Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter

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9780385529815: Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter
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“Revelatory . . . With every chapter, you get a history lesson, a hunting lesson, a nature lesson and a cooking lesson. . . . Meat Eater offers an overabundance to savor.”—The New York Times Book Review
 
Steven Rinella grew up in Twin Lake, Michigan, the son of a hunter who taught his three sons to love the natural world the way he did. As a child, Rinella devoured stories of the American wilderness, especially the exploits of his hero, Daniel Boone. He began fishing at the age of three and shot his first squirrel at eight and his first deer at thirteen. He chose the colleges he went to by their proximity to good hunting ground, and he experimented with living solely off wild meat. As an adult, he feeds his family from the food he hunts.
 
Meat Eater chronicles Rinella’s lifelong relationship with nature and hunting through the lens of ten hunts, beginning when he was an aspiring mountain man at age ten and ending as a thirty-seven-year-old Brooklyn father who hunts in the remotest corners of North America. He tells of having a struggling career as a fur trapper just as fur prices were falling; of a dalliance with catch-and-release steelhead fishing; of canoeing in the Missouri Breaks in search of mule deer just as the Missouri River was freezing up one November; and of hunting the elusive Dall sheep in the glaciated mountains of Alaska.
 
Through each story, Rinella grapples with themes such as the role of the hunter in shaping America, the vanishing frontier, the ethics of killing, the allure of hunting trophies, the responsibilities that human predators have to their prey, and the disappearance of the hunter himself as Americans lose their connection with the way their food finds its way to their tables. Hunting, he argues, is intimately connected with our humanity; assuming responsibility for acquiring the meat that we eat, rather than entrusting it to proxy executioners, processors, packagers, and distributors, is one of the most respectful and exhilarating things a meat eater can do.
 
A thrilling storyteller with boundless interesting facts and historical information about the land, the natural world, and the history of hunting, Rinella also includes after each chapter a section of “Tasting Notes” that draws from his thirty-plus years of eating and cooking wild game, both at home and over a campfire. In Meat Eater he paints a loving portrait of a way of life that is part of who we are as humans and as Americans.

Praise for Meat Eater
 
“Full of empathy and intelligence . . . In some sections of the book, the author’s prose is so engrossing, so riveting, that it matches, punch for punch, the best sports writing.”—The Wall Street Journal
 
“Steven Rinella is one of the best nature writers of the last decade. . . . This book was a page-turner.”—Tim Ferris
 
“Rinella’s writing is unerringly smart, direct, and sharply detailed.”—The Boston Globe
 
“A unique and valuable alternate view of where our food comes from.”—Anthony Bourdain

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About the Author:

Steven Rinella is the author of American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon, which was the winner of the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award, and The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine. He is the host of the television show MeatEater on the Sportsman Channel, and was the host of the Travel Channel’s The Wild Within, which was nominated for a James Beard Award. His writing has appeared in such publications as Outside, Field and Stream, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vogue, Men’s Journal, and Salon. Born and raised in Michigan, he currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER ONE

Standing Ground

This book has a hell of a lot going for it, simply because it’s a hunting story. That’s because hunting stories are the oldest and most widespread form of story on earth. The genre has been around so long, and has such deep roots, that it extends beyond humans. When two wolves meet up, they’ll often go through a routine of smelling each other’s breath. For a wolf to put his nose to another wolf’s mouth is to pose a question: “What happened while you were hunting?” To exhale is to answer: “You can still smell the blood.”

Of course, nothing tells a hunting story like a human. Long ago, our ancestors may have told hunting stories in ways that are similar to those of animals today. It’s been proposed that the human kiss finds its origins in a mouth-to-mouth greeting similar to that of the modern wolf’s. Similarly, it’s been proposed that the handshake originated as a way of proving that neither party was concealing a weapon.

But at some point—at least by fifty thousand years ago, though possibly much earlier—we began to tell our hunting stories through the complex languages that are now a hallmark of our species. Linguists and anthropologists theorize that complex language evolved just for this purpose: to coordinate hunting and gathering activities, to categorize an increasingly complex arsenal of hunting tools and weapons, and to convey details about animals and habitat that might be hidden from sight. In short, language came about for the same purposes that I’m engaged in at this very moment.

Granted, these first hunting stories were probably not “stories” at all, at least not in the way we now think of that word. I imagine them more as instructions and descriptions, which is fitting, since the purpose of the vast majority of writing about hunting today is to teach readers how to do something. This “something” can often be quite esoteric. Maybe it’s a technique for hunting mallard ducks over flooded corn in Iowa, or maybe it’s an explanation of why it’s better to sharpen the blade of your skinning knife at an angle of thirteen degrees rather than fifteen. Hunters usually call this kind of information “how-to,” and I have read and enjoyed a great many pieces of how-to writing in my life. But while you will find a trove of hunting tips and tricks within this book, this is not intended as how-to material. Instead, you might think of this book as why-to, who-to, and what-to. That is, this book uses the ancient art of the hunting story to answer the questions of why I hunt, who I am as a hunter, and what hunting means to me.

