29 Sep Outside: The Serious Business of Sustenance
I’ve killed many deer, and I’ve eaten them all, including one I accidentally killed with my car. It was February 2018, nearly midnight in Montana, a few miles west of the Continental Divide. The muley appeared as I curled around a bend where U.S. Highway 12 hugs the Avon Family Cafe. A flash of movement entered my mind, an electrical pulse descended through my spine, but the deer was dead before my foot touched the brake.
I stood over the yearling male in pitch dark. It smelled alive: musky, pungent. Its left flank was crushed but its hide was unbroken. I imagined opening the animal, and these were unpleasant thoughts. They were also abnormal. Then, I imagined the smell of venison sausage in my kitchen: maple, red pepper, anise. These were pleasant thoughts. So, I did the abnormal thing: I drug the carcass 200 yards to my car, wrapped my arms around its broken body, and hoisted it into the trunk.
Before eating a deer, you must split open the rib cage and sever the esophagus. Thus, the animal’s throat becomes a tether for tearing the heart and lungs free from their anchorage. Outdoorsman Steven Rinella, host of the television show MeatEater, says, “It’s hard to do this without coming to the realization that you’re involved in a very serious business.” He’s right.
The intimacy of animal harvest was an undeniable part of human existence for millennia. We’ve only been avoiding it now for a few hundred years, which makes normal behavior a byproduct of time and technology. Montana, however, remains a place out of time, boasting more resident hunters per capita than all but two states. And among Montanans, few have done more than Bob Ream to strengthen our anachronistic relationship with wildlife.
In the small hours of November 12, 2011, the late polymath — college professor, wolf biologist, state legislator, and lifelong conservationist — awoke on Coffee Creek, which flows through Fergus County between Square Butte and the Missouri River Breaks. He was in his third year as chairman of the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission (now Fish and Wildlife Commission), which sets hunting regulations for the state, and he was looking forward to a day in the field. In pre-dawn darkness, a bounding mule deer cut to the chase when it leaped in front of his Subaru Forester. Ream stepped out to consider this conundrum: his hunting rifle untouched in the hatch and his quarry badly injured on the road. He retrieved the gun and put the animal down.
“One deer was dead, he wasn’t about to shoot another one,” his wife, Ann Brodsky, told me. After all, the objective of the trip had been realized. To continue hunting would have been arbitrary and, Ream thought, illegal. So, he did what his neighbors did when he was a farm kid in Wisconsin: turn roadkill into roast.
Unfortunately, he and Ann never got a chance to enjoy that meal. Days later, while chatting with a game warden, the former lawmaker was surprised to learn that he’d still broken the law. Since the deer had initially been injured by a car, it was not considered a legal take. Dutifully, the agent gave him a warning and ordered him to forfeit the meat to a local food bank. Reporters couldn’t resist the story, which was widely covered in Montana and beyond. A headline about Montana’s “Wildlife chairman slapped with hunting violation” hit the pages of Field & Stream that December.
By then, however, Ream was expert at salvaging potentially rotten situations. When pressed by reporters, he spun their attention toward the real problem: 26 other states allowed drivers to report and recover roadkill, while Montanans were legally required to waste perfectly good game. His words carried weight; 14 months later, Montana became the 27th state to legalize roadkill recovery of deer, elk, moose, and antelope. A decade since, 30 states now allow us to take one step closer to our hunting-and-foraging forebears, inviting us to reconsider the intimacy of the harvest, even when the conditions are unusually violent, unexpected, and inconvenient.
I thought about Ream and Rinella frequently on Highway 12 that February night, and in my garage the following day. The debate over whether to salvage the yearling was really between inconvenience on the one hand and investment on the other. It was “a very serious business” to process the deer. Also messy. Much of the animal’s interior was badly damaged. There were overpowering smells with which to contend. I had to take the day off work to get it done quickly.
As I quartered the animal, I thought about Ream, who died of cancer in 2017, standing over a mule deer in the foothills of Square Butte. I imagined him asking the same question that Rinella repeatedly asks in his writing: “What, exactly, is an animal’s life worth, and who is responsible for setting the price?”
To walk away would have rendered the animal worthless — not in the grand scheme, but in my own eyes. To take it home was an investment of considerable time and trouble into what the death of that animal had to offer the life of another. It offered me sustenance, and sustenance is life.
When I’d finished the task, I rolled out dough, chopped some veggies, and made Irish pasties. I delivered a couple to Ann Brodsky, so she could finally taste some Montana roadkill. I imagined Bob accepting the gift alongside her. I imagined what he might say.
Sustenance is priceless, and the responsibility is our own.
Gabriel Furshong writes from Helena, Montana. A correspondent at Montana Quarterly, his reporting has appeared in The Nation, Yes! Magazine, Pacific Standard, and other publications. Essays and commentary have appeared at The American Prospect, Considerable, High Country News, and elsewhere. His poetry has recently appeared in Westerly, Ruminate, and Big Sky Journal. His chapbook Things Not to Be Said was a finalist for the 2021 Comstock Review Chapbook Contest.