column By: Terry Wieland | March, 19
It was about two o’clock in the afternoon when one of my companions at a deer camp in Pennsylvania set down the magazine he was reading, got to his feet, and announced to no one in particular, “Time for the ritual.” With that, the rest of us got up and filed downstairs after him. Camouflage jackets were pulled out, boots were pulled on, cuffs were carefully fastened. We began to apply camouflage paint to our faces with the attention to detail of Comanche warriors preparing for battle. No debutante on her way to the ball was ever so meticulous about her makeup.
Then, suitably arrayed, carrying our camo-painted compound bows, laden with knives and arrows like a band of warriors from a video game yet to be invented (this was 1987), we headed out to be conveyed to our treestands for the afternoon watch. For the next three hours, while I waited for the big buck that never came, I thought about that word “ritual,” and what it meant. I’ve been thinking about it, off and on, in duck blinds, deer stands, and perched on windy mountaintops, pretty much ever since. And the more I think about it, the more important it becomes.
Rituals surrounding hunting take many forms, depending on who, where and why. For example, there is the custom of cutting off shirt-tails. This seems to be most common in the southern states where, I have read, a young hunter who takes his first deer has his shirt-tail cut off. Alternatively, I’ve read that it happens when a hunter, regardless of age, shoots and misses. It seems to me you could go through a lot of shirts that way.
An almost universal ritual is daubing the forehead of a hunter with the blood of his first kill. This happens from Africa to Alaska. Usually, the blood is daubed on in an X or a cross; sometimes it’s a smear on the forehead, other times it includes both cheeks as well. Was this the origin of the custom of applying war paint? I have no idea, but it seems logical.
It also seems that, as hunting evolves from necessity to recreation, the rituals surrounding it become more formal. In Europe, hunting has been a recreation for a thousand years; in North America, less than 200. Not surprisingly, Europe’s hunting traditions and rituals are both more strict and more elaborate than ours, but this does not make ours any less important.
Probably the best-known European ritual is the “last bite” – placing a sprig of foliage in the mouth of a downed animal and then, usually, according it a moment of silence. If you are raised to do this, or if you are hunting in a country where it’s expected, it seems to me to be a fine gesture. If neither applies, however, it can seem very much like an affectation. Hunting caribou in Quebec in 1986, one of our group insisted on doing it, very ostentatiously, and everyone from our Indian guide on down thought it was silly. The guy doing it was on his first big-game hunt, had read about the custom and believed it was the thing to do. However, it seemed out of place. Rituals are not portable. Attempting, as my acquaintance did, to import one, doesn’t work because without the dignity afforded by time and tradition, it is meaningless at best, ridiculous at worst.
People are all too ready to mock the rituals of others while regarding their own as sacrosanct. When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was found to be connected to an ancient hunting organization based in Europe, all the glib commentators immediately jumped on the fact that the group wore old-fashioned robes at their meetings. This was ridiculed up and down as little boys playing make-believe.
Anyone who cared to look into the history of the group, however, found that far from being mere costumes, the ceremonial robes date back several hundred years and were the clothes the group’s founders wore daily. By dressing this way for each meeting, members had a physical reminder of their own history and traditions, and the reasons why the group was founded in the first place. For the record, it was one of the Hapsburg rulers of Austria, and his goal was to cherish and preserve the game. Hunters, as usual, predated Greenpeace by several centuries.
Is that ridiculous to you? It certainly is not to me.
Generally speaking, rituals are handed down, like Dad’s hunting knife or Uncle Bob’s favorite deer rifle. In places where hunting is done in groups whose members gather year after year, newcomers are indoctrinated into the rituals of the group by the elders. Most rituals evolve from a firm foundation, such as killing a deer in a particular spot on opening morning. Henceforth, the spot must always be hunted opening morning, and sometimes lots are drawn to see who gets it. Eventually, you forget why you are doing it, yet you still do it in order to avoid the bad luck of not doing it. Et voilà: You have a ritual.
For a long time, I hunted deer in Ontario with a group of guys who arrived at camp the day before the opener. From long association, wordless, we knew what each of us had to do: My particular task was to get out my oilstone and put a keen edge on everyone’s hunting knife. Another brought in firewood. A third began marinating various roasts and turkeys and such for the coming week. None of these activities are unusual; what is unusual is the fact that we all did exactly the same thing, in exactly the same way, on exactly the same day, year after year. This went on for the better part of two decades. What began as practical tasks related to our joint purpose in being there had solidified into ritual. We didn’t discuss it, but there was an unspoken agreement that it was a necessary beginning to our annual week of deer hunting.
Then there were the personal rituals: Carefully checking each piece of equipment we carried or wore, to make sure it was all there. Putting on a shirt that was kept only for deer hunting and worn because it was what we had on when we got that first one. Fortunately, there was no tradition of shirt-tail mutilation where we lived.
A less admirable ritual – or maybe it was mere tradition – was looking out at pouring rain on the third or fourth morning, coming to unspoken agreement that we would not venture out, and sipping Manhattans right after breakfast.
Ritual serves the purpose, for young people, of an initiation, acceptance, coming of age and all that pop-psych blather. For older hunters (and I speak from experience) it provides a feeling of having been part of something larger than one’s self, stretching all the way back to ancient cave paintings in France.
In medieval times, knights preparing for battle or a tournament (simulated battle, which could be equally deadly) followed elaborate rituals of preparation. Aided by their squires, they would bathe, dress, lay out their armor and don it piece by piece. This was accompanied by prayers and blessings and it took hours to complete.
Was our afternoon ritual in that Pennsylvania deer camp, 30 years ago, so very different? Or, really, any less meaningful? Methinks not. At least, not to us.