October 4, 2015
Elk parts. They come once a year. Archery season opened a few weeks ago and rifle season follows it up. My bow hunting friends are saying this is a season unlike any other. The elk are not traveling normal trails or hanging in their normal high country valleys. Maybe there will be few elk parts this year.
I never imagined elk parts growing up in the rural canyons of southern California. Our deer are small in stature and when it comes to meat, they are little more than a big rabbit compared to an elk. Though small is size, being of a landscape of canyon sage, the flavor of their meat rivaled any Cascade elk. The black-tailed deer of sage country may not be the biggest of deer, but they are right up there with the smartest of deer—and a hair coat the blends beautifully with the sage landscape. The cageyness of these deer meant many hunters spent their time enjoying the landscape and returning home to eat beef. That might be why I never saw another hunter in the ridges and canyons around home, and why “I’m going up north to hunt, these deer are to small and not worth the time,” was often heard leading up to hunting season.
I knew I was not in the landscape of my youth when hunting season rolled around my first fall in White Swan. Growing up rural, forty minutes from town is one thing, living in a rural town is something different. The proximity of folk to one another in town (even a town of 500) leads to a different way of thinking than the open country. The old adage that everyone knows everyone in a small town carries a bit of truth. One of those truths is folk have a very good idea of which neighbor struggles economically and who does not—including their dogs.
When the first elk came out of the hills, that first fall, and after they were quartered and cut into steaks, roasts, and jerky, many hunters went about town giving their meat to the elderly and families who struggled. The knowledge being, the hunter is capable of hunting again and many others are not.
Two events made me notice how this new place was different from back home. One, two hunters showed up at the parsonage and offered us meat for no other reason than placing value on the community’s spiritual leaders. Place matters. When two elk roasts were lifted out of the back of the pickup, there was more meat than any one deer I hunted as a youth. My place was no longer the landscape of canyons and sage.
Second is when elk parts began showing up around town. It is something, the first time, to see three or four dogs, side-by-side, chewing away on a single elk leg bone. Dogs reflect the economy of their owners—there is a bit of scripture on this reality…”even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” I’m not sure how well folk grasp such text, but when one sees ribby and mangy dogs cleaning off elk bones, they start to grasp who are children, who have power, and who is oppressed. Many hunters from small rural Indian towns understand the created normal that calls for sharing of their ability and good fortune with those who struggle, even the dogs.
As I listen in this season of ambitious folk trying to tell me how bad life is for me and mine, I can’t help but think about a ribby dog dragging a bone half his size down the side of the road. Good life is not about folk like me and mine getting more and better stuff, as the ambitious would have me believe. Rather good life is about a place, a community, where I share my good fortune with anyone standing behind me. So it is they who get more and better food, more and better health care, more and better education, and better housing. Or, in other words, good life is a few more elk parts for the dogs.