By Dave Mance III
I shot my first buck when I was in seventh
grade with a hand-me-down .243. There were
two notches already in the stock of that gun
– in the curvature between the trigger guard
and the grip – representing deer that had been
killed with the weapon. When the animal had
been processed I added a third, my knife blade
slicing through a heavy coat of varnish into the black walnut
beneath. That was almost 30 years ago, and I’d like to say that
carving the notch was reverential somehow, but doing so would
be adult me projecting emotions onto kid me. Probably what I
was thinking was: one. My father, my namesake, had a whole
stock full of notches on his .30-06 and I had a lot of catching up
to do. I was already setting my sights on two.
This whole notion of tabulating your kill will sound distasteful
to some – a notch on a gun like a notch on a belt. But I can
assure you that any sliver of ego in that pimply-faced kid
was aspirational. I spent most of my school days trying to be
invisible, biding time until I could go home and disappear
into the woods. There were a few braggarts amongst the guys I
hunted with, but none anyone paid any attention to. My hunting
role models were the types who hung their deer in the garage or
in the shadow of the north side of the barn, not beside the road
for all to see.
As I grew older and more sure of myself, both as a person
and a hunter, the notches on the stock multiplied, and there
was a time, in my twenties, when there was an honest jag of ego
involved every time the knife touched wood. For a while there
I could tell you exactly how many bucks I’d shot – I wore the
number like a varsity letter on my hunting coat. The older hunters
in camp took this in with bemusement. I remember hanging
one particular spike buck on opening day – this back when it
was legal to shoot them – and having an older hunter I respected
examine the buck’s mouth and say: “mother’s milk on his lips.”
There wasn’t, but the point was taken, and then reinforced the
next day as I sat in camp because I’d used up my tag on the
first barely legal buck that came along while everyone else had
adventures in the woods, and then reinforced again throughout
the season with every nice, mature buck I’d see in the back of
a truck. I became a more selective hunter after that – hunting
good bucks, not notches – though ironically, in my 40s, what I
sometimes select has come full circle; a tender young deer can
seem as or more appealing in certain scenarios than a tough old
ridge-runner with a head full of bone.
I still notch my deer guns when I’m successful, though at
this point in my life it’s done primarily to help me remember.
When you’re young, successful hunts get seared into your mind.
For a while there I could tell you every detail of every buck that
belonged to every notch, down to the species of bark he had in
the pearlations on his antlers. But as I’ve gotten older the deer
have begun to blur together. And that bothers me. I’ll sit out in
that November forest, the canopy falling apart above me, staring
at the gun’s stock, trying to remember the individual deer each
notch represents. If I can’t remember one it feels like a betrayal.
If you’re not from the deer hunting world you might think
that hunting ethics are binary – that there are good hunters who
respect the animals and there are bad hunters who don’t. But it’s
much more complicated than this, especially for the so-called
good hunters. I was fortunate to have mentors who instilled
respect in me, but depth of feeling only comes with time. I went
through the motions when I was young, but it wasn’t until I
started forgetting deer that I really started to grapple with the
death part of the pursuit. I’m tempted to say that at this point
the deer started to haunt me, but that sounds too melodramatic.
I don’t know how to say what this feeling is. As hunters we
make peace with our actions because predation is a part of life;
we need to eat, and the venison we procure ourselves is a more
organic source of protein than anything we can buy shrink-wrapped in a grocery store. But there’s an intimacy here, too,
that has to be reckoned with. That pregnant moment, when
we pull the trigger, seals a pact that binds us and that animal
together. Part of the pact is a promise that we won’t take our
actions lightly – that we did this for the right reasons. In our
best moments, the notches in a gun stock are a reminder of that.
But if the memories fade and the notches don’t have a particular
deer attached to them, they just become numbers – just shapes
imbued with no meaning. There’s an emptiness in that.
The next generation of hunters in my family are at the age
where they’re going to start coming into camp to hunt soon,
if they haven’t already. And the guns stand straight up in a
communal rack, so they’ll notice the notches on the .243. Boys
being boys, they’ll count, just like I did when I was their age.
And some will internalize the total number and squirm for the
opportunity to go out and best it.
If I catch one counting the notches I’ll ask him to do it
aloud: “One. Two. Three. Four. Five . . ..” Then I’ll stop him and,
channeling the poet Pádraig Ó Tuama, make him start again:
“One life. One life. One life. One life ….”