Hunter

Unlike most city folk, I grew up killing things, though a knack for this pursuit did not come naturally by any means. I suppose I was what you would call a spiritual kid growing up. Not religious despite the best efforts of my schooling, but in touch with the natural world and empathetic towards it. However, as it occurs with most children, I grew up, my imagination dwindled and I became weary of this spiritual presumption. I learnt to navigate a prescribed world, more ‘useful’ and concrete.

My mother recently told me that at the tender age of three I had developed a love affair with knives and guns. I was surprised to hear this because it doesn’t fit in with how I picture myself as a three year old, and while I don’t remember this love affair, I remember all too vividly driving home in our fiberglass speedboat, ‘Liquid acid’, balling my eyes out. We had been fishing on lake Taupo where we use to holiday. It must have been my first ever fishing trip because it was the first time I saw a fish gasping for water and the stern knock of a wooden batten collide with its streamline head. I remember crying in protest, not being able to comprehend this apparent senseless act of cruelty. I cried all the way to the boat ramp and then all the way home until I tired myself out and fell asleep. I love fishing now.

We sold our beach house in Taupo when I was still young, and took to holidaying in the Marlborough Sounds, a remote part of New Zealand only accessible by boat. It’s a land best described as a labyrinth. Bays, islands, inlets and coves makes up what looks like a tie-dye shirt from the air. Although I lived most of the year in Wellington, the Sounds became my true home as I see it. My brothers and I spent the summers there building forts, swimming and spearing monkfish, we chased stingray, collected shellfish and cicada skins. We would go off for hours into the steep bush in search of the fear and excitement that comes with being lost. At night we went hunting for possums, swapping turns with the .22 rifle and spotlight. We plucked fur from their warm bodies and hoarded kilos of it in plastic bags, waiting for the day when we would cash it in at the tannery. I remember at age ten we went to visit some family friends in the outer sound who had kids older than my brothers and I. The older boys caught a spotty, a small tasteless fish, good for nothing. They seemed to be in some kind of silently agreed competition with one another, pushing each other to see who had the most sadistic mind and was the less empathic. We watched as they tortured the spotty, dousing its sleek body in gas and lighting it on fire. The fish finally met its death when they lifted the outboard motor from the water and threw the poor thing into the spinning propeller.

Both research and history will tell you that empathy increases with education and understanding of others, but conversely, I would argue repetition of, and exposure to cruelty and the reality of the world decreases empathy. Which always makes me wonder where I sit? From that day on I always sort to kill a fish as soon as it came out of the water, but apart from that resolution, I felt very little. I was still in my spiritual stage yet I had watched the event stoically and was not the slightest bit traumatised, not disgusted, not curiously entertained, nothing. It’s something curious about me I think. Anything that most people would classify as ‘notable’ or perhaps ‘tell your counsellor worthy’ that has happened in my life, I experienced very little emotion. I sort of go blank, I do not think, I just observe and record or act on subconscious instinct. Yet I would call myself empathetic; maybe I have just been over exposed like many kids growing up on grand theft auto and mountain dew.

    …

I was seventeen the first time I shot a deer. I remember what little doubts I had before the hunt were silenced by one simple notion; while ignorance is bliss, it is still very much ignorance. From a young age, I notice the detachment that much of the world has with their food and thought it iniquitous. I wanted to eat meat that I knew I was comfortable killing. I wanted to know its origin and to know how it had spent its life and final moments.

It was the roar or breeding season, down in the Marlborough Sounds. The water is still that time of year and low cloud hangs around the bluffs and mountain peaks. Our fire burns in the log cabin from the moment we arrive till the day we leave. At dawn each morning the usual bird chorus is interrupted by the half dozen or so stag’s exchanging their deep and noble roars, proclaiming their territory and the pack of hinds they command. The roar makes for the most exciting hunting of the year. When we were young and use to shadow Dad around, he used a plastic horn to imitate their roar. He would groan from deep in his gut, looking skyward like a highlander before battle. This roar is a sort of challenge to any stag who feels jacked up enough to fight for some territory and possible possession of some hinds. After Dad roared, stags would come bounding right at us, drunk on hormones and pumped full of semen they ignored their usual untrusting instincts and came to do battle.

