Thursday, January 22, 2009
Blood and Death.
Hunting is one of few activities that allows an individual to participate directly in the life and death cycles on which all natural systems depend.
I could see myself in those animals. What had been a game to me was suddenly not one. That’s the worst part of hunting—to pull the trigger knowing what will result: pain, shock, blood, death.
For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for one’s life
I kneeled down into the dirt, and packed snow, as if praying, exhausted from the steep climb, as my eyes fixed directly on the brown eyes of the elk—laying lifeless before us. I touched his limp carcass, and ran my hands across the thick fur like you might pet a dog, feeling his warm body with my fingers. He was dead. The blood was cast around the area, like a massive oil tanker spill of a deep rich red, and while horrific, I was still more fixed on the magnificence of the elk. He was much bigger than I had expected. Much stronger, and noble an animal than the earlier glimpse in my binoculars, and hunting videos had revealed.
PJ had invited me to go along on his afternoon hunt, to an area, called 511, according to hunting units, just outside of Woodland Park, CO. We had hiked a few miles with our packs, and while I had known this was where all this was headed, it all took me by surprise. He had spotted the elk from a lookout atop a high stone ridge, and ran about 250 yards to a clearing that gave him a visible shot across the valley, and hit the elk from the opposing ridge about 150 yards from the elk. I heard the thunder, then crack, and the ripple echoing in the valley. After some confusion on the radio, and if he had a good shot, I ran to meet him, and moved towards the location of where we last saw the elk—separated by the deep ravine of jagged rock we had to descend, and climb to the other side.
I came upon the cow elk, through smelling the foul odor, and putrid scent during their rut (mating season), which is so unique to their kind. As we moved him around, I was feeling his body, and legs become stiff, and getting stiffer. I had never felt so many mixed emotions of remorse and excitement before. It was such a moment of joy, and celebration for PJ, along with a soberness of what had just occurred. A life had been taken. I had helped. A soberness slammed into me. The ambivalence of joy, and death, pain and life all lying here—900 or so pounds of it being brought down by his gun.
There was not time to be Thoreau, and ponder. PJ wanted us to get to work as darkness set in. He explained as we went. With only the two of us, it was all hands on deck. We tied the elk’s rear legs to a tree with some rope, spreading his legs wide that gave us access to his belly. PJ began cutting into his fur, and then hide. He made one long incision all the way up, to near his neck. He cut some bone, and then pop. The rib cage expanded, fanning out like a cinnamon role tube being cracked open. His hands went deep inside, as steam and blood poured out with body fluid dripping out as well. I would have been fine just observing, he needed my help, and within a minute my hands were deep in his body, feeling around for the esophagus to cut, and yanking together on the gut bag to break it free from the body. It had the look of a massive water balloon that contained all the organs and intestines trapped inside. A few cuts, and it dropped right out of the elk and into the snow next to us.
It was too dark to continue. And we needed more help to hike out the hundreds of pounds of meat anyways, so we took off, and PJ made a few calls to come back in the morning with more help. As we hiked out in the dark, I had time to think about it all. It was so weird, what we had just done. There was such an odd sense of feeling in it. I had just experienced my first animal death, and had my hands two feet up the body of it, with drying blood covering my arms and legs. I did not know I had it in me, and that I would actually be able to do that. There was always this deep fear of blood, and guts, and death. But I did it, and really, while it was much as there was a deep emotional experience, it felt part of me—almost instinctual.
Over the past year, I had thought a lot about taking an animal’s life. The questions that it brought up. A living being that was being hunted to shoot a bullet through, and stopping its life in a rather unnatural way. I would put my scope into the air, and imagine a deer or an elk in its sight. Could I pull the trigger? I would watch the deer that came into our backyard, and imagined raising a rifle to their body, and it just seemed cruel, and I wondered if when ready, I could actually pull the trigger. And kill an animal.
You see, I never liked the sight of blood or death. I never had any blood lusts, or attachments to it. Never had the addictive pull to kill soldiers in video games and watch blood spew, or rent horror movies and see the display of blood. And I was really not one of those risk taking kids that was getting cuts and bruises and stitches every few days like some daredevil junky on Mountain Dew. I seemed to plan my moves, and decisions more precisely, a little more meticulous to avoid that. I was not sheepish, but not reckless either. I was more calculated. Even my time on a mountain bike in Colorado kept me pretty clean, in the midst of all my friends getting major thrashes, I found a way to avoid them. I think I just hated the thought of all that mess, all that blood, and pain, and broken skin. My life was spent in some form of avoiding it.
