Three days ago, I held a rifle in my hands while I lay chest down in the mud. I shot at a deer but didn’t kill her. My competitive spirit, the piece of me that doesn’t like to be bested or beaten still roils at the loss. But then again, the sleek and spotted Sika hind is still out there in the woods above Poronui—alive because of my failed shot. It’s a strange feeling to feel disappointed because you didn’t rob a being of its life—to feel a sense of failure because you didn’t do what you came there to do. The bitterness of an unrequited task.
Poronui is not only a fly fishing lodge but a hunting lodge and deer station as well. Our herds of Red deer that we breed started from the wild deer that live in the bush above Poronui. There is a separation here—between the game park and the deer of captivity—varying degrees of freedom. To find the “wild” Sika, Fallow and Red beasts you go through a giant electric gate and traverse a steep, grassy road to a hill that overlooks the entire property. There, on the other side, lies the game park. A place with withered Beech trees where hunters seek their trophy stags. And deeper, further, and into the dark beyond the game park is the bush. The wild, Beech forest where we get the Sika hinds that we serve to guests in the lodge.
I’ve wanted to go on a hunt since my first few days at Poronui but I was too shy to ask Mark, the farmer in charge of our deer, to let me accompany him. It took me way too long to ask, but when I finally did, he welcomed my company and was sad it took me so long to ask. Mark reminds me of a Roald Dahl character—thin, tall, wizened by sun with a kind and unexpected smile. Perhaps that’s because the entire time we were on the hunt the audiobook for Fantastic Mr. Fox was playing on repeat in my head: making sure that the wind was not blowing from them towards the foxes hole. There was no chance of them being smelled out.
Mark and I arrived in the Beech forest after heavy rains parted like a curtain drawn open revealing bright slices of evening sunlight and huge thunderous clouds. The smell after a heavy rain here is very clear and grassy and not at all like the smell of a Colorado rain. Mark grabbed his rifle and gestured for me to follow him, quietly.
We tramped through the bush as silently as two humans can be—which is actually pretty loud. Occasionally he'd flick his lighter, testing the direction of the wind. Firstly—we were looking for hinds. Oh, the cliche—only females are good for eating, only females are destined to be devoured. Secondly, Mark was going to let me take the shot. Ill advised perhaps, considering I’d only ever held a gun once before, and that was here in New Zealand. But he seemed excited about teaching me how to look through the scope, take aim, and fire.
Stalking, that’s what they call the search, the quiet traversing of the wilderness. Twice we discovered young stags—watching us watching them before they bolted. Each time Mark had us sit and wait because we’d been seen and he could hear the stags calling to one another—alerting the hillside of our presence. The likelihood of finding a Sika hind was diminished because of our discovery.
Once, while heading up a steep hill Mark turned to me and asked if I could smell anything. I took a deep breath in through my nose and realized I could. The scent was thick and rough and slightly acrid. Above us a group of four wild goats peered down. They smelled like their milk. I already liked Mark with his peaceful sense of humor and patience but at that moment I really envied him. He had a slice of life he could translate, a language he knew how to use best. He could spot goat by nothing but their smell.
Night was quickly descending. We rounded a bend and there they were—a group of hinds on a hillside across the way. He loaded the rifle, positioned it loosely on the ground and gestured for me to lay beside it. I held the butt of the gun tightly to my shoulder. Finding a small section of land in a spec is actually really hard. It took me a long time before I found her—positioning the center of the spec over her shoulder, below the neck. At the last second, when I pulled the trigger, she turned her body and twisted behind her. The gunshot rattled through dusky fog. I missed.
I was addicted from the first moment we headed off. If you told fourteen-year-old Sammie that I would want to hunt, want to kill an animal, I would have told you to fuck off. But sometimes you can’t predict what you’ll become. You don’t always know who you really are. Being in the woods, watching animals—attempting to observe their behavior in the beauty of twilight—what could be better? I loved trying to read the signs of this earth. I loved the smell of the animals, the tousled, circular patches of grass where a deer lay. I liked the idea of hunting a hind that would be served to people who would appreciate her.
I also loved being with someone who was truly knowledgeable. Mark is not pretentious, he’s not trying to impress you or pretend he’s a rocket scientist. He doesn’t care for traditional definitions of what it means to be successful. He’s simply a man who knows what he loves. Mark told me, “I’m just an ordinary man,” but, I thought, that is was makes you extraordinary.
Life is strange. I held a gun. I tried to a kill a deer and was sad when I missed. Sometimes I look at myself and I think—you’re a stranger. You’re a stranger I’m curious but also a little frightened to get to know.