This year however, it was my turn with the gun. A Remington .44 bush rifle, short barrelled for convenience in thick bush (though accuracy is sacrificed) and light as hell. The .44 cartridges would blow a hole the size of your fist in just about anything, and down a jacked up stage in an instant. Those days we had upgraded to an electric roarer, I remember my father hanging back and pressing the cheap plastic button that emitted the ‘I am really fucking angry now’ roar. I was ten meters ahead and saw the beast of a thing smash his way through the thick undergrowth, ready to clash heads with this punk ass bitch who had called him out to challenge. I locked the rifle into my shoulder and of course, my mind became silent. Something I remember clearly was the adrenaline being almost unbearable; it was like nothing I had experienced before, a torrent of a drug so powerful it made the stuff I was experimenting with look like child’s play. At that point, I like to think I was acting on a primordial instinct that is ingrained in every human. I like to think I was one with my cavemen ancestors and doing what evolution had bred me to do. I pulled the trigger and felt the tremendous release of energy kick back into my shoulder. The bullet hit the stag cleanly in his forequarter, right where the heart is, and bowled the animal over. I ran to the downed animal. My older brother and father were soon at my side and we all stared at the stag in silence for a brief moment. Dad took a twig and poked the large brown eye that stared back at us. It blinked, though the stage made no other movement.

“Put one in its head. The adrenaline taints the meat.” Said Dad.

I slide the bolt action back and ejected the cartridge, the sound of metal on metal somehow louder, or perhaps just more unnatural than the gunshot in such a place. I fired one into the back of the stag’s head and breathed in the smell of gunpowder. Dad started gutting while my brother and I watched on with interest, keen to learn. My father, a kind but rather stoic man spoke to me then, though his eyes were fixed on the stag.

“You might feel a bit of remorse. The first couple of times anyway, but it’s a natural thing death.”

I nodded and said nothing. I think as the adrenaline wore off I slowly started to grasp the event for what it was; a first time, and like any first time I would not forget it. As I took over gutting the animal I had the urge to say a karakia (Maori prayer) to express thanks to someone, anyone for the experience and the beautiful animal that I wanted to show respect to. Perhaps this was the diluted dregs of my spiritual youth festering beneath the surface, regardless, I did not say a word aloud, there is not a drop of Maori blood in my family and I would have butchered the prayer anyway. When we got home a few hours later I vocalised my fear that the stag might not have gotten to impregnate his pack of hinds; like I was some kind of monumental cock block from hell. Dad pointed out that it was the end of the season and the hinds were undoubtedly fertilized. This satisfied me and I slept well that night. So, all things considered, I felt very little. It puzzled me slightly; to some degree it was suppressed emotion but I see it more as a conscious desensitisation of my consciences. The same thing happens to doctors, in fact you would be worried if a trainee doctor did not have to consciously desensitise while learning to cut into the inner workings of a person. Desensitisation isn’t a bad thing, it is simple something that I saw as a good idea, should I continue to be privy to the reality of meat.

Anyway, that deer head hangs above our fireplace in the sounds till this day. It is a very handsome head, and the only one I will ever get taxidermied. I do not hunt for trophies or for the stories. I hunt for the meat. My mother is nothing short of a world-class chef, and her passion for food has meant we grew up a family of foodies. As kids we were brought up eating duck liver pâté instead of baby food and sourdough from an age-old starter instead of your classic white, sugar filled one-dollar loaf that feeds the great country of New Zealand. From that stag all those years ago, I still remember the gourmet sausages we made: pork fat, chilly, garlic and venison, or mint and a hint of citrus. I remember the winter stews, venison jerky, and the back-stake medallions. People say stages are not worth eating, but that is because people do not know how to cook.

Hunting is an important part of New Zealand history and is still engrained in the culture today. What is fascinating about hunting in New Zealand is that not one single mammal that is hunted here is native. The Himalayan Tar, the Chamois, the Boar, the several breeds of Deer ranging from the cheeky white tail in the south to the black Sambar in the north, the Wallaby, the Goat, the Possum, the Rabbit and of course the elusive Fiordland Moose. Moreover, the department of conservation considers every one of these animals to be bloody illegal immigrants that need to fuck off. These invertebrates cause detrimental damage to the native wildlife; a fact that always pissed me off. Walk fifty meters from our cabin in the Sounds and you will see the bombshell sand pits that are the tell-tale signs of pig rooting.