I had never been around blood. Or death. Never experienced it in animals or in people really. Never come on a horrible traffic accident with an arm hanging out, or ripped opened my flesh to see bone sticking out, or watched a butcher cut up an animal for food. Blood and death was very foreign to me, and the way I saw it, probably the best thing for me. It seemed a good exchange of paying for that meat in a little package, to avoid all the rest. Just wrap it in a nice plastic wrap on top of styro-foam.
Even as a boy, blood meant one thing, pain, and hurt. It meant you were on the path to dying. Blood was what came out of the body when you were wounded. A scrape could bring pain, but as a child, when you saw that red coming out—huge screams of terror and wailing.
I also had this great fear of the day my wife would give birth. I knew it would be a bloody mess. I just imagined the baby coming out, this moment I was supposed to be such a proud father, eyes gleaming, but all I could think about was this disgusting pool of blood, and placenta sack that was around this baby coming out, and wanting to leave the room. Or maybe even pass out. Instead of seeing this beautiful baby, I would be disgusted in shrieks of some horror movie. And imagining it was the last time I could ever look upon my wife’s body, as intimate, and lovely after a haunted house had just been pushed out her hole down there. I would never want to look there again. Blood was bad. And I was doing my best to avoid it. Maybe we could do an emergency C-section, or even better, find a stork to deliver it.
As we woke up early the next day, we had to head back to finish processing the elk. We came back with some more help, Cory, and Morgan, and hiked into the valley to cut up the elk and haul the meat in our packs. I was feeling more confident, like I could really do this. We seemed to have with us saws, buck knives, gut hooks, like a portable butcher shop. We started by peeling the hide and outer layer of fat. It was just like pulling up an old shag carpet from a home. It was not as disgusting as I thought. Before us were all the muscles exposed, tendons, ligaments, and joints, the fleshy red color, revealing an entire mass of meat to be cut.
We began the process of quartering it, and cutting the elk into sections, and extracting specific pieces to pack it out. We started sawing into leg bone, cutting off the feet, and then removing the ball joints to make the meat into hindquarters, separating it while ripping muscles, and tendons, then placing them in large 60-80 lb. cotton bags then in our packs. It was fascinating to see the legs, and tendons, and to have pulled the organs. It was not like cutting up a cake, or slapping together hamburger meat into round patties. I was looking at my own form, seeing the resemblance of my own body that made me so much aware of this as a real living being. This was not a tree, or dirt. It was a living being, a creation of God’s kingdom, now split into chunks, and quarters, and half pieces lying on the ground, bloodied, and drying darker on my hands and pants. But the more we cut, the less it was an animal, and the more I was seeing it in parts, and chunks of specific meat that could be sold as Safeway or Krogers.
I relate to George Wallace experience, “I see him as meat for the first time. Component parts—meat, hide, antlers, cape, divisible into quarters, loins, ribs, in turn divisible into steaks, chops, roasts, stew meat, sausage, and hamburger.” (David Petersen, p. 100) It was true. I began seeing parts of meat. The beef brisket that I had enjoyed barbequed with vinegar base at Stroud’s B-B-Q in Nashville, I was slowly slicing off the rib cage, and thinking, I never knew this is where it came from. The back straps, and inner loins, that came off the spine like a long tube of meat. It was the most tender and delicate of meat due to its limited use on the animal. I had always eaten beef tenderloin, and the filet mignon, which had come from this place on a cow, and it made sense why it was such a delicate and delicious cut. I was slicing off neck meat, and PJ explained how that would be ground up, as hamburger, because it being the toughest part of the meat. It was fascinating to see as every cut of meat, that I had eaten, or ordered, was actually somewhere on the animal, and named because of where it was taken. I had never thought about it. A rib-eye. Brisket. Filet mignon. T-bone. Ribs. Tenderloin. All were named because of where they had been taken. I somehow thought they were just fancy words made up. My friend, Wade, who would join us on a hunt months later would say, “Who knew that $40 steak from Ruth Chris began here.” I felt the same thing.
