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An essay by George William Curtis

Killing Deer

Title:     Killing Deer
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

"What shall he have that kill'd the deer?" sang the foresters in Arden. If you are in the wild woods of the Adirondacks you lie behind a log or rock by which the animal is likely to pass; you scarcely breathe as you wait with your hand grasping your rifle. The slow hours drag by, and you are very wet, or the gnats and mosquitoes sting, or you are hungry, cramped, or generally uncomfortable--but hark! What's that? A slight rustle! You are all alert. Your heart beats. Your hands tingle. Breathlessly you stare towards the sound. And then--nothing. A twig dropped.

Ah well! that's nothing. Very cautiously you stretch the leg which has the most stitch in it lest you should alarm the deer. The position and the progress of affairs are a little monotonous; but if the day that counts one glorious nibble is a day well spent, how much more so that which gives you the chance of a deer! 'St! A slight but decided crashing beyond the wood. A faint, startled, hurrying sound; and the next moment, erect, alive in every hair, the proud antlers quivering, the eye wild but soft, the form firm and exquisitely agile, the buck bounds into view. Crack you go, you poor miserable skulker behind a rotten log, and off he goes, the dappled noble of the forest!

Perhaps you hit him and kill him. You outwit him and murder him. Well, in Venice the bravos hid in dark doorways and stabbed the gallants hieing home from love and lady. Anybody can stab in the dark, or shoot from an ambush. To kill an animal for sport is wretched enough; but if you talk of manliness and use other fine words, be at least fair. Give him a chance. Put your two legs, your two arms, a knife, and your human wit against his four legs, greater strength, antlers, and want of brain. Then is the contest fair. You who seek his life for fun give him a chance at yours for self-defence. The sylvan shades approve the equal strife; and if you fall you are at least not disgraced.

If you are a deer-stalker you creep up stealthily to find them feeding, and if you can creep near enough, you blaze away. I hope that you have seen Doyle's picture of you, a company of you, scrambling up the side of a hill hoping to catch the prey over the brow. But you will not do it. They are off, the blithe beauties, and you may get up from your stomachs as soon as you choose.

Or you may hunt in a deer preserve with drivers and hounds. You pass beyond the thicket in which they lurk, leaving the drivers to urge them forth. You emerge upon sunny open spaces waving with thin, long, dry grass, tufted with thick shrubs, and dotted with convenient mossy rocks. Here is a favorite path of the flying deer, and you post yourself expectant behind a rock. How calm and lovely the brilliant October day! How the mass of the foliage shines in the clear sunlight! How every prospect pleases, and only man is--hark, again! They are coming. Lie low. Still as death. Oh! the beauties! There they are! And one glorious chief of chiefs darts straight and swift towards your ambush. Just beyond is the covert. He believes that safety is there. The quiet sunny nooks in which he shall lie and feed, the pleasant shades at noon, the leafy lair--they are all there a hundred rods before. Press on! press on! oh delicate, swift feet! He is not man who does not follow you with human sympathy. Innocence, purity, helplessness, they skim the sunny space with you. Too late! A sharp, mean sound, the bounding falters, the panting racer falls. The dogs and men rush on. They slay the hapless victim. 'Tis a noble sport! 'Tis a manly business!

Lately I saw two deer, two stately bucks. It was a solitary, sunny opening upon which I suddenly came. They were lying at the edge of the wood, and rose with a startled spring, for an instant looked, and with one bound, as if they would leap over the tree tops, were lost in the thicket. The grace and charm they gave to the wood were indescribable. Into the remotest gloom they sent a flash of sunlight. Nothing fierce, or treacherous, or repulsive, consorts with the image of a deer, and when they vanished the whole wood was peopled with their lovely forms. If I had gone back to dinner dragging a mangled body along the wood road, or carrying the piteous burden in a wagon, how could that sunlit beech wood ever again be so sylvan sweet and Arcadian? The tranquil, secluded, happy scene would have been blood-stained. It would have been a fantastic remorse, but how could I have justified the killing of the deer?

No. I have not killed deer in the Adirondacks, nor moose at Moosehead. I do not quarrel with those who have; and I hope they are as satisfied as I am. One day I hope to reach those pleasant places, but I hope to see deer, not to kill them. I am content that other people should slay my venison as well as my beef; and I shall not pretend to find any sport in the shambles, whether in the outskirts of the city or in the mountain valleys. I do not insist upon killing the chickens that I eat, nor the partridges, nor the quail. The noble art of Venery is a fine term to describe the butcher's business. A man who sees a heron streaming through the tranquil summer sky and only wishes for his gun, or who sees the beautiful bound of a deer in the woods with no other wish than that of killing it, I do not envy, as I do not envy the farmer slaughtering pigs. The bravest and most robust manhood is not necessarily developed nor proved either by sticking pins into grasshoppers or firing shot into deer.

"Ah yes! but you treat it too seriously," says young Nimrod. "It is not a matter of reason, but of feeling and excitement. As you lie in your ambush and hear suddenly the shouting of the drivers, the barking of the dogs, the crackling and rustling of boughs and leaves, you cannot help the intense excitement. Your blood burns, your nerves tingle, your ears quiver, your eyes leap from your head, and, upon my honor, sir, when our best sportsman saw the deer near him last year in Maine, he fixed his eyes steadily upon him, but such was his nervous twitter that he pointed his rifle straight into the ground and fired. He wounded the ground severely, but the deer escaped. What is the use of talking to him about butchery? Nothing in the world interests or charms him so much as hunting. Besides, you get used to it. It is not pleasant, probably, for the tyro, who is a surgical student, to see men's legs and arms cut off. You could not see it without shuddering, perhaps not without sickening and fainting. But there must be surgeons, and how long would it be before you would actually enjoy it?

"There. Hark! tally ho, tantivity! Is not the language rich with metaphors derived from the hunt? Does not literature ring with hunting songs and choruses and glees? Is it not all inwrought with romance and poetry? Waken, lords and ladies gay! The baying hound, the winding horn, the scarlet huntsman, the flying fox, the streaming, flashing dash across the country--they are of the very essence of the life and civilization from which we spring. They are the soul of the 'Merrie England' which is our chief tradition. Come, come! to the Adirondacks! to Moosehead!

"'All nature smiles to usher in
The jocund Queen of morn,
And huntsmen with the day begin
To wind the mellow horn!'"

Yes, the horn winds far and sweet in story and song, until it becomes the horn of elf-land faintly blowing, and man is a carnivorous animal who feeds on flesh. But butchers and fishermen are provided to supply the market. Is the carnivorous formation of man a reason that boys should stone birds or men shoot deer, that we should bait dogs and fight cocks and kill scared pigeons, not for food, but for fun? Foxes may be a pest that should be exterminated, like bears in a frontier country. But when a country is so advanced in settlement and civilization that prosperous gentlemen dress themselves gayly in scarlet coats and buckskin breeches, and ride blooded horses, and follow costly packs of hounds across country hunting a frightened fox, the fox is no longer a pest, and the riders are not frontiersmen and honest settlers; they are butchers, not for a lawful purpose, but for pleasure. Yes; the law solemnly takes life, but the judge who should take life for sport--!

Nimrod, despite the winding horn, the human relation to domestic animals that serve us is still barbarous. No man can see what treatment a noble horse, straining and struggling to do his best, often receives from his owner, without wincing at the fate that abandons so fine a creature to so ignoble and cruel a tormentor. But the kindly hand of civilization has at last reached the animals. In Cincinnati there is a statue newly raised to their protector. They will never know him, but the American list of worthies is incomplete in which the name of Henry Bergh is not "writ large."

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Killing Deer