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The Milk House: Talking about deer

Ryan Dennis Published on 06 November 2014

As this goes to print, a highly anticipated time of the year for many has come around again: hunting season. When I’m asked to describe western New York, I tell the person it’s hills and deer hunting. We don’t have the big white-tail racks found in the Corn Belt, but a mix of fields and woods supports a strong regional herd.

In the same way camo has worked its way into everyday fashion, so has talking about deer hunting become part of the social fabric of the area. Although gun season is only three weeks long, the topic is barely time-sensitive, as appropriate at the Christmas table as it is in high summer.

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I have not been home during deer season for a couple of years now, which is not helpful when stories of tall tines and near misses are the currency at any gathering.

Sometimes, when feeling kind on the behalf of American society, I would think that our collective obsession with Hollywood comes from the fact that Johnny Depp is merely something we all have in common. I suspect deer hunting in rural areas is like that too – it’s the closest thing to a common experience. Still, I haven’t entirely made peace with being the odd man out for wanting to talk about books and travel.

I inhabit the awkward space of enjoying deer hunting and being terrible at it. Mostly, I’m just a bad shot. Since college age, the winters I’ve been home have been few and during them I’ve scared more deer than shot.

While everyone else went to tree stands and rifles when the latter became legal in the county, my father and I continue to hunt in a way that is now considered old-school, shooting at deer we drive out of the hedgerows and edges of woods. Most running deer I shoot at are still running by the time the smoke clears.

Once, I was walking a field alone when I spotted a doe standing 150 yards away. Accounting for distance, I aimed over its back and emptied the six shots in my 12-gauge pump. The doe continued to graze on the dry grass. I sighed, turned around and walked home.

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Our area is not near a city. There is no theater, music scene or major sports team within an hour. When trying to explain the local fascination with hunting, it could be made easy by saying that all we have are hills and deer.

Still, I would rather conclude that rural tendencies are pragmatic, perhaps like the people in the area, and will use what is around them to determine what to base their identity on and what to them is important in life – which is to say, to create their own culture. A 12-point rack replaces the Warhol on the wall. It may be only geography that puts one man in a suit and another man in camo.

I have to admit that there’s something egalitarian about deer hunting. You don’t have to be rich, good-looking, athletic or educated to shoot a deer. With plenty of state land and neighbors with back forties, you don’t even have to own property.

Everyone is equal opening day, meaning that they’re only a person standing in the woods with a gun. The social hierarchy it produces in the end is simple: those who get a buck and those who don’t.

I couldn’t buy into the idea that masculinity is measured in tines and that getting a deer is part of the definition of manhood. The world has come too far for that. Still, I also don’t want to be the bookish nerd that doesn’t get one.

Sometimes the most apparent clichés are the hardest to avoid. I’m more into fishing, and good enough at it, but somehow that doesn’t command the same gravitas around the campfire. More specifically, I’m into fly fishing, which already borders on the verge of being yuppie and tonally “urban.”

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Still, for all the Freudian weight of comparing shotguns that passes unrecognized and all the camo hats to roll one’s eyes at in Walmart, in the end I have to admit that because it is a characteristic of where I come from, I can’t place myself above it.

Even when living in the heart of a city, strange things happen to me this time of year. A jogger would pass behind some naked brush, and for an instant I would mistake it for the silhouette of a deer, or I would get a whiff of chimney smoke and think it was gunpowder.

It reminds me that I’m from a specific place and that they have specific things they do there. And when I see the jogger making his way back to his house unhurried and unbothered by my presence, it makes me feel all that much that I’m back in the woods again. PD

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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