Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Rush of the Rut & Sex and Death in November

Beginning this morning at first light, the cracks of gun-fire rang throughout the state, in an erratic, percussive number, not unlike the popping of popcorn, until the veil of night brought the opening day of gun-season in Michigan to a close.

Hundreds, if not thousands of deer were killed today in this highly organized, ritualized, and commercialized tradition of gun hunting in America. As a hunter myself (preferably bow) I'm not writing to condemn the act (believe me, I have my criticisms - that's another post), but rather highlight the alluring and profound timing of hunting season with the ancient, genetic phenomena of the rut. This is no coincidence.

Every year, like clockwork, increasing amounts of hormones, beginning in October, trigger and orchestrate an elaborate, sexual dance for does and bucks that lasts through the end of December. This is what we call the rut. Unlike humans (and cougars), deer procreate only during this time of year. The crescendo for this animal drama is basically the middle of November.

When hunters sneak into the wild with gun or bow, they're essentially sabotaging sex crazed deer who've thrown much of their caution to the wind because of a burning desire to procreate. 

Whether hunting for meat or for trophy racks, this sure makes it a lot easier for the hunter. Normally elusive bucks are suddenly found trotting through the woods, fields, streets and backyards, hot on the trail of a doe in estrus. It's a primal ritual, rife with funky, musky scents, ritual displays of power with bucks rubbing trees with their antlers, fighting each other often to the death, and courtship behavior that's not all that different from our own.

Being out in the woods during this time can be an absolute rush. Although it's actually quite rare to witness much if any of the more dramatic behavior, ie. copulation, fighting, chasing, once in a while you get a glimpse of it and it's a real gift. The following video is from the original version of ANIMALS AMONG US. It was unfortunately deleted from the TV version because I felt another, earlier scene succinctly captured the intensity of the chase. I love this scene though because it captures a different kind of intensity.

In that scene I was trying to capture the drama on tape, with no consequence to the deer, save but a slight intrusion on their private lives. Now imagine a hunter, with a gun or bow, stopping a deer in it's tracks while it's caught up in it's own primal struggle to procreate, to perpetuate it's genetic material, to fulfill it's own destiny; at the height of that passion, it slams up against it's own demise. It's a tragic convergence of sorts, but many survive the gauntlet and keep the herd alive.

It's important to mention that not all deer are shot while in the middle of a chase, a fight, or "the act". Most are harvested simply walking home to bed or making their way to a food source. It's not an epic struggle. Having said that, there's still perhaps no greater rush in life than the simple sound of leaves crunching under the hooves of an approaching deer. Amplifying that rush is the excitement and intensity in getting a shot, whether with a weapon or a camera. If it's for a kill (in my case for meat) I always temper my enthusiasm with the sober truth of the animals death. Hunting for me is a necessary mix of celebration and reverence, always remembering to give thanks.

Another Autumnal phenomena, Halloween, fits nicely into this theme of sex and death, life and renewal. For the ancient Celts, Halloween (formerly known as Samhain [pronounced sah-wen]) was the Celtic new year, a time of transition with the death of the old year and the beginning of a new cycle. This calendrical marker poignantly reflects the our lives sustained from the meat of the harvest as well as the conception of a fawn that survives the season and lives to see the spring of life six months later.

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