The Art of Zen and Gunpowder (Part One)

August 5, 2015
Andy Blissenbach

I had never shot a rifle before. Growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota, left precious few moments to fire a one-shot .50 caliber muzzleloader like the one I held in my hands. There was a target thirty-five or forty yards away. Concentric black circles that grew smaller in size, until a red bull’s-eye. Plywood held it up. Holes dotted the target from previous rounds.

Steadied my hands. Breathed out. The muzzleloader’s sight was a fiber optic neon dot. An easy trigger. There was a hole in the target before the recoil. Before the brimstone cacophony ruptured the cold air and settled on yellowed husks of farmland. It smelled sweeter than I anticipated, like sulfur and cinnamon in equal amounts. It looked like a good shot.

I put down the gun (think I did it softly, but…) and performed a vigorous stroll towards the target. And then my earnestness, my competitive jock-bro-ness, betrayed a body that tried to radiate cool. Justin, Brandi, and Joe, all of whom were veteran hunters from my wife’s side of the family, followed behind me. God, I wanted to belong and symbolize the molten core of every purportedly soft-gutted city boy.

As we get older, our desires become more sophisticated; a want for love transforms from the one-sided security of a teddy bear to the symbiotic entanglements of marriage; a thirst for knowledge morphs from memorizing vowels to writing a 350-page thesis. But our desire for acceptance still carries with it the discomfited and transparently simple yearnings of the schoolyard. No matter the social climate, it might as well boil down to a note passed from one elementary kid to another that features two boxes: “Do you like me? Check ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’” My in-laws investigated the bullet hole.

“You’d a hit it,” Justin said, his smiling blue eyes expanding as he fingered a perfect circle two inches from the bull’s-eye.

And then I felt the allure of hunting for the first time, because I wouldn’t have just hit the deer. I would have killed it.

*          *          *

I was on an old pig, soybean, and corn farm in Springfield, Minnesota, a contracting town of 2,000 or so in the southwestern part of the state. It was post-harvest, late November, and the land was ashen and solemn and flat. This was where my wife Nicole was born and raised with her three sisters. But I wasn’t at my wife’s girlhood home to blast at a target and win cred for my depth-perception. I was in Springfield to accompany Nicole’s stepdad, sister, and her sister’s boyfriend on a deer hunt.

Shooting a rifle was cool and all, but I wouldn’t be doing any of the hunting myself. I was just along to chronicle the events and finally decode why people sacrifice so much (time, money, resources, etc.) to kill something that is readily available at the grocery store. See, as a vegetarian urbanite, I’d always viewed hunting as bit of an anachronistic endeavor, an exercise in Hemingway-esque chest-beating that was needless bloodletting at best and morally reprehensible (e.g. safaris and good-ol’-boy target practice) at its worst. Subscribing to the “defense hypothesis,” articulated brilliantly by Barbara Ehrenreich in Blood Rites, I also believed that hunting was an evolutionary byproduct of our prehistoric roots as prey, a still-prevalent reaction to, as Ehrenreich describes, “the trauma of being hunted by animals and eaten. Here, most likely, lies the source of our human habit of sacralizing violence: in the terror inspired by the devouring beast and in the powerful emotions, associated with courage and altruism, that were required for group defense.”

And as an educated city-boy, the hallmarks of hunting make for (excuse the pun) easy target practice: the knuckle-dragging dumbness of redneck bumper stickers, the antediluvian obsession with tacky taxidermy, the omnipresent camouflage, the awkward pictures of a hunter posing next to a befuddled looking carcass. But as the husband of a former country gal, I was in close enough proximity to hunting to realize my views were redolent with the stink of a grad-schooled liberal elitist. It was time to decipher if there was any modern, masculine virtue inherent in hunting; real, tangible, Aristotelian-style virtue. I’d find out tomorrow.

