Photograph by Kimberly Witham

9 Reflections on the Hunt

It is better to talk about white privilege with your straight white man-friend when you are zipped up in your down mummy bags, your backs on two inches of air above the cold earth, the full moon shoaling its light through spruce branches.

Waking at 4 a.m., you fire up the camp stove, drink coffee in the tent vestibule, and set out to hike up and down ridges off trail in the dark. You make a lot of noise crunching aspen leaves and breaking branches, but when you reach the ridge, you creep, stepping carefully on hard ground. You love this feeling of moving quietly. You are another animal.

You sit side by side on the ridge with your friend and his gun, and for three hours, you do not speak. The land has its own breath, sighs that release with each wave of light unfastening. You notice the first birdsong. Breathy sounds of gray jays, their wings pumping air. In the gloaming quiet, you brim. Something about beauty inside and outside of you, without boundary.

When you eat oatmeal and trail mix all day and rehydrated beans for dinner, you will fart. You will fart in the capsule of your own sleeping bag, and you will notice that down traps more than heat. Your friend will fart too. “A storm is coming,” you say each time your friend farts. By day three, you no longer mind your farts.

You never noticed before how elk beat down paths everywhere—threading through meadows, aspen glades, in the shady dark of fir and spruce. Their hoofprints waffle mud around a seep. They leave piles of scat, glistening with frost. They leave fresh raw patches on aspen trunks where they rubbed lingering strips of velvet from their antlers. You wonder if this feels like scratching an itch.

The wind shows itself by carrying a downy seed you release from fingertips. When you find a place to sit, you make sure the wind carries your scent away from where you watch. Even when the air seems still, you learn there is often the slightest breeze, strong enough to carry a seed, strong enough to carry a scent.

You let the contradictions of this hunt gnaw without resolution. Once, your friend fell asleep in a meadow and when he woke, a herd of elk surrounded him. He stayed very still while one elk lowered her muzzle to his forehead, sniffing. He could smell grass on her breath. He could feel her loose rubbery lips tasting salt on his cheek. He closed his eyes and stayed there while she nibbled his ear.

The fact that you are queer, that you’ve never fired a gun, are facts that lay quiet, hidden under your orange vest and cap. The other hunters you see are white men. They look at you sideways, deferent and polite, and you bet they are all straight. You remember hearing a writer, who is a birder and a hunter, read an essay about the vulnerability he feels as a black man carrying a gun in the wilderness. You think about vulnerability in this alpine meadow, miles and two thousand vertical feet from the car. You think about what can be hidden and what cannot. You think about your own white skin.

Part of you wants to help your friend carry an animal on your back, an animal that drinks snowmelt and eats aspen shoots and grasses, an animal made of these mountains. Part of you wants to bring home meat to feed your love. Part of you wants the elk to stay hidden. Part of you mumbles prayers of escape. Part of you, a big part of you, is relieved that you never find them. That your friend never fires his gun.



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Anne Haven McDonnell lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her poetry chapbook, Living with Wolves, came out in fall 2020 with Split Rock Press.


  1. It’s always a pleasurable escape to read your work, Anne. Thanks for the trip to the mountains today when the smoke is so thick I can’t see the one right outside my window.


    Animals full of light
    walk through the forest
    toward someone aiming a gun
    loaded with darkness.

    That’s the world: God
    holding still
    letting it happen again,
    and again and again.

    –William Stafford, former U.S. Poet Laureate, “The Way It Is,” Graywolf Press, St. Paul, MN.

    Does it EVER cross a hunter’s mind that his/her prey might equally enjoy life, and deserve to be left to live it as Nature intended?

  3. You so beautifully, simply, and honestly capture the weird multivalence of hunting–you want the animal to stay hidden, you dream ahead to venison stew.

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