Sharing the Land
Aldo Leopold's hunting co-op inspires a new initiative
June 23, 2022
A very long time ago, there lived a butcher. One day, as he prepared an ox for dinner, a man walked up and marveled at his skill. He moved with the grace of a dancer, separating hide from flesh, meat from bone and muscle from muscle. He explained that average butchers destroy a knife every month, because they hack. Good butchers use up a knife each year, because they cut. Yet, he had been using the same blade for 19 years and it was still razor sharp, because he worked in harmony with the animal and the world around him. I think of the Taoist butcher whenever I prepare my venison. When I'm done, I wrap it all in plastic, then newspaper, and pile it into the freezer to feed me and my daughter throughout the year. It is, for the most part, the only meat we eat, and it has never left my care on its journey from forest to butcher block to plate.
I am an adult-onset hunter. I grew up on a farm, where you saw and interacted with the animals that provided your food. I never liked shipping them away to some strange place full of strange people, who killed them and hacked them up. I never liked buying meat from the store, either, with no knowledge of where it came from, and no reminder of the glint that once shined in its eyes, or the way it interacted with its environment, eating various things and sleeping with a full belly, before eventually being eaten itself so that others could slumber with a full belly.
When I was about to turn 40, I took the state's hunter safety course and started attending what is essentially "YouTube University." I watched hundreds of videos of people explaining how to find, harvest, butcher and prepare wild game. I read hundreds of blogs and articles. I listened to countless podcasts, learning from people such as Doug Duren, a fixture on the global hit MeatEater, as they talked about land ethics, camaraderie, herd health and what it feels like to be connected to the land.
In a place where the pursuit of deer each fall was once considered a birthright, passed down from generation to generation by fathers and grandfathers, I headed into the woods in middle age, under the tutelage of whatever foster parents I could find online. Primarily, I am a hunter because of people like Duren, this affable, altitudinous landowner, conservationist and hunting guru who lives in Cazenovia, Wisconsin, a town of just a few hundred people, but is known all around the world for sharing his wildlife wisdom.
I missed the first shot I ever took at a deer. My hands were shaking so violently, trembling under the weight of my decision to take a life to feed my family. But the shaking was why I was there, after all. Because when you buy a pork chop at the store, you don't think about it, and you don't feel it, and the thinking, feeling thing that sustains you remains very far away, even when you eat it.
I eventually mastered my breathing. My hands steadied. My marksmanship improved. I successfully harvested some deer which I field dressed and brought home, where I butchered them and used them for steaks and stews and burgers and masalas and homemade sausages and maple-cured ham at Christmas. I learned about Agricultural Damage Permits the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources gives to farmers who are experiencing severe crop damage, allowing hunters to remove some of the problem animals, saving their crops and also reducing the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease in overpopulated areas. I now hunt a variety of places for food in Iowa and Dane counties, and while I still have much to learn, I have come a long way. Several farmers rely on me to thin their herds and protect their crops. It has become an important part of my family's food supply chain. I know where to find game, when it feeds and beds down, and how to place a shot just right so the animal does not suffer or run off. I learned all these things by making mistakes, fixing them, and trying to work like the dexterous butcher, with the flow of life, rather than against it. I admit I went through a lot of knives over the past three years, both figuratively and literally, but I am getting better. I no longer hack my way through this process, and at times, it is beginning to feel like effortless dancing.
I realized how far I had come a few weekends ago when I was standing on Doug Duren's farm, talking to the man I used to listen to on podcasts and TV shows. He has been encouraging people to share wisdom for years, but now he is championing a new idea, the sharing of land itself.
The initiative is called Sharing the Land, and it's the spiritual successor to something dreamed up by the iconic naturalist Aldo Leopold, many years ago. Duren tells me that one day, in 1931, Leopold was walking in Riley, Wisconsin, and he grew thirsty in the summer heat. He stopped at a farmhouse to ask for a glass of water, and the two began conversing. The farmer, Reuben Paulson, said he saw less wild game than he had in the past. Leopold looked around and pointed out that improving the local habitat would likely bring many animals back. It was an "If you improve it, they will come" situation. Leopold offered to help care for the land. In return, he and others would be allowed to come back and hunt there.
The Riley Game Cooperative was born.
Riley, incidentally, is a place where I often hunt deer on an idyllic organic vegetable farm, in rural Mount Horeb.
Leopold's idea was simple: People without access to property for hunting and fishing would help landowners manage their properties, then be given access in return. Landowners, hunters, anglers, and wild animals would all benefit in the long run. All would be a bit happier and healthier because of the partnership. The Riley Game Cooperative eventually disbanded, but Duren, along with a group of dedicated conservationists, biologists, ecologists and hunters, is working to reinvent and reinvigorate the idea.
Duren has said many things about the importance of wild places and the joys of hunting. Perhaps the most profound is something he mused while speaking to a group of conservationists just the other day at his home, as I sat and marveled at where my hunting journey has taken me and how much I still have to learn.
"It's not ours," he said of the verdant land around him. "It's just our turn."
I was lucky enough to live in a time when I could learn how to harvest my own food from the internet. I learned how to hunt from people like him, long before I got to stand in his barnyard and chat with the old master about our responsibility to the wild things and wild places around us. In recent years an ancient chain of wisdom has been broken, as many people forget the old ways of their hunting ancestors. People like him forged a vital link, and now they are working to make sure people have wild places where they can use the knowledge they have gained.
Ironically, my eight-year-old daughter won't need to attend YouTube University to learn how to hunt. She is learning from her father. In some ways, the ancient chain is stronger than ever.
This, more than anything, is what I want her to understand as we sit down at the table together. That the fat of the land is meant to be chewed, together. That immortality is the birthright of no one and nothing. And while it is only "our turn" for a little while, this should not be a source of sadness. All of existence is the giving and taking of life. Like the dexterous butcher, we should understand the world around us and work with it, not against it. We should be part of it. We should live in it and not marvel only from afar. The sun gives life to the woods, the farmer gives life to the fields, the deer feed, and give life to their own offspring and to us. We should give them, and their habitat, what we can in return. We are not separate from, or outside of, this beautiful series of events. We are not above it, nor below it. Because as Doug points out, none of it is ours. It is merely our turn, and what more could we ever want, than to be here, now, chewing the fat of the land together. Find out more at http://www.sharingtheland.com.