After my one-and-done shooting display (I firmly adhere to the George Costanza philosophy of going out on top), Joe was still doing target practice. Joe is my wife’s stepdad, a man in his sixties with a beard that would be at home in Appalachia. He was in a crouch, balancing his rifle atop an old chair. After a series of ordered events, done with meticulous precision, Joe shot again. It was inches from the bull’s-eye. He shook his head, shrugged his shoulders. The gesture of dissatisfaction was small, but it spoke volumes. Joe wasn’t just being stoic and careful; beneath the routines of eyeing ammo, loading, fixing sights, and the deliberate movements of aiming, firing, and assessing the results, there was the efficiency of the proficient, a man striving to maximize an endeavor’s potential, an attention to detail quietly showing devotion to a craft’s mastery. Subdued and repetitive, yes, but also impressive, reminiscent of the Greek concept of techne, embodying, as David Foster Wallace says, a “mastery of craft [that] facilitated a communion with the gods themselves”. And I was a sucker for proficiency, for those who had the will and diligence to even attempt techne. I loved to watch drummers perfect heel-toe double-bass and marvel at wide receivers running a geometrically perfect “out” route. This was no different. Joe wasn’t some stereotypical drunk yokel firing an AR-15 thirty times at a raccoon in a tree. Joe wanted, more than anything, for his “craft” to transcend the limitations of the word. And become art. So he went through the entire process again and fired.

“He’s just showing off for you,” Brandi said as we were about twenty feet behind Joe.

She was getting ready to shoot again. Nicole’s younger sister, tall and pretty, was usually festooned in eye shadow, a thousand metal baubles, and a generous heaping of sass. But the volume of Brandi’s “look” was turned down considerably; she was all camo-ed out for the target practice.

“So…you like my new hat, hey?” Brandi said. It was a fur-lined hunting cap. With pink accents.

“It’s great, Brandi,” I said, not looking up, writing stuff down.

“Gawd,” she said, “pay attention! Hell-o? You gonna write about all this boring stuff, too? You’re gonna make us act all weird.”

And so Brandi unwittingly revealed the flaw in my efforts to mine pure and golden verisimilitude: consciousness. Would my presence as a chronicler of events ruin the natural actions of a group of hunters unaccustomed to such outsider/poser speculation? Would my subjects cease acting “real” in order to placate my want for a smooth narrative?

“Go shoot, Brandi,” Justin said, giving me an accepting smirk. “We won’t notice nothin’.”

Justin, lightly bearded and blond, coughed a bit and got closer to his girlfriend. Ruddy and able, he was handsome in the same way a mechanic might be. I thought he looked like a rural version of Jax Teller from Sons of Anarchy.

“Watch Justin jump when I shoot,” Brandi said, next to my ear. “He always does…”

The wind was like a feral animal’s teeth against my cheek. As Brandi knelt beside the old chair to shoot, Joe was rubbing his muzzleloader with an ungloved hand. A tree swing, missing a plank, moved in silent, epileptic fits.

“You know,” Joe said to me or maybe no one, “the guy who made this custom gun is in a nursing home now. The chemicals what did it.”

The grim proclamation floated into the setting orange blob of a sun. There was a ghostly mingling of shadows cutting between the collection of sheds and decrepit barns that once housed pigs. My wife’s girlhood home carried with it a haunted quality, made all the more tangible by the fact that her father, Mark, had been killed by a drunk driver at the end of her driveway, not fifty yards from where I stood. Nicole’s dad died before she was ten; the farm subsequently stopped being a place for farrowing sows. Although Joe still farmed some of the acreage (“Just hobby farming,” as he put it), the land and its structures of peeling white had the uncomfortable presence of a relic you wouldn’t dare disturb. Such history made me tight and almost reverent, the way one feels at a museum. Barns were jammed with rusted implements that hadn’t felt a hand in over twenty years. Cobwebs subsumed masses of old newspapers and pop cans. Abandoned furniture was graceless and bleached. It was a mummified place; such stasis added to the gravitas, the seriousness, of the impending hunt.

All the detritus were reminders of Nicole’s dad, an expert hunter in his own right. It brought to mind the VHS tapes of Mark shooting a moose or mythological buck, of him chainsaw-carving strung-up carcasses into marbled slabs, of stories about how he shot bats out of the air, of faded snapshots featuring rows of silver and glistening fish upon a wooden gutting bench, of him always near the dead things, a smile pushing itself through a thicketed black beard. “Guess dad was a bit of a killing machine,” Nicole’s youngest sister, Stacy, quipped while we watched the videos or looked at the pictures. Sure, in Mark’s smile there was a hint of conquest, of bettering his quarry. But there was something more; there was the pride of the provider, the tell-tale satisfaction found only in thumos, the Greek concept of “spiritedness” and masculine action. Part of me found it a bit repulsive, but another part of me wanted to honor the conviction he felt for this important aspect of his life.

