My eye through the scope down the barrel of a gun; watched a patch of brown, almost gray fur right behind the crosshair. I watched the creature breathe, watched his diaphragm contract and expand, pull in fresh fall air, then expunge it back through his nostrils. His ear flicked slightly and for a moment I thought he had detected me. I froze. Shortly, he was back to focusing on his travels and continuing his trot down the trail towards the tree I was sitting in.
I slowly, and ever so gently, adjusted my right shoulder to add more support to the awkward position my back was in. My left hand choked up a bit further on the rifle stock, and I leaned my right elbow against the adjacent tree trunk. He was almost in position now, about to turn broadside on the deer trail that would lead him down alongside the marsh bed. My right hand was almost frozen stiff, but I could still move my index finger just enough to disable the gun safety, then lower it to the trigger.
Ever since the whitetail had come down the trail a few minutes ago, my entire nervous system was set under siege by torrent after torrent of epinephrine and norepinephrine. The adrenaline coursed through my every fiber - surged, swelled, and tensed up every muscle in my body until it gathered to form a knot in my throat. And what was I to do with all that energy but sit still. To shoot this deer I needed to be motionless, silent, calm, cool headed, collected, and smart.
I drew in a breath and slowly let it out. Conscious of every faculty of my biology, I did my best to focus my thoughts upon peace, serenity, and the silent, softly falling November snowflakes. I felt some of the tension dissipate through the pores of my skin, as if it rose with my dwindling body heat, and seep into and out of the several layers of wool clothing intended to bundle me against the cold. I repeated one word over and over in my head --"Breathe.” Over and over I stapled the word onto every frantic notion that whipped, shuttered, and tromped around in my brain.
What if he catches wind or sight of me, and I have to shoot him on the run? Could I make that shot? Did I even want to try? Did I even want to kill this unsuspecting animal? Did I need to? Could I go through with it? Why was I hunting in the first place? Breathe.
The clock was ticking, my brain revolving at maximum velocity, and my body was completely motionless in the silent gray of a Northwoods November morning.
The buck was probably around 2 years old and had a stunted, forked rack. He was not a trophy antler whitetail, and he probably never would be. I didn't have a doe tag, I needed venison for my family, I was tired of freezing my butt off in a tree day after day, and here was my opportunity to solve all of that. The buck turned broadside, 50 yards directly in front of me, and stood completely still.
I brought the scope back up, put the animal's heart in my crosshair, drew in one last breath, and exhaled a prayer as my frozen finger pulled the trigger. The boomstick wailed, the soft silence was split. The muzzle flash seemed to last forever, the smoke an eternity. In fact it seemed eons before the buck began his ballet into the throws of death. It seemed a hundred eternities longer for him to sully his final breath and exhale one last time. I exhaled with him; it was over.
Every day we have many choices available to us. That cold day, all those years ago, I made a decision that would shape a part of me for the rest of my life. Looking back on it now, I stand behind the choice I made because it made me answer some difficult questions. The decision to make that one shot forced me to really examine the reasons behind my actions. In a single instant I would be responsible for extinguishing a life, and that's a big revelation.
The past few years I have spent a lot of time focusing on growing up. I have taken on some responsibilities I've failed to handle, and I've foregone some privileges because I chose not to accept the responsibilities they came paired with. The truth is that each and every one of us is granted an entire lifetime of choices, i.e. free will. The decisions we make shape who we are and how we live. The best thing we can do for ourselves is take a deep breath and make those decisions consciously.
When it's you, with your eye through the scope down the barrel of a gun, and you're faced with a difficult decision to make in a matter of moments, I hope you're conscious of your breathing. I hope you stop for just a few seconds to take in the moment and slowly draw in the air. I hope in that moment of electric, bristling nerves you will remember that you have a choice. After all, it is much easier to make a rational decision when you know you have more than one option; when you're aware you can either walk away or pull the trigger.
“The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action.”
- John Dewey
See you out there,
A woodsman in training.