I’m feeling a little nostalgic today. This weekend is opening weekend for deer hunting in Wisconsin. Though some see hunting as a barbaric practice, for my family it is a time of tradition and legacy. We live in the city now, and our deer hunting weekends are over. Still, this weekend brings to mind the years we spent together and the memories we share.
We no longer gather as a family on hunting weekend, laughing, talking and eating. My mother, the deer hunting sous chef, and my father, lover of the woods, are gone. Many of my family members who once traipsed through the woods in pursuit of a deer are no longer hunting. My brothers and nephews are busy with their jobs and families. This weekend there will be no sleeping bags on my living room floor.
In honor of the weekend and what it means to many families, I am sharing a magazine column I wrote for The Simple Life almost twenty years ago. Those of you with hunting traditions in your life will understand. Those of you who have no such traditions might come to understand what hunting means to those who engage in the sport.
We all have family traditions and legacies passed down through the generations. No matter what they are, they are worth celebrating and remembering. What are your family traditions?
The Thrill of the Hunt
By Michele Meier Vosberg
It is the third Saturday in November, which rivals other major holidays as a family event in my family. Other families get together for a labor -day barbecue or a mother’s day brunch. In my family, deer hunting is right up there with Christmas and Thanksgiving as a family holiday. It beats out Valentines Day (send a card) and even Easter (I guess we are not big ham eaters.) It’s a tradition. I have found that when it comes to deer hunting there are two groups of people, those who know immediately what I am talking about and those who look at me with puzzled faces.
My father and uncles have hunted since I can remember. There was a time in my childhood, somewhere after I’d seen the movie Bambi I’m sure, when I did not condone the killing of deer. I remember pleading with my father not to go, to spare the life of some poor innocent victim deer. He took me for a walk in the woods and showed me deer carcasses, the bones of deer that had starved to death. He showed me the trees, where the deer had gnawed everything edible within their reach. He pointed out deer dead on the side of the roads, victim of collisions with cars. He explained that if the deer population got out of control, more deer would starve.
My family did not then and still do not kill deer only for sport. Venison graced many a dinner table as I was growing up, somehow it was more acceptable for a deer to die in order to help keep my family alive that to starve to death or be hit by a car or to cause a collision that killed another person. Slowly, I accepted it.
Deer hunting weekend became a family event in my childhood. We would go to that great Wisconsin region known as “Up North.” While my dad and uncles went hunting, we played with my cousins. We might go to see a Christmas movie, or go shopping. We made Christmas ornaments, some of which still hang on my tree. We might try to sneak some of the candy bars from the hunter’s stash on top of the refrigerator. They had so many goodies in their hunting food bags that I wondered if they went into the woods to hunt or to eat.
At supper -time, when the men returned, we would hear all the stories. Deer hunters are often great storytellers; there were many versions of “the big buck that got away.” There were deer that didn’t get away as well, they would hang from a tree and the men would admire each other’s bounty. What I remember most about these weekends is not the deer, it is being together with family.
In my family, as in many others, deer hunting is about male bonding. My sisters and I never expressed a lot of interest in hunting, we weren’t told we couldn’t go, but it wasn’t done. I remember my brothers and cousins anxiously waiting for the age when they would be old enough to hunt. At age ten or so they might be allowed to go into the woods with the hunting party, without a gun, but along to learn the trade. At twelve they could carry a gun. It was a right of passage for men in my family. I watched my brothers off on their first hunts and I was there to photograph the first deer of my nephews. These are proud moments. Other families have family pictures of vacations at the seashore; I have family pictures involving dead deer.
At least I do not display dead deer in my living room décor. I’m afraid I can’t say the same for other members of my family. It is an odd contradiction, but in my family you will find a great deal of respect for deer and other wildlife. In the homes of various family members you will find beautiful photos and paintings of deer. There are deer statues and calendars that more likely than not have photos of wildlife. It is not unlike the respect for nature of some Native American tribes. When an animal is killed, the hunter takes out the heart and praises the life and spirit of the animal and thanks the animal for continuing the circle of life. My brothers may not take it that far, but their respect for the animal is apparent.
And now the circle continues. On deer hunting weekend, a few trucks full of my orange clad relatives will show up at my house. Somewhere along the way they decided that my new house in the woods would be a great hunting shack. We’ve got hot water, indoor plumbing, chili on the stove and lots of places to spread out a sleeping bag. They bring their own chocolate and doughnuts. They leave a pile of chopped wood and a freezer full of meat.
When my friends ask me to do something this weekend, I explain that I can’t, it’s deer hunting. My city friends and those from other states look puzzled, but for others the explanation is perfectly clear. I’m about to hole up for three days with my family.
Those who have never been there will probably never understand; it’s more than just killing deer. It’s about storytelling, tradition, and being together. And if we’re lucky, we’ll get a few more photos for the family photo album.