat a plant-based diet, so that we don’t have to take lives more often than we need to.
Whether you buy it or harvest it yourself, meat is a gift and not a commodity. The crude reality is that it takes lives to feed us, and life is sacred. We must honour those lives every step of the way, take just what we need (vs. want), and never waste or abuse them. To learn more about the honourable harvest and the exercise of reciprocity with the land, I encourage anyone to read “Braiding Sweetgrass” by the amazing Robin Wall Kimmerer; arguably the best book I have ever read. I hope these lines spark your curiosity and inspire you to re-think your relationship with meat.
 If you want to know why that is the case, there is a lot of information about this online. If you are interested in my explanation, please leave a comment below and I will write a post about it.