Brandi shot at the target and the air, the whole farm, was alive with the phantom heartbeat of gunfire. Even ghosts must have felt the crack and its echo. And, sure as shit, Justin jumped.

“GAWD!” Brandi said, and the ghosts and echoes had company. “I SUCK!”

*          *          *

Rivulets of sunlight were yet to be born; there was only the pre-rise bruise of blue at 4:30 a.m. I could hear Joe, and only Joe, getting ready downstairs, probably inspecting his Swiss powder and Canadian bullets for the last time. I heard the front door open and shut. Feeling the panic of a poser, and not wanting to be a laggard that slowed the genesis of our proceedings, I brushed my teeth, washed my face, threw on some warm layers (“But nothing white,” as Joe implored), and hustled down the stairs. Two Clif bars (white chocolate macadamia, of course) and a glass of water were in my belly before the clock read 4:45 a.m. Jacket on, boots on, blaze orange vest on. Boom! Ready! Let’s go wrangle us a fucking deer!

Joe must have been the one who opened the door and went outside, because I was the only one in the kitchen. I pushed through some of the clutter on the counter (envelopes, snacks, a newspaper with the masthead, The Journal, published in New Ulm, MN) in order to rest my elbows. Looking past glass and bronze tchotchkes from Orlando, FL and Branson, MO, I saw Joe through the kitchen window, already swathed in warm camouflage, strolling around the driveway, his head cocked in assessment. Joe saw me, turned around, and came back inside.

“Not too much wind,” he said, closing the door and then retying his boots. “Wind’s got a lot to do with it.”

Joe was antsy, energized in that endearing manner possessed by children prior to Christmas. Last night, after target practice, while we scouted nearby farmland for deer via gravel roads, he confided that he could never sleep the night before a muzzleloader hunt. And last night’s scouting foray only seemed to amplify Joe’s enthusiasm, as though it were the undercard fight before the main event. Apparently an informal tradition of sorts, cruising gravel roads near the hunting grounds the night before allowed not only for the spotting of actual deer, but also as an ad hoc informational meeting/history lesson/bullshit session. Some gems:

Joe: “Butt and gut shots are the worst.” (I didn’t have the nerve to ask how a suffering deer was put out of its misery. I assumed it was a close-quarters round between the eyes, but I imagined all sorts of nauseating hellscapes involving rifle butts against the skull and survival knives creating gushing blooms of blood and desperate, last-resort-level frog-stomping in the approximate area where a deer’s brain would be housed.)

Joe: “I used to go from dark to dark. No breaks. Bring a pee jar.” (Although the image of a pee jar was gross, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad for Joe, as though our presence, experienced hunters Brandi and Justin included, reduced the purity and enjoyment of his hunting orthodoxy. I didn’t say it, but I’d rock a pee jar, as my dad made me urinate in all sorts of containers in order to preserve “good time” on our way to South Carolina every summer.)

Brandi: “Me and Justin saw 196 deer in one night before.” (196 seemed insanely hyperbolic, but I didn’t even so much as roll my eyes in dispute, as the number was painstakingly exact and concrete. Hey, if my gridiron exploits could grow exponentially over time, why couldn’t Brandi and Justin see a crud-ton of deer roaming their stomping grounds?)

Joe: “See that marker? That crash flag? A B-47 crashed in that field.” (I did some research on this and, sure enough, it happened. I’ll let the aforementioned The Journal of New Ulm, MN describe it:

“In the afternoon of a very cold and windy February day in 1963, four U.S. Air Force officers died in a B-47 crash in Bashaw Township, about three miles northwest of Comfrey.

The crash took the lives of Lt. Col. Lamar Ledbetter, Capt. Donald Livingston, 1st Lt. Thomas Hallgarth and Lt. Michael Rebmann.