As I ponder the first of those questions—why do I hunt?—two particular moments come to mind. The first took place on a recent spring day when I was hunting turkeys in the Powder River Badlands of southeastern Montana with my brother Matt. Early that morning we left Matt’s pack llamas, Timmy and Haggy, tethered near our camp. Matt headed south, and I went into the next valley to the west. Around late morning I started after a tom, or male turkey, that I’d heard gobbling several hundred yards away. I followed the bird for close to an hour, only once catching a glimpse of it. He was walking fast along the edge of a sandstone cliff, maybe about thirty yards higher than me and two hundred yards out. I sat down amid a tangle of fallen timber and used a turkey call to mimic the soft clucks of a hen.

Almost as soon as I did, the tom jumped off the cliff and took flight. He flapped his wings maybe six times and soared right over my head. Turkeys are not graceful fliers; nor are they graceful landers. This one crashed through the limbs of a ponderosa pine and then thudded to the ground on the timbered slope of a deep ravine off to my left. I turned my head in that direction, so that my chin was over my left shoulder. I kept on clucking. I was hopeful that the tom would come to check on the source of the calls, but after a couple of minutes I hadn’t seen or heard a thing. I called some more, but still nothing happened.

You have to be very careful about movement and sound when you’re hunting turkeys, so I continued to hold dead still even though I hadn’t heard or seen the bird since it landed. Maybe about five minutes went by without my ever turning my head away from its position over my left shoulder.

And then something strange happened. Suddenly, someone sighed very loudly just behind my right shoulder. I’ve had coyotes and bobcats come to my turkey call, but this sigh sounded like that of an annoyed person who was slightly out of breath from running up a hill. My immediate response was to turn my head very quickly in its direction. My chin was just about to begin passing over my right shoulder when I noticed a large male black bear standing on its rear feet with its front feet propped up on a log that was leaning against the log that I was leaning against. I’m sure he was hoping to find a nest full of turkey eggs and, if everything went well, to catch the turkey, too. Now he was staring at me with a very inquisitive look in his eye as he struggled to recalibrate his expectations.

I once heard a radio interview with a neuroscientist who studies mental processes during extremely stressful moments. He described how people in such situations will recall having dozens of distinct thoughts in the seconds that it takes for, say, a person that has fallen from a roof to hit the ground. His belief, he explained, is that we aren’t actually having those thoughts when we think we are; rather, through a trick of memory, we just think we had them whenever we try to recall the moment. Regardless of what that guy says, I know that I had the following thoughts over the course of the next second or so: I thought about how weird it was that this bear and I both happened to be hunting turkeys in the same place at the same time; and I thought about how weird it was that I was trying to deceive a turkey in order to kill it and eat it, and how my efforts to do so had in turn deceived another creature that would have liked to have killed and eaten that turkey as well; and I wondered what effect my turkey gun, a twelve-gauge shotgun loaded with copper-coated #5 pellets, would have on a black bear at close range; and I imagined myself making a case for self-defense when I was investigated by a game warden for killing a black bear without the proper permit; and I imagined what it would be like to get mauled by a black bear; and, if I did get mauled, I imagined that it would be a very minor mauling as the bear would quickly realize that I wasn’t what he was after; and then I thought about how black bears hardly ever mess with people; and then I imagined myself telling this story for a very long time, regardless of the actual outcome.

The bear interrupted this whirlwind litany of thoughts with a woof, like the first noise a dog might make when someone knocks at the door. He then ran off through the timber at the casual pace of a jogging human. The sound of the bear’s running died away, and the forest returned to its usual crisp and breezy stillness. I leaned back to wait for my pulse to slow, as it was racing at a speed that I figured to be unhealthy. I sat for maybe five minutes, just breathing and thinking. I had that grateful and relieved feeling that you get when you first realize that you’re recovering from the flu. Then I heard a turkey gobble, so far away and faint that the sound seemed more like a feeling than an actual noise. I got up to look for it, happy to be alive and walking in this wonderful and ancient world where bears sigh and turkeys gobble.

The second moment that helps answer the question of why I hunt occurred well over two thousand miles to the north of where I was hunting turkeys. I was camped on the North Slope of Alaska’s Brooks Range, about seventy-five miles south of the Arctic Ocean’s Beaufort Sea. I’d been there for a week, waiting for the arrival of caribou. I hadn’t intended to stay so long, and I was running low on food. This was worrying me just as the sound of food came by. I was lying in my sleeping bag during the first moments of morning light, and the noise I heard was a rush of wings so close to my tent that the nylon quivered. It was followed by the strange cackling of ptarmigan, a grouselike bird that is bigger than a quail but smaller than a pheasant. My brother Danny has heard their call described as go-back, go-back, go-back, but it reminds me more of Curly’s signature laugh from the Three Stooges—a sort of nyack-nyack-nyack.

My boots were frozen, but I pulled them on as best as I could and stepped out to a gravel bar that was crusted in frost. I dragged a rubberized duffel bag out from under my flipped-over canoe, grabbed a twenty-gauge shotgun in one hand and a handful of shells in the other, and trotted off in the direction that the birds had gone. I crossed the ice of a small pond, formed where a braid of the river had become isolated from the main channel. It was almost frozen to the bottom, and I could see a small school of sticklebacks biding their time inside a doomed world. The pond ended at a steeply eroded cut bank. I pulled myself up the ledge and then rose to my feet. I was now standing on the soft, moss-padded ground of the tundra. The birds had already molted to their white winter plumage, though there was no snow yet. This was bad for them but good for me, as I could see them running along the ground as plainly as softballs rolling across a field.

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