In the sweet intersection where late summer meets early fall, Islanders emerge from under the crushing weight of the high season hustle and congregate in the new found quiet. It’s a magical time of year. As the days grow shorter, time somehow becomes less precious and there are suddenly fewer people around, but more friends. A little money in the bank from our worker-ant summer affords us the luxury to reconnect with our own pursuits.
In the early days of our marriage my husband and I disagreed on what those pursuits should be. To me it was a time for apple picking and family bike rides down country lanes. To him, the crisp early evenings and frosty mornings are a sign of one thing: hunting season.
As a young wife, new to Island life, and the hunting lifestyle in particular, I was more than a little put out. I didn’t know these guys he was spending what should be family time with, and I didn’t care to. Instead I imagined them as nameless, faceless fleece-clad townies, not so bright, conservative-leaning, off-color joke-telling bumpkins who monopolized my husband’s time.
As I adjusted to motherhood, and figured out how to get more sleep, I did start to see the positive aspects of Brian’s hunting. He was providing his family with an abundance of fresh, lean, protein-rich meat, and he did take nights off from hunting and butchering here and there to cook for us, his savory stews and succulent roasts going far to win me over.
It was, of course, my sons who eventually drew me fully out of my sulkiness, as preschool boys are known to do. They soon knew the sound of Daddy’s truck pulling around back to the walk in cooler, and would drag me outside, mid-dinner preparation, to see who got a deer, marvel at its soft fur, count its antlers. They ran around with the other kids, who would spill out of pickup trucks to scare each other with spooky tales of tracking deer through swamps and gut piles that steamed in the chilly air. I was surprised to see how welcome I was by my husband’s gang. They’d offer warm greetings and cold beers, insist I sit and listen to a story while Brian finished dinner, always apologizing for the hour, the intrusion. I quickly realized these guys were not in fact the caricatures of Elmer Fudd I imagined them to be. They were teachers, real estate agents, aging progressives and young Republicans, all with vastly different backgrounds, but with core values that overlap in a particular, admirable way.
Despite their political leanings, Island hunters are staunch supporters of conservation designed to keep land open and species plentiful. In order to be effective hunters, they have learned to pay attention to signs in nature that I never noticed before — the depth of a hoof print, or marks on a tree trunk — clues to the size and behavior of an animal. And regardless of their rowdy gatherings, every one of them treasures hunting for the peaceful solitude it affords them. Alone in a tree stand, where phones are silenced or shut off completely, they revel in the ability to finally really think, or not have to think at all. For a group that tends toward gruffness and machismo, they can be exceptionally tender hearted. For every kill shot story I have sat through for the fifth time, barely concealing my eye rolls, I have heard countless more about beautiful moments watching a doe and her impossibly tiny fawns, the glow of a full moon on fresh snow, the eerie quiet of a November sunset behind newly bare branches.
Sure, the guys tend toward colorful language and sometimes smell a bit like doe urine, but they also drop what they are doing to help whenever my husband needs something — to find a deer, or run plumbing to the walk in, or install lights outside the skinning shed to help successful hunters navigate the early darkness. The more I saw how much my husband appreciated their assistance, the less I saw the time they spent together as reckless abandonment of their families, but rather building a community. They’re Brazilian immigrants extolling the virtues of organ meats, preparing livers for ailing relatives; physicians using their anatomical knowledge to foster butchering skills; well-connected up-Islanders securing hunting permission on private land. Not only offering whatever they have for the benefit of the group, but listening to each other, exchanging ideas and cooperating.
Sitting around the fire and snacking on venison jerky with this diverse group of community-minded individuals, it’s hard to imagine the divisiveness and polarization that grips our country. But if we’re truly honest with ourselves, we know that we all carry bias in our hearts, and foster notions of “other” in our daily lives, or even in our own homes. If we remind ourselves to stay open, we’re likely to find not only connection and support, but if we’re lucky, maybe a juicy venison steak, harvested and prepared with love, and grilled to perfection.