(Greg Westfall/flickr)

Eating from the Mountains

A complicated relationship with hunting

ON A SNOWY OCTOBER NIGHT, I sat across a wobbly table from my sweetheart and took my first bite of venison in decades. The flavor was strong: iron, salt, and a deep, musky note that made me think of roots in rocky mountain soil. I’d cut off the silver connective tissue, sprinkled the backstrap with salt and pepper, and seared it in my trusty cast-iron skillet—still braced for a “gamey” taste.

Years later, in a crowded hotel conference room, I heard Outdoor Afro founder Rue Mapp say, “When people call wild meat gamey, they just mean it doesn’t taste like corn.” No, it certainly didn’t taste like cow, a species that’s hard on the land and waterways and not native to North America. As I ate, I thought, This tastes real. Serviceberry, aspen, currant, willow, bitterbrush—they’re all probably here. Cold-kissed Montana air crept under the crooked door of our rented cabin, and the flavor seemed inseparable from the deer’s home range.

GROWING UP IN RURAL Pennsylvania, I was surrounded by hunting. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t hear my mom’s voice telling me to wear orange when I went to play in the woods during rifle season. But my family was different. When I was in preschool, my mom narrowly survived being shot by a man she didn’t know—a man with a history of threatening women who didn’t listen to him. The bullet ricocheted four inches down her lumbar spine, slicing through nerves and breaking off the delicate wings of her vertebrae. After the helicopter flight to the hospital; after the wheelchair, the walker, and the cane; after discovering she would never again be able to feel where her left foot was or live without intense chronic pain—though that hasn’t stopped her from dancing in the years since—after all that, we no longer kept firearms in our house. 

In high school, I became a vegetarian. It was a choice rooted in an environmental ethic; I aimed to avoid carbon-intensive food. Even when my vegetarianism began to waver in my mid-twenties, I only ate meat in the context of a shared meal with others, not anything I bought for myself.

But I had concerns. Soy made for a convenient meat substitute, but it was hard to get excited about deriving my protein from overtilled monoculture a thousand miles away. Almonds weren’t much better, grown with intensive chemicals that decimated bee populations. I’d sometimes hear fellow vegetarians make an argument for not harming “sentient beings,” but limiting sentience to the animal kingdom felt too narrow. And eating only vegetables doesn’t mean no animals are harmed, either. Voles and mice love seeds. Forget big, mechanized farms—even organic farmer friends who worked couple-acre parcels of land told me they regularly killed small furry critters with traps and farm dogs. Whenever I passed sprawling agricultural fields, I’d think how the land was being used almost exclusively for humans, not other animals or trees that could sequester carbon. 

But humans aren’t plants. We can’t turn sunshine into food. We always harm other beings when we eat. I wasn’t about to start consuming feedlot beef again, but my feelings around hunting became more ambiguous. A deer meant food nourished by what grew in the local ecosystem. No chemicals, shipping, or packaging.

Which is how I ended up hiking into the Bridger Mountains early on an overcast autumn morning with my partner, Blake. Snow glazed the ridgelines, and the air was cold enough it seemed almost scentless. When we spotted a young mule deer buck, we followed him.

I’d been practicing with Blake’s rifle a lot, but as I first looked through the scope at the thick, gray-brown fur of the deer’s shoulder, my chest locked up. If I pulled the trigger, I couldn’t go back to the person I’d been before. I’d have to live with myself as someone who’d made this decision. Someone who’d used a gun to kill a fellow animal. I waited to feel ready for what seemed like a long time. 

Each fall is a new choice, and it’s possible a fall will come when hunting doesn’t feel like the right choice for me anymore. My relationship with what nourishes me is alive and dynamic.

ONCE MY MIND QUIETED I shot. The deer fell immediately. 

We climbed over logs and around bushes to reach him. I confirmed he was dead by touching his eye—brown from a distance, but up close the color changed, tinted a milky blue. Blake waited while I sat with the buck, feeling both gratitude and sorrow. 

Then we began the tense task of gutting a deer in grizzly country.

Only once we were driving home did I begin to think about how I would tell my mom. A hunting rifle is different from a handgun, but it paved the way for so many people to feel it’s reasonable, even necessary, to walk around with death-dealing devices on their hips or in their handbags. All I had done was move my index finger. It was that easy to kill.


I’VE HUNTED IN THE YEARS since, sometimes getting a deer and sometimes not. Hunting takes a lot of time, and I’ve felt frustrated when even with the immense advantages modern technology gives hunters, day after day, I’ve come back empty-handed. On those occasions, I’ve had to remind myself I just spent hours in the forest, breathing fresh, pine-scented air. 

Each fall is a new choice, and it’s possible a fall will come when hunting doesn’t feel like the right choice for me anymore. My relationship with what nourishes me is alive and dynamic. It’s braided into the story of my life, and it can change. Already one year I had a clean shot, but my body began to shake with fear over what I was about to do. I stepped back and closed my eyes. My breath was ragged as if I’d just run for miles. I didn’t fire.

I sometimes volunteer to people that I hunt, but I usually hesitate to call myself a “hunter.” To me, that word implies a non-stressful familiarity with guns. It suggests I can put a piece of electrical tape over the barrel so falling snow doesn’t freeze inside, return the rifle to its spot in the safe, or purchase ammunition (which is taxed for conservation funds, unlike hiking backpacks) without having something off-kilter in my chest as I think about how one small movement can forever throw a cluster of lives out of orbit. 

But some fear is healthy, and I also feel gratitude in being nourished by my home ecosystem. I am entangled in an east-west drainage that holds cold air late into the morning, a deer headed uphill to spend the day at higher elevation, and the thick vegetation that insulates the ground, keeping pockets of green well into fall.


THE NIGHT BLAKE AND I sat down to the first of many meals from the deer I killed, Blake admitted it had taken me so long to fire, he’d been sure I’d lose my chance. Having multiple minutes to decide to shoot is very rare. I thought back to that day—how by the time we got the deer to the truck, I was exhausted and my feet itched with cold—and I felt grateful he hadn’t said anything at the time. That understanding and openness to the possibility I’d change my mind was a gift.

Across the rickety table from each other, we ate our first few bites of mule deer in reverential silence. They tasted new, but good. Gradually, we began to talk about the deer, and our changing perspectives. Then about the fresh snow and the pair of great horned owls calling to each other outside our cabin door. 

Phoebe McIlwain Bright is a writer, editor, and educator. Her writing has appeared in A Public Space, The Daily Yonder, Montana Naturalist, and on Montana Public Radio. She lives at the edge of a cedar forest in northwest Montana and is at work on a novel.