Richard Nelson is a cultural anthropologist who writes about how we relate to the natural world. His books include The Island Within (Vintage) and Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest (University of Chicago Press). In the following excerpt from Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America (Knopf) Nelson describes a day on a remote island off the Alaskan coast, tracking black-tailed deer with his border collie, Keta. From Heart and Blood by Richard Nelson, © 1997 by Richard Nelson. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
Today’s excursion started at first light when I stashed camping gear and enough food for several days into the skiff, eased away from our home shore on Anchor Bay, and set a course across Haida Strait. I felt a bit lonely going off without Nita, my partner and usual hunting companion. Although she doesn’t carry a weapon, Nita has an impeccably sharp eye for deer, loves being outdoors in the patient and meditative way of “still hunting,” and enjoys participating in the work that provides our staple foods — most important, venison, as well as salmon, halibut, lingcod, rockfish, berries, and other edible plants.
Given her penchant for seasickness, Nita was lucky to miss this morning’s boat ride. Like an afterthought from the fifty-knot storm two days ago, a hefty swell ran in from the ocean, setting up a fracas on Haida Strait. Here in the North Pacific, October’s burly gales and constant rain are just occasionally interrupted by a day like this, when the beast of autumn sleeps. As I approached the island, a gap widened among crumbling colonnades of cloud, spilling out the first sunshine I’d seen all month. Blue water sparkled like shattering glass and the island stood out in crisp detail: driftwood logs stark as bones on black rock, the land sweeping away in long ridges serrated with trees, and above it all the chasmed face of Kluksa Mountain — enormous, snow covered, and ethereal — half hidden amid gauzy webs of fog.
I felt as if the island were imbued with a pervading, indecipherable power that both frightened and compelled me. Then I gazed out over the Pacific, stretching off to the horizon’s brink, and I recognized how minute and vulnerable I was, alone on this remote shore. But I willingly accept the risks, and regardless of consequences, I’d rather be here than anywhere else on earth. Many times I’ve yearned to own some part of this island, although it’s public land that rightfully belongs to everyone, and this morning I realized the equation is in fact reversed, that the island owns me. To this I freely yielded myself as I anchored the skiff in a cove sheltered by reefs and islets.
Partway through the woods, Keta abruptly halts and stares ahead as if she’s spotted a deer — or is it something bigger? Momentarily I realize the object of her interest is a red squirrel about the size of a kitten, perched on a fallen tree trunk six feet away. The squirrel should dash off like a lizard on a rock, but she hesitates, acting almost tame, then crabs awkwardly along the mossy bark, her body strangely crooked. Easing closer, I notice the fur on her right shoulder is creased and soiled. Perhaps she fell off a high branch, but more likely the squirrel escaped from an eagle, marten, or mink. In any case, wobbling gait and dazed behavior make her an easy mark and I doubt she’ll survive for long out here. Nature is not fed by mercy, after all.
Daylight glimmering between mazy tree trunks reveals the muskeg [a northern marsh] just ahead. We inch past a saturated swale crowded with enormous skunk cabbage that look like they belong in a tropical forest, their broad, spatulate leaves standing as high as my waist. Hungry blacktails have scalloped some leaves to about half their normal width, and several others have been torn right out of the ground, their stems eaten and their roots excavated. Bear work, probably earlier today.
I stop at the muskeg’s edge, half hidden by the trunk of a cedar tree, and hold my open palm toward Keta — our hand signal to sit. She folds back her ears, obeys, then pricks them up and watches as I kneel quietly beside the cedar for a long look at the surrounding landscape.
Back in August, Keta and I came to this same place to watch just as we’re doing now, and she picked up a strong scent indicating a deer close by. We began moving slowly upwind, stepping noiselessly on wet grass, concealing ourselves behind a copse of shore pines. During our approach, I never once glimpsed the deer, but from Keta’s growing excitement I knew it wasn’t far off. Bucks, except when they’re addled by the rut, have an almost preternatural sense for danger, a mind entirely different from the less-cautious does and adolescents. This thought came to me as I heard a sudden thump of hooves. And then I saw him — a buck with sprawling antlers, their beams almost as thick as ax handles. He bolted across the muskeg, never once hesitating or stopping to glance back as blacktails often do, and within seconds he vanished into the far woods. Although I’m not interested in trophy hunting, I’ll admit keeping a sharp eye out for that deer ever since.
