Sunday, 23 March 2008
The last two cuttings I put into the envelope were; an article about the aftermath of Hunter S Thompson’s suicide and a feature about an attempt to retrieve a body from Bushman’s Hole (the deepest fresh water on earth).
This story is from when I lived on the other side of the hill, where Greenwich overlooks Deptford; home of the shipyards that sent their work to the commonwealth of Virginia.
I’d collect the kind of articles we’d show each other at Sunday brunch and every few weeks I’d post them to Stuart. Although he’d lived stateside for four years, Stuart read the websites of English newspapers everyday; I sent him magazine cuttings, PG Tips tea, and his favourite liquorice cigarette papers. We’d talk on the phone, make endless plans for a road trip and it was like he’d never left. I know people who live down the road who I have less contact with.
Ginger Mick’s call on Boxing Day changed all that. By the 28th I was on my way to meet Stuart’s brother The Northern Monkey and collect his body.
When Stuart was still alive, after marrying and divorcing the heavenly Celeste, he became the live in caretaker of an old homestead off Canby road in Loudoun County.
Unlike the showy new build McMansions around it, it’s hidden from the road. Although the nearest house is only at the end of its drive, it’s not somewhere that encourages visitors, if you hadn’t been there before you’d never find the place. The world is kept at arms length.
As recently as the mid-nineties Loudoun County would have been the back of beyond, now the locals are moaning it’s become a burg of sub divisions. McMansions for defence contractors who commute to DC and pay the priced-out Loudouners to work their hobby farms. One of our hosts told us how amazed the locals had been to hear how, two weeks before, Stuart had been woken to find a bear raiding his dustbins, “This is the suburbs now! You just don’t get bears here!”
The stone farmhouse is framed with recycled Oak beams, you could easily imagine them leaving Deptford creek as parts of a sixteenth century ship, they’re heavily studded with hand forged square nails and scored with the rebates of previous uses. The house has twisted over the years, it creaks, whistles and groans like an aging mutt making itself comfortable by the fire. Its rough block work walls and wide balconies are, like the locals when viewed from an English sensibility, the point where an east-coast folksiness meets the trimmed goatee of southern charm.
Stuart: ‘Come on out you’ll love it, I’ve given my republican gun nut neighbour permission to hunt on the land, and he’s given me a freezer full of venison already’.
SBW: Will he take me hunting?
Stuart: ‘He says he’d love to, he tried to take me, so I told him about you. He’s right up for it.’ By the time I arrived at the farm Stuart was dead and I’d forgotten all about republican gun nut neighbours.
The Republican Gun-nut Neighbour came by to introduce himself on our first morning.
Short, with white hair, his lively eyes clouded by dismay. Walking on eggshells, he tries to get the measure of us and of our grief. We are bound together by the feeling that suddenly the world’s a different, less pleasing shape.
When someone really is your friend you don’t need to agree with them to enjoy their company. The contrarians are drawn together, which side of the argument they’ve planted their flag on is less important than the joy of the argument itself. If Stuart ever had two friends who agreed, he’d fall out with one or both of them. The mark of his friendship was how many times you’d fallen back in with him. To keep the world on its toes he employed an unusual mix of prickliness and open hearted charm that was by turns confusing and beguiling. In counterpoint to RGN’s republican-gun-nut-ism, Stuart was a dyed-in-the-wool lefty, but I could instantly see how they’d have been such great pals. If you’re really good at arguing, and have well thought out supporting evidence at your fingertips, the one thing you’d crave is a worthy adversary. Preferably a self-employed worthy adversary, so that the whole day can be dedicated to thrust, feign and riposte.
We stood around looking into the hole in our lives, drank coffee, smoked Marlboro and cried a few manly tears together.
Later we walked over to RGN’s place; we thought to meet Mrs RGN.
“Now boys there’s something you’ve gotta see while you’re here”.
RGN has dedicated a whole room in his house to trophies from his trips to the plains of southern Africa, really, if it’s smaller than a rhino, walks on four legs and lives on the savannah, there’s now one less of them and it’s nailed to RGN’s wall. Maybe I’ve led a sheltered life but I’ve never met anyone with an Africa room in the UK. Not even once.
“Everyone must see the Africa room” confided the long suffering Mrs RGN.
RGN “ I know you spoke about this with Stuart, and I’d be honoured if you allow me to take you both deer hunting”
Mrs RGN “ No! This is your obsession! They don’t want to hunt!”