While blood was something to be outlawed for children, most cultures before us so it as very different. They were surrounded with it. There was not a processing plant to kill all the meat; it was done in the house, or on the farm. As a boy, you were probably part of helping out, and getting the meat slaughtered. Even a nasty deep wound might have been dealt with right at home, and opened up, with medicine put in, and patched up over the kitchen counter. No doctors, or white surgical gloves and cotton swabs.
In many cultures, blood was a ritual that meant nourishment and life. These tribal cultures seemed to draw on the symbol of blood as nourishment, like food. Robert Bly shares a story of an initiation rite for boys, “One of the older men takes up a knife opens a vein in his own arm, and lets a little of his blood flow into a gourd or bowl. Each older man in the circle opens his arm with the same knife, as the bowl goes around, and lets some blood flow in. When the bowl arrives at the young man, he is invited to take nourishment from it.”
While disgusting, and pagan, what it brings is a belief that blood is not bad, it is needed. A part of life. What the story shows, and what had been happening in my own life is escaping blood, and escaping the thought of death, and how those two are connected.
Even for women, blood is seen very different. Blood often means life. To have your period, and stream blood means that you can fertilize an egg, and bring forth a baby. Flowing blood means life. It is so fascinating as I write this, because my wife for two years had lost her period because of health issues. She had spent two years dreaming of the day blood would flow again, and that we might have the chance of having a baby. Today, she comes home with joy on her face and says, “I have good news for us!” And when as I ask her why, she says, “I started my period!” Meaning, blood is flowing. There is a chance for the creation of life! Richard Rohr says that a women is initiated into blood. She grows up with it. It is part of her life. As a teenager, she experiences blood. And it is seen as a good thing. A sign of maturing into womanhood.
It seemed for a man though—he needed to be taken into it. He needed a man to show him. It seemed that part of many boys fascination with blood was the need for initiation. That somehow we know inherently that blood and pain needs to be involved to make us men. I have read where often war, is some sense of self-initiation. Taking it with our own hands. Think about even video games, and the over and excessive violence and blood. Why? Well, what if we need to experience some form of blood, and with no one taking us out, or teaching us, we find it on our own.
While much could be talked about here, the irony of all this bloody mess is that the bible is covered in it. More so than a horror movie. You can barely find a page where something or someone isn’t dying, or blood isn’t being shed on the account of the Israelites in the Old Testament. It’s not one of those things we like to highlight, but it is there. In fact, God seems to be obsessed with it. Blood and death, and the sacrificing of animals might be argued as one of the major themes of the bible, and especially the Old Testament. Alfred Edersheim, a Jewish scholar writes, “Every unprejudiced reader of the bible must feel that sacrifices constitute the centre of the Old Testament.” (Edersheim, p. 75) The center? That is a big statement. This is no G rated Disney Special with Hanna Montana. It seems more like a horror flick. Here is where the words rank with a few other big words of the bible…
Love – 700 times
Life – 589 times
Death – 452 times
Blood – 389 times
Hope – 174 times
Birth – 153 times
Money – 114 times
Sex – 56 times
So what is the deal? Well, it has more to do with us, then it does with God. It all started with Adam and Eve back in the garden. We were made for union with God. God creates this wondrous landscape of gardens and land, and beauty, and gives us the entire place to take care of, and enjoy. Life is everlasting. Our hearts are forever cared for, and in love with our God. We are in union. There is no bloodshed. No death even. Just un-ending pure joy that is hard to even understand. Even the animals are in union with man and God. Everything is perfect. The way God made it to be.
But this wasn’t enough. Satan tempted them with the fruit they were commanded not to eat. And they ate it. They disobeyed God’s plan, and in choosing to be like him, knowing all good and evil, their sin took them apart from God. There is a spiritual death and separation that begins, along with the death of the body, while opening their eyes to shame. “They realized they were naked, so they sewed fig leaves together and hid.”
As scriptures say, “Death reigned from the time of Adam. (Romans 5:14) It is right there just a few pages into our story with the first sign of blood and an animal dying. But it’s not real obvious. You can easily miss it. I never knew from the story, but God replaces the fig leaves. They aren’t left to wander with green leaves on their bums. God replaces it with something else. Here is the account… “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21) It is fascinating to think. He replaces the fig leaves Adam and Eve made with garments of skin.
