Raised in a Barn: Martha, My Deer

I do not hunt. I never have (I’m not against it in a general way–it’s just not where I want to put my energy since I don’t rely on hunting to put protein on the table). But I grew up around (minor) weaponry. We had BB pistols and 22 rifles, as well as bows, arrows, and an archery target on the lawn to the side of the patio at the Barn. My brother and I were, um, desultory archers at best; my father was much better. I was an okay shot with the 22, but the rule was no shooting when Dad wasn’t there to superintend, and he was elsewhere a lot of the time. So, while I’m not averse to weapons, they weren’t a huge part of my growing up experience.

Dad had this idea about hunting bow hunting; we had rifles in the house, but if there was a pest to be dealt with he often opted for the bow. In at least a couple of cases the pests in question were porcupines, which set up camp on the lawn across the driveway. If the porcupines could not be encouraged to go elsewhere, it meant that letting the dogs out off-leash was not going to happen. Despite several faces-full of quills, our dogs could be persuaded to leave the big, slow-moving prickly things alone. So Dad would deploy the bow and arrow, which was effective at a distance, and provided a useful lever, post mortem, with which to move the corpse. But what Dad really wanted to hunt was deer.

Every December when deer season arrived he would gather his bow and a quiver of arrows, stuff his pockets full of Baker’s German Chocolate bars, and take a Thermos of coffee up the mountain to sit in the cold (often in the snow) waiting for a deer to amble by. I think he only loosed an arrow once or twice a year, and he never actually hit a deer, but there was something about the man-vs.-the-elements thing that appealed to him.

Still, we had a mounted deer head in our tack room. How did this happen?

I think I was eight or nine when Dad went out with a local guy who routinely took tenderfoots (which is to say non-locals who did not hunt) out in deer season. I’m not sure what kind of rifles they used, or whether the four or five guys used their own or had them supplied by the local guy. What I do know is that Dad got spectacularly lucky: he took down two deer with one shot. The one he was aiming at he hit amidships; the other one was behind that deer and running for her life; the bullet went through Deer One and caught Deer Two from behind, hitting her right under her tail. If he’d tried I don’t think he could have accomplished it. Pure fluke.

The rules around deer hunting at the time were that you could only take one deer–well, Dad had only meant to take one deer, but fortune had handed him a second. So someone else took home Deer One, and Dad brought home Deer Two. What this meant in practice is that the deer were handed over to someone who butchered them and dispatched the rest of the body to a taxidermist, who mounted the head and processed the skin. Out of this my father got a doeskin vest, which he wore with pride, many pounds of venison which went promptly into the freezer to be consumed on special occasions, and the deer head, which was christened Martha.

I cannot find a photo of Martha, who hung in the entry room to the Barn. She was beautiful: no points (which is to say, no antlers), but with a graceful tilt to her head, and a pacific, thoughtful expression. As a kid I was disappointed at the rather coarse feel of her fur–something that graceful and beautiful looks like it should be soft and velvety, but Martha’s fur was functional: meant to protect her from the elements, not to please the tactile requirements of a 9-year-old. 

On those Occasions of State when venison was served (chops, ground meat, a roast, and on one occasion a crown rib roast!) my father would go down to the freezer, bring up a well-wrapped chunk of meat to defrost, and announce proudly “We’re eating on Martha tonight!” Okay, macabre. But totally in character for my father; in his way I think it was a way of acknowledging the deer, and a wish to use all of the gifts that it had provided.

When the Beatles’ song “Martha, My Dear” came out, she was thereafter Martha, My Deer. My father took his opportunities as he found them.

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