TNM and SBW “We’d love to!”
SBW “I’m not sure we’ve got the right gear though”
TNM “won’t we need camouflage clothes?”
RGN “you wont need anything special, this is gentleman’s hunting, dress warm I’ll pick you up in the morning”
At twenty to too-early-to-even-think-about-getting up I was woken by RGN standing over me in the dark, asking me why I was still asleep, he added (a touch indignantly – we were on the cusp of wasting valuable hunting time) that The Northern Monkey was asleep too! Stumbling down stairs I found RGN dressed from head to foot in Realtree camouflage, brewing coffee in the kitchen. I was just burning my lips with the coffee when TNM slouched into the room still fitting his front teeth. He looked a bit alarmed when RGN picked up a hunting rifle that had been obscured by the kitchen table. I looked a bit alarmed too when RGN walked away from the backdoor and carried his rifle up stairs. TNM didn’t help calm my nerves when he whispered “Is it just me or can you hear banjos?”
On the first floor balcony that looks out over the pond RGN had set up three folding chairs. As dawn broke over the woodlands RGN started to make radio contact with other hunters in the area, he turned to us and in a stage whisper told us to keep very quiet. In the grey light of dawn, sharing a pair of binoculars, we scanned the light grey of the woods looking for the light grey of a deer. For a good twenty minuets we excitedly had a tree under rapt observation.
While we were trying not to laugh RGN tells us that his friends are hunting on the other side of the woods and are likely to drive the deer towards us, ‘this is the best hunting place for miles’ RGN goes back to scanning the woods. TNM has taken him at his word and starts whispering questions, before turning to me and whispering “I think all this shooting has made him a bit deaf”.
If you grew up in the city, you’ll be used to seeing ‘meat’ as a commodity, one totally divorced from ‘animals’. Milk comes from a carton, meat from a plastic tray.
I spent a few years as a vegetarian health nut in my late teens and early twenties before I found myself challenged by two conflicting beliefs. I believed that meat wasn’t good for us to eat (mainly due to the effects of industrialised farming) and I believed that my body would let me know what I needed to eat if I had the clarity of mind to listen. One morning I was chatting with one of my fellow food nuts when he casually mentioned the chicken kebab he’d enjoyed the day before. To say I was surprised would be an understatement. Then he hit me, right between the eyes, with an idea. ‘When you think of eating meat do you salivate?’ I checked “yes” ‘then you need to eat meat’. For lunch that day we had chicken kebabs, with a side order of sacred cow.
I’m not really one for evangelising, but I do like to debate. Right down to the bone. Especially with people who disagree with me, but are smart enough to fiercely debate without bearing a grudge. I’ve enjoyed debating the meat eating issue with vegans, vegetarians, and the people I just can’t see eye to eye with, the meat eaters who are afraid of their dinner and appose hunting.
Would you prefer the animal to die instantly never having seen a hunter coming, or to die from being eaten alive by a predator in the wild?
Apart from the odd hysteric, the consensus is ‘if you’re prepared to kill it and grill it yourself who am I to tell you that you shouldn’t eat it’. And have I talked a good fight about doing just that! Most meat eaters seem to do a spot of hand wringing and say something like ‘I would but, well if I had to, to eat, then I would’, while that might be good enough for them, that’s never been good enough for me.
Every time the debate has been aired I’ve proclaimed how much I want to earn the right to eat meat by killing it myself. It doesn’t have to mean killing every meal but killing a meal is something I must do.
I’m sitting in the freezing cold, on the other side of the world, looking out for a deer to shoot. Am I all mouth and trousers after all? Will I be able to pull the trigger and end a life? Kill a living thing?
Stuarts death had generated a swirling cauldron of emotions, my soul was fragile and exposed, things that should have been said will now forever remain unsaid, adventures we’d planned will never happen.
Suddenly a buck and his harem of does have emerged from the woods and are standing at the far side of the pond, RGN is handing TNM, the rifle and instructing “ at this range you’re going to have to aim about an inch lower than you want to hit, wait for your chance and hit him just behind the shoulder”.
While my experience was confined to air guns; shooting bottles in suburban gardens and tin ducks at fairgrounds. TNM later tells me he was once invited to a rifle range by the chief of police in a province of northern Pakistan. One shot with a Lee Enfield 303 was all it took to leave him with an aching shoulder and a ringing in his ears that lasted all morning.
