McKean Minute: This Thanksgiving, Be Grateful for Your Memory

A friend of mine, his body atrophying from time and cancer, looked me in the eyes and testified: “If you have your health, you have everything.”

Another friend, widowed and alone, once told me that the secret to happiness was having a family nearby.

And yet another acquaintance once pronounced that to be wealthy was to be free. “The people who tell you that money doesn’t matter? Those are the people who don’t have any,” he said.

On this Thanksgiving, I have a lot to be thankful for. I’m thankful for my health. And my family. And if I’m not rich, at least I’m not wondering how to feed and house myself.

But as I enter an age where it’s an increasingly perishable commodity, I may be most thankful for my memory.

I’ve been thinking a lot about memory lately, as I’ve chased deer and elk around this state. About memory and instinct, and how they’re similar and vastly different.

One of the silent pleasures of hunting is anticipating the actions—and reactions—of wild animals. And then having your hunch either confirmed or rejected by their behavior.

Normally, an animal’s reaction is an expression of its instinct. When a whitetail catches my wind and runs to cover, it is obeying a primitive, hard-wired command to flee. More interesting to me is watching an animal’s learned behavior. When that deer runs for cover, and then takes a left and returns to the field because it knows I’m simply cutting firewood instead of hunting, that’s an expression of its memory.

That’s an important distinction for us humans, too. We do so many things instinctually—yawning when other humans yawn, for instance, or blushing when embarrassed or aroused. Those are gifts from our ancestors. They’re common to all us humans.

But memory is something far different. It’s handmade from our own, individual experiences and perceptions. No one else shares it, or can really even experience it except through our own insufficient accounts, related through stories, histories, and remembrances.

That’s why memory is so precious. When we go, so goes this entire parallel, invisible life of the mind that will never again be replicated on this earth. So, this Thanksgiving, be thankful for your memory. And simply remember. Remember all the great, awful, awkward, happy, remarkable, mundane ingredients of your day, your week, your hunting season. Maybe some of those memories will make you blush.

McKean Minute: Words Matter

In the A-frame blind erected out of angle iron and gypsum board, guide Evan Stabolitis waited until the sandhill cranes were almost touching the red dirt of Oklahoma’s Red River Valley. Then he blared, “Kill ‘em all!”

We followed our shotguns out the roof of the blind and proceeded to obey his order.

Back home in Montana earlier in the fall, a buddy described his bowhunt for a bull elk.

“I snuck over the hill and there he was, feeding away from me. When he turned, I stuck him good.”

Listen to hunters even for a little while, and you’ll pick up on some curiously conflated language describing the end times for the animals we love to hunt.

“Whack ‘em and stack ‘em.”

“I let the air of out of him.”

“I sent one through the ol’ boiler room.”

“Let him have it!”

These are all pretty aggressive descriptions of killing an animal, and those of us who have done it enough to understand that the violence we inflict on animals is quick and humane when we make good shots hardly hear the words. We understand the action. We are killing an animal in order to feed our families and manage a public resource.

But those words are pretty heavy for a beginning hunter to hear, more like a gangland killing than a respectful hunt. I was hyper-aware of that last year, as I took a succession of new hunters into the field for their first experience of intentionally taking the life of an animal. And I noticed that my own language describing the experience softened.

I didn’t use the euphemism “harvest” to describe a kill. But I did use more descriptive language to describe the final moments. Instead of telling my apprentice hunter to “shoot him through both lungs so he’ll die quickly,” I said, “Hold just behind his shoulder, about a third of the way up from his belly.” Instead of saying “you need to break his leg so he doesn’t jump the fence onto the neighbor’s place” I said, “Put your crosshair right on the point of his shoulder and gently squeeze the trigger.”

Should I have been more clear that the bullet they sent would make a mess out of the animal? Should I have used more colorful terms to describe the violence they were about to inflict?