The same boggy meadow stretches before us now: autumn-sere grass patched with stunted pines and brushy junipers, a few small ponds and streamlets, and Kluksa Mountain’s timbered flank rising steeply behind. The broad sweep of land looks inviting and fecund, as if it should be alive with animals, like the Serengeti plains. But the island has only two large mammal species, brown bear and blacktails, and our deer usually take shelter in the woods during full daylight.
This muskeg is separated from another by a narrow isthmus of pines, but there’s a short break where you can see into both — an ideal spot to try the deer call. Because we’ve had weeks of constant rain, the moss and duff squish loudly underfoot, but I pick each step carefully and reach the opening in about ten minutes. There, I lean the rifle against a pine, gesture for Keta to sit, and give the call a few short blows. Its thin, reedy sound, similar to blowing on a grass blade pinched between your thumbs, makes a fair imitation of a bleating deer, or a fawn’s voice if it’s pitched very high. Bears may also come rumbling toward a call, apparently hoping to find easy prey, so the prudent hunter carries a powerful rifle and uses the call near a good climbing tree.
Knowing a bear is around, I keep a close watch both on the muskeg and the inscrutable radar dog. A few minutes later, Keta locks her ears and eyes on the woods about fifty yards away. Crouching down, rifle braced against the tree trunk, I strain to pick out any movement. It seems as if there’s nothing . . . until I spot a doe well out into the muskeg, as if she’d somehow materialized there. The deer comes deliberately toward us, moving in the stiff, mechanical way that telegraphs her anxiety, switching her tail, reaching out for a scent, leaning from side to side, honing her ears in our direction. Keta stays put, although she can’t help quivering with desire.
The doe stops forty feet away, facing in our direction, more inquisitive than afraid, and for several minutes there’s a petrified stillness, as if we were all snared in an unbreakable gaze.
Koyukon people say animals offer themselves to those who have shown respect toward all members of their species, and there is no shame or guilt in taking what is given, so long as it is done properly, never in excess, and used without waste. I haven’t forgotten that I am here to hunt. This island has a healthy population of blacktails, does are legal game, and I am not unwilling to take female deer. Of course, a buck would be in prime condition now and probably heavier than a doe, but this female looks very large and very fat. What constrains me is the possibility that last summer’s fawn, although well past nursing and fully capable of living independently, could be tagging along somewhere nearby, still learning from its mother. Part of me urges doing what I came for, but another part is tangled with ambivalence, wondering if a fawn might eventually appear.
While I’m knotted by indecision, a raven soars out from the woods, circles overhead, and lands in a dead tree not more than thirty feet away. The hawk-sized bird clutches a bare, whitened branch, tilts down his head, and unleashes a clamor of gurgling, sonorous croaks. Shading my eyes against the corona of sun, I watch his beak open and close, the feathers on his throat ruffle and flatten. He looks like a midnight phantom etched on a screen of molten light.
I remember sitting on a bluff in northern Alaska with Grandpa William, a Koyukon elder, while he scanned the valley below for moose. A raven appeared, gliding low enough so he could have heard our whispers. Grandpa William watched for a moment, then spoke earnestly to the bird, as if he were imploring divine help in our search for game, which indeed he was: “Tseek’aath, Old Grandfather, I wish the animals would come our way easily.” The raven drifted on without giving a sign — no aerial somersault to “drop his packsack full of meat for us” and no yodeled Ggaagga! (the Koyukon word for “animal”) to assure us of luck and show the way toward game. A few days later we went back to the village empty-handed.
Above me now, the raven inflates his body, bends his spindly black legs, turns his shining beak this way and that, and spills his convoluted chant into the forest. It was the Great Raven who created our world, Koyukon elders say, and his living descendants still have extraordinary powers that can benefit people. For example, the raven will sometimes lead hunters to game, although it isn’t simply out of goodness, because he knows he’ll get scraps from the kill.
Still, I can’t help wondering why a raven has appeared at this moment. Is he laughing at this man, so distant from his earthly roots that he’s paralyzed with indecision when a deer presents herself? For generations beyond reckoning, our ancestors lived free from such dilemmas, accepting what was given in the hunt, moving in the embrace of an inspirited natural community, surrounded by wild creatures who listened and understood. But in modern societies the old order has lapsed, and we’re beset with moral confusion about our dependence on the living world.
So here I stand, befuddled, the raven’s voice echoing in my ears, the doe looking on. She comes nearer until she finds an eddy in the breeze laden with scents of man and dog. At this she flinches back, raises her head and flags her tail, then struts off. Near the center of the muskeg she stops behind a juniper bush and looks back for a long minute, as if she’s presenting herself one more time. But I have lowered the rifle and watch as she melts off into the woods.