Thursday, April 28, 2011

On Killing

Here in the country death is close. If they are lucky the old die peacefully in their houses or their children's -- or, if they are not lucky, then in squalid nursing homes in town. They are buried back in the valley in their ancestral church and a banquet is held after the burial. They are hardy spoken of as being dead, and they have a strange immortality, joining the pantheon of those who have gone before, those who remembered the old ways. They have their eternal life in the memory of their families as they decay under the ground.

Their deaths are spoken of in half-whispers at their otherwise loud and bustling memorial meals, and if the passing was particularly hard the women clustered in the kitchen may speak quietly and hold each other while the men sprawl proudly at table. The matter of the person actually being dead isn't much spoken of by the men when the women aren't around, so when they do speak it will be with a studied gruffness that neglects that fact and raises the gone to their timelessness, especially in the eager ears of children listening to the old-timers' tales. The women may grieve and console publically without reproach, but for the men it not so straight-forward.

Then there is the regular killing: chickens are beheaded for Sunday dinner, turkeys and other fowl for special occasions, cattle and pigs slaughtered, groundhogs kept out of the garden with a shot to the head, pets shot after being hit by a car.

Similarly, the killing that hunting necessarily involves is not spoken of. I grew up with the silence: the men left long before I awoke and came back with a dead deer in the back of the truck that evening and I would hold the flashlight while the carcass was cleaned, but when we went back to the house after hanging the deer in the barn we changed out of our clothes in the basement, washed our tools and hands, and didn't speak much of it when we sat down to dinner except to give the basic facts of size and where it was shot.

There was no boasting in the silent company of my uncle and grandfather. After your first deer there were no words of congratulation, just a simple acknowledgment of a clean shot or a many-pointed buck. The killing was not something to be boasted of because it was all understood: the dark, silent hours sitting miserable in the cold, the quickening of one's heartbeat as a deer came into sight, the carefully-placed shot, the struggle in the cold wind to drag the heavy, dead deer down a mountainside in the deepening twilight, the quick, neat work with knife and saw to butcher the animal and hang it. We have all done it. There is nothing to say to one another, no need to complain. And that is what makes hunting acceptable to me: there is no blood-lust, no glorification of a man with a gun killing an animal at a distance. It is done for the pleasure of doing something well, for the love of nature and the woods, to sit all day and truly pay attention to one's surroundings, to have earned the right to fire your gun and feel the satisfaction of having done so.

It is strange to be a woman in all of this. It is something that women do not do. It is cold, miserable, unpleasant work, and there is a distinctly masochistic streak in the uncomplaining suffering, where even suggesting that one is uncomfortable is simply not acceptable. You have to act like you are happy to be out there, to be cold and wet and stiff. And perhaps, after decades of doing it, one does enjoy it, or at least gets to the point where one can ignore it. But I am not surprised that men do not encourage their wives and daughters to go out with them. There is a very old-fashioned air of protecting women from the unpleasantness of hunting in all of this silence: keeping from them the screams of the dying animal, the blood, the staring eyes. I have joined, at least in part, in the solidarity of men - woken up at 4:30 am and stayed long after dark for the messy work of slaughtering. And when we go back to the house and eat the hot food prepared for us I don't speak of it either, and I feel the strange urge to keep all this knowledge close, to protect someone (though I don't know who) from it.

It's a strange, foolish feeling that arises despite all my strong opinions on gender equality, this desire to embrace the freedom of men that comes only at the expensive of women. It makes me long to rejoin my shipmates as Ben, to man a gun in the summer heat uncomplaining, and then come back to camp and enjoy all the silly niceties of women gossiping and giving me cake. It makes me grimace with my own hypocrisy to say it, but under such circumstances the company of women is charming instead of foolish, a relief instead of a burden, because I can stand on the outside of the female company that I have never felt fully part of. But it makes me despise returning to being a woman, and after joining the men and treating a woman as a delicate piece of china to be carefully cared for I have no interest in being treated that way myself.

At the end of the day it is a hollow, dead-end choice, and we all suffer when we are confined by old notions of gender, be we men in our silent prisons who end our lives with a pistol, unable to speak our feelings and find healing, or be we women who through a lifetime of ill-use and neglect accept a life of passivity, self-sacrifice, and negation. It's hard to take off my suspenders and unqueue my hair at the end of the day, but my escapist fantasy of being Ben cannot ring true. If I long to be a man to escape being judged a woman I do neither gender credit. I value patience, reserve, tact, and humility, but men don't have the monopoly on those virtues any more than women have a monopoly on being emotional and short-sighted. It's too easy to let my escapism become the misogyny that I am eager to grow beyond.

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