Based at the Lincoln, Neb. Air Force Base, the bomber crew was on a low-level training mission that day, heading towards a bomb scoring site near Heron Lake, according to the Minnesota Wing, Civil Air Patrol.”)

Brandi: “Justin always dresses the deer. He’s really awesome at it. Right, honey?” (Justin kind of shrugged it off, but apparently he had a brutal exactitude when “dressing,” i.e. “gutting,” a deer. 100% bereft of sarcasm, it was an altogether sweet complement on Brandi’s part.)

Joe: “You see a lot out here. Great horned owl, turkey, bald eagle, skunk, snapping turtles. Lot a coyotes.”

Brandi: “Justin shoots ‘em. Don’t ya, honey?” (Another shrug from Justin. According to the state DNR website, coyotes are an “unprotected mammal” in the state of Minnesota. Viewed as a massive nuisance to livestock and pets in rural areas, coyotes can be shot at pretty much any time. Being that they’re essentially the same as my pet greyhound, at least in a genetic sense, I find it hard to step into a coyote hunter’s boots. I mean, sure, I don’t live in the country and I don’t own livestock, but…come on! You’re shooting a fucking dog, man! A FUCKING DOG! Suppose I don’t have the testicular fortitude to put a slug in Fido…)

Joe: “If I get a good buck, might just boil it down and do a European mount.” (As a trophy deemed fit for taxidermy, doing a “European mount” means boiling off all the flesh and eyeballs and brains and other head-garbage, leaving only the skull and the antler rack for use in display. While I’ve never been a fan of gazing into the glass eyes of a decapitated ungulate, a European mount, featuring only the ossified articulation of skull and antler, seems the better aesthetic route, as it emanates an aura of simplicity, dignity, and savagery. Plus, as a metalhead, I dig skulls.)

Brandi: “I’m gonna have to pee tomorrow. Like, a lot. Pretty much my whole hunting schedule revolves around my bladder.” (My suggestion of a “pee jar” doesn’t go over well.)

Almost an hour passed. The clock read 5:37 a.m.

“Brandi’s running late,” Joe said, going back out to the garage for the third time to do some type of inventory. A distinct intonation of affection and exasperation found its way into his lungs. “Again.”

To pass the time, I perused The Journal. As with most small town newspapers, there seemed to be special care and prominence devoted to the obituaries, like the death of a resident was a small but integral stanza in a dirge signaling a town’s solemn crawl towards obsolescence and, ultimately, nonexistence, blown away like so much else on the prairies of southwestern Minnesota. Reading further, I found that the columnists and editorialists had a prose style that could best be described as “workman-like.”

Brandi and Justin finally arrived a few minutes before 6 a.m. By then, Joe had worn a boot-printed path between the kitchen and garage.

“What?” Brandi said, defiant and assured of her rationalizations, identical in her mannerisms to my wife and the rest of the women in her family. “I needed to sleep.” Justin shook his head in the minimalist, non-offensive way boyfriends have been perfecting since the dawn of time.

We loaded Joe’s SUV and Justin’s pickup with guns, winter gear, blankets, and miscellaneous hunting gear. Joe and I would ride in his vehicle and Brandi and Justin would follow behind in the truck. The sun was still hidden behind a horizon that was smooth and rashed with the brightening hues of a campfire. The air was sharpened by unmoving cold and naked earth. We didn’t say much as my wife made her way outside to see us off. Wiping my nose, I gave her a genial nod.

“Good luck,” Nicole said to us, to me, smiling in a way that totally contrasted the frostbitten pre-dawn.

She put her hands on her hips, dressed in only a University of Minnesota sweatshirt and pajama pants. No gloves. No hat. Nicole’s face was a monolith of illumination, curtained by her dark hair. There was no reason for her to be up so early; our two-year-old daughter (Ingrid, a great lil’ sleeper) was still dreaming in a warm crib. Nicole, a woman of…subdued emotional output (“reptilian,” as I liked to say) shone like a lighthouse beacon in the shadow of her girlhood home. She was proud of me, of my participation in a facet of her family’s life that I had always been estranged from. Nicole, blessed with the dark eyes of her father, watched us as we drove away.

Check back next week for The Art of Zen and Gunpowder (Part Two)!!!!!!!!!!!