Summer. Most people crave the warmth of the sun, the long days spent lounging by their favorite mountain pool. Campfires in the evening. The smell of woodsmoke, s’mores and rolling in the warm freshly cut grass. It’s all so easy to like. But growing up, I didn’t take conventional team activities like other kids. I was an awful baseball player, mediocre at football and horrible at basketball. To put it mildly, I sucked. I spent my time avoiding other kids unless they were interested in catching crayfish and roasting them over a small fire in the woods. I built tree houses and rode my bike a lot. But most of it was solo, yet sometimes with my younger siblings.
Summer, it seemed, was meant for kids with social skills. Kids that knew how to get along with others in traditional games. Instead of going to the local swimming pool, doing daring gainers and twisting flips off the diving board, I played in the woods. As a Cub Scout, I was a miserable failure. I loved learning how to camp and whittle saplings with my knife, but when the Scoutmaster’s son kept picking on me, knowing that I would not fight back, it just got to be too much. One evening at a pack meeting, Frankie Olivieto pushed me too far in front of the other cubs, and like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, I lost my mind. I went after him full of rage, tackled him to the ground and began mercilessly beating him with my fists. That was the end of Cub Scouts. I was excommunicated from the pack. A lone wolf pup out in the woods, vowing to make my way in this world. A renegade survivor of all things social.
I turned inward to seek peace in the mountain streams, catching crayfish and learning the traditions of a long bamboo rod with a string and a hook. I would march to the pond behind my grandfather’s house and spend the day catching bluegills. I would paint my face with the slippery clay mud and let it dry in the sun, tightening my skin. The earth smelled so good. The musty diatomaceous dirt in the pines felt just right in my hands. I wasted nothing. Anything that fell prey to my boyish wonderment, I felt obligated to explore with all my senses. And I tried everything. Snakes, frogs, bluegills, small rock bass, caterpillars, cicadas, locusts, berries (that was a tough lesson that nearly led me to the hospital). I was in a constant state of wonderment. Curious. Amazed at the multitude of life in the backyard.
And somehow, I was not really a hunter. A sensitive lad, who, by some wobbly moral compass, had no trouble killing and eating crayfish or frog legs, I was anti-hunting. When my father told me he was going hunting with a group of men, I told him that if he came home with a deer I would never speak to him again. He did not come home with a deer, but he also didn’t share any of his experience with me.
As the years rolled onward and my adolescence began to make itself known (naturally I was a “late bloomer”), my voice began cracking and I began to grow hair under my armpits. I started to feel curious about what it meant to be a “man.” Pining for some connection to my father, who represented manhood as powerful and capable, I wanted so badly to please him and get him to recognize my painful longing to belong.
Then, on Christmas Day at the age of 13, I ran downstairs with my brother to find leaning against the French doors beside the tree, a pair of brand-new Marlin .22 caliber rifles. I was dumbstruck. Is this the portal to connecting with my father—to a fraternity of outdoorsmen? I was excited and afraid at the same time. I remember hearing my mother say to my father, “Are you sure he’s ready for that?” My father replied firmly, “Yes, Nancy. It’s time.” He then lectured me for as long a period as my adolescent attention span would allow, concluding with “You will not get any bullets until you pass the Hunter’s Education Course.” A challenge to my lackadaisical academic skills! Well, I’ll show them just what I can learn!
I applied myself to the books and learned all the parts of the firearm, how to disassemble it and handle it safely. I studied like a madman. When testing day came, I aced it. I was given a small box of bullets and told that they would remain locked up until we had a chance to sight in the little 4x Tasco scope. My relationship with my father, as rocky as it was through my teens, began on that foundation of trust.
My first hunting season was squirrels—big, bushy-tailed grays in southwestern Pennsylvania. I remember the first one I killed. I picked up its lifeless body and held it in my hands. I sat down on a downed tree and cried. Why had I done this? What have I become? Remorse washed over me like a salty wave, its tears running down my cheeks. Warm and cold stinging saline. Remorse and joy in the same breath. I asked for forgiveness. But instead, I felt the weight of responsibility on my shoulders. If I had taken this life, I could not waste it.
I took it home. My grandmother was so proud of me. She helped me to clean and butcher it. Then together we rubbed the legs, the flanks and the muscled back with butter and plopped them into a plastic bag with flour. We shook the bag, coating all the parts with a light crusting. Then she showed me how to fry them. When I took my first bite and tore the meat off the bone with my incisors, I felt primal. I felt like I had found a key to the Circle of Life. I respected and loved this small animal. It nourished my teenage hunger for maturity and built a foundation of wonderment for the way we all need each other. Plants, animals, people, earth, sky and water. I was finally a part of all there is. A participant.
Bradley Carleton is Executive Director of Sacred Hunter, a nonprofit that seeks to educate the public on the spiritual connection of man to nature.