A couple Saturdays ago, I was returning a bale rack to buddy Greg Roiger. The day fit the description of "November" - overcast, low clouds, chill on the landscape. I was driving slowly, lest the rack start jerking left and right. Late fall air is refreshing; so the heater was on, but the window was open. Not much on the radio, it was quiet except for the truck engine. As I headed down toward the Cottonwood, the fields turned into woods.
I felt a sort of melancholy, and then it hit me that it was the deer opener. That's pretty darn close to a state holiday in Minnesota. And I was a little jealous of folks who had purpose to be in those woods that I only drove past.
By some measures, I should be a hunter. I am exceedingly rural. I certainly like meat. I'm comfortable around guns. I like to know the story of the food on my plate. I enjoy the outdoors, this time of year as much as any. The Earth turns inward as it readies for the cold months. Coincidentally, the countryside opens up as crops are taken from the fields and leaves fall from the trees.
I never learned to hunt as a kid. My father hunted when he was younger. When I came along, his Monday-to-Friday job was farming. On weekends, his hobby was farming. There was fun mixed in there, but the fun was never out of earshot of the farm work.
I could have made an effort to learn to hunt as a young man. Real guys hunt, and real conservationists hunt, and I fancy myself both. But I never took it up. It may have something to do with death. That, of course, is what hunting is by definition. The hunt is successful when the animal dies.
As someone living in the country, I've been around dying things more than most. I've been attendant at the death of a horse, a goat, some cows and pigs, a couple dogs, cats, and quite a few chickens and ducks. The latter were at my own hands, at butchering time. I've also been present at the death of wild creatures: rabbits, squirrels, birds, etc.
I don't enjoy death. I understand its place in the natural world, so I don't "unenjoy" death. But it does evoke a sober moment.
In the case of the horse and the dogs, they were animals I knew well. I was kneeling alongside as life passed from them. That close, you feel the labored breathing. You almost can't help but your breathing begins to match theirs. And then their's stops. It just stops, and you catch yourself as you realize you need to breathe again now, alone.
Last week, I started up an unloading auger. A mouse was in there. It flew out, and stood there on the grass, stunned. We don't want critters in and under our bins. Not having anything nearby, I took my heel and stepped down upon it to kill it. Hardly the same as watching the demise of a friend-dog, but I don't relish the end of any life.
Everything I've seen die shares some things. First of all is the desire not to die. As certain as the end is for all living things, nature instills a tenacious urge to survive. There is fight almost up to the last breath, even in that mouse. Resignation comes not till the final few breaths.
When the end comes, there is usually a final expansion of the lungs and then a slow exhalation. Whatever life is, in all its mystery, has left this creature. And no matter how many times I see a death, it briefly stops me. The creation of life is God's work, and it is to be noted at its ending, even in the wee mouse.
Daughter Abby as a child was an extreme animal lover. She befriended any she could, she studied them, and she had an uncanny ability to understand them. I remember the day she came home from school, and told us that her teacher at St. Mary's said that animals do not have souls and do not go to heaven. She refused to believe that. Abby was emphatic that she would see our gracious farm dog Molly in the hereafter.
I had a hard time arguing that one with nine-year-old Abby. I accept the church's teaching. But there is something that bonds all of us living things. I'll call it a "life-force," because I don't think we have a word for it.
In Genesis, God created the living things on their own days after the land and the water. Each day of creation was more times spectacular. But the sixth day when God brought forth mice and horses and us? There are many arguments for God's existence. But this puffing of life into a glop of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and calcium is a strong one. It's not necessarily sad when something dies, for we know death and the regeneration of new life are related. It is not always sad, but it is solemn.
I've had conversations with good hunters about the moment of death for the deer. They know that solemn moment. There is a sacramental element in that, the passing of a life which is offered up for the sustenance of other life. It is part of the large cycle of life that we are all blessed to be part of.