Pig hunting was something I always wanted to try; Jim Harrison wrote, “…there’s not much more than an off chance at finding your balls by pulling a trigger.” Even after my first deer I wanted to remove the detachment of a gun, to hunt in a more primal way and as Harrison put it, find my balls. Pig hunting however, requires dogs, particularly in the thick bush of the Sounds, something I never had. Dad often talked with excitement about pig hunting, there was a great story he uses to tell us as kids about his good mate Bill. Bill played centre for the legendary All Blacks and was renowned for his hard-hitting tackles. It was the off-season in 1970 something a rather, and while the rest of the team were busy training under rigorous schemes, Bill decided to spend the summer pig hunting. When pre-season finally started, Bill turned up ashamed and nervous as anything about his undoubted lack of fitness. He ended up setting a number of All Black records and went on to develop heart problems that doctors attribute to ‘a heart ten sizes too big for any man’.

One year in early February my lucky day came and I received an invitation to go hunting with a local hard ass that owned a few pig dogs. A few months prior I had graduated from university with my good for nothing degree and was bumming around in the Sounds. I spent my days doing what every wannabe artist does; trying to write anything half decent, drinking, procrastinated by spending far too much time cooking elaborate meals for one and masturbating a little too much.

I had to whip back to Wellington briefly before the hunt that we locked in for the following week. It took me longer than usual to adjust back to the city pace of things as I had been in the Sounds for close to three months. I remember booking my return ticket almost as soon as I got to Wellington. One of the nights I was there I caught up with some University friends over drinks, most of who were secured with good jobs, and debt. A notion that made me sick at that age. One of these bohemian types started asking me about hunting and if I had any planned trips.

“I’m pig hunting next week actually,” I said, happy to talk about something other than how drunk they had gotten last weekend.

“Isn’t that like, really inhumane?” She asked.

I had not thought about it until then, though I stubbornly defended it by saying it was the only way to catch pigs in New Zealand bush, that the pigs were ruining the forests and needed to be controlled. I left Wellington happily and returned to the stillness of my families’ bay. I started watching pig-hunting videos on YouTube, trying to learn the proper technique for rolling the boar onto its back and where to drive the long knife into its flesh, so as to hit the heart cleanly. The first video I watched caused me a bit of unease, the desperate squealing of the bloodied pig and the sight of the dogs ripping the animal to bits was a bit much for my mind that had unwillingly returned to city mode. I decided I needed to try it before I could make my mind up. The days drifted by and I ran up the steep slope behind our cabin every day. I had never been so nervous before a hunt and I wanted to be ready. Tāne, the pig hunter, called a day earlier than when we had planned and told me to come out that afternoon for a hunt. I was positively fizzing with excitement. The previous night I had shot a couple possums and watched ‘Viking’s’, so I was jacked up on 9th century inter-species violence and .22 bullets.

Tāne must have been in his early forties and had tattooed, weathered skin. Skin that if you could read, I am sure would tell the story of a hard and fascinating life. He lived alone in a part of the sound that was decidedly more remote than where our cabin was. I park at his jetty and was introduced to the dogs: Smokey, and Marley, both bitches, Nannie the bitch pup and Snow, a huge stocky male with massive paws. When pig hunting you traditionally have two types of dogs; finders, who track the pigs, and holders, who do battle and as their name implies, hold the pig still so you can stick them with a knife. Tāne’s dogs however, were all-rounders.

We set off in Tāne’s boat and let the dogs off at a golden beach. Straight away they started nosing the air for a scent and within seconds had shot off into the steep bush. We watched a small screen on the boat that displayed their GPS tracking collars over a topographical map. It was silent out on the boat, heavy clouds billowed ominously around the peaks and a light rain made the calm sea dance. On the screen we watched a wild goose chase unfold with an angry boar that lasted an hour and a half before the dogs finally pinned him down. We parked at an abandoned jetty in the bay over and looked up at the goddamn insurmountable peak where the dogs had stopped. We started at a run and after thirty minutes found an exposed ridge. My fitness somehow held, though I suspect it was the reservoir of youth that allowed me to keep up with Tāne. The view from the ridge was incredible; the sheer scale of the Sounds can only be appreciated from height I think. The Sounds is one of those places where its beauty lies in its harshness and volatility. Where you cannot explain why, but you need to stand on top of that peak or swim in the cold water or smile at the rain.

From the ridge I saw just how much country those dogs had covered, I suspected they were close to clocking over a marathon, though we suspected the dogs had lost the boar.

“These boars are the original Captain Cookers, smart fuckers. Real cunning.” Tāne said. The dogs were somehow five hundred meters below us now and had found a smaller pig by the sounds of it. We could hear it squealing in desperation until the dogs finally ripped it apart.

