I have no need to hunt, in order to eat. As a kid, I was obsessed for a while with hunting and fishing, and had no qualms, as most boys don’t, with killing. But years had passed since those days, and I hesitated as I stepped into the woods, with the thought of killing a wild animal. Why did I want to hunt an animal?
I had made a bow. I had found some plans on the internet, and a friend gave me a piece of dry white ash, quarter-sawn with a reasonably straight grain, enough for several bows. I grinned when I shot my first arrows from my first bow. It worked. Arrows flew and hit the cardboard box I had set up. Some of them. Others careened haphazardly into trees and shrubs and the forest floor in the vicinity of the cardboard target. The bow did not have a lot of power; not enough for hunting.
I made a second bow, stronger than the first. Again I roughed out the bow with a friend’s bandsaw, then shaped the limbs and handle with a spokeshave, as long curls of wood gathered at my feet, destined for the woodstove. Every so often I put one limb to the floor to test its flexibility. Then I tillered the bow; that is, I fine-tuned the limbs to ensure they bent evenly, or at least close to evenly. Gradually I bent the limbs further and further, tense, waiting for the bitter crack and snap of breaking wood.
But the white ash held. I had followed the grain of the wood with the bandsaw’s blade to ensure that the back of the bow was one long continuous ring of wood: one year of the tree’s growth, unbroken from tip to tip of the bow. In this way, the white ash’s long wood fibres were kept whole, as they had grown in the tree, on my friend’s woodlot, before he cut the tree and sawed it into planks with his mill. It had sat for several years in his barn, drying, before I came looking. White ash is not one of the bowyer’s most sought-after woods, but it works. I watched the limbs of my bow bend into a graceful arc as I applied more and more pull to the tillering string, and then become straight again as I eased off on the string. Such an amazing material, I thought. I pictured that ash tree, growing on my friend’s woodlot, bending to the force of strong fall winds without breaking, then coming back straight once winds abated.
I moved through the forest, bow in hand, placing my feet deliberately, slowly, in the fresh snow. Step, step, pause and scan. Again, and again: a rhythm of moving and seeing and hearing, my awareness tuned up. Not walking, really, not a stroll in the forest. I was hunting. I had one arrow nocked to the bow string, ready, and two more held against the handle of the bow. I noted the tracks of snowshoe hare, and red squirrels, and mice, and grouse, and a coyote, and, I kneeled for a closer look, a bobcat, perhaps. Cast members of the ancient predator and prey performance. With the fresh snow, every passing animal had left its trail, visible even to our relatively dull human senses. I’m often amazed by such abundance of tracks, given the rarity of seeing animals in the forest.
A silhouette against the snow, partially visible through the spruce and fir trees, not exactly distinguishable, but enough hints of a form that my brain filled in the obscured parts and I thought, grouse. Soft, easy steps; a little closer. Yes, it was not a stump, but a ruffed grouse, its feathers fluffed against the winter chill. I could have tried a shot, but I knew it would be a very lucky shot at that distance. A couple more steps and the bird stood up, cocking its head about at the sound of my footsteps, then started walking, then stopping and listening, then walking again. I kept moving, not directly at the bird, but more or less parallel, trying to keep my bow from catching on small branches, while keeping pace with the grouse. I pressed the bird on, slowly, keeping it moving, but trying not to make it flee the area.
Soon, I heard a quick flutter of wings that ended a second later. The bird had flown up to a low tree branch. It was early evening, when grouse tend to roost in trees. This was in my favour, as once a grouse was perched in a tree, at this time of day, it tended to stay put. I waited, then took a few slow steps, carefully scanning the trees where I had heard the bird fly up. I saw it on a low branch of a spruce tree. I moved sideways until I had an opening through the tree branches between me and the bird. I knew the grouse was within my range. I slowly raised my bow and drew back the arrow. I paused for half a breath as I reviewed my stance in my mind. Three fingertips on the string, one above the arrow and two below, my middle finger anchored to the corner of my mouth, my elbow pointed back, the pressure of the bow handle against my left hand. I thought about gently releasing the string, and keeping my stance until the arrow hit its mark. A traditional bow, such as mine, has no sights by which to aim. Accuracy depends on instinct, instinct honed by countless practice shots. My archery ability was rudimentary, but I knew I could hit the grouse at this relatively close range. Both eyes open, I focused on the spot on the grouse I wanted to hit. I breathed. My fingertips loosed the bowstring.
Release and contact, in a flash. I took a moment to look away and breathe the cold forest air. There is no pleasure in killing, and my stomach turned a little. I thought back to a couple of weeks I had spent on Haida Gwaii on Canada’s west coast with a friend. We caught, killed and ate big Dungeness crabs and several kinds of silvery salmon. She had shot a deer the day before I arrived, and we ate it after I helped her butcher it. There sure is a lot of killing, it had struck me, with the hunting and gathering lifestyle. I thought of the stories one hears of aboriginal peoples thanking the spirit of an animal they’ve killed, and in that moment, beside the recently alive grouse, it made sense to me, if only to ease one’s heart a little.
When I cleaned the grouse, I opened its crop to see what its day’s foraging had been. I spilled out a tablespoon or two of fresh twigs with buds, which the grouse had snapped off of shrubs and trees that day with its beak. I recognized the round, reddish buds of the red maple tree. The others I couldn’t identify, but they might have been buds from a serviceberry tree. I opened its stomach too, and found more of the same buds, but these less distinct, partly digested. The wonder of it, I thought: this bird digesting and deriving nourishment from twigs and buds from the forest around me.
I ate grouse stew that night, and savoured the meat of the grouse, and thought of the white ash tree that made my bow, and the trees that fed this grouse, and the trees that kept me warm burning in the woodstove, and slept deeply, glad to be a part, that day at least, of the forest.