This can only mean one thing—first hunter was God.
I don’t know where he found it. But he went around the garden, and killed an animal, and skinned it, and put it on Adam and Eve. It was the first bloodshed. And it happened because of sin in the Garden. Sin brought the spiritual death of man, and his separation from God. This death brought blood. It was this subtle sign, but this blood, this death and sacrifice of an animal, was going to be God’s great sign to all the Adam’s after this, letting him know that he had sinned, and needed blood to bring forgiveness of his sins. It could be argued one of the greatest most important elements of the entire biblical narrative. Blood came from Adam’s choice, but God was going to redeem all that by giving his own son. The story of Abraham and Isaac is that representation in a more full way. He asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, then at the last minute pulls it away and replaces him with a ram from the bushes. It was a sign for us. A son was going to die for us soon. God’s own son. But before all that, it seemed God felt it necessary for us to get all covered in death, and blood, and sacrifices so we would one day see it.
And yet, in this culture that avoids blood, how easily we miss it now. I can remember a few years back performing in our Anglican church communion, administering the communion cup. I would say reverently, “this is the blood of Jesus, shed for you.” A whole line of people I would pass the cup to, and say this, but I tell you, I did not really connect to it. It never really hit me. To me, it was a cup with wine in it. And while I understood the meaning, the whole blood thing was just not an analogy I really never connected to.
God gives Moses in Leviticus one of the most detail meticulous, and maybe even anal, instruction plans for all this sacrificing, along with the duties that were to be performed in part by the priest, and what is to be done by the person. Read through Leviticus, if you can make it without falling asleep. It’s filled with directives, information, and commands on how to sacrifice these animals, and how to atone for all their sin. God was brilliantly setting up a system of rituals. But in high school bible class, I specifically skipped over this part, as did my teacher because of how boring, and unrelated it seemed to today.
But the people would have to come to the temple and offer an animal. There were a few choices. An oxen, a sheep, goat, or turtle doves, or pigeons. (Edersheim, p. 78) Without the shedding of blood there was no forgiveness, and no atonement for the wrongs. But it was not forever, but just a substitution, so they constantly needed renewal. Meaning more death, and bloodshed on a regular basis. Tradition has it, that on the Day of Atonement no less than five hundred priests were [needed]to assist in the services. And we are not talking about priests walking around shaking hands and drinking coffee, they were busy catching blood, sprinkling it on holy items, and collecting the blood in massive vessels.
Maybe the bloodiest day of all was at the dedication of the Temple that Solomon built for God. He sacrificed 22,000 cattle, and 120,000 sheep and goats. In the midst of their celebration, it was a bloodbath. While the priests wore white, I can’t imagine the people came in their Sunday’s best coat and tie. The people had to perform, “laying on of hands. Slaying, skinning, cutting up, and washing the inwards.” (Edersheim, p. 80)
While I was cutting up the elk with PJ, Morgan, and Cory, there was something related. While we are free from this system because of Christ, and his atonement, I can’t say I did not feel something holy, and in awe of what was occurring that helped me identify with what Jesus did. Some deep appreciation and understanding of life, and pain, and sacrifice, and blood. Many of the people I know would kneel down next to their kill, and pray. They would thank God for their blessing. Other men, not even God fearing, would still connect to the cycle of life and death, and with a respect for God in it.
I remembered a story Eugene Peterson shared about it…
"My father was a butcher and owned his own meat market. I always thought of my father as a priest. He wore a white butcher’s apron as he presided over the work of slaughtering heifers and pigs, dressing them out, cutting them up…My father was a priest in our butcher shop, and I was with him, doing priestly work…I grew up experiencing the sight and sound of animals killed and offered up, the smell of fresh blood and the buzz of flies. A bull on the altar of Shiloh couldn’t have looked or smelled much different than a shorthorn heifer on the butcher block in our shop on Main Street…It never occurred to me that the world of worship was tidy or sedate."
Leaving that day from the trail, blood drying on my pants, and on my hands, blood meant something different to me. From an understanding of the blood of Jesus. And as I turned to look at the guys, I laughed and said, “I think I am ready to have a baby.”