Steadying himself against the uprights of the balcony TNM takes a deliberate aim and a massive bang shatters the stillness of the dawn. The deer jump, with all but one of them spinning 180 degrees in the air and they’re gone. Alongside the shock of the noise, I’m flooded with a torrent of conflicting emotions; the deer have gone I’ll not get my chance to face the test today; TNM looks frozen to the spot for a second before his face breaks into elation. I’m delighted for him – he got to test himself and passed, RGN couldn’t look happier! He knows he’s just been present at the birth rite of another hunter, his tribe has increased. RGN takes the rife, ejects the spent cartridge, and flicks the safety on. The realisation hits him, TNM has a thousand yard stare as he stutters “F-fork in hell, th- that was amazing”. We’re doing the back patting bit and TNM is putting the spent cartridge case into his pocket when the deer gets up. You didn’t need the field glasses to see that TNM has shot one of its legs off. RGN hands me the rifle and his voice is full of steely certainty as he tells me “You must shoot and kill the deer”. I work the bolt and disengage the safety catch as time slows to a crawl, TNM latter told me that I was so still and calm that he assumed I’d been shooting all my life, but in the moment, my moment, I was so far outside of time that in between my heart beats I could hear an action replay of a sports psychologist I know talking me through the process he’d modelled from expert shooters. I knew nothing of the mechanics of making a shot and gripped the rifle like it was going to stop me from drowning. Each juddering heartbeat sent a tremor through my body that took an age to subside; in the distance I heard RGN’s voice say ‘steady’ while the crosshairs danced over the doe.
She gave a second spastic lurch towards the cover of a bush and my moment of truth had come. The sight picture magically stabilised and time slowed again as my finger tightened against the trigger. During its glacial journey towards its breaking point I just had time to wonder if I’d actually put a live round in the breach when the roar of .300 WinMag told me the rifle had defiantly been loaded. The doe dropped to the ground. I stood up and turned to face the others wearing the same stare I’d seen on TNM.
There is a sharp pinch of regret in that moment, Deer have a alive-ness to them that is made slap-yer-face obvious by its absence, their trembling super sense; once so energetic to every shifting air current, as if hearing sounds before they’re made, the spooky ability they have to react to intentions. Gone. Meat on the ground.
The test of my resolve had been met, I’m still troubled by the industrialised meat that forms so much of my diet, but I have sacrificed my disassociation. In that moment I reconnected with the food chain. Honesty has a flavour, one I’m delighted with.
RGN was more than delighted. The birth rite had produced twins!
TNM and myself walked, still shaking with adrenalin, over to the pond and round to the deer’s body. Amid the florid swearing and expressions of delight we knew we’d managed to pull it off, we were blooded deer hunters. England’s honour was safe once more.
SBW: Why didn’t you shoot the one with antlers?
TNM: Which one with antlers? I only saw the one I shot.
The Northern Monkeys shot had taken off the doe’s front left leg off just below the shoulder, mine was at least level with her heart but it had entered a way to the right as she’d twitched by (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it). Much further to the right and this would be a story about despatching a deer tracked through the woods.
After dragging the carcass back to the farm and hefting it into the back of his jeep we drove up to RGN’s place full of questions about rifles, deer, and when we’d get to do it again. As we drove up RGN’s drive way I became overcome with a sense of my own deer hunter-ness and started to profess my desire to learn the whole process (later to become the subject of this blog) from tracking to marksmanship to butchery. As we parked up outside RGN’s garage he dropped the tailgate, letting the deer slump to the ground, clicked open a Buck knife and handed it to me with the words “Go on then Mr Bushcraft”.
One of the things that I’ve learned by spending time with the management consultants and renegade psychologists is that the starting point to a new experience tends to define how the experience is encoded, if there are enough points of familiarity the ‘can do’ program kicks in – What’s a dead deer? It’s a very big chicken and I butcher them every week. No problem. The unexpected difference between field dressing and kitchen butchery is the temperature; chilblains rang through my hands as I heaved the gut pile out onto the driveway. A flock of turkey vultures waited impatiently from their perch.
Our victory and joy at holding up the honour of old England was short lived, as TNM pointed out “every time we leave the room someone asks RGN ‘is it true it took two limeys to kill one little whitetail’?”
Thanks for reading