This past week, I took part in a different type of camp, one that played an even greater role in my childhood than Christian summer camp. I am referring to deer hunting camp. Each year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, the gun deer hunting season opens in Wisconsin, and I have been participating in deer camp since 1992. Though one hunting buddy is fond of saying, “What happens at deer camp stays at deer camp,” I will take the risk of sharing a few reflections.
People are sometimes taken aback when they discover that I am a hunter. When I explore their discomfort, I usually find that they have a negative idea of what a hunter is and does. Maybe they see hunting in terms of killing and violence to creation. Whatever their specific concerns, these somehow conflict with their impressions of me. When I think of hunting, I think of camp.
Grown men, many of whom are seldom in church, gather at the deer camp. We drink and joke around a great deal, and an outsider might overlook the depth of compassion each has for the others. Through the years, we have helped each other through the hunt: finding deer, cleaning deer, dragging deer, butchering deer. We have also been with each other through very difficult times: heart attacks, injuries, and the loss of loved ones. We share concerns and burdens with one another. We also talk about family and faith. These days, there are very few deer in our section of northern Wisconsin. Each of us has other places we can hunt, but we always come back. Among seven guys this season, we did not get a single deer up north, and we hardly saw any. The truth is that we did not really come up to shoot a deer. We came for deer camp.
Hunting is a primordial skill that has allowed humans to survive and thrive for millennia. For me, deer camp is about family, friends, and the passing on of knowledge from generation to generation. My father is passing this knowledge to me, and I have already begun passing it on to my children. One of the best things about hunting season for me is spending lots of quality time with my dad. I cherish this time. I also cherish the time spent with our hunting friends. This year, I hunted with four different generations! There are few places in our society where knowledge is passed on in this way and the generations mix so intentionally. As we remembered those who have gone before us, we also talked excitedly about the next generation (including my two boys!) that is just now coming of age and will soon join us in the sacred place of deer camp.
At deer camp, we enjoy the wonders of God’s creation together and alone. This year, I saw every sunrise and sunset for seven consecutive days from a secluded spot as the forest came alive around me. I saw deer, turkeys, squirrels, birds, and possums. Through those hours in the tree stands, I prayed for loved ones, remembered times gone by, looked ahead to the future, and enjoyed the present of God’s beautiful creation. It is truly a spiritual time for me, and each year I come back refreshed.
Hunting has given me incredible knowledge and experience about my place in creation. As a whole, our society is too disconnected from our food. Meat comes from a grocery store, and it is difficult to make the connection that I have participated in the killing of an animal when I eat a chicken nugget. Life necessarily includes death. Plants and animals die in order to sustain my life, and one day I will die so that my remains may support new life. Perhaps paradoxically, taking the life of an animal with my own hand has given me a tremendous appreciation for life. I am no longer several stages removed from the animal that travels from farmer to butcher to processor to grocer to me. I can no longer ignore my part in the cycle of life because I am the one who pulled the trigger or released the arrow, and I can never take it back. I witnessed in awe the beauty of the creature that died so that I might live. It is far from barbaric. It is honest. It is life.
This hunting season, it was cold. I spent hours in the woods cold to the bone. My toes and fingers went numb. In the end, I did not shoot a deer. After all, getting a deer is not the real purpose of deer camp. Some people ask me why I would sit for hours in the freezing woods not seeing anything when I could just go buy some meat in the grocery store. I hope this post gives some indication. Happy hunting!