I don’t think so. It’s a heavy obligation for a beginning hunter to learn to use a gun safely, and to understand the awful power of a centerfire rifle. It’s even more intimidating to ask them to know and follow the litany of hunting regulations and to be able to identify legal game and effective shot placement. If they become repeat hunters, they’ll grow to understand the effect of their shot. And once they do, they’re free to use verbs like “whacked,” and “sluiced,” and “greased” to describe their actions.

But until then, the one grace we can give beginning hunters is gentle language to de-escalate the gravity of their actions. If they send their projectile well, they’ll have a huge vocabulary to describe everything that comes next.

McKean Minute: Solo Flight

It was this week a year ago that my son became a man.

There are plenty of moments that a father can point to with the same conclusion—captaining a team to an unexpected victory, or the sudden acceptance of responsibility, or a first date. But my boy earned his man card by killing a deer all by himself.

If that sounds underwhelming, or undeserving of comment, it’s because you don’t know the details, or the context.

I have identical twin boys, and in nearly every measure of appearance and behavior, they are congruent. They’re responsible, honest, reliable, and funny. And they both grew up as hunters. In my home state of Montana, young hunters are required to be accompanied by an adult until they are 15, and the eldest (by 9 minutes) of my sons showed an early aptitude for solo hunting. Even before he turned 15, he wanted to strike out on his own, to explore the next ridge, and to make his own luck.

My younger (by those same 9 minutes) son was equally happy to stay by my side, to collaborate on strategies and to rely on me for decisions about where to hunt or when to shoot. I was equally happy with his companionship, because he’s such good company, and if I can brag just a bit, an exceptional shot.

But every time his brother dropped over a distant ridge, or left me a note on the kitchen table letting me know where he was hunting and when he’d be back, I was reminded of myself. My most memorable hunting experiences—indeed, the experiences that minted me as a hunter—were when I was alone, with no one to turn to for advice or decision. I reckon I became a man as a teenaged hunter, left alone to live with the results of my decisions.

So, I was both apprehensive and excited when my then-17-year-old younger son told me, a year ago this week, that he was going to take his rifle “for a walk,” and that he’d see me after dark. I wasn’t surprised to get the text, several hours later, that he had killed a deer.

“Buck down. Might need help,” was how the message read. I took my time responding. I recalled my own first solo gutting session—all the blood and all the indecision about what comes out of the body cavity and what stays in—and my first drag-out. And how my memories would have been dulled if I had to share them with my father.

By the time I got to him, Merlin had the buck gutted and dragged out of a coulee onto a bench where we could easily drive to it. Only we didn’t. We each grabbed a leg and started dragging. As we pulled, I found myself sneaking short looks at my son, admiring the line of his jaw and the determination in his eyes.

McKean Minute: Only A Doe

The stalk was perfect, right until it wasn’t. The group of mule deer does and fawns blew out of the snowberries like a flock of quail.

My buddy looked at the rapidly disappearing butts and black-tipped tails and sighed dismissively. “Who cares. It’s only a doe.”

Only a doe?

Only a doe can teach you the finer points of stealth. Only a doe can pick you off at 1,000 yards despite your best efforts to stay concealed. Only a doe has a nose that can detect scent particles in vanishingly tiny concentrations. Only a doe can produce the bucks with the headgear you measure and memorialize. Only a doe can make a fool out of hunters both ordinary and accomplished.

Only a doe, you say?

Only a doe can hold her ground while the rest of the herd slips over the horizon. Only a doe can stamp her feet and cause a riot of white tails and alarm snorts. Only a doe can starve herself to feed her fawns. Only a doe can manufacture rump roasts and backstraps and succulent venison shanks. Only a doe can lead the way to safety, winter range, and spring fawning grounds, not once but every season for her lifetime.

Only a doe can be the most surprising and satisfying trophy of your season. But only if you respect all the trip-wire senses and elephantine memory that built her. Only a doe.