“The big boars will run through groups of little ones to take the heat off them. Smart of hell they are.”

Once the pig was silenced Tāne called the pack up the hill towards us. His stentorian voice echoed throughout the enormous bay and out to sea. I gathered the hunt was over and it was time to start the walk out. We watch the dogs start the climb up towards us on screen and just as I thought it was all over the barking starting again.

“Fucking leave it!”  Tāne yelled, but the dogs would not give up.

“I once lost them for eight days,” He had told me earlier, “A mate found them near Picton, skinny, bloodied and beaten. They won’t give in, they’ll hunt till they die.”

The barking stopped and there was silence. We looked at the screen and saw all the dogs within fifty meters of each other, all at a stand still. One started howling like a wolf and I knew it was a howl of pain. It too echoed throughout the bay and sent a chill down my spin.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve never heard it before.” Tāne said.

I volunteered to investigate and took his lever action .44 (in case the pig was an ‘unmanageable size’) his GPS tracker and started down the steep slope towards the dogs. I slid on my ass most of the way, unable to get a grip on the wet, rotting wood of the pine forest that had been before. I was cut to bits and soaked by the time I found the first dog. Smokey’s back legs were splayed out and I thought she had broken her back. I felt nothing as usual, maybe a little disappointed I would not get to stick a pig, but that was it. I helped Smokey to some more stable ground and watched as she stood on all fours. Her right hindquarter was clearly fucked, but she seemed okay apart from that. Snow came out of the bush like a leader who had led his troops into an ambush. His face was bloodied and his chin matted with dried blood, his clean white coat was now filthy and a gouge was taken from his snout, yet he still somehow stood strong, nosing the damp air for a scent. The exhausted dogs had most likely come across a fresh and energetic boar on the way up the slope to us. They would have had no chance. Tāne said a big boar could throw a dog over five meters, and slice them open with ease.

On the screen I could see Marley was twenty meters away but no matter how I called her she would not come. Tāne made his way down the slope, though cliff is a more apt description. I told him the situation through the trees that separated us and he calmly replied,

“Oh she’s dead mate.” His voice was void of any emotion despite Marley being his oldest and wisest bitch. We hunted around in the gorse and rotting wood for the body. Under the pine trees, the light was the dull grey of dusk. After ten minutes of searching we found Marley in a bed of gorse. She was alive, but barely. There was no open wound so Tāne deemed her fit to travel on her own. By the time we got back to the boat the whole pack including the two humans were buggered. As we drove home I could see the dogs’ disappointment through the bars of their cage.

I said goodbye to Tāne and the dogs and climbed aboard my boat. As dusk became night I flicked on my navigation lights and peeled my eyes against the wind. The fresh sea air and the roar of the outboard allowed me to think clearly. I remembered something Harrison had written about Hemingway. He was commenting on his hunting career, and how as fame polluted his mind it became about “…a public act of wanton attrition, a singular blasphemy to the last good country…” meaning he stopped respecting the animals. The last good country is an unfinished story of Hemingway’s and a symbol of his youth, of the wildness of country where he spent his summers, of untouched nature, and where he became a man. Hemmingway lost his way, but what is sadder is the gullibility of his modern readers that still discern notability in the shooting of a lion at three hundred yards purely for the photograph. Hunting should never be about this. I sleep well knowing I still marvel at the beauty of ever animal I have shot, and I respect its fight more than I could ever respect my own. I take comfort in the fact that the animal lived a far more natural and satisfactory life than the ones most of us eat. I like to think the animal had a chance to survive, to outsmart me or even the dogs, a chance that no animal wrapped in plastic had. Perhaps I have not lost all my spirituality or my connection to a world that we deforest and pollute. I think while pig hunting may seem inhumane to someone removed from the reality of their food, it is not in reality. It is truly fair and as my father said, a natural thing. We are removed from the reality of mechanisms relating to just about everything outside of our cities. Death, for every creature is the last thing we will experience before our bodies make the ultimate contribution to the earth, and join the cycle to nourish and endure. But it is a reality we will do everything to ignore, both our own deaths and the deaths of those animals we eat.

I got home and stripped off my soaking clothes. I climbed into the shower to warm up and inspected my tired and cut legs. I dressed and stared blankly into the fridge for something to eat. ‘Fuck it’ I thought, and fried some bacon and eggs.

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