What I remember most is the warmth; the musty smell emanating from the carcasses strung-up in the backyard of my childhood home. I remember the bloodstains on the dewy morning grass that lingered for days, despite the lappings of the family dog. I remember the red streaks in my father’s truck where dead deer took their final journey from the hunting woods of my uncle’s forest to our makeshift slaughterhouse-and-butcher’s-counter. I remember the trophy photographs taken whenever a new kill was brought home; bearded faces with camo and blaze orange bodies smiling on foggy autumn mornings above the antlers that proved a worthy target.
I remember so many of these small details about that time in my life, but I don’t remember much about the way those scenes truly made me feel. As a child, the yearly hunts – be it for deer, squirrel, or even wild boar – were an almost religious rite to my family, and the spectacle of it all was second-nature to me. I never questioned the normalcy of this violence until years later because killing and slaughtering, butchering and preserving, were merely routine behaviors that proved my family kept close to tradition and sport. And, we weren’t abnormal. All of my friends and their families were just like mine. They too hunted and fished, they too cut and gutted, and they too went to taxidermies to forever enshrine their prey.
In Appalachia – perhaps more so than any other region in America – these traditions were part of the fabric of everyday life. Gun and ammo stores dotted the nearby towns, and bait and tackle shops were as plentiful as contemporary gas stations. In rural areas, such as my childhood home, in the early morning light of Saturday mornings in October and November, you could walk out on your back porch and hear gunshots echo in the valleys as hunters fired on game starting at daybreak. It wasn’t uncommon to see trucks with gun racks hanging on the back glass, and almost every mom-and-pop store in town sold hunting licenses and recorded hunting trophies.
These traditions molded the society into which I was born, and they did their best to influence my development. They surrounded me from an early age, pressuring me to become a part of this gruesome culture. Literally the only thing I inherited from my family was a .22-250 rifle that belonged to my paternal grandfather, and it was local custom that a boy recieve a shotgun for his thirteenth birthday as a sign of his growth into manhood. I was taken on hunting trips by the time I was in grade school, and I was jealous of friends when they got pocket knives at 8 but I had to wait until I was 9. At family barbeques and after church picnics, the first questions were almost always about hunting or fishing, about bucks and does and trout and catfish.
But I ignored those questions. I forged my own path. It wasn’t easy, and I’m still not sure why I started down a road so different and completely alien to those I grew up with. In spite of all the pressures, I recanted my Appalachian heritage and set out on a journey of environmentalism, liberalism, animal activism, and – God forbid – vegetarianism. Rejecting everything I knew as child and young adult, I created a new destiny influenced by rational thought and love, modeled on wellbeing and global-mindedness, and emboldened by empathy, compassion, and justice.
This is the story of that journey.